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Is Roman-ness more important than Christianity? Can you really disentangle the two?
Above, a still from this short clip of Sir John Gielgud playing Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.
We are only three weeks away from the sixth anniversary of the publication of The Benedict Option, and it continues to be a mystery to me why, at this late date, I’m still seeing attacks, not on the book I actually wrote and the ideas I put forward, but on some straw-man construal of them. This has been the strangest aspect of the whole experience. I perfectly well understand people who oppose the concept, but what I have never been able to figure out is why it is so difficult to confront what I actually propose, as opposed to what critics seem to want me to have proposed. As Alan Jacobs said way back in 2016, even before the book was published, if people think the Benedict Option is a mistake, fine — but what do they propose in its place, to deal with the severe crisis it tries to address? He wrote:
The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.
- The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.
From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.
I have to say that I simply do not see how any thoughtful Christian could disagree with any of these premises or the conclusion that follows from them. If any of you do so dissent, please let me know how and why — I would greatly benefit from hearing your views.
It really is that simple. As I’ve said over and over again, if the Benedict Option idea is wrong, convince me! I have skin in this game. I have children. I want the Christian faith to survive, so that when the sun rises again and burns away the fog, it can flourish.
Jacobs has never been a full-on supporter of the Benedict Option; he is far less of a culture warrior than I am. I have learned and profited from the constructive criticism he offered in posts like this. But in this post from way back then, he offered this theory about why people in his professional and social class have motivation to straw-man and reject the Benedict Option concept:
We have an interest in accepting the general cultural consensus about sexuality and gender. And if we can’t manage to accept it, we have an interest in soft-pedaling our beliefs, both publicly and to our children. Accepting, explicitly or tacitly, that consensus may in some cases open doors of professional and social opportunity to us and our families; vocally refusing to accept it would certainly close doors. We have an interest in believing that we can continue to live more-or-less as we have lived, that it is not necessary to change anything radically, or put ourselves or our families at risk.
Contrary to what you might have heard, nowhere in the book do I endorse total political quietism. In fact, I explicitly say that Christians have to stay involved in politics, if only to fight for our religious liberty (of course there are more reasons, but if you needed just one, there it is). If I had it to do over again, I would be slightly more hopeful about what could be accomplished through politics, because I have been living in Hungary over the past two years, and I have seen what Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been able to accomplish. That said, Orban has a strong governing majority behind him, an electorate that is less religious than Americans, but more socially conservative. The polls show that that younger Hungarians are more liberal. And even with this present majority, Orban has stressed that there are limits to what politics can achieve. He has said that the best politicians can do is to create the conditions within which churches and other meaning-giving institutions can thrive. If churches, schools, families, and other social institutions fail to do the basic job of passing on their culture to the next generation, then any political progress towards rightly ordering society will be in vain.
I don’t see how that is arguable, unless you want to live under a tyranny in which an unwilling majority could be coerced by raw power to obey. And even then, what would the purpose of Christian tyranny be? The Christian faith is ultimately about theosis — about transforming each of us into Christ-like creatures. Jesus himself condemned the Pharisees for obeying the law, but remaining unconverted by love (“whitewashed tombs,” he famously called them — white on the outside, but filled with corruption within). When I was in Ireland a couple of weeks ago visiting Paul Kingsnorth, I spoke to a man there who was lamenting the stark decline of Catholicism in that country. He said that the young at best think Catholic Christianity (the only form they know) is a silly irrelevance, and at worst associate it with coercion and abuse — this, based on the way the institutional church behaved when it enjoyed a privileged place in Irish political society. The idea that Catholic integralism — a philosophy that says that the common good depends on the integration of Church and State — could have anything to say to the Irish people at this point in their history is crazy. They have lived through a political framework that approached integralism de facto, if not de jure, and it has resulted in people hating the Church. Paul told me himself that from his point of view as an outsider, it seems like the country’s Catholic bishops have been so traumatized by their fall from grace that they don’t even believe in themselves anymore.
