Home/Rod Dreher/The Politics Of Maginot Line Catholicism

The Politics Of Maginot Line Catholicism

The ghost of Father Neuhaus haunts neoconservative Catholic thought (EWTN screengrab)

A friend and reader of this blog sent me recently a copy of an essay in the current issue of the Fellowship Of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. The author is Susan Orr Traffas, a political science professor, and the title is “A Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Politics: Looking at the Benedict Option through American Eyes.” I got around to reading it last night, and lo, once again we have a rejection of The Benedict Option by a smart person who shows no signs of actually having read the book.

You must think I’m making this up. In all nine pages of this review essay, there is not a single quote from my book. Not one. This, in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Here is an early paragraph:

This call to “opt out” of political life is more popular now in light of recent erosions in American culture with respect to morality and marriage. Yet, to do so would be wrong in at least three ways. First, it goes against Christ’s call to go out into the world. We are not called to be as the Amish, withdrawn from the world. We are to be a proselytizing people. This is a function that we cannot perform if we are in a community only of those who already agree with us. Wouldn’t that at least be a failure of charity? …


It also seems to me that the Benedict Option — or any form of massive retreat, however envisioned — fails on a theological level as well. … We need to take citizenship seriously again and at all levels. This means reintroducing ourselves to the task of doing more at the local level.

“Massive retreat”? I call for no such thing, as is obvious to anyone who troubled to read the book. Prescribing localism as a form of revived political engagement? I do that in the book! I believe that Prof. Traffas flat-out did not read The Benedict Option, or even just its chapter on politics. If she had, she would have seen, for example, this passage from the politics chapter, which holds out the example of a Czech Catholic anti-communist dissident as one for us to find ways to emulate in our own situation:

[Vaclav] Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis”—a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”

At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.

Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.

I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime—partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature—has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.

From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”

In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.

And, as I say in the very first chapter, the strategic retreat the Ben Op calls for is for the sake of making Christians not only more resilient in the face of modern challenges, but also for the sake of more faithfully representing Christ to the world in which we live:

This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.

I wonder why the academic peers who reviewed Prof. Traffas’s essay didn’t consider that her failure to quote my book a single time was a sign that she was writing in bad faith.

The Benedict Option is not primarily a political book, and it is certainly true that it does not offer a well-developed political program. One of the fundamental points of the book is that Christians, in general, have been so assimilated to the secular liberal order that we can no longer offer anything distinctly Christian to that order. Traffas’s point of view assumes that the Catholic Church (because she’s writing as a Catholic for Catholics) in this country is healthy, and has a lot to bring to the public square. As other chapters in my book point out, citing the research of Christian Smith and others, Christianity in the US is substantively weak. In fact, things are particularly bad for Catholics, who, both in terms of formal profession of faith, and especially in terms of belief in Catholic teaching, are in rapid collapse. (Don’t believe me? Start here.)

Aside from the dishonest way Traffas represents my book’s argument, she seems to believe in an America that no longer exists — or, to be precise, in an American Catholicism that no longer exists. Back in 2014, at the Dulles Symposium held at First Things magazine, I watched older Catholic scholars present comment in the same vein as Traffas. The younger ones, though, kept making the point that the Catholic undergraduates they teach today — often graduates of Catholic high schools — come to them as blank slates. They don’t know enough of the Catholic tradition even to begin to bring it to the public square. Prof. Traffas is writing about a world she wishes still existed, as opposed to the one that actually does. To maintain this point of view, you have to ignore a lot of evidence as assiduously as you ignore the argument of the book you purport to review.

