Several months ago University of Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen made a bit of a splash with his American Conservative piece, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” The article was occasioned, in part, by neo-Catholic apologist John Zmirak’s “Illiberal Catholicism,” a childish polemic which inadvertently gave rise to a number of Catholics, including yours truly, adopting the title of Zmirak’s piece as their new moniker. Deneen doesn’t go quite that far terminologically with respect to himself and a host of other Catholic thinkers he identifies as anti-liberal: Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler, William Cavanaugh, John Medaille, C.C. Pecknold, and Andrew Haines, along with many of the contributors to Ethika Politika. Deneen prefers the label “radical Catholic,” though at the end of the day they oppose the ideology Zmirak and the old neo-Catholic guard—the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel—strenuously defended: the unnatural union of Catholicism and liberalism, specifically American-style liberal democracy. While neo-Catholicism spent a great deal of the 1990s and 00s allied with neoconservatism and the Republican Party, a sizable wave of Americanist Catholics are now embracing the tenets of high-octane economic liberalism and social freedom, better known as libertarianism. Some examples include Tom Woods and Jeffrey Tucker along with many of the movers-and-shakers at the Acton Institute.
Deneen’s portrait of illiberal Catholicism is helpful, but incomplete. Though hardly uniform in thought and orientation, the illiberal (or “radical”) Catholics Deneen mentions tend to take their bearings from the post-Second Vatican Council theology that developed in the pages of Communio and, to a more limited extent, the re-castings of St. Thomas Aquinas that occurred in various pockets of the Catholic intellectual world over the course of the 20th Century. For several reasons, these Catholic thinkers share some affinities with non-Catholics who are skeptical of liberalism, such as the Oxbridge “Radical Orthodoxy” school, though the former maintain a tighter hold on the Catholic Church’s magisterium. But beyond those mentioned by Deneen in The American Conservative is a brigade of illiberal Catholics with roots that run far deeper than intellectual trends which began to form during the latter half of the last century. These illiberal Catholics take their first bearings from the great socio-ecclesial encyclicals of the 19th and early 20th Centuries: Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos; Blessed Pius IX’s Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum; Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei and Rerum Novarum; St. Pius X’s Quanta Cura and E Supremi Apostolatus; and Pius XI’s Quas Primas and Quadragesimo Anno. Rather than looking toward (post)modern academic currents for additional intellectual ammunition, these illiberal Catholics seek grounding in the timeless wisdom of the Angelic Doctor and the tradition which emerged from his teachings. These illiberal Catholics oppose not only the political and economic liberalism which has infected human society, but also the religious liberalism that has rotted the Catholic Church from the inside out for the past 50 years. It is, one might contend, a more militant form of anti-liberalism than what some are used to today, but surely more tempered than the 19th Century Catholic counterrevolutionary tradition that these illiberal Catholics, in various ways, seek to emulate in the contemporary world.
And who are these illiberal Catholics? In the United States, they are folks like John Rao, Brian McCall, and Christopher Ferrara, along with various clerical and lay contributors to publications such as The Remnant, The Angelus, and, occasionally, the now unfortunately dormant Distributist Review. In addition to the aforementioned magisterial and philosophical roots of this brand of illiberal Catholicism, many who align with it draw sustenance from not only towering 20th Century Anglophone Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Christopher Dawson, but also anti-liberal continentals such as Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortes, Louis Veuillot, Jean Ousset, Dom Gerard Calvet, and, perhaps most controversially, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For these illiberal Catholics, the question of the day concerns not the rights of man, but rather the rights of God. Christ the King, not a democratic majority captured by various liberal ideologies, must reign over society.
With that stated, it would be a mistake to assume that there is a neat divide between the illiberal Catholicism Deneen discusses and the other “brand” I mention here. For example, Pater Edmund Waldstein, who runs the uniformly excellent Sancrucensis web-log, routinely demonstrates his comfort with multiple strands of anti-liberal thinking, both classic and modern. Pater Edmund’s detailed response to Zmirak, “Integralism,” is a hallmark example of building bridges among different schools of Catholic thought in the service of truth. His more recent piece, “The Politics of Nostalgia,” is also well worth reading.
Going forward, the most promising development that I can contemplate, short of slaying the Americanist beast once and for all, is for the various streams of illiberal Catholic thinking to begin running closer and closer together until they deposit into a vast reservoir of knowledge that is just as concerned with the principles of right Catholic order as it is with the means of achieving it. Ever since the collapse of the Catholic counterrevolutionary tradition in the last century there has been, arguably, an overemphasis on contemplation at the unnecessary expense of action. “Dialogue”—endless chatter—has been the order of these many days. Meanwhile, those who compromised the Catholic Faith in the name of finding a pleasing home in this world, with its endless entertainments and cheap comforts, succeeded in making their vision of Catholicism the only “normative” one available. Illiberal Catholicism, in its various guises, is now saying otherwise. There will be many disagreements among illiberal Catholics to come, and some of them may get quite heated, but so long as we remain faithful to our Holy Mother the Church and actively work in cooperation with Almighty God for the restoration of sanity in a world gone mad with relativism, indifferentism, and consumerism, we may yet see the sky grow lighter in our lifetime.