The social fragility of Catholicism

Democracy and liberalism tend to erode Catholicism, but they invigorate Islam.  The record is clear.  One struggles to think of exceptions.  How to explain it, though?  Is it that Islam is more compatible with liberalism?  Perhaps it is less compatible and gives liberalism less of a foot in the door?  Is Islam simpler, and thus better suited to mass appeal, or is it more complicated, and thus better able to rebut modernist criticisms?

A liberal would frame the phenomenon as Catholicism’s inability to thrive under conditions of “freedom”, that is, in an “open society”.  Of course, we non-liberals know that neutrality at the top is impossible–to rule is to decide.  Catholicism does poorly when a hostile faith like liberalism is established.  That is certainly not surprising, although Islam seems to feed off the provocation of a secular establishment.  Catholicism also does poorly in situations where the dominant ideology is contested, uncertain, or disguised, as in vigorous democracies.  Muslims rally to a fight, while Catholics become demoralized and indifferent.

Tertullian said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.  This is true if it refers to the blood of heretic martyrs.  To paraphrase General Patton, the way to succeed over rival religions is to make the other dumb bastard die for his faith.

If we look at the Church’s history, the unbelief of today’s laity is probably exceptional, but their indifference is not.  Catholicism has nearly always been imposed by force.  The early Church had no access to the state’s coercive power, but her growth was mostly in the East, the region that would become Eastern Orthodox.  Christianity only became prevalent in the Western empire following imperial favor.  After the initial missionary work by Arian heretics, the barbarian kingdoms also became Catholic from the top down following royal conversions.  Other lands, like the new world, were made Catholic by conquest.

Thus, we lack historical evidence that Catholicism is attractive absent social pressure.  Who wants to believe in original sin and predestination/reprobation without having the Protestants’ compensating assurance of being among the elect?  How many of us would be Catholics if our parents hadn’t (thankfully) used their authority to instill it into us as children?  And we needn’t be bothered by this.  Why should one imagine that the truth is agreeable to humans?  Is it not more likely that it isn’t, in which case the true faith would be one that can only hold the allegiance of souls by social coercion, one that is thus free to be as unappealing as the truth itself?  And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from political correctness, it’s that when people are told to believe something, they don’t just pretend to believe it; they really do believe it.

Religious enthusiasm in the laity has usually been neither encouraged nor welcomed, clerics fearing (rightly, as it usually turned out) that zeal is a prelude to heresy.  Even in the twentieth century, Ronald Knox could still speak of “enthusiasm” mostly as a heretical pathology.  (Atheists who claim to disapprove of “organized religion” should take a closer look at disorganized religion, with its superstitions, millenarian frenzies, witch hunts, and status earned by gruesome displays of self-mutilation.  Then they’d be praising the great anti-religious work of the Catholic clergy.)  Pope Francis clearly hates “ultra-conservative” Catholics, i.e. Catholics who care about doctrinal consistency.  Is this exceptional, or is the Church returning to type, in which the ideal layman is a half-assed Catholic who doesn’t care about his religion because that’s the clergy’s business?

The period between the French Revolution and Vatican II was exceptional.  One might call it the “Pius X” era of Catholic Action, frequent communion, integralism, and, in general, the mobilization of the laity.  What was it, an orthodox echo of the Lamennaian idea that the Church could beat her enemies at the contest for popularity?  Had the papacy discovered the trick of high/low vs. middle, as Pius IX mobilized conservative Catholics against Gallicanism and Pius X mobilized them against modernist theologians?  If so, it was an unstable arrangement, as John XXIII and Francis I discovered they could mobilize liberal Catholics against tradition, and the papacy now rules unchecked over a wasteland.

In fact, I think what made Catholicism genuinely popular for a time is what most historians imagine made it unpopular:  the fact that it was politicized, that it was associated with the political Right.  Although mass participation remained heavily female, masculine virtue in the laity was appreciated in a way it hadn’t been since the Crusades.  Despite the enervating doctrine of indefectibility, Catholics who lived through the Revolution came out with a visceral sense of having barely evaded collective death, something never experienced even during the Protestant Revolt.  Now the Church wasn’t just the mystical body of Christ; it was a party, a cause.  Ordinary men can’t figure out much to do with a boyfriend Jesus, but they will love a cause to fight for, a cause whose fortunes depends on their strength and cunning.  The soldier fighting revolutionary armies, the apologist and professor with their arguments, the journalist with his propaganda all could use their natural manly combativeness in the service of Christ.  Protestantism has always had a greater element of this.  No one claims that the formulation of Lutheranism was a supernatural event or that it is supernaturally preserved.  Lutheranism is the party of Luther, a theological school invented by a man and forgettable by men, and the Protestants own their sects (in the sense of being the ones ultimately responsible for their preservation) in a way that only Jesus Christ owns Catholicism.  Now that the Church is submissive and sentimentalized, she has little use for those prototypically masculine attitudes of loyalty, group pride, and argumentation.

