Ahmari among the Protestants

Integralism or Political Protestantism?

There are those among us [Catholics], as it must be confessed, who for years past have conducted themselves as if no responsibility attached to wild words and overbearing deeds; who have stated truths in the most paradoxical form, and stretched principles till they were close upon snapping; and who at length, having done their best to set the house on fire, leave to others the task of putting out the flame.

John Henry Newman wrote these words in 1875, in the midst of a fierce controversy over the role of Catholics in English public life in the wake of Vatican I. But he might just as well have been writing about some of today’s “integralists.” 

“Liberalism” has never lacked detractors, and recent decades have witnessed a surge of various “post-liberal” voices among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The project of retrieving Catholic integralism is a recent development within this broader movement. The integralists have issued increasingly harsh denunciations of American constitutional liberties and the Founding principles that inspired them. Perhaps, they have argued, the progressive moral derangement of our culture is fundamentally the result of a philosophical mistake that goes back centuries, a religious wrong turn that began at the Reformation, and a flawed political vision built into the very foundations of the American republic.

While such a dour diagnosis would have been common enough in 19th-century European Catholicism, it represents a striking shift of tone for American Catholics, who got their hall pass to participate as equals in in American public life six decades ago by promising to be good liberals, keeping their Catholicism private. They were also admitted to the leadership ranks of American conservatism by speaking the vague language of “permanent things,” “order,” “tradition,” and “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Today, however, they denounce liberal ideals such as viewpoint neutrality and religious liberty as fictitious charades, proposing in their place a return to an explicitly Christian politics guided by papal authority and privileging the Catholic Church.

Or do they? Certainly there are vocal corners of the internet eager to turn back the clock to the glory days of the Habsburgs, but leading public exponents of Catholic anti-liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, have been harder to pin down. Behind their provocative rhetoric, we often find fairly innocuous and ecumenical concepts like the common good, the importance of the natural family, and the priority of community. And yet they frequently imply that the only way to secure these goods is to become Catholic, an implication fortified with frequent potshots against Protestants as responsible for everything wrong with modernity.

Strangely missing from nearly all of these conversations is the political tradition that more than any shaped the contemporary Western world—not Lockeanism, but magisterial Protestantism. According to this tradition, the state must not exercise dominion over conscience, but that does not mean that the state should not have a conscience; religion is a matter of public concern, without being the object of positive coercion. In this tradition, the God-given natural law is the supreme rule and the basis for the civil law, but the exact contours and just application of this natural law remain open for rational debate. In this tradition, church establishment is encouraged, but the forms it may take are plural and guided by prudence.

Likewise, the church is expected to leaven society, but as citizen-believers rather than through direct action of the clerical hierarchy. This tradition was still dominant in the early days of the American republic. Many states and localities supported established churches and religious freedom, rights were understood to be inextricable from moral duties, and concern for the common good underlay much legislation and social norms.

To be sure, this describes a bygone world that may be neither possible nor wholly desirable to retrieve. But adaptability is built into this tradition, in a way that one cannot say of Roman Catholicism before 1963. The magistrate has a natural duty to promote true religion, but how best to do this may look very different in different circumstances and stages of society. Moreover, since this duty is distributed amongst an active citizenry, rather than mediated top-down from a single voice of authority, it does not stand in such great tension with liberal political institutions.

Given that few of the Catholic anti-liberals are prepared to reduce their political program to the command to “Repent and submit to the Pope!,” one suspects that what many of them are really after is not a political Catholicism, but a renewed political Protestantism.

The project envisioned by rising Catholic intellectual Sohrab Ahmari is a case in point. In an interview last year with Yoram Hazony about his new book, The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari attempts to summarize what he means by “political Catholicism,” which he contends is “the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.” Political Catholicism, he argues, is committed to the idea of Christianity as a mass religion, a religion that therefore embraces the whole of a society and encompasses a civilization. But he does not seem to envision this as demanding state coercion of right religion; rather, it is simply “the idea that church and civilization should be involved with each other,” a view “in which a decent society makes it easier for people to practice the natural virtue of piety of religiosity,” because “the faith of the ordinary person has to be somehow protected and preserved.” This, Ahmari admits, may take a very different form in the twenty-first century than the ninth.

If this is really all that “political Catholicism” means, we might be forgiven for asking, “Is Ahmari, too, among the Protestants?” After all, it was the Protestant Reformers who were concerned most of all about the idea of Christianity as a mass religion, against the late-medieval bifurcation between educated clergy and untaught laity, between the Latin-tongued liturgists and the vulgar masses. And it was the Protestant Reformers who pushed most strongly for the integration of church and society, arguing that the medieval church had encouraged and lionized monastic withdrawal from the world. And it was the Protestant Reformers who wanted to make it “easier for people to practice the natural virtue of religiosity” by arguing that the gospel must do its work in society through persuasion, rather than harsh coercion.

From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, the political vision of the Catholic Church was associated not with such moderate aspirations, but with the formal claims of papal supremacy over all temporal authorities—as Ahmari indeed notes in passing in chapter 6 of his book. These included his powers to excommunicate rulers, order their subjects to disobey them, and release citizens from their oaths and vows, as Pope Pius V did to Queen Elizabeth in 1570. This is why, as late as 1776, John Jay argued that the New York constitution should exclude Roman Catholics from immigrating, since they were subject to a “foreign authority” who could “absolve the subjects of this state from the allegiance of the same.” And this is why, as late as 1874, William Gladstone could denounce the teachings of the First Vatican Council as a threat to the British constitutional order.