I thought of her essay when I read this great piece in American Affairs Journal by Kevin Gallagher, titled, “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism.” Here’s the set-up:

For Christian conservatives and especially for Catholics, the later Bush years were a heady time. At least since the 1980s, Father Richard John Neuhaus and the rest of the First Things circle had been speaking of a “Catholic moment,” and in the late 1990s Crisis magazine began planning for it. Thanks not least to Karl Rove’s enterprising effort to capture the Catholic vote, such a moment seemed to be at hand. What the “Catholic moment” was supposed to mean, though, was a rather strange thing; and with a decade’s distance, it looks like little more than wishful thinking. But for young Catholics interested in politics, particularly those within the world of campus organizations or D.C. think tanks, the facts seemed auspicious.

Even though conservatives still complained about “judicial activism” and Roe v. Wade, for Bush-era Catholic intellectuals, the tide seemed to be turning. They were confident that “pelvic orthodoxy,” combined with market-oriented but “compassionate” economic policy, would secure a Republican future. A faith in the “ordinary” citizen prompted hope for referenda on gay marriage; opinion polls seemed to suggest a larger public rethinking of abortion; and the Bush-era “faith-based initiatives” promised a model in which church, state, and private enterprise might cooperate harmoniously for the good of all. With sectarian squabbles muted, Catholics and Evangelicals would have the ideas and the votes to effect lasting political change. Catholics told themselves, and believed, that they were no longer a reactionary rearguard, but were on the cusp of triumph. A Catholic-inspired conservative politics appeared to have momentum and, more than that, it deserved to have momentum. These trends were not just happy turns of fate; they were signs that the political philosophy cobbled together by Catholics and conservatives was correct and illuminating and destined to win. The leaders of this movement may not have been the “Theocons” of Linker’s title, but they fancied themselves essential contributors to the intellectual project of holding together the American regime in a way that might preserve Catholics and the Church from the threats of secular liberalism. And it was no downside that in the process they might come to hold crucial positions of state.

These “Theocons” were devoted conservative fusionists. Even before the “Catholic moment” arrived, fusionism had been the name given to the conservative political movement attempting to combine social conservatism and free-market capitalism (though the term was initially one of criticism). In the eyes of Catholic fusionists, their views were simply the correct application of Catholic principles to contemporary problems: the Church was to stand on the side of political and economic liberty against communism, and on the side of social and moral order against the sexual revolution. The Catholic fusionists drank so deeply of this system that eventually they forgot what the first fusionists knew well: that a traditional approach to social questions sits uneasily alongside a capitalism in which “all that is solid melts into air.” But fusionism is a fitting name since the fundamental premise of the Catholic fusionist approach—rarely articulated, but always present—was that the principles of American conservatism and those of Catholic social teaching might be seamlessly and unproblematically combined.

The Catholic fusionists in fact took this position one step further. Not merely did they assert a possible symbiosis between the traditions of American liberty and the traditions of the Church, but they came to see the midcentury American political settlement as the very embodiment of Catholic social teaching. There was only one thing lacking, they thought, in the American social and political order—modern Americans had lost the Founders’ sense of the natural law principles that could hold the Republic together, principles that the Catholic tradition was ready to supply. Implausible and unnecessary as this might seem to those looking on at Catholic intellectual developments from the outside, it is hard to overstate the power that this image exerted on the “American Church” from the nineteenth century onward. Public doubt over whether Catholics could be good American citizens somehow combined, alongside the spectacular growth of the Catholic Church in this country, to produce an intense Catholic patriotism which equated chipper American liberalism with Catholic teaching itself.

You had to squint a lot to see orthodox Catholicism as the Bush-era GOP at prayer. More Gallagher:

