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Of Decadence, Catholicism, & Duck Confit

France is in a religious war with ISIS, and with secular liberalism. So are we

From Alexandra Schwartz’s report from Paris in the current issue of The New Yorker. Matthieu is a Parisian she interviewed for the piece; he was among those shot by the ISIS terrorists:

“There is a real, catastrophic self-hatred in France,” Matthieu told me. We had been talking in his apartment for more than an hour. A friend was due at any minute, to drive him to Normandy; he needed to get away for a few days. Soon, he planned to leave Paris for good. Even before the attacks, he had become fed up with the city. He wanted to quit his job and move back to Bordeaux, where he grew up. His desire to go home surprised me—his parents had hardly been in contact since the news. His father had sent him a text message earlier that day; his mother e-mailed him while he was in the hospital to tell him that he should get sick leave.

Matthieu had his reasons for returning to Bordeaux. He recalled a line from Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Submission,” in which the narrator decides to leave Paris for the southwest following the rise of a French Islamic party: “It was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.” Matthieu smiled wryly. “It’s true that terrorism and the southwest are incompatible. Things move more slowly there. And the decadence of the provinces is less advanced than it is in Paris, where it’s always on the cutting edge.”

I asked him what he meant by “decadence.”

“To me, ‘decadence’ is objective,” he said. “It’s not a value judgment. It’s the fact that France, bit by bit, doesn’t believe in anything in common anymore. Anyone could tell you that.” [Emphasis mine — RD] Regional elections were coming up in a few weeks, and, like many people, Matthieu was worried that the attacks would mean a major victory for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right Front National, which could make her a formidable candidate in the 2017 Presidential election. “What I’m really afraid of is that either everyone will rally around the values of the Front National or there won’t be any rallying around anything.”

I remembered that when Matthieu and I first met we’d discussed our upbringings, and religion had come up. His family was Catholic, but I couldn’t remember if he was religious.

“I’m more agnostic than Catholic, though I come from the Catholic culture,” he said. “In any case, this isn’t really a moment when I’m thinking about religion. When I think about religion, I always think about it in connection with what’s beautiful, what’s good. But never in connection with evil. I just don’t see the connection.”

Well, this is the problem: it’s all about religion, and Matthieu is thinking about religion whether he realizes it or not. Marc at the Bad Catholic blog lays it all out:

But Mr. Obama’s claims that ISIS is “not Islamic” is more than a generosity to the majority of Muslims, and the general decision to refer to the thing as an “ideology” rather than a “theology” has a definite motive beyond a banal political correctness. It’s embarrassing for liberals to admit that liberalism offers religious freedom only to those religions that adhere to its central tenants. It’s awkward to admit that liberalism limits in advance the form any given religion may take (pray, but not here, believe, but don’t preach, hold ethical principles, but pay for others to violate them, interpret your Scriptures, but not radically, etc.). The liberal society wants to maintain that it accepts all religious beliefs with equal validity, and is thus forced, when a particular religious belief radically rejects the central doctrines of liberalism, to conclude that it is not really a religion after all, only a “group of thugs.” Liberalism, in short, does not want to admit that it is an exclusive theology, and thus does not want admit that it is rejecting a definite “other theology” — a rival set of beliefs about God and man.

(That being said, the awareness that this is a theological war slips out of our theologically-repressed consciousnesses every now and then. It is somewhat routine to speak of our goal in Biblical terms, “to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth,” and politicians like Joe Biden can be rather uncharacteristically medieval in their theological claims: “We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”)

But ISIS have a theology, and liberal democracies have a theology, and never the twain shall meet. Between “absolute belief” and “optional belief” there is no dialogue. Between “divine command” and “the state-sanctioned hands-off space in which some may hear and respond to divine commands insofar as they do not conflict with the freedom and comfort of others” there is no wiggle room. Between the “apocalypse now” of ISIS and the West’s “apocalypse if you believe in it as a matter of private opinion” there is no accord — only violence.


Now, on the one hand, this is hardly a problem. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, and we certainly don’t need to hold a reasonable debate with them. Who cares if the secular West is theologically neutered, without the capacity to speak with and argue against an idiotic belief system? Who would want to sink to the level of religious extremism? We, after all, have bombs, and bombs speak louder than words. That our baseline presuppositions don’t match hardly changes the fact that they will kill us, and that we will kill them.