In The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari dedicates a rather curious chapter to this nineteenth-century controversy, one that seems to betray confusion over the historic positions of Catholics and Protestants on religious and political liberty. The bulk of the book, it should be emphasized, is thoroughly ecumenical, self-consciously incorporating insights from Confucian, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant thinkers, as well as several moderns of dubious and idiosyncratic religiosity. Its thesis is the claim, much like that of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, that human nature is constituted by limits, that true freedom is found in the recognition, not the imagined transcendence of, such limits, and that the way for humans to flourish within these limits is captured within the age-old traditions of many civilizations—through Christianity most of all. There is hardly anything in the book to suggest that the evils of modern hyper-liberalism can be cured only by the embrace of Roman Catholicism and its distinctive political vision. Hardly anything until Chapter Eight, that is.

In this chapter, “Should You Think for Yourself?,” Ahmari takes aim squarely at the great heresy of modernity: the idea that “the individual has the supreme right and even the duty to reason through life’s dilemmas on her own, her conscience unchained by authorities of whatever kind” (164). Ahmari names this conviction as the essence of “liberalism.” But by this definition, very few individuals before the later 20th century could be described as advocates of “liberalism.” If there is one who does, however, a man “who personified liberalism in the nineteenth century,” it was—according to Ahmari—the great British statesman William Gladstone. Never mind that Ahmari never once attempts to quote Gladstone articulating this expansive new vision of conscience, or that Gladstone was, by Ahmari’s own admission, “a devout evangelical,” his conscience chained to the Word of God. It is enough for Ahmari that Gladstone took up the cudgels against the Papacy in the wake of the First Vatican Council.

Ahmari calls Gladstone’s The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance “one of the most notorious anti-Catholic screeds ever published,” one “tinged with not a little menace” (168). In fact, however, it is a matter-of-fact and fairly run-of-the-mill Protestant critique of Roman pretensions to rule over conscience and intrude upon the proper sphere of civil allegiance. It may be that Gladstone conflates to some extent the doctrine of papal infallibility and the doctrines of the pope’s political power, as John Henry Newman would protest in his A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875). But, pace Ahmari, it should be clear that Gladstone opposed neither the idea of an infallible authority that should bind conscience, nor the idea of human authorities that should guide and govern the individual’s exercise of freedom. Rather, he opposed quite specifically the fusion of these two in the person of the Pope: there may be an infallible authority, but it is not human; and there must be human authorities, but these are not infallible.

Strikingly, Newman in his Letter never accuses Gladstone of holding to the modern view of conscience, a fact that Ahmari obscures in his quotations from the tract. In fact, Newman grants that historic Protestantism, in all its branches, joins with Rome in repudiating the modern liberal view of conscience: “When Anglicans, Wesleyans, the various Presbyterian sects in Scotland, and other denominations among us, speak of conscience, they mean what we mean” (italics mine). Newman’s purpose is simply to show that a Roman Catholic need not, “surrender his mental and moral freedom” by bowing to the decrees of the Pope, as Gladstone had charged.

But what Ahmari seems to miss is that Newman achieves this defense of Roman Catholicism by subtly appropriating the historic Protestant, not the historic Catholic understanding of conscience and authority, articulated from Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam (1302) to Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei (1885). Although Newman considers it difficult to imagine that the Pope would ever in fact command him to act against his civil allegiance, or authoritatively pronounce on something to which his conscience could not consent, he forthrightly admits that if this did happen, he would follow his conscience, and disobey the Pope:

If either the Pope or the Queen demanded of me an ‘Absolute Obedience,’ he or she would be transgressing the laws of human nature and human society. I give an absolute obedience to neither. Further, if ever this double allegiance pulled me in contrary ways, which in this age of the world I think it never will, then I should decide according to the particular case, which is beyond all rule, and must be decided on its own merits. I should look to see what theologians could do for me, what the Bishops and clergy around me, what my confessor; what friends whom I revered: and if, after all, I could not take their view of the matter, then I must rule myself by my own judgment and my own conscience.

Here I stand; I can do no other? 

To compound the confusion, Ahmari, having cited Newman as a Catholic champion against Protestant private judgment, goes on to hold up as a model Newman’s description of John Keble from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua:

Keble was a man who guided himself and formed his judgments…by authority. Conscience is an authority; the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessons; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories, such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions.

But Keble was a member of the Protestant Church of England, and this understanding of authority, with “the Church” but one form of authority among many that must govern and guide the conscience, is quintessentially Protestant!

None of this is to deny that the Catholic Church can reform and adapt (although infallibility makes it challenging), leaving behind its earlier decree that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Perhaps Newman is right that a good Catholic can indeed now be a good citizen of a moderate liberal regime, with the Pope’s spiritual authority cordoned off from temporal matters. But if so, let us learn to call things by their proper names.

As a magisterial Protestant, I warmly welcome Catholic skeptics of liberalism into a shared project of renewing the common good and the conscience, through respect for natural law and constitutional liberty; but let us call this project what it is: political Protestantism.

* Photo Credit: Pixabay

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Bradford Littlejohn

Bradford Littlejohn is a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.