“Therefore the end of all legislation is that man love God.” St. Thomas Aquinas

Reconstructing Catholicism

Reconstructing Catholicism

We live in a world in which it has already been decided what certain words mean. I might say I am Catholic, and this will be understood as meaning I belong to a religion called Catholicism. I might protest and say, "No, I do not belong to one religion among many, nor is Catholicism some modification of my being, as if I had some nonreligious, neutral self which was subsequently catholicized; rather, the whole world is Catholic and I am Catholic insofar as I am correct about the world, or rather, insofar as I belong to a Church which is correct about the world and I submit to her as a member submits to its body."

A liberal would not understand this except as a sort of cult-worthy, terrorist claim, because the liberal has a fundamentally different definition of the word "religion." For him, a "religion" is a privately held set of beliefs. For Catholics, religion is a virtue, a duty of worship to the Creator that is either fulfilled or left unfulfilled. For liberals, there are religious and non-religious people. For Catholics, there are the religious and those who slack in the virtue of religion. For a Catholic to argue that the world is Catholic can only sound like fascism to the liberal. His definition would make me a man arguing that my privately held beliefs should be the beliefs of everyone; arguing, in fact, that my beliefs grasp at the very substratum of the universe in which everyone lives, moves, and thinks. By his definition, I am solipsistic. By my definition, I am realistic. By his definition, I am totalitarian. By my definition, the liberal is the totalitarian, insofar as he limits in advance the scope and meaning of “being a Catholic” so that it fits the liberal schema — in which religion comes predefined as a privately-held set of beliefs.

The question I want to answer is this: Why is it the case that some definitions of very important words (like love, hate, violence, state, childhood, church, law, freedom, sovereignty, government, etc.) have been defined in one way rather than another? More accurately, why have the categories in which we understand human life and its purpose been almost exclusively given over to liberals rather than Catholics?

Liberal categories are constructed categories which have usually been violently enforced against the hard-won categories of Christian thought. An obvious example of this has been the definition of the category of "marriage." No one would deny that the Christian definition has been supplanted by a liberal one, a sacrament replaced with a contract. This is not some unique replacement. Rather, within liberalism, all personal relationships are ultimately substituted for contractual ones. They are replaced because contractual relationships can be governed by a State, while personal relationships, because they are unique, cannot be unilaterally governed. Liberalism's deconstruction of Christian categories has very little to do with truth or falsehood. Rather, the motivation has been to cull power into the hands of princes, to produce a fundamentally manageable and governable people who can be understood at a glance.          

Liberalism is unique among heresies. Most heresies press for some erroneous position within the "field" of Christianity. Liberalism presses for an erroneous claim about the very nature of the field. Thus, for the liberal, intellectual debate takes place in an a-historical, non-ideological, theologically ambivalent, neutral "public square." Religion may be a voice "within the public square" but the public square itself is secular beyond reproach. Theologians like David L. Schindler and those associated with the “radical orthodoxy” movement (Milbank, Pickstock, et al.) tend to argue that the very claim that the public square is ahistorical is itself a historical claim, one that most of history would disagree with. Likewise, the claim that the public square is theologically ambivalent is itself a theological claim -- it claims that man is the kind of creature who can "suspend" belief in the Creator; that there exists a neutral intellectual space in which the love of God is only one claim among many. The founding idea of liberalism is not secular, rather it invented the category of the secular as a cover for its highly theological claims about the nature of man and his relation to God.

It's as if a Republican were to invite a Democrat to a debate, and then proceed to argue that it is the nature of debate itself to exclude the opinion of Democrats. "Debate," he might say, "is Republican by nature. It excludes Democratic principles. One must either argue from Republican principles or one has no business debating." For the Republican to then welcome the Democrat to give his arguments as to how the nation ought to be run would be a joke at best and a cruelty at worst. The Democrat has not been attacked for his positions; rather, the very mode of intellectual attack-and-defense has been violently declared to already belong to a certain set of beliefs and a certain kind of man. One can imagine the result of this situation. The Democrat might do his best, but insofar as he is banned, not in this or that point of argument, but from debate itself, his protests will ultimately serve the Republicans. The cards have been stacked against him. He has entered a losing game. Every point he makes must assume the very principles he detests and thus ultimately end up serving those principles.