But while this sort of bravado filled our hearts well enough after 9/11, it’s starting to ring stale. The problem was best stated by Mr. Obama, when he said that our enemy is anyone who believes this poisonous ideology. Beliefs cannot be bombed. Beliefs are not bound by geo-political situation, geographical location, ethnicity, or culture — even as they rise from them. Thus, and this much is admitted by the Obama administration, there is no political action and no military engagement that can guarantee the safety of the West, insofar as you and I, reading this now, are absolutely capable of believing the ideological theology of ISIS.

Marc says that the theology of liberalism cannot defeat ISIS; only real, committed theology can — first, he says, “the active promotion of a better theology in the form of the Quietist Salafis. Obama has an inkling of the importance of this theological counter-offensive when he calls for moderate imams to prevent radicalism in their communities.

I would take their suggestions one step further, and argue that Catholics have a role to play in this war, a role that no liberal government can achieve — to counter the theological claims of ISIS with the Gospel.

Trite? Cliched? Naive? I’ll take those insults from the secular-minded, but rather as one takes the boorish interruptions of someone who has no idea what they are talking about. We have already established that secular, liberal values have nothing to say to a theology that is their antithesis. When people blow themselves up for theological reasons, it’s time for the secular to sit down and let those with a stake in the questions of theology get to work.

Marc is not claiming that Catholic apologists can turn the hearts and minds of Muslims already committed to ISIS, and make Christians of them. He is claiming that Catholics who really believe in their faith — not MTD Catholics, but the real deal — have a lot to say to Muslims in the West who are alienated from secular liberalism. Marc makes the important and overlooked point that truly believing Catholics (and, I would say, Protestant and Orthodox Christians too) feel alienated from secular liberalism also. With Catholics, he says, “Of course, there is something less of an obsession with human purity, something more of mercy, but nevertheless, the committed Catholic can, like it or not, sympathize with the ISIS-member’s primary spiritual frustrations.”

True. Marc contends that Catholics who reach out to alienated Muslims before they are reached by the preachers of ISIS will give them an answer to the valid questions they ask — and it’s an answer very different from the one Salafist Islam gives:

The Catholic, before the process of radicalization has taken hold, can introduce a concept of God who is Love, and not simply Law; Father, and not simply Dictator; a God who desires communion with his creatures in freedom – not in force and fear.

Read the whole thing.  Even if you’re not a Catholic, it is challenging and hopeful. When I read the Salafist ideologue Sayyid Qutb some years back, I thought at once that this man was a bloodthirsty fanatic, but I also realized that he was by no means wrong about how secular liberalism works to destroy faith. If we in the West tell ourselves that radical Muslims are nothing more than inscrutable berserkers, we will miss why they appeal to people.

If Matthieu returns to Bordeaux, I hope he will make a pilgrimage to the Christian shrine of Rocamadour, as the protagonist of Submission does. And I hope he is open to the encounter with the God of his fathers there. Time was that in France, the thing most people had in common was their Christian faith. Nationalism and republicanism cannot fill the God-shaped hole.

And what about America? Could we not also say, “It’s the fact that America, bit by bit, doesn’t believe in anything in common anymore. Anyone could tell you that”? The answer — you knew this was coming — is a return to the faith via the Benedict Option.

UPDATE: I forgot to append this recent Catholic World Report piece that several of you have sent to me, talking about France’s revival of Catholicism. Excerpt:

While Mass-attendance rates have steeply declined over the last 30 years, today France is witnessing the rise of an increasingly self-confident—and dynamically orthodox—Catholicism.

When many think about France and religion today, the images that usually come to mind are those of a highly secular society with a growing Islamic presence: a combination of widespread indifferentism, epicurean Voltairans, persistent anti-Semitism, increasingly radicalized Muslims, and now jihadist-inspired and organized terrorism. But now even some secular French journalists have started writing about a phenomenon that’s become difficult to ignore: an increasingly self-confident Catholicism that combines what might be called a dynamic orthodoxy with a determination to shape French society in ways that contest the status quo—both inside and outside the Church.

On October 30, readers of France’s main center-right newspaper, Le Figaro, woke up to the headline “La révolution silencieuse des catholiques de France.” What followed was a description of how those whom Le Figaro calls France’s néocatholiques have come to the forefront of the nation’s political, cultural, and economic debates. Significantly, the new Catholics’ idea of dialogue isn’t about listening to secular intellectuals and responding by nodding sagely and not saying anything that might offend others. Instead, younger observant Catholics have moved beyond—way, way beyond—what was called the “Catholicism of openness” that dominated post-Vatican II French Catholic life. While the néocatholiques are happy to listen, they also want to debate and even critique reigning secular orthodoxies. For them, discussion isn’t a one-way street. This is a generation of French Catholics who are, as Le Figaro put it, “afraid of nothing.”

May their tribe increase.