If Christianity is going to be reborn in Ireland, it’s going to have to come from the ground up, Paul says, not from the top down. I believe him. This truth becomes vivid in Ireland, which went from being one of the most Catholic countries in the world (91 percent mass attendance in 1975!) to one that is rapidly de-Christianizing. It’s not only a story of the country’s people reacting in anger to the sex abuse scandal. You don’t have a people walk away in such numbers from a faith if the faith was healthy to begin with — that is, if those overwhelming mass attendance rates were an outward sign of an inner reality. Clearly they were not. Plus, the Irish, like all the rest of us, have been catechized by a popular culture that despises Christianity. It’s happening here in Hungary. Older Hungarian Christians have told me that their kids follow the same global social media as everybody else, and that it’s having a huge effect on them. A schoolteacher in Poland told me a few years back that social media is by far the most influential factor in shaping the beliefs and habits of the young in his country. The same is true, of course, in the United States, which is the source of so much of this anti-Christian disorder.
In the face of all of this, the institutional churches — not just the Catholic church, but all of them — have been largely impotent. Do you see any church institutions that successfully push back against the de-Christianization of our cultures? I don’t. I wish it were otherwise, but desire is not the same thing as reality. Holding political power is not the same thing as winning hearts and minds. In the West today, the most Christian governments are those of Poland and Hungary. The Polish government (say my conservative Catholic Polish friends) is in trouble with its voters, and once again, in Hungary, the robust Calvinist Viktor Orban himself warns that he can’t do it alone, that he needs churches and other institutions to step up and play their designated role in cultural renewal.
In Scotland, the young Calvinist politician Kate Forbes was thought to be an odds-on favorite to be the leader of the governing party. Now she is being crucified publicly for confessing to hold standard Christian beliefs on homosexuality, transgenderism, and childbirth out of wedlock. It could spell the end of her aspirations to lead her party — this, even though she openly says that Scots culture has changed on the matter of same-sex marriage, and that in power, she would not seek to reverse the popular policy of guaranteeing marriage to gay couples. In Scotland today, simply believing a mild version what Christians always have about homosexuality, even if you explicitly don’t plan to act politically on that belief, is seen as disqualifying one for political leadership. Tell me, what does integralism have to say to Scots Christians in the real world of 2023?
Look, I’m not whining about poor, poor me, still misunderstood after all these years. The book did well, and it’s still selling, and probably will continue to sell as more and more Christians wake up to the reality in which we live. I bring it all up because for reasons that Jacobs identified, there are still, incredibly, lots of Christians who want to believe that these are still normal times, more or less. And there are Christians who understand that we live at a hinge in history as regards the faith, but whose solutions I believe are useless — this, at a time when the churches in the West desperately need to be building something, or some things, that work. I don’t believe there is a universal solution — I even concede that the Benedict Option model will necessarily look different for people living in very different circumstances (e.g., urban vs rural), and in different faith traditions (e.g., the Ben Op for Catholics is going to necessarily look meaningfully different from the same thing practiced among Evangelicals). But as the noose tightens, the urgency of building community networks and robust, resilient ways of Christian life capable of resisting the disorders overtaking our culture grows.
I say all this, of course, as a prelude to addressing Sohrab Ahmari’s review essay in First Things of a re-issue of a book of ecclesial history. By now, there’s really no point in rebutting false claims about what the Benedict Option intends. I’ll just simply state the argument that I clearly make in the book, and that caused Pope Benedict XVI, through his secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein, to endorse the book’s message: Christians who want to bring about a resilient faith capable of resisting the strengthening hostile cultural currents need to step back somewhat from the mainstream, to focus on deepening roots and building community. This does not mean going full Amish (though if you want to do that, I’ve got no problem); most of us are not called to that kind of living. But it does mean coming to regard oneself as countercultural, and living in ways that are less focused on what Alasdair MacIntyre called “shoring up the imperium,” and more on creating strong small communities within which the faith can endure this present darkness. When the long winter has passed some point in the future, the seeds that have been preserved in these communities may be planted, and bear fruit. That’s the vision that Joseph Ratzinger had in his famous 1969 prophecy about the future of the Church.