This is the most striking thing about Catholics–while the collapse of the Church is plain for everyone to see, almost no one seems to be bothered; no one is panicking; no one feels responsible.  We act more like customers than like citizens.  “If it’s Christ’s Church, let Him take care of it.”

23 Responses

  1. Was it democracy and liberalism or was it the most coordinated and advanced social engineering operation in the history of the world? Muslims would have responded similarly.

    You are comparing an already conquered population to one not yet conquered. You realize the Irish actually took over New York, Philadelphia, etc. there was physical violence involved in both sides. I’m not even sure modern Islam is not largely the result of western social engineering. Wahhabism isn’t exactly the dominant tradition.

  2. Muslims believe in predestination. They don’t have to renounce their faith to enjoy the decadence of liberalism (check out the statistics for porn watching in arab countries, for example). And since their conception of sin is not our, the accusation of hypocrisy, which is the best weapon against Catholics, doesn’t have the same effect on them. If anything, liberalism makes them even more dangerous. Just think of the lastest batch of terrorists in France and in the United States.

  3. Liberalism destroys every society it infects. Islam is no exception. The Islamic world is in much worse shape than it was 100 years ago.

  4. Modern Islam is only “thriving” with liberalism because they are both working to undermine Christianity and Western Civilization – as works of purposeful evil. Two fronts of attack, one would say.

  5. I am struggling to identify a single major religion that became socially predominant without first having been adopted and favored by a ruling class or conquering nation.

    I think that this resistance of Islam that you identify has more to do with the liberal religion being that of the foreigners to whom we refuse to assimilate, and who view our “diversity” as a useful tool in their intramural conflicts, than it does with anything about Islam in particular.

  6. I had a lot to say about this article, but I just think you should read Leon J. Poodles if you haven’t.

    I would add is that whether Christianity and Catholicism needs state involvement to prosper depends. The Irish persevered like madmen and the Polish church had a remnant that dug in hard.

    Even the story of Christianization is a complex and winding story, sure state involvement played a major role, but it was just one factor. Even some of the “heretics” aren’t always genuine heretics (though some very much were).

    We mustn’t give in to either indifference or depression. The worst men have been some of the loudest but it doesn’t mean that the sound aren’t numerous.

  7. But isn’t the continued vitality of Islam in liberal countries mediated by low intelligence?

    Unfortunately, high intelligence these days means you have the money to inure yourself against the problems created by liberalism, and the ability to rationalize away the contradictions of modern thought. The less intelligent aren’t rich enough to buy their way out of problems, and are stuck with common sense to get them through life.

    Muslims in the West tend not to be smart enough to match the average prosperity of the native population and tend not to be smart enough to talk themselves out of religion. Add to that a sense of antagonism against the native population which easily finds its rallying flag in Islam, and it’s not hard to see why Islam does reasonably well in liberal societies.

  8. Liberalism tends to do well enough among many Islamic elites around the world. But then they tend to have similar levels of intelligence to Westerners. There are just a lot fewer of those intelligent people among Islamic ethnicities.

  9. @Bonald – The causality is that in any devoutly Christian society, the the population will want, will indeed insist, that government supports and sustains Christianity – but if this is done by harsh repression, sadistic torture, and by trying to coerce belief; then this is fundamentally and intrinsically anti-Christian – and inexcusable unless repented.

    This has happened in some places in the past, but that doesn’t make it good – at the very least it is a major imperfection and sin in such societies. *If* RC Christianity *really* can *only* ‘thrive’ under conditions that entail harsh coercion, then it would not be a valid church – but I don’t think that it is true.

    I think there have been times and places when the RC faith was essentially warm-hearted – although these may not have been the times and places of most impressive socio-political achievement.

  10. I don’t think I buy wholeheartedly this thesis of yours that only despotism and tyranny can Christianity spread.

    It is true that a brutal tyrant can coerce his populace into believing whatever he wants them to believe. However, why must that belief be Christianity? If we apply this thesis to our current situation, then our tyrants have judged that Christianity is false and are using all their machinations to squeeze belief out of us.

  11. “is the Church returning to type, in which the ideal layman is a half-assed Catholic who doesn’t care about his religion because that’s the clergy’s business?”

