Matt Purple, managing editor: The weather has finally turned balmy, yet for me this week has brought nothing but gloom. I’ve been contending with twin diagnoses of civilizational self-harm, first among them James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, a 1964 extended essay that indicts liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide.” Burnham spends hundreds of pages studying the liberal virus, his microscope catching distinctions that might have escaped a less exacting author, as reams of prose parse, qualify, asterisk, and repeat. The definition of liberalism that emerges is ultimately a conventional one—applied rational science, the “plasticity” of human nature, emancipation from custom, the soothing of guilt through secular indulgences—and in upbraiding all this Burnham at first comes off as a paleocon, perhaps even a Patrick Deneen-style radical traditionalist.
Alas, Burnham when he wrote Suicide of the West was an erstwhile Trotskyist, and like so many who followed that trodden path, his conservatism was chiefly concerned with anticommunism. Bookending his treatise are laments for the West’s lost geography, the Suez Canal, the port of Casablanca, Bombay and Basra. For Burnham, the United States is the West and vice versa, their combined power a bloc against the equally monolithic behemoth of Soviet totalitarianism. This epic clash is played out on the Risk board, with liberal ideology both enabling and rationalizing the independence of third-world nations that sees our side retreat and the USSR advance. “It may be objected that civilization is not a matter of military bases, strategic posts and soldiers,” Burnham concedes. “True enough, certainly; but without the bases and posts and soldiers there can be no civilization, there is nothing.”
Yet what of today, when the West is militarily overextended in the service of the very liberal values that Burnham saw as bugling retreat? What of other more internal indicators of civilizational health such as cultural robustness, economic vitality, literary output, happiness? And what of the fact that the West ultimately bucked Burnham’s pessimism and outlasted the Soviet Union? That Burnham offers little on these questions suggests Suicide of the West hasn’t aged very well, even if the sediment of his prose occasionally reveals a gem (“Year after year the nostalgic liberal myth-makers renew the attempt to transform a moronic Jew-baiter, an addlepated ex-soldier or a retired candy merchant into a monster worthy to be the target of the liberal sword”). Suicide seems at best a minor entry in the conservative canon, even if it’s illuminative of the anticommunist—and incipiently neoconservative—mindset.
My second act of seppuku is Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, which I’ll be reviewing for the next issue of TAC. Though it borrows its title from Burnham, Goldberg has always seemed more concerned with America’s forfeiture of its constitutional values than its loss of civilizational heft and reach. Time will tell if I can make it through without misidentifying either man’s book as Suicide of a Superpower, as I almost did several times here, and which, of course, was Pat Buchanan’s 2011 forecast of our doom. At least it is sunny outside.
Emile A. Doak, director of events & outreach: I’ve been reading Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. It certainly is, , “the most important book for understanding this revolutionary moment in the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history.” Douthat, in his characteristically balanced and thoughtful way, demonstrates just how revolutionary the ultimate aims of the Francis papacy are.
It’s tempting to pigeonhole Douthat’s work as that of a rigid conservative wary of the Church extending an olive branch to those who don’t live up to its high moral standards. After all, it’s no accident that Pope Francis has gained the admiration of people the world over for his softer take on the harder issues. And the corpus of Francis criticism from the Catholic Right is occasionally undergirded by a uniquely American brand of partisanship; blanket rejection of the pontiff’s warnings against market excess or ecological negligence could fall into this category.
But the reason To Change the Church is more important than all other Francis criticism lies in the way Douthat, a Catholic, approaches the thorny issue of papal critique. In his personal preface, Douthat presents a beautiful narrative about failing to live up to the Church’s standards. His confession, contra Catholic traditionalists, that “They [would] join Opus Dei or attend Latin Mass, [while] I was often at a 5pm guitar Mass, hating the aesthetics but preferring the schedule because it fit my spiritual sloth,” is a refreshingly humble admission, to which all Catholics—Francis fans and foes alike—can relate. There’s nothing more Catholic than recognizing we all fall short; we all are in need of redemption.
And this quintessentially Catholic recognition is precisely why Francis’s moves to change core teachings—including, but not limited to, the prohibition on divorce and remarriage—have the capacity to rupture the core of Christian faith. The Church needs to maintain its core doctrines, despite (or perhaps because of) their seeming anachronism. As Douthat writes, “The conflict between what I professed and how badly I fell short was part of what made the profession plausible, because a religion that just confirmed me in my early twenty-first century way of life couldn’t possibly be divinely revealed.” There’s an irony in the fact that Pope Francis’s emphasis on mercy requires the acknowledgement of moral standards to which we may fall short—the same moral standards he seeks to reduce.
To Change the Church is a remarkably fair yet foreboding account of the most important story of our time—and essential reading for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. After all, if Catholics are right about their church, its fate foretells that of the entire human race.