A growing debate has emerged of late in certain Catholic circles over the Church’s proper response to political modernity (Liberalism). There are four basic positions currently in play that D.C. Schindler, who is Professor of Metaphysics and Anthropology at Pontifical John Paul Institute in D.C., addresses in his excellent—and dare I say, magisterial—new book titled The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism. I will briefly describe and address each of the positions in order to properly situate what I think is most important in Schindler’s approach to the topic of the Church’s relation to modern political Liberalism. All that said, it will be impossible to do the book full justice in a review since its pages are a densely packed treasure trove of interlocking arguments and profound insights. (I stopped highlighting the best parts of the text after the first thirty pages, realizing that I was underlining everything. It is that good.)
The four camps
First, there are the Whig Thomists who still cling to the idea that America is a crypto-Catholic country in its founding principles and so if we can just get modern American politics to return to its originating ideas we can forge ahead with the new “Catholic moment” in American history (Fr. Richard Neuhaus). Embracing John Courtney Murray’s assertion that the American constitutional order enshrines no particular “theology” or “creed,” the Whig Thomists agree with Murray that all our constitutional order really seeks is a kind of political “peace” wherein the government limits its competency in matters religious and opens a “zone” for religious freedom to flourish. The current eruption of illiberalism in the various so-called “woke/cancel culture” movements are viewed by the Whig Thomists as a departure from the true originating principles of the American founding and are in no way expressive of its fundamental orientation. Therefore, and while certainly imperfect, the Pax Americana represents an order that Catholics can embrace and celebrate.
The second camp does not go this far, and submits instead that “prudence” demands the realization that modern Liberalism is what it is, warts and all, and is not going to change. We just need to embrace the procedural freedoms it affords us and reach a settlement with its institutions. We can fantasize all we want about the return of a confessional Catholic State, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon so it is a violation of prudence and practical reason to entertain such fantasies. Therefore, we should not fixate on theoretical critiques of Liberalism but should instead turn our attention to the realm of the “prudential” within the Liberal order and thereby seek the only truly “practical” paths forward.
The third camp is that of the new breed of Catholic integralists, exemplified in the writings of Edmund Waldstein. They reject Liberalism tout court and argue that we should work toward a return of Catholic confessional States in which the Church is acknowledged as the primary spiritual authority in society. And, further, that this spiritual authority is superior to the civil authority and can, and must, wield coercive power where the two spheres or zones of “power” (spiritual and civil) overlap and intersect.
The fourth camp can be loosely characterized as the “prophetic/eschatological” position adopted by such folks as Stanley Hauerwas and, to a certain extent, Dorothy Day. This position, while not entirely rejecting the sometimes legitimate and necessary role that the Church might play in influencing civil governance, is nevertheless, deeply suspicious of all forms of State power and, therefore, deeply reluctant to encourage the Church to cooperate closely with it. Better to remain as a prophetic and leavening agent in society, far removed from the engines of worldly power, so as to be better able to “speak truth to power” and to engage in prophetic actions of resistance.
Liberalism’s inherent flaw
Before addressing Schindler’s response to these four positions, it is important to give a succinct overview of his thoughts on Liberalism as such. The first thing to note is the title of the book itself—The Politics Of The Real—indicates that Schindler thinks Liberalism’s chief defect is it encourages an order of putative “peace” at the expense of the truth of things as they really are. The Liberal order seeks to keep the peace via a very minimal account of what constitutes “the good” precisely in order to avoid the often socially divisive arguments that inevitably accrue to any strong account of the good. Better to bracket concepts like “the good” in order to avoid such conflicts while opening a civil space for free individuals to “privately” hold whatever account of the good they deem appropriate. So long, that is, as they do not seek to impose their idiosyncratic notions on others.
However, as Schindler notes, this is to subvert the very goodness of the good per se and only grants “equality” to all such notions by first trivializing them as equally irrelevant to the social project. In other words, Liberalism, in seeking the “good” of social amity, subverts the very thing it seeks to preserve by robbing the very concept of all goods of its reality as something holding a moral purchase in the public domain. Goods are only goods if they are viewed as true and real things, embedded in the very fabric of things; they exist antecedent to any of our private opinions and choices and therefore impose upon us the limits necessary for true freedom in the first place.
In a rich insight, Schindler builds upon this critique and points out that this rejection of the realness of goods leads to a situation wherein there are no natural limits to State power. This rejections means there are no moral and spiritual realities transcending the State and both limiting its power and forming its structure.
For example, the Liberal order claims for itself the right to self-limitation in matters of the good, which shows that it views no other limits on its powers than those it itself imposes. But that self-limitation creates a situation where the lines of limitation can move, willy-nilly, at the whim of the State since it recognizes no moral or spiritual sovereignty independent of its own sovereignty. It claims for itself a monopoly on such policing powers even as it masks the latent totalitarianism in such a regime through “granting” the “right” of private citizens to pursue the good on their own.