But there were elements of that political tradition that this vision had to exclude. One could hardly grasp the American Church’s long-standing skepticism of free-market economics by reading the texts of Catholic fusionists. A vast number of books, homilies, and publications of bishops and popes demonstrates the Church’s deep interest in the “social question,” strong support for labor unions, and doubts (however awkwardly or ambiguously expressed) about the capitalist system. But when the fusionists did not simply ignore these, they tended to dismiss them as magisterial obiter dicta, quite without authority for the Catholic faithful. It is, of course, no surprise that the Catholic fusionists were eager to represent their views as rooted in perennial Catholic teachings. No Catholic likes imagining that he’s adulterating the faith with an alien or opposed school of thought. But this effort required more than a little finessing. For the most part, and despite the academic credentials that they often bore and bruited about, the proponents of this fusionism frequently betrayed rather shallow roots in the tradition they claimed to represent. In many cases, the role played by the Catholic side of the “marriage of convenience” was little more than a veneer: the Acton Institute might put a Christian gloss on Hayek, and First Things might cover typical neoconservatism with a sort of evangelical fig leaf, but the core ideas and proposals were self-subsistent, external to, and usually hostile to Catholicism itself. It was a tale of unrequited love: Catholic intellectuals eagerly offered their support to the traditions of American liberalism, but for the most part they were only preaching to their own choir, and one that was far from typical even within the Church itself.

By 2012, it was clear that this project had failed utterly. Gallagher says 2015’s Obergefell decision was the icing on the cake. In fact, recognition of the failure of the movement was the cause of the 2014 Dulles Symposium, and its attempt to lay the groundwork for charting a new course. The centerpiece of that event was Prof. Michael Hanby’s powerful essay, concerning the end of “The Civic Project Of American Christianity.”

Hanby’s contention is that contrary to the views of Catholic neoconservatives (Neuhaus, Weigel, Novak, and others), the metaphysical claims of traditional Christianity can no longer be reconciled with the liberal order undergirding American politics. Given the developments of late liberalism, the contradictions have become unsustainable. He writes:

The civic project has taken as gospel ­[Jesuit Father John Courtney] Murray’s conviction that the founders “built better than they knew.” But this presupposes the very thing in question: that the state and its institutions are merely juridical and that they neither enforce nor are informed by the ontological and anthropological judgments inherent in their creation. That exactly the opposite has more or less come to pass suggests rather that the founders built worse than they intended, that the founding was in some sense ill-fated. This does not make liberty any less of an ideal or its obvious blessings any less real. It simply suggests a tragic flaw in the American understanding and articulation of it. Nor need this diminish our affection for our country, though it is an endlessly fascinating question, what American patriotism really means today. One can love his country despite its philosophy, provided there is more to the country than its philosophy. Yet it is surely a sign of the impoverishment of common culture and the common good—and an index of the degree to which liberal order has succeeded in establishing itself as both—that we are virtually required to equate love of country with devotion to the animating philosophy of the regime rather than to, say, the tales of our youth, the lay of the land and the bend in the road, and “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.”

This creates a great temptation for protagonists on all sides of the civic project—right, left, and in between—to conflate their Christian obligation to pursue the common good with the task of upholding liberal order, effectively eliminating any daylight between the civic and Christian projects. For example, virtually absent from our lament over the threats to religious freedom in the juridical sense is any mention of that deeper freedom opened up by the transcendent horizon of Christ’s resurrection, though this was a frequent theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy. If we cannot see beyond the juridical meaning of religious freedom to the freedom that the truth itself gives, how then can we expect to exercise this more fundamental freedom when our juridical freedom is denied? Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goods—including religious freedom.

I really hope you will read all of Hanby’s essay. It’s remarkable, and quite challenging. He makes it crystal clear that Catholic neoconservatism no longer works because American culture rejects Catholic (and traditionally Christian) anthropology. Metaphysics is inevitably a guide to politics, and in our case, what the masses believe a human being to be is not what the Christian tradition teaches. In his own piece, Gallagher notes that Ryan T. Anderson’s, Sherif Girgis’s, and Robert George’s thin, tightly argued natural law defense of marriage had no effect on the debate when it appeared in 2012. I read the book at the time, and thought it truly excellent. But I also knew it would be ignored, because being a post-Christian nation means that we reject the metaphysical claims of Christianity.

