Ron Paul and Pius IX

I wrote here once before about the repartee that keeps the snarks flying between me and my beloved lady Texan. I noted that each of us treasures his own impossible dream. In mine, the Habsburg monarchy is restored in Central Europe, accepting the voluntary fealty of most of its historic realms (I don’t expect the Czechs, but given the horrid policies of Germany, we just might get the Bavarians. The Flemish, perhaps?) My beloved is also subject to fantasies: In hers, the United States is governed according to the text of its Constitution, the rights of localities are respected as the U.S. founders intended, and the rights of private property, freedom of association, and freedom of contract are honored by the State—which eschews “entangling alliances” and confines its activities mostly to guarding the borders and enforcing legal contracts.

I know—what a pair of crackpots! In a good nanny state, the Authorities would step in and prevent us from marrying. The only folk who really ought to be in the business of breeding fall into one of two categories:

Canny Fathers: The initiates of the Noble Lie, who like Leftists have “seen through” the myths of revealed religions and traditional societies. Unlike Leftists (whose egalitarianism drives them to share these unsettling truths) these intellectuals are flexible enough to support these myths in the hope of keeping their servants honest (Voltaire), their nations vital (Charles Maurras) and the masses compliant to rule by their “betters”(Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss). Distinguishing characteristics: graduate degrees from the U. of Chicago’s program in Social Thought, pasty complexions, and bylines in Commentary.

Cannon Fodder: The true believers who sign up to die for one or more such noble lie, the zealots who pay the bills and cast the votes that keep their “betters” in power—and whose sons fight the wars that give chickenhawks Left (Darfur, Kosovo) and Right (Iraq, Iran) a thrill of borrowed masculinity. Distinguishing characteristics: gold stars in windows, foreclosed mortgages, debilitating combat injuries, plots at Arlington.

Arguing with neocons is like whizzing onto a mushroom cloud, so let me return to my first theme: Is there any reconciling the principles of traditional conservatism (that is, Throne and Altar) with the founding themes of the American Republic? Or is Paul Gottfried right to suggest that there never was any real common ground between the American resistance to bureaucracy at home and Communism abroad, and the European reactionary tradition to which some of the most eloquent self-styled “conservatives” (Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, Erik von Kuehnhelt-Leddihn) sometimes appealed? I go into this question in much greater depth in my book on Wilhelm Röpke—the economic genius who helped form the policies that launched the postwar German “miracle.” In the book, I point out how Röpke synthesized the insights of classical economics and liberalism with what is best in the European Right—the Counter-Enlightenment, the Agrarian and Distributist movements, and the regionalist resistance to centralizing bureaucracies.

However, there’s one key issue which Röpke never addressed, which has troubled my discusssions in recent years with both conservative Christians, and consistent libertarians: Doesn’t an honest person have to come down, in the end, on the question of whether or not he supports a state-sponsored Church? Furthermore, how could someone whose ideal regime would partake in a variety of “statist” acts in pursuit of the Common Good make common cause with libertarians who oppose almost any such actions? Should Christians in America support the dismantling of the secular school bureaucracy, and the growth of home-schooling and parochial education—or attempt to “reform” the existing state bureaucracy, and somehow infuse it with “values”? Should American Christians favor a state which suppresses immoral forms of association (pornographic film companies, racist organizations) and supports the formation of wholesome ones (religious orders, charities)? Or should we ask only liberty for our own congregations and convents, and oppose the others by persuasion?

There’s a long list of activities which a pope such as Pius IX, Leo XIII, or even Pius XII would have considered the duty of a Christian ruler—including the promotion of a specific creed, the enforcement of marriage laws based closely on Christian sacramental principles, the suppression of “vice” and “immoral” literature, just to name a few. Now, apart from the first of these (rejected in the U.S. First Amendment) most of these same activities were performed by state and local governments in the United States—well into the 1960s. While the most “popular” of our Founders (those quoted by secular historians) were mild Deists, M.E. Bradford documented the fact that most of the men who voted for the Declaration and for the Constitution were convinced Augustinian Christians. They would have agreed heartily with 95 percent of what papal politics called for. This common ground was one reason why Catholic immigrants were able, in large part, to assimilate to America and eagerly cleave to such a deeply Protestant country.

