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catholocismEach electoral cycle, nearly six out of every ten American Catholics cast the ghastly vote of the libertine. As such, one can only assume that the ideas and “lifestyles” emblazoned by these six out of ten votes follow faithfully (tongue firmly lodged in cheek!) upon such libertinism. Regarding the shameful demographic ordeal, the orthodox American Catholic has grown accustomed to tearing at his garments and imploring in a maudlin falsetto: what is to be done?!

But last month, Patrick Deneen wrote an article on The American Conservative announcing that these six out of ten Catholics don’t matter at all, in the larger scheme of things. “Liberal Catholicism has no future,” Deneen writes, “like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation.” Notwithstanding the fact that liberal Protestantism—unlike liberal Catholicism—is in America an extreme minority position, I couldn’t any more agree with Deneen’s claim about ideological relevancy. Don’t sweat the moot.  Instead, Deneen directs the Catholic faithful to look to their own ranks, with an eye to parsing the relative division or cohesion inhering there. Those remaining four out of ten votes, Deneen admonishes us, represent where orthodox American Catholicism lives. This too is a sagacious prompt.

Rather than expending precious ATP puzzling about the mystifying self-contradiction of the unorthodox, one does well to burn his calories contemplating the etiology of the dividing line among orthodoxy’s partisans: how compatible Catholicism is with self-government and how formative is the interplay of the two upon those intra-orthodox subgroups. Recalling that reasonable minds can and do differ, Deneen splits either side of the dividing line into the “non-compatibilists” and the “compatibilists.” Respectively, they are those who think “American Catholic” (or even more aptly, “Catholic citizen of a republic”) designates a contradiction in terms, and those who do not.

This is precisely where Deneen and I part ways. Even if he is correct that the two sub-groups of American orthodox Catholics indeed self-identify thus, he forgot to write: “[sic].” Such self-identification is spurious. It presents a false dichotomy. To say “compatible” is a gross understatement of the truth, and “non-compatible” is outright wrong.

Indeed, a major connection seems to have been missed by virtually everyone within the Church of Rome, from the laity to the Curia: the compatibilists (even “extreme” ones like my fellow Pontifical Gregorian alumnus John Courtney Murray haven’t gone far enough, as I shall argue below), the non-compatibilists, and Deneen himself. (And of course, as he points out, heterodox Catholics don’t even count.) The Natural Law ideas of Catholicism requisition a certain, ineluctable outlook on government: republics require Natural Law, which itself needs a Catholic explication. This is not to say that to be Catholic, one must believe in republican self-government. Rather, if one already believes in self-government, as virtually every 21st Century American or European does, his republicanism itself requires the ideas of the Catholic Church.

Now, it requires an entire book (which I am writing currently) to substantiate the ambitious claim that republican political theory and Natural Law theology, i.e. Catholicism, are more than merely compatible—they’re inextricable. Maybe they’re even mutually constitutive in the ethico-political sense.

After all, it is one thing to argue that Catholicism, alongside Protestantism or Enlightenment thought, can also sustain republicanism, as John Courtney Murray once argued, and as Samuel Gregg more recently has. It is quite another thing altogether to argue that Catholicism alone can sustain republicanism—i.e. that Protestantism and Enlightenment thought cannot. In this claim, which I stake, I believe I am sui generis. Call my position something like requisitionalism, traversing vastly further than humbly asserting that republics can be “a tolerant home for Catholics,” as Deneen characterizes the beliefs of the compatibilists. All republics have a status-quo-shocking sine qua non: the political and ethical ideas of the Natural Law Church.

America’s Declaration and, to a slightly lesser extent, its Constitution were structured almost exclusively upon the ideas of “Whig theory” from England in the prior century. Whig theory’s mature form, John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise, was in turn fertilized by the coalescence of two 16th Century movements: the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation. Sometimes de dicto and other times de facto, the Reformation (from within Christendom) and the Enlightenment (from without) repudiated all the heftiest parts of Natural Law theory: nature as a forum for freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology. Locke well knew that his own empiricist epistemology (and in an opposite/equal way, the Reformation epistemology) laid low these four important attributes formerly ascribed to nature.  Simply, if nature is unintelligible, it can have no discernible law.

