St Augustine teaches us how to think about Catholic strategy in a liberal era

From a 15th-century painting, 'Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo' (Wikimedia)

Critics of liberalism are sometimes portrayed as fantasists, yearning for some lost medieval integralism of throne and altar. But as Professor Adrian Vermeule showed in his much-discussed article last week, that is unfair. There is no going back, and we have no choice but to chart new paths through the obstacles that arise ever anew. Vermeule is a realist who recognises that we cannot rely on the failed strategies of accommodation to an increasingly aggressive and illiberal liberalism. Vermeule writes, “Catholic integralism rightly holds out hope for a political regime ordered proximately to the common good and ultimately to the Divine, and it allows for compromises with non-ideal orders.” This strikes me as a well-reasoned, ancient, and admirably Catholic view, supported throughout the tradition, including Dignitatis Humanae.

What’s interesting about this definition of integralism is the way Vermeule includes “compromise” in it, and so turns the caricature of integralism as “uncompromising nostalgia” on its head. In Vermeule’s telling, it’s the compatibilists who are nostalgic, and compromising, in all the wrong ways.

Taking Ross Douthat into his sights, Vermeule specifically pinpoints a problem with “conservative” Catholic attempts to make compromises “with the king that you have.” Namely, Vermeule thinks this is precisely the wrong strategy. Leaving aside the question of whether Douthat should count as a compatibilist, Vermeule is surely right to note that there’s an awful lot of bad strategy at play in Catholic compromises with liberalism. If you must always (however tenuously) affirm liberal tenets in order to fight the most impending material threats to Catholic life by rear-guard defences, then you also must concede your strategy is weak at best. With all of the above, I agree. If liberalism as we’ve known it is passing away, Catholics will need new strategies as they continue to bear witness to the Light that lights the way for humanity.

Unfortunately, and probably unintentionally, Vermeule takes a seemingly anti-political turn at just the point where his integralist argument has become most attractive. Presumably against Rusty Reno’s “Burkean” strategy of rejecting the liberal creed, while making peace with certain liberal traditions, Vermeule draws a line in the sand, insisting that “Catholicism is not Burkeanism.” Who could disagree? But in rejecting even the most finely tuned integralist set of negotiations with liberalism, Vermeule employs 1 Peter to argue that Catholics are “rootless” and “homeless,” and so must reject “human political traditions.” He concludes, “Because Catholics are exiled in the world, they can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions.”

This is certainly not nostalgic. It rightly sees the Catholic as a pilgrim, but it denigrates too much what the Catholic integralist has always upheld about the common good, and the need for Catholics to “attach” to the good of their neighbourhoods, cities, republics, nations. Vermeule certainly cannot intend to give this impression because it simply isn’t the integralist vision which he champions.

Christians understand themselves as pilgrim-citizens of a more glorious city. But it does not follow from this that Catholics “can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions.” It means that our attachment to lower goods are relative to higher ones. All of our attachments to every earthly good should be “relativized” by the highest common good which is God, but this should not be construed as detachment from all man’s political traditions, especially those traditions which are not contrary to the Faith.

What Vermeule must mean is that American Catholics should not feel any special attachment to liberalism as a human political tradition, not because it is human or political, but because it makes too many errant claims about reality. No family, city, people, republic, nation or empire should ever be viewed as an end in itself, unrelated to God. And Vermeule rightly wants us to detach ourselves from a liberalism that would separate us from the love of God. But the better way to recognise that America is not an end in itself is to demonstrate that whatever solidity and durability America (as a common good) has never come from liberalism at all, but derived from citizens participating in a common good directed to the highest one.

Vermeule is opposed to liberalism. He sees it as a religious competitor to Catholicism. He’s right about this. The integralist Augustine could agree. For St. Augustine, the City of God on pilgrimage in this world is the only common good united to the highest good, and the Catholic Church gives us the “true attachment” (vera religio) to it. So it is only in communion with the Catholic Church that individuals, communities, peoples, cities, nations, can be properly “attached.” However, Augustine’s integralism also provides a realistic measure for the Catholic to judge regimes as more or less ideal, on a scale. In Augustine’s “alternative” definition of a republic, he argues that Catholics can and will need to use the relative peace of cities whose orders will be judged better or worse according to their “common objects of love.” That is, in non-ideal regimes, Augustine encourages the integralist to help move his neighbours from low to high, from loving vice to loving virtue, from self-centred order to God-centered order.

On the first definition, Augustine is completely with Vermeule. None of our humanly-constructed political traditions are compatible because they fail to render what is due to God. But on the second definition, Augustine sees the Catholic integralist also as a realistic and wise judge of non-ideal regimes. The true integralist standard (the City of God) forms the baptised to judge regimes by their common objects of love, and attempt to convert and elevate them accordingly. The Catholic has a duty to move his neighbours towards the right kinds of attachment to the common and highest good. At times he will do this by martyrdom. More often, he will do so through an ordinary witness to the Catholic Faith. But the integralist knows that he enjoys dual-citizenship; he knows the glorious city, and seeks to raise every lesser one up to it.

Would the compatibilists disagree? I don’t think they would. I am reminded of Rusty Reno’s persuasive argument that Karl Rahner’s “accommodations” to modern liberal thought (a theological kind of compatibilism) arose not from a liberal tendency, but from an old “integralist” yearing for restoring the harmony between the Church and society. In Reno’s telling, Rahner the “compatibilist” is really just a veiled integralist whose strategies resulted in capitulating to the world rather than converting it. In different ways, both Reno and Vermeule intend to guard us against the wrong kind of integralism which compromises too much in the wrong way.

So what is the right kind of integralism? And the right of compromise? I’m not sure how Vermeule, or Douthat, would answer. But I think Augustine gives us a standard once again, and it’s relevant to Vermeule’s important query about strategy and compromise. He writes, “the pilgrim city of God makes use of the temporal peace and seeks compromises that aren’t to the detriment of true religion and piety.” (City 19.17) That is, strategies, as well as regimes, can be judged according to the truth. As long as “strategies” don’t contradict the natural, eternal or divine law, and as long as the Church’s Faith is not harmed or weakened by the strategy. The Defence of the Faith is the standard by which one can judge good or bad strategy, good or bad compromise. Liberalism is not the “end of history,” Christ in glory is the end of history. But it could be a long pilgrimage yet, and so it’s on this measure that I want to encourage the debate that Vermeule is so admirably advancing.

This article has been edited to expand a quotation from Adrian Vermeule.