Other serious problems
Truth is a casualty as well since, as Schindler points out at the beginning of his text, in order for there to be a “res publica” in the first place the Liberal State must ignore the meddlesome and annoying question of “what is this thing in its essence” as the chief determiner of what constitutes the good. It resorts instead to the marginalization of all such metaphysical and delimiting questions into the realm of the purely subjective. Obviously, the State cares about “truth” in the practical domain of commerce and in the legal realm as it pursues justice as fairness. But it undermines these same realities by failing to embed them in a proper theory of the good which alone can hold them together and which alone can keep them from degenerating into a kind of technocratic proceduralism.
Nor does Liberalism have any inner principle for recovering such a theory of the good since it has been, since its inception, a movement characterized by a scorched-earth rejection of all previous moral and spiritual traditions. That includes the tradition and teaching embodied by the Church, which alone is capable of bearing forward the givenness of the good. Borrowing from thinkers such as Augusto del Noce and Pierre Manent, Schindler views the Liberal project as anti-Christian in its core.
And it is most especially anti-Catholic, insofar as it rejects the particular form of Catholicism as the very public embodiment of the coming together of Greek wisdom, Roman law, and Jewish theology—a synthesis that formed the moral and spiritual tradition of the West. And it does so because this “form” claims public warrant and is rooted in an ongoing development of a “private” Revelation that can have no such public warrant since it is not something accessible to the universal canons of secular reason.
Nor does it matter that many of the American founders spoke, theistically, of “nature’s God” as the source for all of our natural rights in the social contract. Because what they meant by “nature” was the Newtonian machine of closed and fixed laws and what they meant by God was the God so understood as the “divine architect” of this machine and whose “reality” only extended as far as universal reason can discern. Which really amounts to no God at all, especially as science marches forward and closes all of the gaps in our knowledge of nature’s autonomous operations. This is what happens to all “divine architect” formulations since God’s causative transcendence is viewed competitively with regard to nature’s causative immanence and leads to a flat-footed view of causation such that “if nature did this, then God didn’t” and vice versa.
All real religious traditions therefore are now trivialized and marginalized and relegated to the realm of private taste as “scientism”, and a vulgar pragmatic empiricism rushes in to take their place.
An anti-tradition tradition
Seen in this light, “religious freedom” in a Liberal order is no real freedom at all, but is in point of fact a kind of anti-freedom. The State, in “granting” freedom to religion, makes it clear that such freedom privileges only those forms of “religion” that make no strong claims about the public nature of the good, of God, of things spiritual. It privileges religion in the same manner as it privileges my choice of a Big Mac rather than a Whopper, which is to say it isn’t really privileging religion at all, but is instead merely privileging all such private tastes in matters that it views as trivial to the social contract. And in so redefining the social standing of religion it delegitimates Catholicism in its most essential aspects.
Thus is Liberalism an anti-tradition tradition, which is what makes it uniquely corrosive to the Christian evangel of the realness of God in time and space, as well to the Catholic belief that the Church is the very extension of the Incarnation into and within the flow of history. Therefore, there is no sense in which Catholicism can accommodate itself to such an ordo on a theoretical level and there is no sense in which Catholicism can make peace with such an ordo even on a practical level.
And this is why wherever the Church does try to accommodate itself to Liberalism, it dies.
This is also why, according to Schindler, Whig Thomism is such a flawed project. Murray’s thesis flies in the face of the demonstrable facts of the intellectual history of Liberalism and mistakes Liberalism’s smiling face toward a certain kind of religion as a gesture of “peace” devoid of deeper intent. The big lie of Liberalism is that it does not constitute a confessional creed of any kind—and Murray and his followers buy into that lie. And it is a lie because all States are necessarily confessional, which is to say, all States are ultimately theological.
Furthermore, the illiberalism we see erupting today, far from being an “aberration”, is the full-flowering of the procedural emptiness and metaphysical vacuity at the core of Liberalism which is only now coming into full view. It often takes time for the inner logic of an idea to unfold, especially when it is competing with other ideas that provide a counterweight. And in the American instance that counterweight was the cultural hegemony of a pan-Protestant theology whose ecclesiology was so “low” that for a time America itself was its “church.” And this could happen because such a low ecclesiology, with its quasi-gnostic denominationalism, allowed for a hyper-individualistic and largely “interior” vision of what it meant to be “saved.”
But that cultural hegemony has long been in our rearview mirror and so now we can see for the first time what America looks like when it is stripped of the last vestiges of even such an attenuated “traditioning”—a stripping that was inevitable due to the corrosive nature of Liberalism in the first place. What we are seeing now is what Liberalism looks like when its full nihilism takes over.
Likewise deeply flawed, according to Schindler, is the idea that we should just set aside all such criticisms of Liberalism and head for the prudential hills of practicality. The fact is, given the corrosive nature of Liberalism toward all strong moral traditions in the classical sense, there is no prudential path forward of accommodation to “reality” that isn’t doomed from the start. Such an approach simply concedes too much insofar as it grants to the Liberal State the right to define the terms of the surrender. There is no such thing as a “private Catholicism” that is content to live on as a “voluntary society” on a par with the rotary club.