And this acknowledgement forced Locke to bifurcate bizarrely. He wanted Natural Law’s conclusion—objective and discernable rights—but none of its premises. So he distinguished. On the one hand, what Michael P. Zuckert has called Locke’s “transcendent natural law,” was not really Natural Law at all, because like all of “Prot-Enlight” Whig theory it denied nature’s freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology. It cast the convincing, yet misleading, impression of a nature as simultaneously inscrutable yet still a source of rights. Accordingly, Locke affirmed it. On the other hand, “immanent natural law,” was basically the Aristotelian idea writ large (i.e. true Natural Law theory), which Locke more or less had to reject as a committed Reformer and empiricist. By way of an egregious misnomer, a “shell game” of sorts, Locke became known as history’s ultimate Natural Law theorist. That is to say, he became Natural Law’s godfather only by a heinous convolution of ideas: cherrypicking a conclusion with none of its premises.

In that way, and that way only, could he simultaneously a) plagiarize from the Scholastics of the Catholic Church in order to b) describe, in 1689, the prior year’s Glorious Revolution against Catholicism in England! Whig Theory is intellectual history’s greatest irony: imagine getting into a fight with someone because you insist this person should not carry a knife. In the ensuing struggle, you wrest the knife from him and use it on him…all to force him to acknowledge that he should not use the knife. Of course you prevail, because the knife is indeed effective. This was more or less the Whig stance on Natural Law (i.e. the “knife”) in England in 1689. And the American Founders and Framers imported all this ambivalence into their “American Whiggism” a century later. Thus, 18th Century American Natural Law was no less tortured than 17th Century English Natural Law. Both were fueled exclusively by the Prot-Enlight amalgam of Whiggism, which rebuked but secretly incorporated Scholastic political theory.

But the whole hodgepodge, I acknowledge, also represents history’s best political experiment to date, which, irrespective of its etiological cover-up, got things 90% right or better at the beginning. At the beginning. On account of the idea’s low fidelity, however, it devolved rather quickly, in under two centuries.

Short of the complex theologico-political theory which produces the view (requisitionalism) that America cannot survive without Rome, the simple politics invoked by both Deneen’s compatibilists and non-compatibilists are profoundly confused. The two “sides” each misidentify easily correctible sources of their ideas. So with that, let’s return to 21st Century American Catholicism and Deneen, whose misconfiguration of the “sides” within orthodoxy shows just how blithely the Prot-Enlight mischaracterization by the Whigs has spilled over into Catholic thought and even into the individual Catholic’s identity in America.

The caveat bears repeating: Deneen may well be accurately expressing the titles by which the two sides within Catholic orthodoxy identify themselves. The mistake, that is, may belong to the sides in the debate he describes, and not to him. If so, then a corrective is badly needed all the more.

Deneen describes the “compatibilitsts” as, more or less, Catholic neoconservatives and students of Leo Strauss, who supposedly affirm limited government and are “generally accepting of a more laissez faire economic position.” (?!) All Catholic theory aside, this categorization is straight up bizarre. Right off the bat, a “neocon” is a Keynesian and an opponent—not a friend—of free markets and subsidiarity (on the basis of his pledged support for the 14th Amendment). A neocon changed political aisles—but never his political economy or his expansive view of federalism—during the late Cold War. Neocons never shed the anti-market trappings of the Dem party. Their rejection of Marxism is no aegis against charges of progressivism. And they, especially the Straussians among them, retain their love for central planning and their distaste for locally ruled economies and ways of life, which they often slur as “neoconfederate.” After all, to those ignorant of the Scholastic moral concept of subsidiarity, it appears in its demoralized Modern form to be no more than a recharge of the Confederate concept which led to Civil War.

In short, while neocons call themselves conservatives, conservatives they are not. Quietly but consistently, they pledge support for federal control from Washington D.C. by (un)constitutional way of hollowing out Article I’s “commerce clause” and the Fourteenth Amendment. Bizarrely, my Straussian friends at the Claremont Institute relentlessly attempt to convince me that the latter amendment is “a conservative thing.” Too strange! A compatibilist may be a lover of free markets or a lover or neoconservatism…but not both together.

Deneen’s description of the non-compatibilists is no less convoluted.  His foremost criterion for non-compatibilism is its view that the “natural communities” of Church and family, which it affirms, don‘t fit within republics or liberal democracies, which it rejects. (?!) More specifically, these natural communities don‘t jive with free enterprise. (?!) Now, this is entirely backwards: in reality, not only are the natural communities not inimical to free enterprise, but rather they are required by it. Admittedly, the current status of “capitalism” in America tells a tale of bawdy consumerism on the demand-side, and self-absorbed careerism on the supply-side, as I wrote here on The Imaginative Conservative. But non-compatibilists, my friends: don’t blame capitalism, which by definition can only be properly effectuated when the natural communities are robust! Au contraire: for our dirty capitalism, blame the very death of the natural communities. A true republic requires true capitalism, which in turn requires healthy natural communities. In that republic, state-imposed restrictions on popular tastes for labor, products, and entertainment would be both obviated and rejected by the guiding role played instead by family, Church, and neighborhood communities.

