As secular liberalism attacks the Church, Catholics can’t afford to be nostalgic

A demonstrator outside the US Supreme Court last month as the court met to discuss the 'gay cake' case (Getty)

Is a Christian cakemaker required to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, in violation of his religious beliefs? That is the issue in a case currently before the US Supreme Court. The case looks like yet another major clash between the forces of secular progressive liberalism and their Christian targets. And yet some Christians are so optimistic as to hope for a truce. For instance, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat has appealed to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who as so often will almost certainly cast the deciding vote. Despite Kennedy’s record – he composed the 2015 Obergefell decision which divined a right of same-sex marriage in the Constitution – Douthat hopes that the judge will vote to protect the baker, and so bring about some peace, of uncertain duration, between liberalism and Christianity.

In so doing, Douthat illustrates a pervasive tendency among Catholic intellectuals today: the temptation of nostalgia. He casts a wistful glance backwards, to a time in which secular progressive liberalism and what he calls “religious conservatism” peacefully coexisted. When exactly? One candidate is the period just before the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, but it seems likely that by 2014 it was already too late to disband the competing forces. A better candidate is 1950-70, which Douthat believes future historians will identify as the glorious peak of the American polity. Douthat is slightly coy about whether he thinks these future historians will be correct, but it is clear that he thinks something went very wrong in American life in the 1970s, and that Hugh Hefner played an important role. One can see why 1950-1970 would appeal to a certain strain of traditional Catholic. The immediate postwar period was a time in which Catholics peacefully coexisted with the liberal Imperium, and indeed became increasingly integrated into it, helping to elect a quasi-Catholic President. Anthony Kennedy is no John F Kennedy, as it were, but in Douthat’s view “you appeal to the emperor you have.”

In this hope that a stable equilibrium of accommodation between Catholicism and the liberal state can be preserved, if only by a benevolent proconsul, Douthat is hardly alone. Even Catholics who self-identify as “trad(itionalist)” often yearn for accommodation and co-existence between Catholicism and the liberal state. In a striking number of cases, as in Douthat’s, this takes the form of longing for some past era. (Whether the qualities attributed to that era are in fact accurate is tangential to my points here).

The historical benchmark varies. The Paris Statement, a recent declaration by philosophers (some of them Catholic) harks back to a postwar Europe of Christian liberal democracy, before the conflicts among Christianity, liberalism and democracy became painfully apparent. For Commentary’s Sohrab Ahmari, one possible benchmark era is the later 1980s and early 1990s. In those years St John Paul II (the “Apostle of Human Freedom”, as Ahmari calls him), Reagan and Thatcher bestrode the world stage, defeating Communism and ushering in an era of neoconservative (one might say neoliberal) governance, centring on “free” markets and the promotion of “freedom” globally. To his credit, Ahmari acknowledges that liberals face major questions which they may be unable to answer (and he forcefully rejects theological liberalism). But he nevertheless seems to hanker for a time when liberal democracy and Christianity were at peace. 

Others do not explicitly identify a preferred historical era, but nevertheless try to preserve some pre-existing truce between Christianity and liberalism. Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, would like to distinguish “liberalism as creed”, on the one hand, from “liberalism as tradition” on the other, and adhere to the latter even while abjuring the former. Reno would like to keep certain liberal customs and institutions while avoiding all the disruption that occurs when liberalism imposes its ideological views on recalcitrant populations.

In my view, these views all rest upon wishful thinking. There is no reason to think that a stable, long-term rapprochement between Catholicism and the liberal state is realistically feasible, whether or not it would be desirable; nor should Catholics allow themselves to become ultimately attached to any particular time, place or human political order.

To begin with, liberalism cannot ultimately tolerate the accommodation in principle while remaining true to itself, whatever Catholics might hope. Reno’s distinction between creedal and traditional liberalism illustrates the problem. In Episcopalian institutions, it is common to hear the Creed downplayed in favour of tradition and liturgy (“lex orandi, lex credendi”). The problem is that the liturgy itself includes a solemn affirmation of the Creed. There is then no escape from taking a stand on the truth or falsity of the Creed’s substantive commitments. Reno, like me a former Episcopalian, falls into a version of this same problem, mutatis mutandis. Liberalism, too, of course has robust substantive commitments, much as it might pretend otherwise. The “tradition” of liberalism, really an anti-tradition, is founded on that substantive creed and cannot coherently even be identified, let alone followed, without entering into those anti-traditionalist ideas and sympathetically interpreting and applying them. Doing so will inevitably amount to a reaffirmation of the liberal creed. Put differently, as I have argued elsewhere, the main “tradition” of liberalism is in fact a liturgy, centred on a sacramental celebration of the progressive overcoming of the darkness of bigotry and unreason. To participate in that tradition, that liturgy, is necessarily and inescapably to commune with and be caught up into a particular substantive view of time, history, world and the sacred – the liberal view.