There were weaknesses, alas in this great, ecumenical compromise. The Enlightenment rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence was an ever-present temptation to transform the ethos by which an English-speaking settlement had chosen to govern itself into an ideological machine—an abstraction which men would come to love instead of their country, whose dictates (like those of Jacobin France and Bolshevik Russia) would always prevail over the nation’s or people’s best interests. A “propositional nation” is no place where men and women should have to live—any more than they ought to contract propositional marriages, or bear propositional children. The centralizing tendency massively reinforced by the Civil War (and the “incorporation doctrine” later applied to the 14th Amendment) ensured that every issue of significance would ultimately be federalized. There could be no room for difference in laws on anything that really mattered—from marijuana to marriage. What is worse, it subjected to the anti-Establishment clause (which the Founders applied only to Congress) every local law and school board decision—meaning that the U.S. would move from a broadly Christian country with a stern safeguard against the attempt to impose a single church, to one whose government must by its internal, Constitutional logic become a rigidly secularist regime. Deprived of the support of religion, even the implications of natural law (such as heterosexual marriage) would ultimately be subject to the withering logic of pure individualism and egalitarian group activism.

By the mid-1960s, court decisions had sliced through and gutted most of the residual Christian content of American laws, and begun to homogenize our legal standards from Juneau to Tuscaloosa—the better to meet the lowest common denominator favored in Greenwich Village. Despite occasional outbursts of resistance—a few Commandments in an Alabama courthouse here, a stubborn Virgin in a sturdy creche at a city hall over there—the overt de-Christianization of America’s public square has continued with hardly a hitch. Given the text of our First Amendment, and the modern logic of centralization which has prevailed throughout modernity, this was probably inevitable—much as we’d like to blame the activists of the ACLU or some other notoriously secularizing organizations.

Which leads me to my conclusion: In an American context, given our constitutional heritage and the large body of legal decisions solidifying its interpretation, on nearly any issue, Christians of any denomination should reject the assistance of the State. Our efforts to capture it, the courts have made it clear, will always fail. Any attempt to infuse the activity of the government with the moral content of a revealed religion will be rejected, in the end. Indeed, the more our own institutions cooperate with the government, the more they will be compromised; hospitals which take federal funds will be subject to secular ethics on issues like contraception, end-of-life, and even abortion. Religious colleges accepting federal grants will eventually be federalized, and so on.

It seems clear that the public sphere in America is irretrievably secular. So the only logical response of Christians must be to try to shrink it. Instead of attempting to baptize a Leviathan which turned on us long ago, we’d do much better to cage and starve the beast. We should favor low taxes—period, regardless of the “good” use to which politicians promise to put it. We should oppose nearly every government program intended to achieve any aim whatsoever. We can make exceptions here and there: We can favor the protection of innocent lives, which would cover things like fixing traffic lights and throwing abortionists into prison. But that is pretty much that.  Christian public policy should focus not on capturing the power of the State but shrinking it, to the bare minimum required to enforce individual rights, narrowly defined. Likewise, the share of our wealth seized by the state must be radically slashed, to allow for private initiatives and charities that will not be amoral, soulless, bureaucratic and counterproductive (like the secular welfare state). Instead of asking for handouts to our schools in the forms of vouchers, we should seek the privatization of public schools—which by their very nature, in today’s post-Christian America, are engines of secularism. And so on for nearly every institution of the centralized State, which has hijacked the rightful activities of civil society and the churches, and which every year steals so much of our wealth to squander on itself that we can barely afford to reproduce ourselves. (So the State helpfully offers to replace us with immigrants, but that’s another article.)

This is not to endorse the universal claims of doctrinaire libertarians, and assert that every State in history has been a tyranny (except perhaps medieval Iceland). It’s not to deny that any community anywhere has the moral right to employ the State to pursue its vision of the Good. (There’s nothing wrong with Kaiser Franz Josef endowing a monastery here and there, or the Israeli government helping educate rabbis.) In many cultural contexts, the State can fruitfully employ its power to promote the faith and morals held in common by a community. But that can’t happen here. Not in America. Several of our Founders, and generations of our lawyers, have seen to that. We have no more reason to cooperate with the secular state than Irishmen have to trust the British Crown. And that’s how I reconcile Ron Paul with Pius IX.

The column originally appeared in the Feb. 4 2008 edition of It is reprinted with their kind permission, and edited slightly to remove dated references.

John Zmirak


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • Michael PS

    This debate, in one form or another, has been going on amongst Catholics for a long time.

    In the memorable exchange in 1910, in Maurice Blondel’s publication, L’Annales de philosophie chrétienne, between Charles Maurras’s Jesuit defender, Pedro Descoqs and the Oratorian Laberthonnière, Descoqs, a follower of Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas, allowed the political sphere a wide degree of autonomy and he was prepared to detach “political society” from “religious society.” Laberthonnière retaliated by accusing Descoqs of being influenced by “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.”