My friend Paul Kingsnorth challenged me recently to step away from culture-warring, to focus more completely on building positive responses to the catastrophe through which we are all living. I take him seriously. Maybe I should. Maybe losing my TAC gig is a sign (though remember, for the time being at least I will continue my culture-war analysis and writing on Rod Dreher’s Diary, my subscription-only Substack, where some things will be free; this blog will go away in about two weeks, so please subscribe now). But aside from having to support myself and my children, I still believe that I have some things to say that can do some good in the culture war. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and Paul is right. If you are the praying sort, would you please pray for my discernment.
Anyway, Ahmari’s essay — a review of a book — argues from Church history that Christianity came to conquer the world (“Apostolic Empire” is the title of his piece). The Benedict Option is wrong, and so is Christian nationalism, in Ahmari’s view:
Daniel-Rops’s book militates against both tendencies. The most important lessons of his history are, first, that the Church of the Catacombs was, in fact, a highly organized, hierarchical, corporate institution prepared to capture an empire for Christ; and second, that the universalist—in the sense of world-spanning—religion of this new church was from the beginning suited to and even prefigured by the political universalism of the Roman Empire. Roman-ness, this history teaches, is of the essence of Christianity.
Interesting line, that last one. A traditionalist Catholic friend complained to me recently that he feels often that his crowd cares more about Roman-ness than Catholicism. His point was that they get so caught up in the institutional church and its structures and practices that they forget all of that is meant to be leading us toward Christ. I understood what he meant by this. As I’ve written before, I allowed this to happen to me, in the flush of my conversion to Catholicism, and without meaning to do anything wrong, came to care more about the Roman-ness, so to speak, than the heart of the faith. This is certainly possible to do in any form of the faith, to be clear, though it seems to me that it is more likely in Christian churches — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican, for example — that have long histories of close entanglement with state power. Back during the heyday of the Catholic sex scandals, a Russian Orthodox friend in Moscow told me that Catholic clerical scandals seem more often to involve sex, while Orthodox ones seem more often to involve power and money.
Ahmari extols the kind of Christianity that, as he puts it, is “prepared to capture an Empire for Christ.” It’s as if the early Christians were like the early Bolsheviks, plotting secretly to conquer the state and turn it to their own purposes. Well, here is a powerful critical response to Ahmari’s piece by Marc Barnes, who attacks it from a philosophical direction, and begins by noting that Ahmari has created straw men to attack. Here’s a Barnes excerpt:
In a passion for comparisons between big and small, and in their admirable enthusiasm for the former over the latter, the integralists tend to forget a principle they would otherwise affirm, namely, that man, by his nature as a political animal, always acts for the whole. No Christian could propose a plan for society that applied only to himself, arguing that (a) everyone should be Christian and that (b) Christians should “build smaller communities” but failing to conclude that (c) “everyone should build smaller communities.”
Christians who “rather than seek to envelop modern civilization … would build smaller communities characterized by intense piety” are actually proposing, by their action, to envelop the entirety of modern civilization. It may be a despicable plan, but it is as much a plan for the whole world as any dream of the Holy Roman Empire. If it is imperative to shrink, and if the so shrunken communities continue to relate to each other—which they must—then a city and an empire is being proposed by the shrinkers. Coercion would be directed against those who dare dream of New York City, even as, in our day, it is directed against those who do not.
