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Hanby Contra ‘Whig Catholic History’

Philosopher Michael Hanby (Source)

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you will recall my linking six years ago to a First Things essay by Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby, titled “The Civic Project Of American Christianity.” 

In it, his basic point is that the cultural conditions in the contemporary US have changed so much that it has become impossible to reconcile Christianity with classical liberalism. Excerpt:

Such are the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, but to grasp more fully the meaning of its triumph, we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century.

The Catholic critic Reilly has written America On Trial: A Defense of the Founding, a book-length critique of Hanby’s view (and Patrick Deneen’s, which is similarly pessimistic about Catholic Christianity and the American project). Reilly believes that the American founding is, in fact, consonant with Catholicism, and that the late deviations from the Founding can be remedied. Hanby and Deneen, by contrast, believes that the ultimate irreconcilability of Catholicism with classical liberalism was there from the beginning.

Michael Hanby has written a lengthy response to Reilly’s book. Hanby begins by saying that Reilly wants to have a historical and psychological argument, when the issue (as far as Hanby is concerned) is metaphysical and theological. Then:

Reilly cannot concede that the myth of the “civic project” has been falsified by events, but he can see that this project is in peril. He worries for its future and for the future of Christians in the public square. He seems particularly solicitous toward the young—for students influenced by the likes of Deneen and me—, worried that “they will feel they no longer have a country they can love and wish to serve” and thus will decline to follow their forebears down the “path of guardianship.” In one inadvertently telling remark, Reilly says that those who “denigrate the Founding” as Deneen and I do “exclude themselves from the public arena by conceding it to their opponents.”

And what if our “denigrating” conclusions happen to be true? The implication is that one should stop thinking at the point where understanding the truth ceases to be useful in the “public arena” or risks sacrificing political influence. One could hardly ask for a clearer illustration of the difference between a political and a philosophical argument—or of the high cost of the “civic project.” Nor could one ask for a better explanation of why Fr. Neuhaus’s “Catholic Moment” passed without ever arriving, despite the fact that Catholics are now poised to take the reins of American power in every branch of government. There is no barrier to the advancement of Catholics in American public life provided that Catholic truth is irrelevant to the discharge of their public duties. One is free to believe whatever one likes in America so long as it’s false. From Reilly’s vantage along the guardian’s path, then, arguments like Deneen’s and mine are “fraught with danger.” “If Christians come to believe that America is congenitally their enemy,” he writes, “they will cease to defend it and join in its destruction for their own reasons.”

Of course it is preposterous to think, as Deneen observed the first time Reilly leveled such accusations, that America needs our help in destroying itself. And the line of reasoning that leads from the attempt to understand the truth, to the declaration of enmity, to complicity in the destruction of the country is as illogical as it is calumnious, rather like accusing someone of patricide for admitting that his father is an alcoholic. I have treated this curious, quintessentially American understanding of patriotism elsewhere. It regards America not as a place, but as an idea, and patriotism not as devotion to one’s patria—one’s home, hearth, and kin—but as adherence to a philosophy. If this philosophy happens to be false, then so much the worse for truth.

Hanby’s argument is dense and particular, and, to be honest, exceeds the grasp of one as uneducated in political theory as I am. I don’t mean to discourage you from reading it. I can still follow its outlines, but let’s just say that readers who have studied modern political theory will get more out of it than I did. I’ve not read Reilly’s book, but my sense is that Hanby’s characterization of the core of their dispute is accurate. Reilly is said to argue that the American Founding was in continuity with the Catholic intellectual tradition, while Hanby says that it — and the Enlightenment from which it emerged — represents the death of same. Hanby:

The point I wish to emphasize here is that the new science of politics that commenced in the seventeenth century and provided the intellectual underpinnings for the republican revolutions of the eighteenth was neither merely political, nor simply a straightforward rejection of the antecedent Christian tradition. Rather it was one aspect of a radical transformation of that tradition at every level—theological, metaphysical, natural, scientific, ecclesiastical, cultural and sociological—a transformation that cannot be papered over by appeal to similar sounding texts separated by centuries.

In this passage, we get to the center of Hanby’s argument:

The attempt of modern liberal order to limit itself was therefore destined to fail. Locke remarks that “the end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” He does not seem to recognize that the reverse is also true. Rights, we said, enclose a “field of power” or possibility. A political order that exists principally to protect this field of possibility inevitably becomes the mediator of all human relations, insinuating itself between me and all claims upon the property that is my person. This enclosure of possibility, moreover, is threatened by anything that would define me prior to my choosing—even, as it turns out, my own nature. Liberal freedom thus initiates a war against every form of antecedent order, eventually aided and abetted by the new science and its conflation of truth and technological possibility. Rights therefore must proliferate—as indeed they have—producing in actuality the denatured individuals that heretofore existed only at the theoretical foundations of liberal theory.

But with every new right comes an extension of the state’s power to enforce that right. The state thus becomes absolute precisely in the name of protecting freedom, arrogating to itself, almost by accident, authority even over the meaning of nature itself and a power beyond anything Hobbes could imagine. Liberal order is not “Hobbesian,” therefore, because some petty tyrant arbitrarily commands or prohibits every action of its citizens. Its absolutism is a good deal more subtle. Liberal order is absolute because it is the transcendent whole within which social facts like churches or so-called “intermediate associations” are allowed to appear and beyond which there is nothing.106 Liberal order is absolute because it is our mortal god.

This is how we get the Pink Police State. More:

The tacit metaphysics of a people and an era, the sensus communis about the nature of reality that marks them as belonging to a shared world, is visible not only in what they think, or what they say, but in what they cannot think and say. We have seen that the new conception of political order birthed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century—the conception that would determine the shape of the modern world ever since and that finds its exemplary expression in America as the quintessentially modern nation—was premised upon the destruction of a symbolic and sacramental order that bound spiritual and temporal power into a unity even in their distinction, and upon a revolutionary transformation of every sphere of thought (indeed in the meaning of thought itself ) that had made this unity intelligible.


Why repress the Church when you can entice Catholics to think like Protestants, or even like atheists, without knowing it?

Here is how Hanby’s piece concludes:

The advent of liberalism and of liberal societies is a transitional moment in the death of God in the modern West, a catastrophe from which the Church is not exempt. The “priority of the political” and the power that politics exercises over our vision and imagination are among its most acute symptoms. This is really the heart of the matter, and why my thought, unlike Reilly’s, is not in the first instance political. The overarching concern that has motivated all my thinking on these matters is not the political concern to “prosecute” the Founders or, conversely, to hypothesize about the best regime. My concern is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI called “the eclipse of the sense of God and man” in the modern West and, particularly, in the modern Church, the dark shadow of which has deprived us of the light even to recognize our own atheism. Reilly alleges that for Deneen and me, “repudiation of the Founding principles of the United States is a necessary condition for Christian revival, if not survival.”

Perhaps this is fair if by “repudiate” he means ceasing to pretend that a false idea is true or refusing to conflate the “path of guardianship”—or, let’s be honest, the victory of Republican Party politics—with our Catholic obligation to serve the common good. But otherwise I think this is neither possible nor meaningful. One might as well repudiate air.

America is not an idea, or at least not only an idea, but a place, and in fact an empire whose power vastly exceeds its direct political control. It is also my home— which it inevitably remains whether that idea be true or false. And since there is no “outside” of liberal order—since the empire of liberty has succeeded so spectacularly in eliminating all theoretical and practical alternatives to itself—, its disintegration is likely to be interminable: always falling, never collapsing. Liberal order may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is the only possible world as far as the eye can see, and I discern no path forward but to undergo whatever fate is set in motion by the death of God within the prison of this order’s immanent horizons. The presence of a tragic flaw in America’s Founding principles or its history does not eliminate the greatness of the American achievement in establishing this empire; nor is there any reason why acknowledging the cracks in America’s foundations should prevent any of us from loving our home or deter us from working in every sphere to make our country the least nihilistic version of itself. Even if liberal order bars the way to a common good that is truly common, we still have a duty to mitigate the harm done to persons in this order’s interminable disintegration.

But otherwise Reilly is half-right. The Church is in crisis in the modern world, which is very much the American world—beset from without by a secular social order that systematically excludes God from its conception of reality, beset from within by a pious atheism that does not know itself. It is a measure of this crisis that the vision—the seeing—that once defined the Christian life and the goal of human existence has all but disappeared both from our apprehension of the world and from our self-understanding. The recovery of a truer and more profound Catholicism and a properly Christian hope in the abiding presence of the eternal God who fills all things coincides with whatever capacity we may muster and whatever grace is granted to us to see beyond the immanent horizons of liberal order and to transcend its fate from within.

Given its external power over our form of life and its internal power over our imaginations, “seeing” at present likely means discovering what we are no longer able to see, just as we must experience this truer Catholicism by enduring the wound of its present impossibility and must hope in God’s abiding presence by mourning his apparent absence. At the heart of this vision and this hope is the ancient Christian conviction that we belong to another country more profoundly than we belong to this one, and our only hope of transcending our nihilistic fate is that this conviction might yet again inform and transform our most basic perception of the world. The alternative represented by the civic project is to relinquish the Catholic mind and to inadvertently baptize the death of God and its ensuing fate, acquiescing unawares in that suffocating immanentism and concealing our hopeless unbelief behind a veneer of pious optimism. Transcending this fate does not require from us the impossible task of repudiating America or liberal order—as if there were anywhere else to go—but it does require us to repudiate the Whig Catholicism of Robert Reilly and rediscover the abiding presence of that other country that is our only true hope.

Read the entire Hanby essay. 

I find that this really resonates with me. It really has become impossible to think beyond liberalism, in the sense that we cannot imagine a plausible alternative to liberalism. For example, Catholic integralism is certainly a deep and coherent theory, but it is dead on arrival in a country that is majority non-Catholic, and in which very few Catholics would be willing to live under an integralist order. As Hanby writes, there really is nowhere else to go but liberalism. Hanby gets to why I am so divided over the whole French-Ahmari conflict: I share Ahmari’s lack of faith in the liberal project, but align with French in that I can’t see any better real-world alternative. I find myself defending a liberalism that I struggle to believe in, because if we lose its core institutions (most of all, the First Amendment), we Christians have nowhere to hide.

I lack philosopher Hanby’s profound understanding of the issues in play here, but I share his pessimism. I find that in my own arguments with people over things like this, I sense in my opponents a weakness they conceal from themselves (N.B., I am not projecting this onto Robert Reilly, whose book I have not read). This is not really about the details of political theory, but a general stance towards the American political and social order. Crudely put, it plays out like this:

  1. If what Dreher says is true about the nature of post-Christian America, then what I, as a traditional Christian, believe about the goodness of America is untenable.
  2. If my beliefs about the goodness of America are untenable, then I really am a stranger in a strange land.
  3. Therefore Dreher is wrong, and is not just wrong, but an AMERICA HATER!

Well, I’m like Hanby: I don’t hate America. America is my home. But loving America does not require one to love the system under which we live — one that, in the name of liberty, is in key ways destroying truth, and the capacity to both know the truth and to live by it. Put another way, I don’t believe that patriotism requires me to say something I believe is untrue, or to call evil good. I will always be an American, because America is my home, and it made me. But I am a Christian first, and if America forces me to choose between loving and obeying her or loving and obeying God, then that is no choice at all.

UPDATE: A Catholic priest writes:

I think Hanby hits it exactly: “The advent of liberalism and of liberal societies is a transitional moment in the death of God in the modern West, a catastrophe from which the Church is not exempt.”
I think this gets to the heart of what has been happening in the West for centuries and which is only now coming clear.  Liberalism as we knew it (and much of Modernity) was transitional to what is emerging in the Anti-Liberal, Post-Modern period.
In essence, secularism and individualism effectively meant the removal of ultimate ends/goals toward which the cosmos and human life were ordered.  Initially, this could be pasted over in a manner that permitted, but never necessitated, that believers and classical liberals could agree to disagree about ultimate ends.  So a secular regime like America was able to construct a type of “freedom for religion” while a secular regime like revolutionary France constructed a “freedom from religion.” That ambiguity is falling away, to the detriment of freedom for religion.
The American Founders worked a pragmatic solution by rooting rights in an undefined “Creator” and ordering those rights to an equally undefined “pursuit of happiness.” As long as Christianity, deism, and Western culture retained compatible ideas about that ill-defined cosmos, there was the possibility of social compromise. But, of course, that consensus has fallen apart as a radical form of individualism has arisen that insists meaning and purpose are autonomously constructed rather than rooted in an  established order which elicits our cooperative participation.
Once the order and goal of existence is reduced to individually chosen narratives, there is no appeal even in theory to any perspective outside the one chosen by the group of individuals who have successfully allied to gain the privileged status of exercising power.  They effectively are the makers of custom and culture.  All that is left to outsiders is to mobilize coalitions in an attempt to remove the in-class from privilege in order to wield power to create a counter-culture according to their own chosen narrative. In the current arrangement of in-class and out-class, those claiming an order and goal that transcends autonomous individuals and the group narrative are therefore not just considered mistaken, they are enemies of their neighbors and of the regime. This is the culture the Church and her members are facing.
Some may wish for peace with the radical individualism and secularism that is shaping the Anti-Liberal and Post-Modern West, but there is no peace because this “Novus ordo” views metaphysical and theological claims of meaning and order as violations of the basic human right to self-fulfillment. This is why, alas, Hanby is basically right about Fr. Neuhaus’ so-called “Catholic Moment.”  Whatever chance there may have been for the Founders’ ambiguous treatment of God and the order of things to find safe harbor in an authentic metaphysics and view of human nature, that moment “passed without arriving.”
We live after that moment passed and the sooner we face that fact, the sooner we can get about the business of living the faith in a way suited to our cultural situation. We need to do that for ourselves, our children, and our neighbors. Perhaps one day, under Providence, such a moment may approach and we or our ancestors can try again to redeem the culture. I imagine that what the Benedict Option is about.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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