To be sure, even if liberalism cannot accept the accommodation in principle, perhaps there can be an indefinite truce, a pragmatic equilibrium of political and social forces. It takes two to make a truce, however, or else a higher third power who restrains unilateral aggression – a katechon for the liberal state. In our actual situation, neither condition obtains. The forces of secular progressive liberalism – which span both major political parties – make no secret of what they would like to do to believing Catholics. One Harvard law professor urged his fellow-liberals to reject wide-ranging “religious liberty” protections over LGBT issues because “taking a hard line (‘You lost, live with it’) is better than trying to accommodate the losers … [a]nd taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.” (He later offered an unconvincing reinterpretation of his own statements). During the Obama presidency, the then Solicitor General of the US acknowledged that Christian institutions could lose their tax exemptions over their doctrinal stances.

Given these open statements of aggressive and punitive intent it would be foolish to expect forbearance. And, given the course of events since Douthat’s cutoff date of 1970, in which secular progressive liberalism has expanded in power and aggression with almost every passing year, it would also be foolish to trust that those forces will not again be in the ascendancy, with the capacity to bring decisive force to bear. The Trump administration, crippled by moral compromises, almost certainly amounts to merely a temporary respite. Douthat betrays a misunderstanding of political science when he puts his trust in the law and the judiciary in general and Kennedy in particular. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, political control over judicial appointments means that judicial views will inevitably be brought into conformity with the views of the wider society, which in the America of 2018 are increasingly dismissive of central tenets of Catholic doctrine. Even the current “conservative” majority on the Court will not last forever; and again, just such a majority produced Obergefell in the first place – such is the power of social conformism. It is not a matter of whether a serious conflict between the liberal state and the Catholic faith will occur, but of when, and how bad it will be.

This conflict, while certainly not to be desired or sought out, has the salutary side-effect of reminding Catholics that nostalgia for the lost harmony of the liberal order is a theological error. Catholics should not become too enamoured of the traditions and practices of a particular locality, polity or period; there should be no Catholic “theology of place” and, correlatively, no Catholic nostalgia for lost place and time. It’s not just that you can’t go home again; it’s that for Catholics, whatever place and time is at issue was never truly home in the first place. The great theme of 1 Peter’s political theory is that Catholics are sojourners, exiles, refugees, not ultimately at home in the world or (a fortiori) in any worldly regime, short of the Eternal City. Roger Scruton’s typically Anglican attempt to elevate nostalgia into a principle, in his 2017 book Where We Are, reveals the crucial mistake. “Turning for home,” Scruton writes, “is not an escape from the world but an affirmation of it.” For Catholics, by contrast, “affirmation of the world” is hardly an ideal. Catholic integralism rightly holds out hope for a political regime ordered proximately to the common good and ultimately to the Divine, and also allows for compromises with non-ideal orders.  Yet these provisional orders, however desirable, are never to be confused with the Eternal City itself.

Why are self-described “trad” Catholics prone to nostalgia? The typical mistake is to conflate the traditions of the Church with the traditions of the broader society. These are very different things; the Church is an ark afloat on a dangerous sea, which preserves its own internal traditions in part with walls that prevent it from being deluged by secular practices and mores. 1 Peter thus connects Catholic rootlessness and homelessness with a rejection of human political traditions, enjoining Catholics to “live out the time of your exile here in reverent awe, for you know that the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood …” Catholicism is not Burkeanism. Because Catholics are exiled in the world, they can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions. They can have no final affection for the misty English landscape that always stands just behind Scruton’s prose, for Reno’s polite distinction of liberal tradition and liberal creed, for the bipartisan fedora-hatted governance of Douthat’s postwar golden age, or even for Ahmari’s era of the triumph (albeit short-lived) of liberal democratic freedom after 1989.

Ahmari acidly mocks a certain strand of Catholic integralism as “hobbit village” nostalgia. In this Ahmari is partly unfair (the rural village and the integral City are very different ideals) but partly correct. After the collapse of the postwar rapprochement with liberalism, integral Catholicism can only go forward, with the hope of translating the old principles into new settings and institutional forms, creating an altogether new order. But Ahmari, like Douthat, Reno, Scruton and the authors of the Paris Statement, ought to apply that same acid-wash to his own nostalgic views as well.