But Deneen and the non-compatibilists (he says he is often counted on their side) missed the memo. Failing to acknowledge that Church and state are locked in eternal competition for hearts and minds, the non-compatibilists evidently think the state can sometimes be a benign master—that sometimes the state can preponderate without taking away support from religion. The morality tale that was the 20th Century cautions warily against this. While Deneen seems initially to note the potent jealousy of the state, characterizing non-compatibilists as those advocating “self-restraint,” he disappoints by following up that this camp remains “deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism.” (?!) The only alternative to market capitalism is the controlled economy. Now how in the world does self-restraint square with the controlled economy—whose restraint is imposed not by the exercise of individual virtue learned in natural community, but by governmental mandamus and/or brainwashing?

Because the state comprises merely a synthetic, not a natural, community, it cannot instruct; it has power only to trick or to force. Notwithstanding its inability, however, any state energetic enough to disrupt private property and private contracts—to disrupt capitalism, that is—will jealously compete with the natural communities as the aesthetic instructor of the people. And as deceitful or forceful “instructor,” it will overcome the people’s sovereignty entirely. (Pardon my incorrect usage of the future tense in the previous sentence.) Conversely, because family, Church, and neighborhood comprise natural communities—the social order that nature appointed for the individual, irrespective of compact—they can truly, gradually, and dialectically train his gaze upon “the true, the beautiful, and the good.” True instruction. And in that happy situation, free markets will remain clean, consumers won’t paganize commodities, and producers won’t idolize careers.

The self-contradiction inhering in both camps of Catholic orthodoxy should be apparent to any moderately observant student of government, even one abjectly uninterested in Catholic philosophy or theology. Perhaps, given the great minds on the list of those who have missed it, it is something like a “purloined letter on the mantle,” invisible for all its obviousness. Going a bit deeper (to a position of requisitionalism) and examining some theology and philosophy, of course, one would see that true republicanism indeed requires the Natural Law of Catholicism. And this entails the natural economy and free choice of the compatibilists, but excludes neocons and Straussians by their own terms. And on the “other side”, it incorporates the natural communities revered by the non-compatibilists, while by dint of implication, self-restraint excludes any who desire government intervention. In sum, natural economy (capitalism) and natural community go together by necessity. You can’t have one without the other, as we’ve attempted in America, on the basis of plagiaristic Whig theory; because we’ve attempted to have one without the other, we’ve wound up with neither. And just as none among the Catholic orthodoxy have noticed the false dichotomy ascribable to the Whig germ embedded in our national archaeology, no one anywhere along the Protestant and secular right wing has noticed it either. But most or all conservatives have begun to bemoan the symptoms: America’s present status as a centrally governed republic-in-name-only. Diagnosing by symptoms, as we all know, makes for bad medicine. Only by rooting out the arcane historical cause and correcting all the various cherrypicking pursuant to it, can our republic—or any republic—return to the genuine benefits of the Natural Law.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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14 replies to this post
  1. As a person who evidently enjoys thinking and basing your actions on your thoughts, you seem to assume others enjoy the same pleasure and do the same. “… one can only assume that the ideas and “lifestyles” emblazoned by these six out of ten votes follow faithfully (tongue firmly lodged in cheek!) upon such libertinism.”
    May I humbly suggest, to slightly paraphrase Heinlein, “Most people would rather die than think; most do just that.”
    This applies to the ‘six out of ten” and to the “four out of ten” as well. Which bodes unwell things for all concerned. Considering how easily consumerist hedonism has taken over the bodies, to say nothing of the minds, of we rich Yankees, to expect actual *thought* about issues is somewhat far-reaching on the optimism scale.

  2. This is a brilliant analysis and Dr. Deneen should do us the service of a response. If our learned author means the term “Catholic” to include the idea of those wonderfully mystical minds of medieval Europe I might agree; without that I would be quite satisfied with St. Augustine’s inquiries that reached denouement in the “imago Dei.”
    Again, this is a fine study!

  3. Sir, in your understanding did the emergence of “history’s best political experiment to date” require that Protestant-Enlightenment thinkers plagiarize or steal the conclusions of Catholicism or the natural law tradition? Could you say why this experiment emerged among non-Catholic peoples?

  4. I would just like to add one thing for consideration, the source of which is of course my wife and not me (she actually comes up with novel thoughts).