My view has always been that the Benedict Option is not a strategy for all Christians in all times and places. It is a particular response to particular challenges, defined initially by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre as the dissolution of Western civilization (and with it, the religion that forged it). It will do us Christians no good to win political power, but to lose our children and grandchildren to the faith. And that is what is happening right now. I tell people to think of the small-o orthodox Christian churches today as like the British Army on the beach at Dunkirk. If they attack the Germans head on, they’re going to be wiped out; the enemy is simply too strong. If they sit still and hope the Germans will pass them by, they’re going to be annihilated. The only real option for them is to go across the Channel to safer ground in England, to re-arm, re-train, and, when the time is right, engage the enemy in direct combat.
It’s weird to imagine where these integralist armies capable of capturing the American Empire for Catholic Christ are going to come from. Catholicism, like nearly all forms of Christianity in the West, is declining. Even those who still identify as Catholic often dissent from Catholic teaching on the neuralgic point — sex — where the faith most clashes with modern sensibilities. For that matter, most American Catholics don’t even know one of the most fundamental teachings of Catholic Christianity: that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord. As the great Catholic church historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote twenty years ago in First Things, the cultural memory of what it means to be Christian is fast fading today. Wilken’s essay was one of the catalysts for my Benedict Option thinking. Barnes makes the point that Christianity conquering the Roman Empire was through conversion:
Assuming that there is enough of a parallel between the Roman empire and our American empire to make Early Christian action a condemnation of Present Christian inaction; assuming that as they did to Rome, we ought to do to Washington DC, Ahmari argues that Roman Christians did not posit the catacombs as an ideal form of the Christian life—as Americans are apparently doing—rather, “Christians were deeply and publicly embedded within the larger structures of pagan social and political life.”
But the conversion of Rome was not the guerrilla activity of non-Romans, scheming as to whether not to “capture the Empire” or, on second thought, “leave it alone and form, like, an intentional community in Hyattsville, man.” The conversion of Rome was the conversion of Romans to Christianity. To say that they were publicly embedded within the pagan social order is about as enlightening as saying that 21st century converts to Catholicism are all on Twitter, and then concluding that Catholicism is a religion with a spiritual affinity for social media.
Everyone is embedded in their social order. Human being is concomitant with such an embedding. There is much to conclude from Christianity’s conversion of cannibals, but that Christianity was from the beginning suited to cannibalism goes a mite too far. The question one must ask, of cannibals, Americans, and Roman converts alike is—what happened next?
Barnes refutes in detail Ahmari’s claims that Christianity was a religion made for Empire, and went hand-in-glove with Roman political forms. It is certainly true that when Romans converted, Christians moved into government and used it to achieve their ends. Nobody disputes that. Ahmari’s claim, though, is that early Christianity was a plug-and-play political program, as Islam explicitly is. Barnes isn’t having it:
If we must make an analogy to the American experience, the concrete reality of these early Christian rules would suggest that, if modern American Christians really wanted to imitate the early Church, they would develop their own society within the corpse of the American Empire, develop their own courts, their own modes of policing, their own markets, in a new polity that operates according to a new logic of love and that does not rely on the structures of fear and violence that assure the unity of the old regime.
But, obviously, this is the very thing Ahmari sets out to refute.
Barnes makes one of his profoundest points in this passage, agreeing with Ahmari that Christians shouldn’t seek out martyrdom:
The controversy is not between the Big and the Small. The controversy is between Christians who think that Christianity should rule the world and imagine that this will be easy, and Christians who think Christianity should rule the world and know that it will be hard. Of course, different understandings of “Christianity” and “world” and “rule” go into producing this opposition, but the result is obvious: one party imagines that another policy change, another election, and a few well-placed job applications should do the trick. The other requires conversion and sanctity from the very beginning. That requirement seems to provoke Ahmari, who is an outspoken advocate for a civilizational Christianity that does not require heroic perfection of everyone, does not require martyrdom to achieve its supremacy. Yes, martyrdom is beautiful and impressive, “the Church as a whole and most individual Christians didn’t go out of their way to bring about martyrdom, and they looked askance at members who threw ordinary prudence to the winds and tried to force the hands of the Romans.”
