American Catholics made a deal with liberalism. It hasn’t worked out

The American flag is raised outside the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta (CNS)

The Ahmari-French debate reminds us of the dangers of compromise

“What do I do if my parents won’t take me to Confession?”

Those of us who have taught catechism classes, and heard questions like this, become aware of a strange paradox. Most of the students attend only because their parents force them to, but those same students get no reinforcement of the Faith at home. The parents hand their children over to the parish for one hour a week of what they presumably reckon to be ethics and respectability training. For the rest of the week, the children are at the mercy of the catechesis of the world.

Teaching the Faith now is rather like undertaking the work of Anne Sullivan, tutor to the deaf-blind Hellen Keller. Catechists are presented with children who lack not only the language of faith, but the ability to see and hear reality itself. Describe to them their unchosen duties in justice to God, the truth of the supernatural order with which we must align ourselves, or the implications of the social kingship of Christ, and it will be as if you told them the sun is actually a gigantic pancake. And if you can convince them these things are potentially reasonable, they’ll have six days and 23 hours of indifferent families and hostile teachers and Snapchat in which to unlearn it.

In other words, the family (even if it is a Catholic family) is rarely a haven from the lessons of our corrupting culture. The generation now raising children has itself been catechized by a liberal, individualistic, secular society, and these are the lessons they’ve learned: the Church is merely one voluntary association among many; the sacraments are personal rites of passage; the only legitimate spheres for religion are the place of worship and the individual psyche. This is, in short, the privatization of religion – an essential component of political liberalism.

This was all brought to mind by the recent dust-up over political tactics between Sohrab Ahmari and David French (and, now, many others). Ahmari contends that French’s commitment to preserving an ostensibly neutral sphere of public discourse and civil prerogative, in line with the principles of political liberalism, has been a losing strategy for conservative Christians. French’s belief in “individual autonomy” as a fundamental principle of politics, he argues, just isn’t enough to bring about a culture ordered around the truth of human nature and divine law.

But there’s a reason why Ahmari and French are likely to differ about this. French, as an Evangelical Protestant, inherits a theology of church, grace and politics very unlike that of Ahmari’s Catholic Church. While evangelical traditions differ, we can generally make these distinctions: Evangelical ecclesiology focuses on the personal choice of a congregation or denomination, while Catholic ecclesiology focuses on our permanent and often unchosen membership in the Catholic Church through Baptism; Evangelical theology recognizes at most two sacraments and takes a comparatively thin view of their efficacy, while the Church teaches that in Her uniquely there is a superstructure of sacramental grace that we can be assured of; and the Evangelical view of man’s relationship with God is personal and unmediated, while the Catholic view stresses our participation in the heavenly community through the angels and saints.

It’s should be no surprise, then, that French emphasizes individual autonomy in his politics – and that the Church has always seen things very differently. And yet, from the very beginning of the American experiment through this day, we have tried to shoehorn our theology into liberalism, always on the argument that it was a strategic necessity for our political and cultural influence. Ahmari’s salient argument that engagement on the terms of liberalism has proven strategically unsuccessful lands with real force not nearly as much on David French as it does on the Church – and especially on those who have muted or simply forgotten the deeply illiberal nature of Catholic teaching. French has given up comparatively very little of his theological tradition for his strategy, while we have given up not merely academic abstractions, but the very sinews of faith and truth and virtue by which the Church transcends generations.

I don’t know how to win the culture war, but I do know how to lose the Catholic family. It begins not with contraception or divorce or the LGBT movement, but by tacitly accepting (if not actively defending) the privatization of religion inherent to liberal politics – even classically liberal politics.

Look at the snotty closing sentence of George Washington’s 1790 “Letter to the Roman Catholics,” often held up by Catholics as a shining example of the founders’ benevolence and magnanimity: “And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.” The Father of the Country wishes “our society” (how cute) well if and only if we act like Protestants (“pure spirit of Christianity”) and disclaim our primary allegiance to the Body of Christ (“faithful subjects of our free government”).