    Descoqs had argued that Maurras’s political views were independent of his atheism and that they coincided with Catholic social teaching, so that with proper precautions Catholics could associate themselves with his movement. Maurras’s mistake about the supernatural did not prevent his analysis of the natural from being quite accurate. Blondel agreed with Descoqs only on the point that the basic issue was the relationship between nature and the supernatural. In Descoqs’s conclusion, he saw a perfect illustration of the theological extrinsicism which made the supernatural simply a superficial addition to the natural order, leaving the latter essentially untouched. For Blondel nature was made for the supernatural, and a failure to recognize that sublime destiny could not leave one’s analysis of the natural laws of society unaffected. He called himself an “integrist” precisely because religion is comprehensively, inclusively pertinent to the human condition.

    • John Zmirak

      Fascinating! Thanks for contributing that. Of course, to many of us such “integrism” is just totalitarianism in a cassock, and Blondel’s re-interpretation of the late medieval distinction between natural and supernatural is by no means established as doctrine. Its role in laying the groundwork for Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity” needs to be recognized.

      • Michael PS

        I quoted it at length, because there is no complete English translation of the exchange.

        Blondel’s view of nature and grace was best expounded by Cardinal Henri de Lubac. Like Blondel, he utterly rejects the Modernist idea of some sort of “divine seed” or immanent movement toward the supernatural in human nature (which is heresy, condemned in Lamentabili and Pascendi). Nature, for de Lubac is not a divine seed, but rather an emptiness that is “ordered” to its fulfilment in Christ precisely because it exists as a privation.

        What de Lubac denied in his controversy with Neoschoalsticism was the claim that the natural and the supernatural have utterly separate ends in and of themselves. This really goes back to St Augustine’s famous “Fecisti nos” – “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord and our hearts can find no rest, until they rest in Thee.”

  • ppeter

    You have put words to the feelings I have about the political reality of our country. You sum up the reasons so many Catholics and other traditional Christians are gravitating to Ron Paul and to practical, if not theoretical, libertarianism.
    Our current field of establishment and conservative Republicans have a checkered past on social questions. Their rhetoric and their private commitment to the Gospel have never been translated into adequate public policy. Your article explains that this translation has become systemically impossible and that the only tactic remaining at our disposal is comprehensive diminishment of the role of the irredeemably secularist central state.
    Thank you for articulating a realistic view of our plight. Hopefully, our brethren will begin to wake up in sufficient numbers.

  • Sarto

    Don’t see the need to reconcile Pius IX with anybody. But I do see the need to reconcile our modern politicians with that thick volume called the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” which summarizes the social teaching of the Church beginning with Leo XIII. What the heck, I also see the need of reconciling John Z with that same book.

  • job

    Mr. Zmirak,

    Great article. I’m considering it the first “superwhizz” of many on neocon mushroom clouds…

    Just wondering what you think of Mr. Paul’s immigration policy. Numbers USA has given him an “F” for his efforts.

    In particular:

    “Rep. Paul talks about the need for border security and supports more Border Patrol and rights for border land owners to protect themselves. But he has consistently voted against other tougher measures to secure the border. His career record in Congress earns a C-minus on his NumbersUSA grade on Borders. Only one Republican in Congress has a worse grade.”


  • Great article. I like the practical solution at the end.

    If anyone reading the comment is interested, Kenneth Craycraft’s “The American Myth of Religious Freedom” is an excellent book on how secularism was inevitable, given the First Amendment.

  • Sarto

    I’m in the middle of a book group with some university profs discussion Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” It’s about two inches thick and come in handy when I can’t reach one of my shelves. Anyway, one of his theses is interesting: Secularism is actually a logical consequence of what he calls “the great disembedding,” the move by Catholics (even in Medieval times) and Protestants to create a rational order, which pulled Christians away from what he called “the world of enchantment.” He connects this with a new emphasis on the individual. He also includes the development of natural law in this picture, wiht its emphasis on rationality. So what you end up with is a strong movement toward a rational, individualistic holiness which was based in a sense of the immanent God over the transcendent God. The next step followed logically: If it is possible to create a rational order which helps the individual achieve virtue and a good social order, why do we need God at all?

    Anyway, his thinking seems to go this way: Secularism was bound to happen, because it is contained in the thrust of a modernising Christianity itself, with roots going back ino the Middle Ages. Makes some of the ranting and raving a little silly. We were going to do it, anyway. Now we have to live with what Christianity itself helped do. Just starting that part of his book. Interesting to discuss this with a Catholic, a fallen-away Catholic, a Lutheran, and a self-proclaimed atheist.

