Now that the dust has settled a bit on the Mortara debate prompted by Fr. Cessario at First Things, I want to ask a more general question about the state of play between the more radical anti-liberals in the religious conservative world and the more traditional conservatives—the young Catholics of the northeast vs the old Weigelite Catholics, mostly, though obviously there are others interested in this debate as well, some of whom are not members of the Roman church.

One of the problems with much of the debate is that we’re talking about the wrong things: we leap straight to political economy or straight to a complicated edge case like that of Montara. And this ends rather predictably—with the radicals feeling like the conservatives aren’t actually following the full logical implications of Christian thought and the conservatives thinking the radicals are imprudent and impractical.

So: Let’s get practical. Specifically let’s consider this quote from T. S. Eliot:

That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

The argument Eliot is making here is not a narrow argument about the obligations of the magistrate to the poor or the specific policies that should be used to fulfill those obligations. Indeed, that question is not on Eliot’s radar at all. Nor is it an argument about what approach to politics is practical or prudent. That is, similarly, not really of interest to Eliot.

What does concern the great poet and critic is that he does not see within liberal democracy the means for creating citizens that can sustain liberal democracies. Rather, he sees a system that negates itself by relying on something it cannot itself produce.

Eliot is not the only one who saw this problem and anticipated it getting worse as time passed. Lewis famously said of modern education in the Abolition of Man that “we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” In other words, we create people incapable of producing certain goods and then expect them to produce those goods. Liberalism, in this reading, is simply the incoherent social order that results when such a thing is normal and done en masse.

This, it seems to me is the inescapable problem with late modern liberalism. It’s not that it as a system despises both the poor and the natural family, although I think both of those things are true. It’s that the system cannot be sustained long-term because it devours itself.

If that is true, then the charge that the folks at the Josias or the Tradinistas are “imprudent” is radically short-sighted because it assumes that “prudence” means “attempting to find conciliatory ways of relating to the liberal social order.” The problem is not that the trads are destabilizing a basically stable relationship between religious orthodoxy and social life and creating problems that don’t necessarily need to exist, though that is what one might think if you read their critics.

Rather, the problem is actually that the Weigelites, by which I mean the pro-market, pro-liberalism conservative Catholics, are attempting to shore up the foundations of a fundamentally disordered polity that, in any event, is showing significant signs of weakness and may well be already in an entirely predictable terminal decline.

Certainly, there is room for criticism of the positive proposals coming from the radicals. As a Protestant, I basically break out in hives every time I read Unam Sanctam or Pink’s “Conscience and Coercion”  essay I linked last week. Moreover, I think any polity as dependent as theirs is on the integrity and even the orthodoxy of the Roman bishop is foolish and I can imagine fewer things that prove my point better than the current occupant of St. Peter’s chair. (Michael Brendan Dougherty made the same point on Twitter: The Trads arguing for a Young Pope-style approach to the papacy don’t know what they’re asking for because if Francis did take such an approach the first people he targeted would be… the trads.) A Protestant social order is less centralized than a Roman order, which makes it harder to establish and even to define in narrow ways, but it is also less susceptible to the abuses of the clerical class.

In any event, the point here is that the way to hit the radtrads is not on grounds of prudence or practicality. That is simply the respectable Catholic version of the prog Christian response to Dreher’s BenOp: It’s brushing aside reasonable concerns without explaining why those concerns are wrong. Counseling caution and pragmatism at a time when marriage has been redefined, the Supreme Court has defeated state-level abortion regulations, and the poor are quite literally dying of despair is absurd for the same reason that the prog response to Rod’s book was absurd: Things really are this bad and we really do need to come up with radical proposals.

The ideas put forward by the trads might be bad. I think they are. But they are something that is pervasive enough to actually reckon with the scale of our social crisis, which is why I enjoy interacting with them and thinking about their work. They’re taking the historical moment we’re in seriously. If the conservative Catholics were to put forward a similar proposal, then that would give us something to discuss. But at present what I see is simply variations on the end of Peters’ response to the Mortara affair:

Catholics need not think that our current political and economic order is heaven on earth. Liberal states and free economies have their own dangers and coercive power. We need not parrot old arguments, but when it comes to theories of Church and state that allow for the kidnapping of Jewish children, we should readily say, “non possumus.”

This is not an argument. It’s conceding that liberalism isn’t perfect, without actually saying anything substantive about why it isn’t perfect or what to do about it.

