Towards indifference

Many consider John Courtney Murray to be the theologian who made the confident assertions of Wallach Catholicism and made the Roman Church safe for the liberally dominated American scene. Fortunately, James Patterson does not perpetuate this misinterpretation. He rightly points out that Murray’s praise for America’s religious indifference was historically informed, preliminary, and regulatory.

“Indifferentism” was coined by 19th century Catholic theologians to describe the belief that it does not matter which religion dominates the public space. This view was then flatly condemned. However, America’s constitutional government shows indifference, which is why the Vatican was concerned about the dangers of “Americanism”. In the middle of the 20th century, Murray managed to convince many Catholics that indifference (or “pluralism” to use the positive-sounding term for the same cultural-political phenomenon) need not always be wrong. If confined to the political sphere and constrained by a common moral culture, this could be compatible with Catholic social teaching.

His arguments for this purpose were based on three core beliefs. The first concerned the freedom of the church. As Murray understood, Christianity cannot be the religion of the state, the norm in classical antiquity. The church is a polis with its own laws and walls, and therefore must be free to govern itself and promote the spiritual well-being of believers in harmony with its own lights.

The need for free consent to the truths of belief was Murray’s second rationale. Christianity has always rejected the legitimacy of forced conversion. Coercion imagines in vain that the human soul can be formed by worldly forces, if in truth only the individual will – and God’s will – can change the objects of our love. Murray formulates this old respect for inner freedom in modern terms as “freedom of conscience”. (This is a concept I don’t like because it is too broad and therefore impractical as a political right.)

Murray draws his third belief from classical political philosophy: the primary end of civil life is peace. According to the Augustinian tradition, peace has two sides. One thing is negative and minimal: the absence of conflict. The other peace is positive and comprehensive. In its fuller sense, peace attains tranquillitas ordinis, the correspondence that sets in a society when body politics are properly ordered so that every element of society flourishes in harmony with its nature.

It is not difficult to see that the American constitutional system, even in its less than perfect terms, conforms to the freedom of the church and protects individual freedoms. Our indifference has kept the government from interfering in church affairs. And while the constitution (luckily) does not establish a “right of conscience,” the Bill of Rights enumerates many protections for individual rights, and this gives us a lot of freedom to act and speak in accordance with our beliefs.

The friction comes with the third principle, that of peace. St. Augustine believed that no earthly city could attain a peaceful ordinis. Bourgeois life in a fallen world is always marked by resentments, conflicts and divisions. But even St. Augustine recognized that achieving negative peace without violence requires striving for positive peace of orderly unity. Simply put, men have to be at least somewhat moral in order not to be completely demonic.

That is the problem with America’s indifference. In order to maintain even a minimum of negative peace, civil authorities must try to shape men morally. And this requires a public and political interest in the real goals of man.

A regime like our own, which is committed to procedural liberalism, is invariably embroiled in larger questions, not the least of which is whether the highest goal of man is to know and serve God. We can never have a liberalism that is purely political and not metaphysical, as John Rawls so earnestly wanted.

Murray knew it was. He believed that natural law informed the American founding, at least implicitly. As Patterson notes, Murray was not naive. Had he read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, he would surely have agreed to many passages. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s he wrote that there was enough civic virtue to maintain the peace of the community.

Unsurprisingly, Murray took this positive view. Catholicism had flourished in America throughout his life. At the beginning of the 20th century, the church became a force of political consequence in urban machine politics. Church attendance, vocations, and income boomed after World War II. It was not difficult to believe that the founders “built better than they knew”.

Sixty years after We Hold These Truths was published, it is difficult to maintain Murray’s cautious optimism. Patterson seems to agree. He notes that the constellation of moral, religious, and political beliefs that made America relatively congenial for religious orthodoxy – Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish – in the mid-20th century no longer exists.

When the claim of liberalism to create a non-religious basis for civil life dominates rather than tarnishes our political deliberations, the civic consensus becomes hostile not only to Catholic doctrine, but also to natural law.

To a degree unprecedented in American history, our ruling class is not only churchless; The basic Christian doctrine is largely unknown. I would dare that less than 20 percent of Ivy League graduates under 40 have any idea what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.

Patterson beats “neo-integralists”. I am more personable. The gravamen of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed and Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy, as well as the various provocations written by self-described “integralists”, is that our post-Christian society did not “just happen”. In one way or another, these critics of liberalism point out that societies dominated by liberalism engage with soul art in ways that can deform us, rather than orient us towards tranquillitas ordinis.

The critics of liberalism are probably on solid ground. Since the dawn of modern times, liberal theorists have recognized the need to deliver a report on the ultimate end of man. Hobbes stated that our ultimate goal is physical survival. Locke offers a more profitable vision – our ultimate goal is to be free to pursue our personal interests without interference. Bentham’s final ending is more ambitious – always more useful.

The streams of influence that shape America are biblical and classical as well as liberal. Our society is not purely Hobbesean, Lockean or Benthamite. But over the past few decades, educational institutions, popular culture, and social consensus have led more and more men to view these goals as their highest ambitions. This pedagogy aims to consolidate a liberal calm. Because when we convince young people that it is more important not to die or to be rich than to defend their honor or gain holiness, they become “moral” in the liberal sense – more tolerant, more accepting, more inclusive, less violent, less judgmental, less concerned about honor, less specifically about truth, less disturbingly religious. In so far as we strive primarily for physical survival, security of rights and an increase in utility, our feelings reinforce the indifference of our regime.

As I read it, the “neo-integralists” and other critics of the overly dominant role of liberalism in the twenty-first century West seek to restore the enduring truth to the Church’s earlier condemnations of “indifferentism”. Society cannot be indifferent to the ultimate end of man. One way or another, we need to organize our lives together in accordance with a consensus on what makes men happy. When the claim of liberalism to create a non-religious basis for civil life dominates rather than tarnishes our political deliberations, the civic consensus becomes hostile not only to Catholic doctrine, but also to natural law.

I have no hope of establishing a Catholic monarchy in the United States, nor do I want to change our laudable tradition of religious freedom. Patterson rightly points out that we “need to find a new consensus”. But he can wrongly imagine that the “neo-integralists” are hostile to this endeavor. Writers like Sohrab Ahmari are essentially right. Unless we propose man’s true purpose – with the sincere intention of shaping our laws accordingly – the public debate will be dominated by claims of false aims, which I understand to be the worldly gods of health, wealth and pleasure.

Patterson misinterprets Adrian Vermeule’s proposal for an “Empire of Guadalupe”. It was done in a spirit of provocation. If we find his ideas rebarbative or impractical, what is our plan to give public life a forceful, politically serious account of the true end of man? Answering this question takes more than the vague gestures (“making common cause,” “building new institutions,” “engaging the right spiritual leaders”) that Patterson ends with.

In the spirit of answering, rather than dismissing Vermeule and other Integralists, I will end on a non-ironic, humble proposal. Catholics should seek alliances that will enable us to reverse the past 75 years of extreme anti-establishment justice. Our goal should be to restore ecumenical prayer in public schools and to encourage biblical knowledge for high school graduates. These measures are fully in line with our best constitutional traditions – they were common practice three generations ago. In small but real ways, these humble measures will reintegrate man’s ultimate end back into bourgeois life.

We cannot restore the mid-twentieth-century American culture that Murray thought was workable for Catholics (and other religious believers). But we can work toward a brighter future that, while jealous of America’s traditions of religious freedom, does not leave the spiritual ideal of our culture indifferent.

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