And that is the inevitable by-product of all such forms of “prudence.” This approach thus makes an idol of the very false freedom Liberalism grants to religion and gives it far too much play as a defining element of Catholicism as such in the practical sphere of real, lived existence. It thus acquiesces to the public unreality of the form of Christianity provided by the Church, which is to say, it acquiesces to the nullification of the Church as such. Furthermore, this approach deeply misunderstands what is meant by “prudence” and confuses it with a kind of compromising “practicality,” whereas real prudence, as understood by Aquinas, is a judgment of the intellect rooted in an adjudication of how best to make into a public reality the very real goods that the intellect has discovered to be normative.
The “prophetic/eschatological” approach has a certain value as a counter witness to this Liberal order, but it errs deeply, according to Schindler, insofar as its eschewing of Church involvement in the political order betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the full cultural, historical, and social import of the Incarnation. The internal logic of the Incarnation demands that we work toward the full transformation of all of the goods of human existence, including the good of our political arrangements, with an eye towards lifting the entirety of the sphere of human activity into Christ.
The tendency therefore for the real moral authority of governance, rooted in the spiritual domain, to decay under the influence of the entropy of sin into mere “power,” is no excuse for abandoning the political project as hopeless. For such could be said as well for almost any human endeavor of any kind and so the critique of politics as inherently wedded to false notions of worldly power proves too much.
The integralist project
Finally, Schindler is most favorable toward the integralist project. It alone seeks to retrieve the classical view of politics as rooted in a hierarchy of goods, given by God in creation, and therefore that all States must seek to limit themselves based on the normativity of this order which preexists the State, is independent of the State, and is not reducible to the State. As such, it constitutes a genuinely theological principle which alone can provide a grounding limiting principle to State power.
Furthermore, it is simply false, says Schindler, to pose the question as a choice between a confessional State versus a non-confessional State, because all States are confessional and Liberalism in particular is confessional in a strong sense. The real question is which confessionalism is most apt to produce true freedom and true tolerance. And Schindler—correctly in my view—points out that Liberalism’s putative tolerance is an illusion since its inner logic grants a certain false freedom to religion in that it treats all religions as equally trivial. The Catholic Faith, by contrast, can truly affirm the truths contained in various religions and to varying degrees, and can thereby treat them seriously as true goods in a real public sense of the good, even as it affirms that it alone possesses the fullness of truth.
However, Schindler is also critical of most forms of modern integralism since they evince an overly univocal sense of the power that both the Church and the State possess. Coercive power is indeed sometimes necessary but it is simply false to equate the two spheres of power as of the same order. Therefore, any such approach will inevitably lead to a false view that the two orders—civil and spiritual—are separate and distinct from each other, but with each wielding the same kind of coercive power within its sphere of influence, even if the Church is viewed as ultimately superior to the civil power.
This creates an extrinsicism that does violence to both the Church and the State since it occludes the fact that the civil sphere is always already spiritual in its teleology and its fostering of the common good, and the Church is always already civil in that the Incarnation demands the public instantiation of the goods it seeks to transform. Just as the humanity of Christ is lifted up into his divinity without doing violence to his human nature and his divinity becomes one with the humanity without any diminution or attenuation, so too here. The civil sphere is intrinsic to the Church and the Church is intrinsic to the State without each being reduced to the other or dissolved into the other.
Space precludes a lengthy analysis of this very important section of Schindler’s book. Suffice it to say that Schindler here appeals to the principle of analogy as an antidote to integralism’s univocal concept of power. Both Church and State wield authority and coercive power but do so in different, but analogous ways. Furthermore, the principle of analogy allows us to see that each sphere of power has its own unique form—a form governed by differing proper objects—but the intrinsic relation between each of the forms creates the point of analogical reciprocity wherein each can now be who they most truly are precisely owing to their intrinsic relation one to the other. Thus, Schindler states that the Church’s influence on the State will be both indirect as well as intrinsic.
Anyone who is looking at this point for a positive prescriptive proposal from Schindler on the exact contours of what his version of integralism would look like in practice will be disappointed. That’s because there is no such proposal nor should there be. Schindler is well aware that the realistic prospects for such a project to take shape are almost nil at the present moment or in the foreseeable future. And part of the insidious hegemony of Liberalism is that it also robs us of our imaginative capacity to envision a true, practicably attainable post-Liberal political alternative.
Therefore, Schindler concludes that the very criticism of Liberalism that is being mounted by so many in the Catholic sphere is itself part of the spell-breaking reimagination of possibilities that really is the first step in the direction of an alternative. Beautiful architecture doesn’t build itself but is the product of a blueprint which itself first began as an idea in the mind of an architect. Schindler’s critique of Liberalism and his development of a theological alternative to its worldview, is just such an “idea.” The blueprint will come in time.
And while we wait, I cannot recommend his text more highly as the necessary starting point.
The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism
By D.C. Schindler
New Polity Press, 2021
Harcover, 349 pages
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