In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus warned his disciples that some Gospel seed would fall to waste among thorns. Suffocating “cares, riches and pleasures” (Luke 8:14) are inevitable in every time and place, a temptation in every life. But what if an entire civilisation becomes a vast bed of thorns that would choke the seed sown among all but the most heroic believers: would Christians have a duty to act as gardeners, to improve civilisational conditions for the faith?
That’s the question at the heart of recent debates about Catholic integralism – a term I have been reluctant to adopt, mainly owing to the theoretical morass into which it risks plunging ordinary believers. And yet I believe that there is a Christian duty to seek better civilisational conditions for the faith, and to do so at the level of the state and the political community.
Many Christian thinkers today reject this duty. Or if they accept it, they remain allergic to its specifically political dimension, involving the exercise of state authority. The Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, for example, recently chided me and Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule for pursuing a project that doesn’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell of having any kind of concrete possibility”, even as he also tsk-tsked that “power is extremely seductive.”
Hauerwas indicated his preference for intentional communities, such as the Anabaptist communes of the Bruderhof, as a smaller, gentler, more realistic way of cultivating the garden. We prune our own little patch, the thinking runs, and let it stand as a prophetic witness amid the bed of thorns. Others locate the duty in a nebulous, supposedly nonpolitical sphere called “the culture”, which Christians must evangelise.
And if evangelisation and Christian activism often result in ordinary believers being ostracised, silenced, fired from their jobs and so on – well, that comes with the territory. The good news of Jesus Christ, we’re told, was never meant to be “safe”. The Lord himself warned us that the world would hate us for his sake (John 15:18-19). He told us that to follow him means to pick up our own crosses (Matthew 16:24).
Of course, discipleship is always a carrying of our own crosses; Christians in every era are called to till the cultural field. Nevertheless, as political claims, these would have been unintelligible to the statesmen of historic Christianity and likewise to its greatest sages. Like a number of other Christian writers, I came around to this conclusion after studying Prayer as a Political Problem, a brilliant little book by the French Jesuit Jean Danielou (1905-1974).
Danielou’s (pictured) core claim was simple. Christianity, he argued, was from the beginning a mass religion. It was never supposed to be the exclusive preserve of severe ascetics, martyrs, Amish communards and others who could abandon the world altogether and withstand any intellectual or physical difficulty for their divine master’s sake. Such “elites” (elite in the sense of spiritual discipline and superiority, not material wealth) had their place, but so did “the crowd of baptised Christians for whom Christianity is hardly anything more than an external routine”.
This might be a shocking claim, especially to American heirs of nonconformist Christianity, with its ideal of intense, dour, solitary faith. But Danielou, a noted patrologist, had the weight of Christian history on his side. Against the elitist account of the faith, for example, Saint Augustine proposed the “picture of the Church as a net in which all sorts of fish are caught, where the task of separating the good from the bad is for the angels, not for men” (in Danielou’s retelling). And “it is this state of affairs which is very much to be desired.”
Peter Brown, the eminent scholar of Late Antiquity, reminds us that Augustine welcomed the politically convenient conversions of various Roman potentates, and the bishop of Hippo certainly didn’t shy away from appealing to Roman power to coerce and suppress various sects whose fanatic “purism” threatened the ideal of a broad, welcoming Church; he coerced so that the Church might be more open, more widely encompassing of Roman civilisation.
But what of our Lord’s words about martyrdom and crosses? For Danielou, those words have to be taken alongside Jesus’s proclamation that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; cf Isaiah 61:1). The “poor” here means not just the abjectly impoverished and oppressed of the earth, but also the average masses, those caught in the clamour of commerce, in restless homes riven by petty jealousies, in the pretensions and hypocrisies of ordinary life. People unprepared for martyrdom. Jesus addressed himself to an elite core, yes, but also to such people. When he fed families and children, when he conjured wine for the partygoers at Cana, Jesus expressed this “simple sense of community”.
It wasn’t until after the Constantinian conversion, however, that the Catholic Church was able to secure political conditions favourable to a mass religion. Before that, owing to the various persecutions, being a Christian “called for a strength of character of which the majority of men are not capable”. Post-Constantine, Christianity became accessible to the ordinary Roman: he may have been offering sacrifices to the pagan deities only a week earlier, and he may have struggled to get his head round parts of the creed, but he was a Christian, all the same. His soul benefited from efficacious sacraments, and his family and community benefited from a more virtuous order (more Christian too!).
“Far from distorting Christianity,” wrote Danielou, “this change allowed it to become more truly itself, a people”. But as Danielou admitted, Christian peoplehood “supposes a Church which is involved with civilisation, for if civilisation runs counter to it, a Christian people cannot exist”. This, then, is the object of political Christianity: to tame the bed of thorns, so that a Christian people may once more emerge.
Nearly six decades since Prayer as a Political Problem appeared (in 1965), the thrust of liberal civilisation runs more openly and aggressively counter to the aims of the Church; the thorns are thicker and sharper than ever. Our task is thus more daunting than it might have appeared in Danielou’s era of wild ecclesial optimism; he was a Vatican II peritus.
A novel coronavirus has accelerated economic and social trends that were already churning before the first cases broke out on our shores: profound loneliness, massive inequality, growing health and economic insecurity, racism and racial tension, not to mention such thorny threats to the faith of little ones as pornography and gender ideology.
These are the sorts of problems that the Fathers of Vatican II entrusted to the laity when they called upon us to “penetrate and perfect the temporal order” (Apostolicam Actuositate). We must solve them at the level of the state, lest they choke more seed and hinder the re-emergence of Christian peoplehood for generations. And we must pursue today’s versions of the Constantinian conversion, since what states believe to be humanity’s ultimate or highest end necessarily shapes their approach to the Catholic Church, not to mention the temporal common good of citizens.
Call this integralism, if you like, but this duty is just the substance of Christian politics as such – the vision that stares back at us across two millennia, made tangible for any visitor to Saint Peter’s basilica who spots the pair of earthly rulers standing on horseback at each end of the portico.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of the forthcoming book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
Picture: Jean Danielou (right) with Giorgia La Pira, Mayor of Florence (Getty)