What is frustrating is that I think that Peters and others of similar mind have the chops to say something more substantive about social order in response to the radtrad critique. They can, I am reasonably confident, address the formation problem raised by Eliot: How do you make liberal democracy sustainable when liberal democracy is bad at forming and producing liberal democrats? And the answer, I hope, is something that retains some of the goods of the liberal order while correcting the aimlessness of it and its hostility to non-governmental forms of community. But that isn’t the argument I see the conservatives making so far. Let’s hope they start to make it soon.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Peter Gaultney

    This is really great and helps me crystallize the position I’ve been feeling myself in for some time. Which, of course, is exacerbated by my own perception that there isn’t really a Protestant corollary to the radtrads. For instance, I recollect Lewis’ critique well, but it isn’t clear that he had any intent but to suggest that the conservative status quo should be maintained. Whereas here we’re beginning to arrive at the conclusion that it wasn’t really possible in the first place.

    So – and with apologies for being uninformed – would you say you have your own proposals along the lines you’re asking conservatives to make?

  • Casey

    Where can I read about the proposed alternatives to liberalism? I’m not aware of any premodern/pre-liberalism system I’m aching to return to. I am finding myself somewhat Anabaptist in thinking any human government system will be inherently flawed. Switching systems is just trading one set of problems for another. Our focus should be on the church/our local churches and some will have the call to love neighbors through working in and through flawed government.

    • Cal P

      It’s not that there is a proposed alternative because that would require one to treat “Liberalism” as a closed system that stands or falls all at once. That’s not how it is, and Jake’s not really advocating a total demolition.

      However, if you want to be serious about being “somewhat Anabaptist”, you have to be more concrete. Saying it’s all just changing one set of problems for another is lazy equivocation. And what is this “call” that “some” will have for government? How would anyone judge that without self-serving “the Lord put it on my heart” BS. You should really soul search the particulars, which is the only way to weight these things in the balance.

      Read Petr Chelcicky “The Net of Faith” as a good example of what I’m talking about.

      • hoosier_bob

        Even so, he makes a good point. Those, like Dreher and Deneen, who have made a cottage industry out of decrying the evils of classical liberalism, offer little more than aimless criticism.

        As for criticism of liberalism, both focus almost exclusively on sexual ethics. Yes, people take a more pragmatic, transactional view of sex than they once did. But where’s the evidence that this is a bad thing? Sure, it’s a bad thing if you’re the kind of person who believes we need authoritarian religious institutions to tell people what to do. But is that necessary. If certain types of sexual conduct are really bad, then the costs of engaging in that conduct should outweigh its benefits. Practices that lack transactional efficiency don’t generally persist in an efficient social marketplace. The problem among the lower classes is that they lack access to an efficient social marketplace. Foisting authoritarian religious dogma onto them is simply a band-aid for a deeper problem.

        As for prescriptions, neither offers much. As Dreher’s critics have aptly noted, his BenOp amounts to little more than a call to return to the values of the white middle class. Dreher doesn’t really offer much more than warmed-over James Dobson.

        • Cal P

          I don’t think that last part is accurate. Dobson complained about modernity and secularism, but there was no pervasive questioning of the American project or the larger framework of liberalism. There’s a reason Dobson and other Moral Majority types fought so hard to prove the Founders were solid Christians and founded this country on Christian principles. And it wasn’t until recently that Evangelicals have warmed up both to Roman Catholics and the Middle Ages.

          Dreher is a half-way house. Given his reaction to the kidnapping case, and his own hipster daddy-issues approach to culture, he is still a “crunchy conservative”, and generally on board with liberalism. But the appreciation of the Middle Ages, the counterrevolutionary fervor to roll back the secularity of the Enlightenment but keep the technological and social benefits, well, there was a family tree of political movements that had that goal in the 30s. But that all confirms your first major point: Dreher’s criticism of liberalism is pretty aimless, and it’s confused in which direction it wants to go.

  • Wenatchee The Hatchet

    “A Protestant social order is less centralized than a Roman order, which makes it harder to establish and even to define in narrow ways, but it is also less susceptible to the abuses of the clerical class.”
    less susceptible to the abuses of the clerical class … on the basis of … ?

  • Greg Herr

    Well Jake, we don’t want you to break out in hives.