This is a crude analogy to explain the very real claims of contemporary liberalism. The "religious" are invited to give their arguments on truth and politics through a form which, from the outset, has been declared non-religious — a secular space. Thus, for the last 300 years or so, Catholics have done their best to make only those arguments that can satisfy the rules of the game. We assume that there is no God, that Grace is unreal or at least un-efficacious, that religion is a privately held set of beliefs and has no right to impinge on another — and then we make our arguments. Sure, we make gains every now and then, but we are playing a losing game.

Again, marriage is a good recent example of this. When I was young it was made very clear to me that the only viable arguments against gay marriage were "non-religious" arguments. I would say things like "marriage is recognized and given benefits by the State because it produces the members of the State, gay marriage cannot produce new members of the State, therefore gay marriage should not be recognized and given benefits by the State." A nice syllogism, while it lasted. But it played the game of liberalism, and actually ended up serving the cause of gay marriage when it became clear that, through artificial technology, same-sex couples can produce new members for the State. Ultimately, the protest is ineffective because it obeys the rules and regulations that liberalism defines for itself, and thus serves liberal goals in the end, namely, to reduce relationships to legal contracts for the sake of easy governance.       

When I look out at the silliness of our world, I do not see nonreligious men. I see Christians who have invented the category of "the secular" in order to redefine their personal vices of irreligion as a fundamental mode of being which all men participate in by nature (i.e. even a Catholic is just a modified version of the naturally secular man). Likewise, I do not see heterosexuals, homosexuals, and the like. I see men who have invented the category of "sexuality" in order to redefine their personal vices of unchastity and imprudence as a fundamental category of being in which all men participate by nature (i.e. the man who loves his spouse is just a modified version of the category of heterosexuality which may or may not be taken up). In each case liberalism replaces the personal with the impersonal and the particular with the general, but it does not have the decency to claim that this replacement really is a replacement; rather, it claims that these categories have always existed in truth, and that the liberal age just happens to have finally found them.

It's an old story, really. Man carves out a place for himself where he claims that God cannot see him. Liberalism is just particularly convinced that this place really is the whole world.

So when we talk about a specifically postliberal effort, we are talking about a lexicon. We want to take each word (state, church, love, law) one at a time, and show its liberal genealogy -- that is, the historical process by which it came to be defined as it is defined. This will deconstruct the idea that the liberal meaning of the word is its "natural meaning." Once it has been deconstructed, it stands as one opinion, claim, or proposition, to which the claim of the Church stands opposed. Then, and not before, can we begin the work of showing why Catholics are right and Liberals are wrong.

Our hope is that once we have performed this work of deconstruction, demolition, and the construction of an ever-ancient-ever-new catholic definition for enough key words, we will have essentially "cleared the ground" for people not have to think of their faith as some kind of modification of a fundamentally liberal existence. Rather, they will be able to speak of liberalism as a modification of a fundamentally Catholic existence, i.e., a heresy. Being Catholic will then be possible as a "complete act" -- not as an act within the liberal world, but as the world itself.

Postliberalism is ultimately about what the Popes call the "reconstruction of the social order." The laity are called to sanctify the world -- we want to do it. But to sanctify the world, it is not enough to modify a secular world with Christian values, to add Christian charity as a balm to ruthless economic systems, to lighten our social media existence with professions of faith, to say grace before a meal produced from a ravaged earth, to influence political systems that de facto exclude the Gospel, and to otherwise modify the secular, understood as the fundamental ground of human existence. Of course, all these things are good. "Honor the emperor," says Peter. "Render unto Caesar," says Christ. But the modification of the secular is not the summit of the Christian faith -- it is barely even the base camp. Rather, if the reconstruction of the social order means anything, it means that our institutions must themselves be redeemed and transformed by Grace, not softened in their nefarious influence by the presence of the Holy Spirit, as if his name stops short at Comforter and is not also Sanctifier, the one who "sets apart" for God.

We do not need more talk about how to be a Christian in the world, we need to talk about the Christian world. The only way out is deeper in; the only way to make Christianity acceptable is to make it radically unacceptable, yes, to make it the world itself, all else heresy, apostasy, paganism, and ignorance of the Gospel. The city of man is a fact, but it is not a goal. Our goal is the city of God, and we are supposed to be building it, but we have settled, for the last hundred years, for lobbying for a cross to be placed on the lawn of the liberal edifice. The defeatist position is getting miserable. It is time to define liberalism as a kind of Catholic heresy, and oppose it as such.

Call For Papers: What is Liberalism?

Call For Papers: What is Liberalism?

The Postliberal Moment

The Postliberal Moment