The return of Catholic anti-liberalism

Must Catholics really choose between faith and modernity?

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1862, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.
(Image credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Catholic anti-liberalism is back.

Of course, it never really went away. The norms, practices, and beliefs that prevail and thrive in liberal democracies have never perfectly meshed with the dogma, doctrine, and theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Still, there has been an undeniable rapprochement between the two sides in recent decades — until now.

Back in the mid-19th century, popes furiously denounced liberalism, modernity, democracy, secularization, toleration of religious diversity, the separation of church and state, and even "Americanism." But by the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the outright hostility to liberal modernity had softened. A reconciliation seemed possible, provided that liberal modernity was recast in broadly Catholic-Christian terms.

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Thirteen years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II began his pontificate with the ambition of developing and applying the reconciliationist themes of the council. He and his successor (Benedict XVI) did this over the next 35 years with various papal pronouncements, and above all in a series of encyclicals (teaching documents) that reinterpreted liberalism, democracy, capitalism, and modernity in such a way that they seemed broadly (or at least potentially) harmonious with the church.

The monthly magazine First Things, founded by Richard John Neuhaus in 1990, quickly became the place where John Paul II's reconciliationist ambitions would be championed and applied to questions of public life in the world's most powerful democracy. In the pages of the magazine (which I edited for a time in the early 2000s), the pope was routinely described as a liberal, while the encyclicals were interpreted (with varying degrees of persuasiveness) as broad endorsements of the Republican Party's center-right governing agenda.

What a difference a decade can make.

In the years since Neuhaus' death in 2009, the magazine has moved sharply away from its earlier reconciliationist position. Detecting signs that Pope Francis aims to assimilate the church to modern trends it considers deeply at odds with unchangeable Catholic doctrine, the magazine now regularly runs pieces that express dismay and displeasure at the Roman pontiff (something its editors never would have contemplated doing under John Paul or Benedict). Likewise alarmed by the Obama-era evolution of American liberalism in the direction of an increasingly intolerant deployment of state power to enforce policies that run afoul of the church's moral teachings, editor R.R. Reno came out in favor of President Trump in 2016 and has since written and published numerous pieces exploring the promise and prospects of an anti-liberal populist politics.

But nothing that's run in the magazine so far could have prepared readers for a book review that appears in the February 2018 issue. The author of the review, Romanus Cessario, O.P., forthrightly defends Pope Pius IX's decision in 1858 to kidnap and raise as a Catholic a 6-year-old Jewish boy who had been baptized without his parents' knowledge at age 1 by his Catholic nanny.

The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara caused an international scandal at the time and raised considerable alarm in the United States, where it stoked already heightened fears of papal authoritarianism. (Those fears were rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry, but with the Vatican making a habit of denouncing the political and economic order of the United States, such bigotry was regularly reinforced by reality.) The Mortara affair also stands as a flagrant example of the church's distinctively toxic attitude toward Jews — an attitude that "Nostra aetate," Vatican II's historic statement on interreligious relations, went out of its way to repudiate. Whereas a pope would never have claimed he was forced by church teaching to kidnap a Protestant child being improperly educated in the faith, he insisted on precisely this about a baptized Jewish child — because the persistence of Jews in the world created an irritating problem for the church's favored version of salvation history (in which Christianity was supposed to supersede Judaism), because the thuggish (one might almost say Trumpian) illiberalism of the act demonstrated the church's willingness to stick a finger in the eye of reformers across the Western world, and because the lowly status of Jews in Europe at the time permitted it.

All of that was supposedly relegated to the past at the Second Vatican Council, when an overwhelming majority of the assembled bishops forthrightly condemned anti-Semitism and declared that Jews and Christians share a common patrimony. John Paul II built on those suggestions in his own efforts at Jewish-Christian dialogue, and Neuhaus took them even further, writing and publishing his own lengthy and moving essays in the magazine on the topic in which he suggested that, because "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:19-22), there were theological grounds for the two communities to treat each other with mutual appreciation and respect as they move through time in disagreement about the place of the Messiah in God's plan.

But now First Things apparently has other ideas — or at least other priorities. In place of the effort to find a way to reconcile the church with the modern world, or different monotheistic faiths to reach understanding and common ground with each other, now the magazine appears eager to treat the church (perhaps excluding the current pope) as a singular refuge from the moral depredations closing in around it in every direction. Everywhere the totalitarian logic of liberalism strengthens its grip, forcing the children of God to conform to a system that increasingly demands obedience to manmade laws that lack any discernable connection to the law of God as revealed in scripture, authoritatively preserved and taught by the magisterium, delineated in the catechism, and codified in the system of canon law.

Catholicism or liberal modernity — that, increasingly, is the decision First Things places before its readers.

The case for the church is simple and (for some) compelling: It possesses an authority so absolute it can even force the hand of a reluctant pope, compelling him to declare (in the words that provide the title of Cessario's review) "Non Possumus" — "we cannot" give the child back to his parents. Much as we may wish to, Pius might have said, God has other plans. Providence led the Mortara boy to be baptized by his nanny. Church doctrine, canon law, and the laws of the papal states allowed and required him to be taken and catechized as a Catholic. That was God's will. The pope had no choice.

But of course he had a choice — just as First Things had a choice in whether to publish a review that both treats an authoritarian cleric as some kind of theological hero and exemplifies the bloodlessly legalistic form of the faith that Pope Francis has so often justly decried.

To judge by his anguished statement written in response to the controversy surrounding the review, Reno personally considers the Mortara episode a "stain on the Catholic Church" and Pius' actions "wildly imprudent." And yet he chose to publish Cessario's brief in favor of the kidnapping (just as some on the right who've been cheering on First Things' latter-day flirtation with Catholic Integralism have risen up in passionate defense of it). I suspect that's because, however troubling it might sometimes be even to its own editor, First Things has been trending in this direction for some time — toward the defensive, illiberal stances that marked the church through so many of the decades separating the French Revolution from the early 1960s.

With that darkly anti-modern outlook Cessario's review fits in quite nicely. Whether it has any hope at all of engaging productively with the wider world is another question altogether.

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