    “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. . . . Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily.” —John Henry Newman

    Or, as they said in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska:

    “There is only one Oracle of God, the Holy Catholic Church and the Pope as her head. To her teaching I have ever desired all my thoughts, all my words to be conformed…..Herein is the strength of the Church. She professes to be built upon facts, not opinions, on objective truths, not on variable sentiments, on immemorial testimony, not on private judgment, on convictions or perceptions, not on conclusions. None else but she can make this profession. She makes high claims against the temporal power, but she has that within her which justifies her. She merely acts out what she says she is. She does not more than she reasonably should do. If God has given her a specific work, no wonder she is not under the superintendence of the civil magistrates in doing it. She is the organ and oracle, and nothing else, of a supernatural doctrine, which is independent of individuals, given to her once for all, coming down from the first ages.”

    [Source: http://www.lincolndiocese.org/op-ed/an-ordinary-viewpoint/1422-blessed-john-henry-newman-viii%5D

    Greg Herr
    Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Church

    • Cal P

      That’s a great fairy tale. Too bad that is not accurate according to Scripture or to any reasonable history. The only hope Rome has is to become a tautology through institutional accretion and power. Cardinal Manning, Newman’s contemporary, proved the point well enough. Whether LARPing Trads or gaypride Jesuits, Rome is, has been, and ever shall be, in the eyes of the beholder.

  • cneal

    Great essay!

    This is a wider version of something I’ve been thinking about in my own discipline since I read James Caeser’s ‘Liberal Democracy and Political Science’. Basically, it’s the job of the state to perpetuate a free society by raising a generation that believes in republican-style freedom. But a free society requires a citizen shaped in a very specific way by culture, education, religion, art, and a number of other social factors. The problem is that if the government itself tries to ensure such a shaping, it has to become so large and powerful that the resulting society can no longer truly be considered a “liberal democracy.” Caeser’s answer is that it’s the job of political science (and education in general) to pick up that particular slack.

    So I appreciate your wider concerns about liberalism in general not being able to recreate itself over time, and instead being a (sort-of) benign parasite off of earlier forms. This may also explain why it doesn’t do so well other places around the world, if it’s the kind of parasite that can only leech off of, say, Medieval-style feudalism or Renaissance/Reformation republicanism.
    Anyway, much to think about, thanks!

    ( https://www.amazon.com/Liberal-Democracy-Political-Science-Constitutional/dp/0801845114/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&qid=1517007022&sr=8-1&keywords=liberal+democracy+and+political+science&linkCode=ll1&tag=themorcoy00-20&linkId=d3397e463d2604754444037f8e5458a2 )

  • Can liberalism really be understood by citing only the opinions of its antagonists? If one wants to make claims about liberalism, shouldn’t one go to a variety of sources for its description? But instead of taking such a liberal approach studying liberalism, a conservative authoritarian approach is taken.

    Meador thinks he can fairly represent and critique liberalism by quoting Elliot:


    By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving
    their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by
    licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction
    for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart
    rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to
    which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the
    way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or
    brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

    If we want to examine the starting point of liberalism, we also need to
    understand the standing point of what it challenges. And, by Elliot’s words, it seems that liberalism is challenging the tyranny of tradition. But if tradition is described as being unassailable, we give reason for various groups to define themselves as the vanguards for that tradition and thus self-proclaimed rulers over others for the sake of tradition.

    What follows then is, In terms of politics, we establish ethnocracies in contrast to liberal democracies that make room for equality. We should note that equality includes the contributions of those on whom tradition has pronounced one anathema after another. The problem here is the arena of the conflict between tradition-based ethnocracies and liberal democracies. That arena is society where we have both believers and unbelievers. So what kind of society do we have if the vanguards of tradition can claim rightful ownership?

    Also, what happens when tradition flies in the face of reality? What happens when people reject certain traditions? What is the conservative response? Church history gives us a very inconvenient list of such events. The conservative authoritarian response is that of hostility because the authoritarian response to challenges to authority and tradition is that of hostility and aggression.

    So are liberal democracies self-defeating? Is traditional conservatism self-sustaining? When speaking of either one in all-or-nothing terms, we see both failing. And such occurs when each side sets its sights on demonizing the other. The result is that there is no chance of creating hybrids that borrow from both sides. And without those hybrids, we are stuck in an all-or-nothing approach to both traditional conservatism and liberal democracies.