    Not long ago, we(Catholics) were having a conversation along the same lines of this article with some Protestant friends in Melbourne. From our conversation, it appeared there were two opposite sides – Catholic and Protestant. My wife eventually noted that we were all slightly mistaken in our asdumptions about history because Catholicism is actually square in the middle. It is moderate Christianity par excellence (in the Aristotelian sense, not in the sense of being “lukewarm”). In her view, Protestantism was one extreme, and the other extreme was Eastern or Russian Orthodoxy (by ‘extreme’ she did not mean pejoratively, but in a general sense).

    Now, I realize that Orthodox Christianity has tentatively less direct linkage to American political thought than does even Catholicism, but still, it is an interesting point, and an interesting question in terms of coming to grips with the influence of Christian thought on politics. We in the West (hopefully) know our Aquainus and our Luther, our Augustine and our Calvin, but can we name and contemplate Orthodox thinkers? (I can’t). And if we can’t, is not our Christianity the poorer for it?

  5. David, I’m not sure that the Heinlein has much to do with the matter. Fill me in. Dr. Cheeks, thanks, I’d love to hear from Dr. Deneen. Pavlos: yes, any designs on establishing a republic involves such plagiarism…unless the citation is overt. John: hylemorphism, being qua being, the pros hen equivocals, Book V of the Ethics, Aristotle’s criticism of Platonism…these all involve the Natural Law. Peter: I don’t know enough Eastern Orthodoxy to be dangerous, but yes, our position is quite temperate.

  6. Interesting article. I am, however, confused with regard to the distinctions between Mr. Gordon’s perspective and that of Patrick Deneen. Or, perhaps I should say, I am not entirely “getting” Mr. Gordon’s position, as far as its precise real-world implications are concerned. Perhaps there could be a follow-up with some elaboration. In the meantime, I will pick at a couple specific points:

    First, I am very puzzled by Mr. Gordon’s view (which he clearly holds very strongly and seems to take as self-evident) that support for the Fourteenth Amendment (properly understood!) and support for subsidiarity are incompatible. The 14th A. deals only with the actions of states.

    Second, Mr. Gordon is either performing a sleight of hand or making an error here: “he [Deneen] disappoints by following up that this camp remains “deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism.” (?!) The only alternative to market capitalism is the controlled economy.” I think the use of the word “capitalism” is problematic here; it is a Marxist term designating an economic system, and effectively a state and society, based on the acquisition of capital, and it contributes to the confusion. At any rate, to be critical of “contemporary arrangements” is not to reject market economies, as Mr. Gordon claims. Market economies may, and in fact do, take different forms; the only alternative to a particular “contemporary arrangement” is not “the controlled economy.” China is, in some ways, highly capitalistic, and is a market economy of sorts, but surely it would be absurd to maintain that “the only alternative” to the “contemporary arrangements” in China is “the controlled economy.” Mr. Gordon appears to believe that the particular laws, government policies, and practices we have at present in the U.S. with regard to economic matters are the ideal ones and must not be modified.

    And, at the risk of seeming nitpicky, I am puzzled by Mr. Gordon’s placement of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. The Enlightenment is very widely understood (and, one could argue, understood itself) to be an 18th century movement/phenomenon, perhaps starting in the latter 17th century. In fact, it is this by definition. What was going on in the 16th century was quite different from what was going on in the 18th century, even though one contributed to the other. If Mr. Gordon’s view is that they were essentially the same, a case would need to be made for this, and I think it would be a tough case. Othherwise, “Enlightenment” is just not the proper term for the 16th century and its use generates a host of problems.

    • Bill:

      The 14th Amendment became the entire source of a *federal* constitution delimiting *state* action (aside from 5 scant limitations in A1, S10), which until the Civil War would rightly have been thought to be a debilitating blow against local rule. State constitutions are for delimiting states; Fed constitution is for delimiting itself (with the narrow exception of the Supremacy Clause, which almost NEVER kicked in prior to the Civil War).

      China has a controlled economy. To a lesser extent, so do we. I didn’t say there aren’t different DEGREES of state control. While Deneen’s statement about “contrmporary arrangements” was indeed vague, his other claims about non-compatibilists provided sufficient context to portray state control.

      I’m not discussing the *French* Enlightenment, but rather the *real* Enlightenment (at the core of the attack on Natural Law), ie the “Baconian turn” and the late, late Scholastic materialism that produced it.

      • Dear Timothy,

        I appreciate the reply.

        I know very well what the 14th A does; I am a professor of political theory and American government. I just fail to see it as such a vital litmus test for subsidiarity.