    • Carl

      Agree that Christians have pulled away from “the world of enchantment.”
      Agree that the individualistic “holiness which was based in a sense of the Immanent God over the transcendent God; after all didn’t recent Popes talk about this when they speak of the lose of “real presence” and the relativistic movements. How about Pope Pius X and his encyclical On The Doctrine Of The Modernists?
      “The great disembedding” as far as I’m concerned was the Reformation act itself and the bad fruit of the Protestant movement. This is not to say that there isn’t any salvific value within the Protestant denominations just that the ax needs to be laid at the roots of the tree.
      Disagree if when you say Catholics, meaning the Catholic Church, has contributed to this modernist movement. Individual Catholics have done many things contrary to the faith.

    • Michael PS

      I believe the tendency you describe goes back to an interpretation of St Thomas by Suarez and the Salamanca School and their dichotomy between “Nature” and “Grace.”

      They lost sight of the fact that the “Natural Order,” is an abstraction; in the real world, there is only Man Fallen and Man Redeemed.

      St Thomas knew better: “Man was made in order to see God: for this purpose God made him a rational creature, so that he might participate in his likeness, which consists in seeing him” Human nature has no merely “natural end” but only a supernatural finality.

      They also turned the Patristic understanding of the Church on its head. For the Neo-Scholastics, the Church was God’s instrument for the redemption of the individual; for the Fathers, the world is God’s instrument for building a body and bride for His Son.

      Hence, their hankering for a state-supported Church and “the triumph of the Church in society” that would be, in Blondel’s words, “A Catholicism without Christianity, submissiveness without thought, an authority without love, a Church that would rejoice at the insulting tributes paid to the virtuosity of her interpretative and repressive system… To accept all from God except God, all from Christ except His Spirit, to preserve in Catholicism only a residue that is aristocratic and soothing for the privileged and beguiling or threatening for the lower orders…” “Is not all this,” asked Blondel, “under the pretext, perhaps, of thinking only about religion, really a matter of pursuing only politics?” Laberthonnière, too, shrewdly accused Maurras (and some Throne and Altar Conservatives) of seeing the Church as shoring up society against “the anarchy he saw as inherent in Christianity itself.”

  • Mark

    I realize that this was written four years ago and many things have changed since then, but as one who used to be impressed by Ron Paul, I think this article accurately sums up present day reality:

    • Carl


      Tim Dunkin’s piece shines light where Mr. Zmirak’s puts confusion and shadows.

      “how I reconcile Ron Paul with Pius IX,” are you kidding me? I read it several times and I gave up the reconciliation already. Zmirak raises some interesting points but I fail to see the point of the title.

      Call me slow or a simpleton.

      • Mark

        Carl, I would call you neither slow nor a simpleton — those descriptions are not accurate for sincere people trying to discern the truth, but rather should be saved for the immature, intellectually lazy and self-satisfied who believe that they win debates simply by tossing accusations like “racist” “homophobic” “neo-con” “sexist” “xenophobic” “imperialist” “chicken hawk” and my personal favorite “Halliburton!”

        Ron Paul is not just naive, he is dangerous. After recently claiming that Iran posed no threat to the U.S., Iran officials claimed that:

        “Iran would mobilize its fleet of warships, submarines, speed boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes, surface-to-sea missiles and drones, if provoked, to cut off access to the passageway (Strait of Hormuz)” – Adm. Habibollah Sayari

        The passageway is a conduit for one-sixth of the world’s oil, so if successful (meaning, if the U.S. chose not to intercede (the Paul doctrine), oil prices could jump significantly in a short period of time. Gas could rise to $7- per gallon within a year.

        Why does this matter?

        As of 2011, the typical American household spent over $4000- / yr on gas.. 8.4 percent of what the median family takes in. So, if gas prices doubled, the American family would see 17% of the money they earn go into their gas tanks.

        Here is where the blame America first crowd starts chirping with disingenuous calls for failed green energy programs and cars that look like Easter eggs, while blissfully unaware that Iran (and other minions) will trade Russia and China oil at a very low price as a quid pro quo for their assistance with nefarious programs. Russia and China have a greater understanding of the value of oil than our liberal friends… their useful idiots.

        Ron Paul’s national defense strategy is way beyond naive and firmly ensconced in the realm of dangerous. It’s almost as though his world view is the love child of Neville Chamberlain and Jimmy Carter — which is appropriate since he voted to repeal DADT and would not support a Defense of Marriage Act.

        I have no problem with Mr. Zmirak reconciling Ron Paul with Pius IX — but I have more peace of mind being able to reconcile Rick Santorum with all 266 popes.

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