    I distrust decentralized religious enthusiasm, but I distrust this line of thinking even more. The era in which the ideal layman was a half-assed Catholic also produced St. Leonard of Port Maurice who claimed that the half-assed Catholics (i.e. the overwhelming majority) were going to Hell. Some ideal to aspire to! And, unlike the current era with people hoping that things would be better if only Catholicism dominated society again, there was no obvious way of fixing the situation or of advancing the Church’s mission (to save souls, presumably?).

    To wit, that era carried the seeds of its own demise. Logically, either St. Leonard was right, and the Church’s effectiveness as a way of getting people to Heaven had already ground to a halt outside of small numbers of devout religious and remote missions — for which a key ingredient was an actively hostile society which would make martyrs of the converts, not Catholic social dominance — or St. Leonard was wrong, and the Church had already lost faith in its own effectiveness.

  12. If* RC Christianity *really* can *only* ‘thrive’ under conditions that entail harsh coercion, then it would not be a valid church – but I don’t think that it is true.
    Oh my somebody is magnanimous today!

    but if this is done by harsh repression, sadistic torture, and by trying to coerce belief; then this is fundamentally and intrinsically anti-Christian – and inexcusable unless repented.

    You know this because you studied Catholicism really* hard* for two years right? Why don’t you ever bring up the Anglican’s “church’s” complicity in not only persecuting Catholicism but providing the ground work for liberalism?

    although these may not have been the times and places of most impressive socio-political achievement.

    Yes yes Catholicism will never reach the high-water mark of Christianity set by mid19th century polygamous Utah.

  13. From Leon J. Pobles, “The Church Impotent” (1999) [out-of-print but available free at

    “… in 1896 in a small city in Spain, Belmonte de los Caballeros, the parish records show that 443 Catholics had made their Easter duty, and 232 had failed to do so (151 men and 83 women did not fulfill this elementary obligation).” (p.36)

    “In 1877, in the western part of the diocese of Orleans [France], only 4.7 percent of the men made their Easter communion, although 26 percent of the women did.” (p.38)

  14. Re Podles, try instead:

  15. Do you think Arius is really in Hell? He sure made a lot of converts, and the modern formation of the Trinity was still “up for debate” at that time, and it seems rather a rather minor misunderstanding about the nature of the Trinity. Even Pope Liberius supported him.

    Seems rather strange. Do all those Arian converts go to hell too? I probably understand the Trinity even now less well than Arius did in his error.

  16. There is a whole continent of possibility between Feeney and von Balthasar. I’m pretty sure we aren’t supposed to know where on that continent the Book of Life resides.

  17. The resilience of Islam can also be explained by the fact that liberalism does not offer much to heterosexual males. Islam, being a masculine heteronormative religion, will naturally appeal to heterosexual men over liberaliism.

    Liberalism actively demonizes straight men. It also demonizes its own ancestors who made the liberal West possible, since they were also straight men (hence no history for men to identify with). Conversely, Islam is replete with examples of masculine virtue for Muslim men to follow, such as Khalid Ibn Walid or Umar ibn al Khatab (and Muslim men are invited to follow in their footsteps). It is not hard to see which of the two religions will appeal to men the most

    Spandrell expressed similar sentiments here:

    He even makes a case that liberal tolerance for Islam is mostly a gambit to get anti-Islam whites to become more liberal in order to spite Muslims through increased exposure.

    And this article also hashes out my views also:

  18. “…if this is done by harsh repression, sadistic torture, and by trying to coerce belief”

    Ah then why don’t we try regular old repression, ordinary torture, and mild institutional encouragements toward belief?

  19. If we look at the Church’s history, the unbelief of today’s laity is probably exceptional, but their indifference is not. Catholicism has nearly always been imposed by force.

    I wouldn’t say imposed by force, so much as social custom, which is exactly how you want to impose a religion.

    I actually believe you have it backwards, Bonald. The unbelief is normal; the indifference is the thing that is exceptional. Never have MORE people cared quite so MUCH… and thus their unbelief spreads like a cancer in the Church, for they seek from the Church both therapy and ratification of their unbelief.

  20. Indeed. Intensity of needed coercion will depend on circumstances.

  21. why don’t we try regular old repression, ordinary torture . . .

    The opposite of sadistic torture is not ordinary torture, it is charitable torture. That is what we should aspire to. Of course, depending on how you define torture, charitable torture is not torture at all. You wouldn’t call re-locating a dislocated finger torture, now would you? Yeah, yeah reducing, not re-locating. Doctors.

  22. […] modern Bonald is surely right that democracy defeats Catholicism and that it gives strength to Islam, Protestantism and anything else that augments state […]

  23. […] agree, although I used the word “fragility” […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: