Restoring a misplaced custom
James Patterson’s essay explains very well why Father Dr. John Courtney Murray is an important political thinker whose work remains extremely relevant to our time. In particular, Patterson explains admirably why it is completely wrong for traditionalists to match Murray with post World War II idealists who viewed the neoliberal order through stark rose-tinted glasses. To some 20th century political thinkers, it seemed really reasonable to expect that political liberalism would solve most of society’s problems, from poverty to racism to war. Murray is often included in this group of thinkers because of his close ties to President John F. Kennedy and the controversial treatise of Dignitatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Council. As Patterson rightly points out, this is a misunderstanding. Murray condemned political liberalism. What sets him apart as a thinker is not his enthusiasm for modernity, but his determination to find a way for Catholics to remain loyal citizens of modern states without rejecting any part of church tradition.
For all its merits, Patterson’s essay is informative rather than reassuring. He clearly explains why he still “holds these truths”. But he doesn’t even pretend that we, the American people, are doing the same thing. In fact, he states late in the essay that “the old consensus Murray explored in We Hold These Truths is dead”. This appears to be a very serious problem for a potential proponent of Murray’s views.
After all, practicality is supposed to be a major selling point for Murray’s position. He wants American Catholics to support their constitutional order, not because of their superiority over the denominational state, but because it is acceptable and able to secure civil peace and protect the freedom of the Church. What if this is no longer the case? When the Americans as a group have largely rejected the natural law consensus that Murray attributes to the founders and his own contemporaries, it is no longer clear whether Catholics can or should support the state. A government based on liberal political principles (as set out in John Rawl’s Theory of Justice) will permanently threaten the freedom of the Church and the consciences of believers. Strictly secular states are predictably hostile to their non-secular competitors. If this is the reality we are facing, maybe it is just as good with Pius IX. To take a stand. Renounce liberalism and all its pomp and stand up for the political situation that we really want, right up to a new denominational state.
Patterson clearly does not see this as a real solution and I have to agree. The revival of the crown and altar policy seems impractical enough in Poland or France. Here in the United States, that dream is incredibly fanciful, either foolishly fleeting or an unconvincing cover for common lust for power. To me, Patterson’s argument against the Integralists looks suspiciously like a straw man. Are there really many American traditionalists who actively support the Habsburg option? In my experience, people who identify themselves as “integralists” or “monarchists” usually understand that in our current situation these can only serve as theoretical positions to help us gain perspectives on more practical options. The corrosive style of the neo-integralists invites severe setbacks, especially because they too tend to rush into the war of the belligerent front men and dismiss most of their conservative critics as “zombie Reaganites” or establishment drones without seriously thinking about arguments. Right wing intellectuals find it difficult to break away from these internal struggles, although it should be obvious at this point that they have not helped us find a path to real cultural renewal.
To channel Murray’s constructive spirit, I would suggest that a path for traditionalists cannot emerge until we have seriously addressed three crucial questions. First, how bad are our current circumstances? Second, what are the realistic possibilities for our nation? Third, which of these is the smartest for us to try to realize? All three questions are very difficult, so I will not pretend to give satisfactory answers. I’ll just make a few suggestions on how to answer them if you think (as I, and as Patterson clearly does), that Murray’s perspective on the American experiment remains insightful and wise.
When the political arena becomes highly polarized, it can be difficult to get an idea of the real gravity of our situation. Our two political parties are struggling to maintain cohesion within their coalitions, which gives politicians and commentators a strong motivation to become hyperbolic. As our national funk deepens, we each individually begin to keep a list of personal grievances, adding to general fear and resentment. Even or especially in times of political stress, it can be healthy to correctly assess our perspective taking into account the circumstances of Christians living in the Islamic world or under secular dictators such as Xi Jinping or Kim Jong Un. If our constitutional order has indeed failed, we certainly remain among the most blessed failures. The fact that we continue to discuss these issues so publicly is evidence of this truth.
Exaggeration and fatalism masquerade as a thesis, but they are more of a makeshift bridge to get traditionalists from fruitless anger to some kind of strategy meeting. Unfortunately, many people fall through the cracks and drown in desperation.
Even so, religious traditionalists feel threatened, and it would be unfair to attribute this solely to political tribalism or paranoia. Guard activism is getting really alarming. Progressive Orthodoxy seems to be advancing at a dizzying pace. Guard activists impose both social and professional sanctions on those who cannot keep up. Under such conditions, people feel trapped in an Orwellian dystopia. It’s hard not to get into dire predictions of where these roads might lead. Towards the end of his essay, Patterson suggests that this radicalism could dissolve once Donald Trump leaves office. I agree that Trump was a major catalyst, but it seems overly optimistic to expect such a decent end to progressive pathologies. The “awakened warriors” had their ideological ancestors. You will have offspring too.
Patterson is absolutely right, however, that radical progressivism lacks both stability and internal coherence. It seems, by and large, a desperate saving throw from a stalled elite who need new avenues to bolster their legitimacy. It’s hard to see how it can be done. Social justice activists have psychological needs that no practical agenda can meet. They do not have a widespread mandate among the population and do not have satisfactory answers to the questions that concern our society. History suggests that this type of energetic, ideological linkism tends to end in a circular firing squad. If someone else could offer better leadership, it would be very likely that some person or party could oust or colonize our current elite.
This leads to the second and third questions. What are the real opportunities for our nation? Once again, the ongoing conversation on the political right has left many of us quite frustrated. Extravagant polemicists like Adrian Vermeule regularly make suggestions that are simply absurd in the face. Is he serious or is he trolling us? (Do the participants in many of these conversations even remember the difference?) Other high-profile right-wing commentators like Rod Dreher or Patrick Deneen have an annoying habit of leading with their chins and selling books with incompatible-sounding theses. but fill the later chapters of these books with milder comments and practical suggestions. One looks in vain for a clear forecast. Is western civilization over or not? It is possible that these writers consciously cultivate their ambiguities as a marketing strategy, but I suspect reality is less damaging. You can see something is broken, but you haven’t quite figured out what it is. Exaggeration and fatalism masquerade as a thesis, but they are more of a makeshift bridge to get traditionalists from fruitless anger to some kind of strategy meeting. Unfortunately, many people fall through the cracks and drown in desperation.
It would be deeply unfair to hold a small handful of men responsible for failing to answer difficult questions like this. However, we must keep trying. Without a realistic sense of the possibilities, it is impossible to set a prudent course. At this point in time, we urgently need the humility and judgment Murray demonstrated in We Hold These Truths. Although he steadfastly refused to jeopardize basic principles of belief or morality, he was honest about the real failures of historical Catholic societies. He was no fatalist, but he kept reminding readers of the human corruption and frailty that inevitably plague human kingdoms. Contemporary traditionalists have to work harder to mimic these Murray-esque qualities. If we really want political change or cultural renewal, we have to be brutally honest about why we haven’t won our most important battles. Some of the reasons reflect the failure of liberals, our compatriots, our elected officials, our bishops, or perhaps the liberal order itself. Some reflect the failures of Catholic intellectuals, ill-advised cultural warriors, or simple religious traditionalists. These are generally the pieces of the puzzle that we are reluctant to examine.
As a people, do we still hold these truths? Maybe not, but the foundations of that tradition still exist. Now would be a good time to uncover them.