Obviously, Ahmari is correct to oppose “fatalistic over-eagerness for ‘martyrdom’” if all he means is that there is nothing Christian about suicide. Yes, Christians were “not so mad as to stir up against us the wrath of kings and princes, which will bring upon us sufferings and tortures, or even death,” as Origen somewhere says. Yes, it would be ridiculous to “forgo political solutions to persecution by gender ideologues and others, on the grounds that ours is a martyr’s faith.” But it is necessary that, even as we seek political solutions to persecution, we are in fact willing to die, lest our prudential acquisition of political solutions turn into a tacit acknowledgment that given enough fear, we will fold. This kind of solution turns all Christian political solutions into mere “policy variations” within a social order that fundamentally adheres on the basis of fear. Christians might “win,” but only by playing the Leviathan’s game. If the entire nation becomes Christian because Christians were so scared of martyrdom that they became President, Secretary of State, and the Entire Administrative State in order to ward it off, then Christians only “win” by losing on the most profound level possible. They may have “reorientated” a tyranny to their own benefit, but this is not the realization of the Christian political form, only the realization of the pagan political form, albeit “occupied” by Christians.
I haven’t met any Christians who prefer to lose their jobs under woke persecution rather than vote for a candidate who will fight a system that will protect their jobs. Again: straw man. Marc Barnes is correct, and urgently correct, about the role of martyrdom: it exists to give testimony to what our ultimate commitments are. The main point of my book Live Not By Lies — a point made by the Christians who stayed behind in Communist countries, and bore witness under persecution, as well as by the agnostic Vaclav Havel in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” — is that the willingness to suffer, even to die, for one’s beliefs is a form of power. The late Catholic activist Vaclav Benda went to jail for years for standing up to Communist tyranny. At one point, the state offered to free him, if he agreed to leave Czechoslovakia with his family for the West, to get out of their hair. He asked his wife Kamila what she thought of it. Nobody would have blamed them for taking the offer. Kamila was trying to raise their big family alone, with a husband in prison, and the family under constant government surveillance. But she told her husband that if they left, they would in some sense betray all their suffering fellow citizens who did not have the liberty to leave. The Bendas chose to stay, and to continue sacrificing themselves for the life of their country. The thing is, the Bendas certainly wanted a more just political order! That was the point of their struggle. But they did not suffer and struggle so that Christians could replace Communists as the masters of an unjust system.
I’m not clear where Ahmari would draw the line between Church and State, and their proper relations. For example, he writes:
But Hazony is not wrong about the fundamental political form of Catholicism, which to this day inclines senior churchmen to prefer to deal with large transnational institutions and to strive everywhere for legally regularized, well-administered relations with even hostile worldly powers, such as Communist China. These are deeply ingrained Roman impulses.
It is true that the Church’s leaders, in many times and places, face extremely difficult challenges in dealing with hostile states. St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, was viciously persecuted by the Soviets, so much so that when he died in 1925, he was considered to be a martyr driven to his death by unrelenting state cruelty. Yet in his final years, he signed a declaration saying that he was no longer an enemy of Soviet power. According to this moving recollection of Tikhon’s life and death, the faithful forgave Tikhon his late capitulation to the Soviets, because they knew that he was tormented by his own conscience, wanting to do the right thing for the Church under these extraordinary conditions, when the “right thing” was not clear. From the essay by Georgiy Velikanov:
For twenty-five years now we have grown accustomed to talking about the “spiritual rebirth” of our Fatherland, the Church, of moral and religious values… But there is a threatening prophecy ascribed by various sources to either St. Seraphim of Vyritsa (which is most likely) or to St. Barnabas of Gethsemane Skete: “The time is coming when on the one hand they will be building golden domes, but on the other, there will be a reign of lies and evil, and more souls will perish than during open theomachy.” Persecutions have not disappeared, they have only taken on a much more hidden character that is not immediately recognizable.
