Each 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 excellent 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.
Deneen asks: how compatible is Catholicism 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 what may be called 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, 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 twenty-first century American or European does, his republicanism itself requires the ideas of the Catholic Church.
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.
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 sixteenth century movements: the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, which each repudiated (contrary to popular opinion) all the heftiest parts of Natural Law theory. That is, nature is 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 as he posed it, it can have no discernable law.
And this acknowledgement forced Locke to bifurcate bizarrely between true, Aristotelian Natural Law of the Catholic Church (which, as a Reformer and an empiricist, both of which rejected Aristotelianism, he had no choice but to reject) and his new brand of it, which adopted its conclusion but none of its primary four premises (nature’s freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology). This cast the convincing, yet misleading, impression of a nature as simultaneously inscrutable yet somehow, still a source of rights. By way of a heinous convolution of ideas and an egregious misnomer, he became Natural Law’s putative godfather, the cherry-picker of 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, eighteenth century American Natural Law was no less tortured than seventeenth 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 percent 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 my above view 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.
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.” Forget the above Catholic theology for a moment: this categorization is straight up bizarre. Right off the bat, a “neocon” is a Keynesian and an opponent—not a friend—of purely free markets and subsidiarity. A neocon changed political aisles—but never his political economy or his expansive view of federalism—during the late Cold War. 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. 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, for the non-compatibilist these natural communities don’t jive with free enterprise: “deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism.” 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. 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.
In a true 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 associations. 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 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?
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.” 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 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 cherry-picking pursuant to it, can our republic—or any republic—return to the genuine benefits of the Natural Law.
Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of an essay that first appeared in the The Imaginative Conservative on March 3, 2014.