Back to Gallagher’s essay. He points out that despite the failures of conservative Catholics to advance in the public square, or even to defend successfully the shrinking space given to orthodox Christians in it, the intellectual-industrial complex continues to manufacture arguments:

Unfortunately, the complete reversal from their influential position during the late Bush years does not appear to have dealt much of a blow to the network of broadly “conservative” Catholic think tanks, conferences, and periodicals. Nor does it seem to have done much to dry up the donor monies that keep this network on life support. But in the alliance of conservatives and Catholics, the Catholics no longer hold the reins. The thought leaders have apparently still been thinking, and are certainly still writing, but as the conservative political world came under the influence of the Tea Party, and eventually of the Trump movement, these Catholic energies and activities became ever more extraneous to it. Apart from occasional, marginal, and largely unserious spectacles like Paul Ryan’s invocation of Thomas Aquinas in defense of his fiscal proposals, the dream of a “Catholic moment,” in which the faith might be a major political influence, has quite evaporated. And yet all through Obama’s presidency, these wheels continued to turn—the Catholic network of donors, pundits, and minor political philosophers had become almost self-sustaining, and carried on.

Gallagher says younger Catholics who hold to theological orthodoxy are now looking to pre-modern, anti-liberal sources of political thought within the Catholic tradition, e.g., integralism. And why not?:

On its own terms, a Catholicism more critical of the mainstream of American thought would have little to recommend it to outsiders. Neither Republicans nor Democrats nor libertarians have any real appetite for neoscholastic treatises on political order; there is no base of donors or network of think tanks eager to promote the careers of young “integralist” scholars or assure them of an audience for their writings. But in the wake of the practical failure of the Catholic fusionists, of the closure of the “Catholic moment,” of the arrival in many places of a secular right-wing politics not beholden to Christian sources, now is the time for Catholics to avail themselves of all the sources needed to understand the current crisis—and even, if the possibility emerges, to make a positive contribution to rebuilding from political liberalism’s steady decline.

Read the whole thing.  It’s quite good, and it’s quite important. As much as I disagree with the integralists, they have the virtue of at least understanding that Catholic fusionism is done for. Don’t get me wrong: the late Richard John Neuhaus was, in my estimation, a good man, and an important man. He and the school of thought he led did their very best to square a circle. But we now know that it couldn’t have been done, at least not under the conditions in which they made the attempt.

I don’t believe in integralism, and not only because I’m not a Catholic. While it is true that as an Orthodox Christian, I would find a polity governed by the moral principles of the Roman Catholic Church to be more in keeping with the common good than what we have now, I see no way to accomplish that in the real world without handing over to men like Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl the power of the state. If you really do believe that the world was better off with the State deferential to the will of Catholic bishops, ask yourself how well that worked out for sex abuse victims in pre-2002 Boston.

In a piece he has out today, the Catholic traditionalist Michael Brendan Dougherty speaks to my own more basic concern about the feasibility of integralism:

I would gently suggest that the integralist critics of liberalism may be focusing too much on the theory of liberalism and not enough on the condition of their Church.

We can look at liberalism not just as an ideology of individual rights superintended over by a powerful central authority. It is also as a practical negotiation made among “those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community” within what used to be called Christendom. The Catholic Church in America may have lost the vigor and “fecundity” that Leo XIII observed in it over a century ago. And insofar as it has, it has lost some of its practical bargaining power.

See how the Reverend John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame University, took several contradictory positions on the contraception mandate. His school became a plaintiff, arguing against it, as an infringement of religious liberty, in the highest courts in America. But, faced with dissension among professors, he reversed himself.

This level of dissension on matters of moral doctrine is everywhere in Catholic institutions, not just in universities but on the boards of Catholic health-care and charitable organizations and in diocesan secondary and primary schools. Such dissension characterizes the whole Church in America, a country where the second-largest reported religious affiliation is “ex-Catholic.”