        In the first place, state governments are nonetheless governments, and generally speaking large-scale ones (by historical standards); sometimes very large-scale. Many state governments are often worse than the federal government in taking actions that hurt subsidiarity or communities, or which otherwise are harmful or objectionable, and states are certainly not “communities” in a meaningful sense. (I will grant, however, that the 14th A is also employed against small communities, which is a bigger issue.)

        In the second place, I noted “properly understood,” which I think is important if we are discussing the merits of Constitutional provisins. If the objection is really to actions by 20th and 21st century courts which employ the 14th A in ways extremely remote from its creators’ intent, the blame for this lies with the courts, and with the political culture that produced them and supported their actions. That is, the complaint is not about the Constitution but about deviations from it. (Indeed, it is entirely possible that the courts might not have let the absence of such an amendment stand in their way; they certainly did well enough with the innocuous-sounding commerce clause.) One can in fact look at the first half-century of the 14th A. to see the “actual” 14th A.

        (BTW, I am very much not defending the neocons here. Perhaps the criticism would be better directed at their views on federalism etc. matters.)

        Re “contemporary arrangements,” I cannot speak to Deneen’s intent, but only to my reading.

        • The definition of subsidiarity dictates that a state government CANNOT be as offensive as the Fed: this is because state gov exists as a “smaller” and “more local” unit of society.

          Constitutionally, the story is the same. In 1788, even after 1791, states were allowed to be as onerous or as hands off as they wanted. If in 1795you lived in a state with an official, state sponsored sect of Protestantism, you’re welcome to move to one of the five states (out of 13) that DIDN’T act as a theocracy. The system worked–even with onerous state laws–because US citizrns can move from a state where they are political outlier to one where they enjoy “fellow feeling” among the state’s citizenry. That conception of subsidiarity is at the heart of our dual-sovereignty theory of republicanism.

  7. Hi Tim, I’m glad you weighed in on the Deneen article.

    I just had one question on what you say about the 14th Amendment here. Would you not agree, from the Natural law position you espouse here, that it was a good thing for African Americans to be granted rights of citizenship under the equal protection clause? (Yes, I know Brown v Board didn’t exactly use the equal protection clause to turn back the clock to Harlan’s dissent in Plessy, but at least major parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are guarantees of compliance with equal protection). Sure, it may not be “conservative” in the sense of traditionalism, to have the court strike down segregationist State and Local statutes, but it is the Christian thing to do I think and perhaps “conservative” in a different sense, the sense of governments ensuring citizens are not deprived of their legitimate rights.

    P.S.- I thought that line by Deneen claiming that Liberal Catholicism is going to “disappear” was absurd too. It was a kind of Tocquevillian-type prophecy without even any observations or evidence to back it up.

    • Aside from the illegal ratification of the 14th, yes its primary goal–citizenship for freemen–was good, of course. But this was initially done through the privileges and immunities clause, not through EP clause. In this right, the Slaughterhouse cases which nullified P’s and I’s was very bad, and responsible for much of the despotic hollow out of the 14th (which basically killed the republic). But Lincoln horrifying view of nationhood, on the other hand, I cannot endorse.

      No, I quite agree with Deneen, actually, as to the eventual disappearance of liberal Catholics. The people won’t disappear, and neither will their leftism, but their Catholicism certainly will on account of their leftism.

      How are the WC Straussians treating you?! Still insisting Lincoln wore a toga?

  8. Aristotle does not have a natural law teaching for the simple reason that there is no lawgiver in his account of natural _right_ in bk. V of the _Ethics_. Aristotle explicitly distinguishes justice which is by nature (_phusikon_) with justice that is by law or convention (_nomikon_) at 1134b19ff. There are no commands or imperatives in Aristotle’s account of natural right.

    Compare St. Thomas’ account at _Summa Theologiae_ 1-2 90-94, particularly 90 a.1, 3, and 4 with 92 a. 2 and 93 a. 1.

    St. Thomas is careful not to confuse Aristotle’s account of natural justice with natural law, as is readily seen in his discussion of the matter in the 14th lecture of bk. V of his _Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics_. See also _Summa Theologiae_ 2-2 58.

    The Stoics, and not Aristotle, are the philosophical progenitors of St. Thomas’ natural law teaching.

    • Good details. Please provide an interior quote from Thomas. Very helpful.

      Still, “natural law” is a broader term in its republican context, and more impervious to your comments: nature is the seat of political rights ONLY IF nature can be viewed as moral (free), intelligible, and teleological. And Aristotle is Thomas’ morningstar for those propositions.

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