Over the decades following the repose of Patriarch Tikhon the Russian Church, in the person of its hierarchs and all truly concerned believers, attempted to answer the question: Which path should we take? Should we try to save the Church organization—meaning the legal, accessible divine services and Sacraments—at the price of certain “deals” with the authorities, or should we choose the path of uncompromising, but possibly unknown and as if fruitless confession of faith? In search of the answer people in the Church have, willfully or unwittingly, separated into various camps and groups—the “disagreed”, and the “Sergianists”, just as now we like to separate into “conservatives” and “liberals”… “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos…”
These questions are relevant also now, only they sound a little different: Who are we? The “reigning” Church or the persecuted Church; the Church of the New Martyrs or the Church that “speaks to the world in its own language”; the Church of power and influence or the Church of weak earthen vessels that bear within the immortal treasure of the Spirit? Will we inherit the experience of New Martyrs—the experience of simplicity and poverty of spirit—or will we try to produce the same relationship between Church and society that was characteristic of the “Constantinople” period, when Christianity was welcomed and supported by external powers, but with a lower spiritual degree?
I think that the true answer lies in following Christ. Then this very following will lead each specific believer to the forms of Christian life in the world that are designed specially for him or her. After all, in the 1920s and 30s there were true confessors of the faith from both the “official” Church headed by Metropolitan Sergius, as well as from those who “disagreed”. The Church has glorified both.
I side with those who think that Pope Francis has sold out the underground Catholic church in China. But maybe I’m wrong. I also believe that the current Patriarch of Moscow is gravely wrong to have put the Russian Orthodox Church so firmly on the side of Putin’s regime and the war. What I don’t know, though, is what’s going on behind the scenes. I don’t say that to avoid passing judgment, but only to say that it is not always clear what the right thing to do is in Church-State matters. Velikanov’s position in that final paragraph seems reasonable to me: it is possible to serve Christ faithfully in a church dominated by persecution, and also to serve Him in a church that is offered the world’s favor. This is not to say that in specific situations one could choose either path, and it wouldn’t matter, morally. It is possible that a decision made by a church leader to make peace with the king (so to speak) is a prudent one that will result in the greater good; it is also possible that that same decision is a shameful capitulation for the sake of gaining worldly power. We may not always know in the short run, if ever. Going back to Marc Barnes’s earlier point, though, a patriarch, a priest, and an ordinary believer must cultivate within himself at all times a willingness to die rather than compromise when the compromise offered would amount to apostasy. It doesn’t involve life or death, but I think about the courage of those American Episcopal congregations who chose to leave behind their beautiful church buildings to worship in storefronts rather than compromise with the anti-Gospel within the Episcopal Church. Those who chose to stay within the Episcopal Church on the grounds that they may be able to do more good within it than otherwise might be right about that — who am I to say? — but in the end, they must have some point beyond which they cannot be pushed, and at which they are willing to give all of their worldly goods up for the sake of Christ. All of us Christians do. If we are not willing to be poor and outcast for the sake of the Gospel, then we are not worthy of Christ. But that is not to say that we are all obliged to seek poverty and alienation, at all times. In some cases, with some persons, what looks like a pious and humble refusal to take or use power might in truth be cowardice.
For Daniel-Rops, the essence of this unlikely congruity is universalism, beginning with Rome’s drive to subject all nations to its own governing rationality. The Romans built reliable roads linking their vast domains. And down these roads they spread the same legally ordered way of being in the world, whether their subject peoples liked it or not. [Emphasis mine — RD]
This is where the integralists give me the hives. To govern a people against their will is tyranny. I would prefer to live in a tyranny like Assad’s Syria if the alternative was an Islamist tyranny. But tyranny is not a good thing. The only way Catholic integralists like Ahmari could achieve what they want in post-Christian America — or even in an America in which Catholics were the minority, as they are now, and would be even if everybody who professed Christianity was in church every Sunday — is by tyranny. I don’t think this bothers them. Indeed, Adrian Vermeule, the tribal leader of American integralists, has written that right-thinking Catholics should march through the institutions of liberalism in order to set themselves up to make the state integrally Catholic.
