[Please note: I, Bonchamps, am not the author of this piece. This is a guest post authored by Stephen Herreid that I believe is worth your time as it takes up a topic that has been of great interest to me as of late. Please address your comments to him.]
I’ve written elsewhere of Patrick Deneen’s coming-out as a “radical Catholic.” In his article “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching,” Deneen issues a clarion call for other radicals to join in his contempt for the “deeply flawed” American project. Deneen essentially makes an argument that conservative Catholics ought to see themselves as having more in common with the coercive left than with the Catholic struggle for religious freedom in America. Why? Because his brand of Catholicism is anti-American and anti-liberty first, Christian and pro-life second.
Following the publication of Deneen’s article at the American Conservative, the pro-American Catholic scholar Peter Lawler was quick to call out Deneen as “repulsively lacking in gratitude” toward an America which has treated Catholics so well. “His article should have been published in The Anti-American Conservative,” he quipped. Indeed, I wonder how we can include Deneen’s anti-American agenda among us while maintaining the moral objectives of Catholicism in America.
Deneen is the most respectable representative of a movement among Catholic “conservatives” that has been justly called illiberal Catholicism, a recently cobbled-together Frankenstein monster whose sewn-up pieces include reactionary European thought and modern American leftism. Those who adhere to this movement differ on many points, but what holds them together is their hostility to religious liberty, the market economy, American Protestants, conservative activism, the Republican party, and the pro-life movement as currently constituted. At a moment when the Church is in very real danger of losing her liberty, when Catholic institutions only retain what fragile protection they have through legal appeals to American ideals of liberty, Deneen’s camp has decided to lend their rhetorical aid to the left’s attack on those ideals. Yes, the current administration is attacking the foundational American principles and laws that protect the Church from persecution. But “America was never well-founded” anyway, writes Deneen, “so either needs to be differently re-founded or at least endured, even survived.” Sure, the federal government is robbing us of our religious liberty precisely by way of an unconstitutional attack on the economic liberty of Christian employers. But after all, Deneen believes that Catholics should be “deeply critical” of the free market. It is fair to ask: What on earth does he hope to achieve?
Perhaps illiberal Catholics are simply bitter at how little influence they have managed to wield over the broader conservative movement—and so they have decided to flounce out of it in a huff. Some of the intellectual authorities whom Deneen cites certainly give this impression. For instance, John Medaille, who proudly announced in 2008 that, “[t]o the chagrin of many of my conservative, Catholic friends, I am voting—have already voted—for Barrack Obama.”
Another source whom Deneen quotes approvingly is Thomas Storck, who in the critical 2004 election, when the voting numbers at the Supreme Court hung in the balance, wrote an article at the New Oxford Review urging Catholics not to vote—even suggesting that after all, “the economic policies of the Democratic Party, by and large,” have historically “comported better with Catholic teaching than … those of the Republicans.” Others of Deneen’s allies reject American democratic politics altogether. Witness Mark Gordon, who boasted that his “hero, model and patron, Dorothy Day, refused to vote for fear of granting legitimacy to an essentially illegitimate state.” He went on, “Instead, she was committed to the non-violent overthrow of the state. I understand and even accept the Christian anarchist point about the general illegitimacy of all states.” However, since the state is “not about to wither away,” Gordon sees the need to “’overthrow’ the state” by “[disrupting] its normal working order….”
Now Deneen and his friends are intelligent men. Surely they don’t expect that their rejections of the American founding and the market economy will help rally their non-Catholic fellow citizens to the defense of the Church’s freedom. Those who are inclined to defend that freedom will not be moved by recondite explanations of the flaws in John Locke’s reasoning or be led to a mass rejection of radical individualism. And surely illiberal Catholics can’t believe that by echoing the coercive rhetoric of the left, they can impose a truly Christian political order through the mechanism of a state built to oppress Christianity.
Perhaps Deneen and his compatriots are simply engaged in a kind of tantrum. After all, by dismissing all the good that America and modernity inherited from the Church, and publicizing their private power fantasies about throwing Protestants in prison, could they really be trying to help the Church’s chances to keep her freedom and save people’s souls? This is not how well-formed Catholics acted in England, even under Queen Elizabeth I, and it’s not how our American ancestors behaved when Protestant mobs burned churches. Christ never called us to act like sullen radical Muslims living in America under protest.
This is not the first time that petulant Catholics have seized upon the weakness of their country, and wrenched fragments of Catholic social teaching out of context, to serve their private resentments and their corrosive will to power.
In the late 1930s, as another kind of illiberal regime rose to power in neighboring Germany, some far-right French Catholics vented their impotent rage at the secular Third Republic by writing condemnations of liberal democracy that echoed Nazi rhetoric. Concerning their Jewish president, the moderate liberal Leon Blum, they joked, “Better Hitler than Blum.” When German armies crushed the demoralized forces of France, some of these illiberal Catholics called the defeat “a divine surprise,” and flocked to the regime of Marshal Petain—for the chance to finally wield the political power their fellow citizens would never have voted them. I think that today’s illiberal Catholics smell a similar predator on the wind. They see that the coercive, all-pervasive state is on the rise in America, and they have decided to cast in their lot with it. They have decided to collaborate.