We have internalized this liberal, anti-Catholic view of the Church and Her teachings. I remember from that catechism class one boy whose parents had planned for him to be “confirmed” in both the parish and a Presbyterian community, presumably to cover his bases. The idea that one of these rituals might be objectively different from the other—a genuinely efficacious sign of grace – did not occur to them. Another boy reported to me that his mother had told him that Pope Francis had permitted same-sex marriages; the idea that this would be impossible, that doctrines can’t be changed like public policies, would have been unintelligible to mother and son.

In other words, we conceive of the Church as a voluntary association, distinguishable from others only because She’s ours, not because She uniquely communicates the grace of God to humanity thus uniting this fallen world with the angels and saints in the perfect society of heaven which is made physically present to us in every celebration of the Mass. (And that’s just the start.) The Church doesn’t just describe reality in a way that we may or may not assent to; She is the supernatural reality that gives order to the cosmos whether we assent to it or not. A society that doesn’t recognize this reality is disordered from the start.

But that’s not very liberal. We haven’t made a habit of telling people this truth because it might make them uncomfortable, and they might not show up to the bishop’s Catholic Charities gala or side with us on religious liberty protections for wedding vendors. For those who know and believe this illiberal truth (and others like it), I think they genuinely believe it’s a costless compromise to make. The clerics and academics and pundits who make these strategic decisions are generally surrounded by faithful Catholic families who are part of well-heeled and well-educated networks of fellow believers: they’re passing on the Faith just fine, so it seems that the public strategic compromise can easily co-exist with the truth we whisper in academic journals and dinner parties.

The idea, that is, has been that the Church can be strategically liberal while families remain nodes of illiberalism – of hierarchy, of authority, of communalism, of quasi-public religiosity. We ask merely for an equal voice in a neutral public square, and parents are still supposed to convince children that the Church is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. We ask for a deeply individualistic and relativistic kind of “religious liberty,” but parents are still supposed to enforce the duties imposed by Baptism as unchosen and binding. We beg the civil authority not to enforce a comprehensive vision of the good, but parents are still supposed to teach that the Church has just such a vision – that She is that vision.

But of course this catechesis hasn’t trickled down at all; instead, families have been almost exclusively catechized by liberalism – and more so the farther they are from networks of academic and socioeconomic privilege. Not only has the domestic church been ravaged by the liberal privatization of religion, but the very idea of the domestic church—the idea of the family as place of communal religious duties, where the life of faith should infuse every moment of every day – has been rendered incomprehensible. To actually live as if what we affirm at Mass is true and binding – not just the hot-button moral issues but the personal and social sovereignty of Christ – is considered unbalanced, anti-social, and, worst of all, illiberal.

It’s hard to imagine dividends in political and cultural influence that could justify the cost in trans-generational faithfulness. The Church is a community-through-time, united by Christ and by tradition, but that beautiful truth has been undermined in practice and in theory by a way of interacting with the world that seems to deny the legitimacy of everything that came before the time of those now living.

This state of affairs cannot be simply blamed on “the culture.” Our own capitulation – even those compromises made in the name of a strategically construed orthodoxy – has helped to bring us to this point.

But now we’re living in times of confusion and instability, where everything established is coming under a glowering scrutiny. The secular liberal order is facing its most serious structural instability and intellectual emergencies since at least the end of the Cold War, and perhaps for much longer than that. And the post-conciliar Church is, at least in the West, also at a low point of popular legitimacy and moral authority. Moderateness is failing all around.

So, why not change course? Why not assert reality – the cosmic hierarchy, the Church Triumphant, the sovereignty of Christ, the necessity of grace, and the personal and political implications of all of these? On its own terms, the strategic compromise with liberalism has failed – not to mention the collateral damage. It’s at least as likely as not that an uncompromising and deeply-rooted orthodoxy will meet with more practical success than a selective liberalization driven by focus groups and partisan politics.

And it’s true, too.