C. Bradley Thompson, in a critique of Vermeule’s thought, writes in part:
Sixth, common-good harpies of the Left and Right misunderstand what virtue and moral action are. They fail to understand that morality to be moral requires uncoerced, free choice. Coerced virtue is not virtue; it’s obedience. And that’s precisely what Vermeule promotes. The moral foundation of his common-good politics will be found in statist virtues (e.g., selflessness, duty, self-sacrifice, and submission) that are anathema to America’s classical-liberal tradition. The politics of the “common good” requires citizens to selflessly sacrifice their “pursuit of happiness” in order to obey the diktat of the ruling class. True morality is not, however, about obedience, submission, and subordination. That is the morality of serfs, not of free men and women.
True moral virtue begins with a free, rational judgment of what is right and wrong and then acting on that judgment. It is about choosing to do the right thing and then doing it. Common-good morality is for the weak and lazy; it is for those who want to be told by Harvard social planners how, when, and where to be good and just. The moral hazard created by common-good legislation is that it disincentivizes people from being productive and good. It robs them of moral, political, and economic self-reliance and forces them to submit and obey. Common-good politics also incentivizes and elevates power lusters such as Vermeule, who want everyone to live by their standards and rules.
The problem we social conservatives, both Christian and not, have today is that we are led by an illiberal progressive class intent on imposing its morality. The truth is that there is no such thing as a state that doesn’t legislate morality. If we had to choose between a left-wing “integralism” or a right-wing Catholic integralism, I would choose the Catholic version without batting an eye. But I want neither! This is why I can’t fully let go of the classical liberal within me: because I see what illiberal leftism is doing to people like me, and our institutions, and even if we were in power, I would not want to treat them like they’re treating us. And I sure don’t want Prof. A. Vermeule of Harvard defining the “common good,” and imposing it on the rest of us, and treating non-Christians and non-Catholic Christians like second-class citizens.
By the way, if you want to see the last time Sohrab and I argued about integralism, click here. I don’t want to drag that out again. I would just say that Catholic integralism might make sense in a country where the great majority of people are Catholic. The US is not that country. I think the integralism discussion can be helpful in pushing all of us Christian thinkers and pundits to confront the implications of our faith, e.g., if we really do believe it’s the Truth, then why shouldn’t the political order be built to serve that Truth? Every answer I come up with always sounds like classical liberalism, set up to govern a country in which most people are Christian. Our problem is not really that we are classically liberal; our problem is that Christianity has departed from the hearts and minds of many, probably most, people. And that is a problem that a Catholic, or Christian, takeover of the state will not solve.
In my unkind moments, I think of integralism as The Grand Inquisitor Option. Here is what the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s fable says to Jesus, returned to Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition:
You thirsted for love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified. …
And if it is a mystery, then we, too, had the right to preach mystery and to teach them that it is not the free choice of the heart that matters, and not love, but the mystery, which they must blindly obey, even setting aside their own conscience. And so we did. We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts. Tell me, were we right in teaching and doing so? Have we not, indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence, in so lovingly alleviating their burden and allowing their feeble nature even to sin, with our permission? Why have you come to interfere with us now?
… For a long time now—eight centuries already—we have not been with you, but with him [Note: The reference here is to an event in 755 that inaugurated the secular power of the papacy — RD]. Exactly eight centuries ago we took from him what you so indignantly rejected, that last gift he offered you when he showed you all the kingdoms of the earth: we took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, the only rulers, though we have not yet succeeded in bringing our cause to its full conclusion. But whose fault is that? Oh, this work is still in its very beginnings, but it has begun. There is still long to wait before its completion, and the earth still has much to suffer, but we shall accomplish it and we shall be caesars, and then we shall think about the universal happiness of mankind.