And here then is another modest suggestion. The more urgent need for the Church’s liberty in the United States may not demand an attempt to transcend 500 years of a mistaken political philosophy. Instead it may be a matter of looking at a decades-long problem of disaffection and apostasy. The Church also suffers from a massive scandal of immorality and criminality among its prelates. These crimes, so long unaddressed by higher authorities in the Church, manifestly call into question not just the Church’s commitment to its doctrines but its fitness to lead so many civic institutions and to control so many resources. Are America’s Catholic bishops conducting themselves “as worthy members of the community?” And if not, can we expect their religious liberty to remain sacrosanct?

If the Church recovered its vigor and its authority internally, then the neighbors with whom it lives peaceably, and among whom we do so many good works, would be less inclined to test our commitments, or our patience. The social Kingship of Christ may proceed to impose duties upon all nations, but it begins with the words: Physician, heal thyself.

To put a finer point on it: nobody wants to listen to advice of the Catholic Church on how to govern a civil polity when it cannot even govern itself.  

Integralism is a dead end, theoretically and practically, but then again, so is Catholic fusionism. To bring this full circle, Dougherty’s piece also serves as a response to Prof. Traffas’s High Weigelism. The American churches — Catholic and otherwise — have demonstrably become far more accommodated to the world of liberal modernity than its people want to believe. If we are going to have anything distinctly Christian to offer to the post-Christian world, it will only come after we have recovered our faith and traditions. It’s not only the Catholic Church in America that needs to heal itself before trying to bring the life-saving prescriptions of the Great Physician to a hurting world.

This is the main point of The Benedict Option. We Christians are not simply to run away from a world gone bad, but run towards something very good: a more profound engagement with Scripture, Tradition, and Christian community. Because lay people are not called to the monastic state, we naturally live in the world. If we are going to be salt and light for that world, as we are called to be, then we have to devote ourselves to defending what is distinctly Christian within our own communities, and cultivating authentically Christian lives. Most of us Christians are failing to do that, which is why we are losing our own children to the faith in such large numbers.

Aside from voting defensively in state and national elections, the only serious Christian politics that make sense to me under these conditions are the localist politics of a Vaclav Benda or a Patrick Deneen. As Deneen says in his great book Why Liberalism Failed, we are entering a time of localist political experimentation, in which the faithful have to rediscover and rebuild political community at the local level. And here’s another quote from The Benedict Option:

Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine and a fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, contends that religious conservatives would be better off “building thriving subcultures” than seeking positions of power. Why? Because in an age of increasing and unstoppable fragmentation, the common culture doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Writes Levin:

The center has not held in American life, so we must instead find our centers for ourselves as communities of like-minded citizens, and then build out the American ethic from there. . . . Those seeking to reach Americans with an unfamiliar moral message must find them where they are, and increasingly, that means traditionalists must make their case not by planting themselves at the center of society, as large institutions, but by dispersing themselves to the peripheries as small outposts. In this sense, focusing on your own near-at-hand community does not involve a withdrawal from contemporary America, but an increased attentiveness to it.

I might be wrong about that, but I see the Benedict Option, and the experiments it will engender, as a more realistic and hopeful political strategy than doubling down on Catholic/Christian fusionism, or attempting to resurrect antiliberal Catholicism in a culture that is not only fundamentally Protestant, but also post-Christian. If you want to have a more vigorously Christian polity (and I do), then you have to first have a more vigorously Christian church. This project of rebuilding is going to take a long, long time.

What I continue to marvel over is why intelligent Christians like Prof. Traffas and the academic peers that reviewed her article before publication are so eager to dismiss the Benedict Option that they publish an entire journal article denouncing a straw man. There is not a single line from my book quoted in that nine-page review dismissing it, and no evidence that the author even read the book. Are the Catholic neoconservatives really so desperate to defend their defunct project that they cast their scruples aside, and make things up about books they perceive as threats? What are they so afraid of?

Woe betide the young Christians who place their faith in this Maginot Line Catholicism.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles