How to Win the West (Again)
Last week, a fascinating essay appeared in these pages. Its authors—Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, and C. C. Pecknold—are three leading lights of the political Catholicism movement. They’re also, for my money, three of the best minds of our generation. They took as their theme the defense of cultural Christianity: “of religion supposedly divested of the element of faith, deployed to secular ends.”
The authors believe that cultural Christianity is misunderstood. As they explain,
Even as the universal nature of Christianity was becoming evident within the very order of this world, even as a surge of souls rushed the ark of the Church, and even as emperors funded new basilicas and shrines, the public conversion of empire didn’t mean that every single Christian would have been blessed with a profound and spiritual faith. Christianization entailed something structural, embodied, material. It entailed cultural Christianization. This didn’t guarantee the salvation of every soul, but it laid down structures that made such a thing easier. What emerged was something profoundly public: a Christian people.
On this point, I suppose they are right. It is better to be “culturally Christian” than to not be Christian at all. But as they make clear towards the end of the essay, the authors are less concerned with defending the honor of “cultural Christians” than that of political Christianity.
The authors are trying to refute an argument they probably hear every day: that “political Catholicism” can’t flourish in a society where Catholics are a small, divided minority. To that end, they write:
Over the last 50 years, liberal consumerism has inculcated the feeling that personal expression is the highest good, sincerity its only measure, and hypocrisy the only sin. Because of this, the claims of political Catholicism are met with skepticism: Christianity, say our critics, can only be publicly important when sincerely embraced and spontaneously expressed.
They argue, in essence, the ancestral memory of Christianity is enough to make the prospect of the Catholic religion becoming the basis of public law and public policy—that is, integralism—appealing to the average American voter.
Well, let’s say this about that.
To begin, this essay seems to be an argument specifically against the “benedictines.” That’s the name Ross Douthat coined for folks who advocate the Benedict Option. Folks like me, I guess.
Political Catholics and benedictines have a longstanding rivalry, but I’m not interested in factions. I just want the advocates of “political Catholicism,” with whom I have some sympathy, to understand where we benedictines coming from. Whenever they write about us, they seem to willfully misunderstand us.
For instance, the authors say:
The civilizational anxiety that followed the sack of Rome in A.D. 410 did nothing to change this trajectory, even though many Romans blamed Christianity for Roman decline. Saint Augustine welcomed the challenge. He emphatically wasn’t prepared to return to the catacombs, nor did he yearn for a church radically “purified” to the size of a mustard seed.
This could be read as a knock at Pope Benedict XVI, who once predicted that the Western Church would continue to shrink before it grew again. In 1997, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned:
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more and more the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world—that let God in.
I happen to agree with Ratzinger, as do most benedictines. (In fact, he himself is widely believed to be a supporter of the Benedict Option.) And here’s the first real division between the political Catholics and benedictines. They believe that Christendom as we know it (or knew it) can be salvaged. We benedictines disagree. We say that Christian civilization in the West is too decayed and must be rebuilt from scratch.
Who’s right? Well, let’s look at the numbers. As it stands, roughly 8 percent of American Catholics agree with Church teaching on contraception. If 23 percent of the country is Catholic, that means orthodox Catholics comprise at most 1.8 percent of the population. Does that sound like the vanguard for a new regime of “political Catholicism”? Or does it sound like a mustard seed?
Let’s be clear about another thing, too. Ratzinger doesn’t want a smaller, “purer” Church. But he expects one. Why? Because lukewarm Christians are leaving the Church in droves, and will continue to do so. “Cultural Christianity” may slow the trickle, but it can’t stop it.
Put it this way. The advocates of cultural Christianity praise Viktor Orbán, who “uses state funds to restore churches and religious orders dispossessed by the former [communist] regime.” And that’s praiseworthy indeed! But once the churches are rebuilt, who’s going to fill the pews? Will Orbán then have to pass a new law mandating attendance at Sunday Mass? Do the authors think that would go over so well with “cultural Christians”? Isn’t their unwillingness to practice the Faith what makes them cultural Christians and not… well, Christians?
I don’t mean to be snide. I just can’t for the life of me understand why these impressive men seem so hostile to the “benedictine” suggestion that we pursue nonpolitical avenues for reviving the Church’s fortunes (in addition to the political ones, of course).
But this has always been my concern with integralism, or political Catholicism. Its champions are far too preoccupied with politics. In fact, at times, they seem to treat Christianity as a political ideology, not a religion. It comes off as a kind of right-wing liberation theology.
These excellent minds seem to me to have become startlingly conservative. The “Cultural Christianity” piece reminds me of an essay by another leading integralist: “Beyond Originalism” by Adrian Vermeule, which appeared in The Atlantic last year to much fanfare. In it, Professor Vermeule (whom I also admire) offered a ringing endorsement of progressives’ judicial activism. Now we have Messrs. Ahmari, Pappin, and Pecknold quoting Jean Daniélou to say that Christians should rally around the current slate of center-right politicians.
This line of thinking seems blind to the truly dire state that the Church and our country are in. The idea that any politician—be it President Trump or Emperor Constantine—could fix what ails America is, at this stage, untenable. What America needs is another Great Awakening, and that can’t come from the state. It has to come from the Church. It has to be achieved, not by bureaucrats, but by the people.
Teddy was right: “We must have… a genuine and permanent moral awakening, without which no wisdom of legislation or administration really means anything.” So was St. Augustine when he said, “Christ is our Liberator insofar as He is our Savior.” That’s why the benedictines are so keen on pursuing these nonpolitical avenues. Man can only be liberated by Christ politically if he’s first saved by Christ spiritually.
Let me explain how we, the benedictines, would go about achieving that liberation. Here’s how I would pitch our strategy to our integralist friends:
Integralists and benedictines agree that man’s temporal end must be subordinated to his eternal end. As Christians, we have the same goal, which is the salvation of souls. We work so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend” and “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-12). We hope that confession will be sincere, because we know that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21-23).
How do we see to it that as many souls go to Heaven as possible? Why, the same way the first Christians did. We have to go into the streets and preach the Gospel. We have to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy. We have to commit ourselves to a regimen of prayer and penance, begging God for the grace to help Him win souls.
But in order to achieve that sort of spiritual fitness, we need communities that nurture us spiritually. This is part of what I call the Guerilla Phase of the Culture War. We’ve suffered too many losses to keep fighting the enemy head-on. We need to build up mountain strongholds (i.e., BenOp communities) where we can train our fighters (i.e., fellow Christians) before they’re strong enough to bear arms (i.e., evangelize).
Of course, we should do what we can to enlist the government’s help. But that’s the most it can do: help. The state can’t fight the Church’s battles for her. That’s our job. To quote C.S. Lewis:
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
We’re not called to be activists or separatists. We’re called to be saboteurs, partisans, revolutionaries.
It can be done. Not to toot my own horn, but in the last couple of years I’ve been offered two jobs that would have more than doubled my pay and given me access to circles of influence. I turned them down so I could help build up our little BenOp community in southern New Hampshire.
We’re gathered around two institutions: St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Nashua and Thomas More College in Merrimack. Many of us work at Sophia Institute Press, one of the world’s most profitable Catholic publishers. I’ve helped to start a chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelism and a nonprofit that teaches homesteading to young families.
That’s only a fraction of the work we’re doing to carve out a new outpost of Christendom here in New England. Yes, we’re involved in politics, too—local, state, and federal. But we all realized a long time ago that politics isn’t going to cut it. We need to retake the West acre by acre. We need to restore Christendom soul by soul.
Besides, the Benedict Option is a better way to live. It hasn’t been much of a sacrifice at all. Not really. Working quietly in the vineyard just means that we take the pressure off ourselves. We stop trying to be the liberator, the savior. We leave all of that to God. It’s the only way things get done around here.