And yet you could have taken the sword of Caesar even then. Why did you reject that last gift? Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty spirit, you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill—for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of men. Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the higher these nations stood, the unhappier they were, for they were more strongly aware than others of the need for a universal union of mankind. Great conquerors, Tamerlanes and Genghis Khans, swept over the earth like a whirlwind, yearning to conquer the cosmos, but they, too, expressed, albeit unconsciously, the same great need of mankind for universal and general union. Had you accepted the world and Caesar’s purple, you would have founded a universal kingdom and granted universal peace.
The meaning of this parable, told by the atheist modernist Ivan Karamazov, is not really to attack the Catholic Church, but rather to go after the socialists who were gaining influence in late 19th century Russia. Dostoevsky interpreted their program as one that would deliver men from the unbearable burden of freedom, by forcing them all to live by the decisions of wise elites, who would tell them right from wrong, and direct their lives for their own good. Christ himself is despised by the Grand Inquisitor, because He proposes a way of life, not to impose it.
As I see it, if the integralists did manage to achieve their Apostolic Empire, but did so without first converting free men and women to the faith, of what use would it be? I seem to recall reading something about the hollow victory of gaining the whole world but losing your soul. We Christians living in the US have spent a lot of time and money these past few decades on winning political and legal power. I don’t say that was wrong! I do say it was a mistake to neglect the concomitant conversion and discipleship of our souls. As the Catholic friend who sent me Ahmari’s essay said to me, “We don’t want the Church to be small. We acknowledge that the Church is small, and likely to get smaller.”
Yep. And I would dearly love to see the public square being gloriously and joyfully Christian — but if it does not become so because people believe in Christianity, then what’s the point? You can’t command people to believe. In post-Communist Russia, the Orthodox Church has been revived to some extent with huge infusions of state funds. As an Orthodox Christian, I’m glad to see it, I guess, but note well that Russians have not returned to church. Orthodox integralism is not doing much for the quality of Orthodoxy in Russia, seems like.
I don’t see integralism as any kind of threat; hell, I wish we lived in a world in which there were so many Catholics who really believed in the faith that we had to worry about them turning integralist! I just find it peculiar that we live in a world in which Christian faith and practice is disintegrating, and the response that these guys come up with is that we should try to take over the state and turn it into an agent of militantly reactionary Catholicism. Again and again: where’s this army of integralist cadres? If you want to see them, well, you would do well to foster families, communities, parishes, and schools that produce true-believing Catholic youth. You’d need something like, well, the Benedict Option. I started this blog post quoting from Alan Jacobs’s distillation of the Benedict Option’s point:
If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.
The Grand Inquisitor Option, by contrast, means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on educating a vanguard to conquer the institutions of State and use them to impose a form of Christianity on everybody else, and to transform those institutions into illiberal instruments of power — all for the “common good.”
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Which of these options is more likely to be achievable? Which one is more likely to be healthy, and to lead more people to authentic conversion?
One last thing: there’s something about ideologically-driven political intellectuals that shields them from the possibility that the polity they want to create might turn on them. Czeslaw Milosz, in his brilliant 1953 book The Captive Mind, discussed why it is that intellectuals are prone to totalizing systems. But I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll stop here.
Hey, in case you missed the news, TAC is ending this blog in two weeks. I’m migrating all my culture war commentary and analysis to Rod Dreher’s Diary, my subscriber-only Substack. You can subscribe for five dollars per month, or fifty dollars per year. I hope you will. I love blogging, and hate that I’m having to take it all to a paid site, but I’ve got to make a living somehow. One benefit of it is that Substack limits the space you have in each newsletter. That means Your Working Boy will have to start writing much more tightly, and quoting others less.