What rules us? I paid enough attention in high school civics to think the answer obvious: we rule ourselves; we’re a nation of laws, a constitutional republican democracy. We elect representatives and senators to make laws and a president to enforce them, while a judiciary makes sure they adhere to constitutional precedent. In the end, the whole system is accountable to the popular will.
Nobody seriously disputes this picture. Yet to think in purely procedural terms conceals the way things work in our society more than it clarifies them. The liberal order is a financier’s dream: economic and social liberalization catering precisely to the banker’s most unconventional desires. European technocrats beholden only to big banks can push around debtor nations no matter what voters might say about it. The gods of the new pantheon turn out to be familiar ones—Moloch, Mammon, Asmodeus—and they vie with one another for influence and dominion. A minute’s reflection reveals a wild and diverse array of forces that influence our lives, none of which are reducible simply to parliamentary procedure.
The question of what these forces are, and how they rule is really a question about the nature of the liberal order. But it’s a question about which Christians today are deeply confused.
Until recently, outside of a few odd dissidents, the problem of the liberal order seemed settled to the Christians who inhabit it. After all, we had the Soviet menace to contend with, and it was liberal nations who opposed atheistic communism. After the Second World War, Christians spent quite a bit of intellectual capital defending and justifying the liberal project, and gradually it came to be seen that to be a good Christian simply is to be a good liberal. The school of John Courtney Murray, George Weigel, and Michael Novak had won. It was over.
That American postwar conservatives of the kind mentioned above are indeed liberals in the philosophical sense is telling. Liberalism is the air we breathe, as invisible to us as water to a fish.
Despite this, some Christians are now beginning to suspect that the alliance we made with the liberal order during the Cold War was only one of convenience. Now, perhaps, we are in the process of becoming inconvenient. The age of Obergefell, of the war in Iraq, and of the financial crisis—against the backdrop of mass apostasy and clerical scandal in the West—has only served to strengthen these concerns. Many articles and blogs (and tweets!) have expressed this growing sense that Christians are in the process of being excised from the order which we thought we understood, in which we thought we had a place; these came to a head in the publication of Rod Dreher’s much-discussed The Benedict Option, a primer for Christian secession-in-place.
Like a child learning to walk, these first attempts to discern our ruling order have been tentative and incomplete. As the blind men with the elephant, each grasps a piece of the liberal order, but never the whole. The small error at the start becomes large in the end, and whatever inference we try to make, whatever positive program we recommend, ends up too far off the mark.
So what is liberalism really? There seem to be three essential notes of the liberal order, without which it cannot be understood. Liberalism is a threefold juridical, economic, and theological order brought about by parallel and linked revolutions in each area. Each of these revolutions is in some respect inimical to the Christian life. Defeat one—succeed in a single-issue counter-revolution—and you’re no better off: Moloch increases where Mammon decreases. We don’t consider the different faces of liberalism together because to do so threatens our whole political order. But it’s time and past time. To be Christian in the twenty-first century requires that we do precisely this.
I. A society of greed
Let’s flesh this out, beginning with liberalism in the economic sphere.
Incredibly (and indefensibly) opinion is divided on whether there is anything uniquely liberal about our current economic system. After all, what we call “capitalism” is just the natural order of things—Rome had markets! Humans have, as Adam Smith said, an inherent “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”! But in the next breath, the prophets of capital trumpet its world-historical successes against poverty and disease and famine: we have been rescued from the pit of the pre-capitalist order; we have been granted miracles of technology and wealth by this system, so much better than anything that had come before; we have been given the keys to a kingdom of abundance the like of which humanity had never before dreamed. We have built a great economic system, and nobody builds economic systems better than us—believe me.
Well, which is it? About this much, the triumphalists are right: trade is not capitalism; markets are not capitalism. Rather, capitalism is the arrogation of productive property to a select few, who then bargain for the labor of the rest of the members of society on pain of destitution. Plainly this is the case: not just in our society, but around the world. And this, like the rest of liberalism, came into being at a specific time and a specific place, against an older order.
And thanks be to God for it! Nobody wants a return to feudalism—or any earlier economic system. Sure, you’ll find in the dark corners of the internet some aesthetes who’ve read too much Tolkien or Berry and imagine an edenic woodland past full of faeries and nymphs, a “sacramental imagination” and hearty draughts of deep, dark ale brewed by innkeepers’ wives. People under feudalism suffered and died young, mainly of starvation and plague and war. Christians do not need to duplicate this past, even if there are many theological and literary luminaries we might find in it to admire. Armed with their treasures, it is our task to live in this moment, and respond accordingly. There is no need to romanticize conditions of subsistence-farming when we nearly possess the means to end hunger.
Yet nobody justifies slavery simply because you can use it to build great pyramids. We can celebrate vaccines and the internet while recognizing that asking someone to choose between destitution and working for you is different—differently unfree—from the premodern “natural” condition of choosing between working the land or starvation. This is a social question, a political question: it is a question subject to moral evaluation.
The economy has never been an amoral system that operates “of itself,” and which cannot be interrupted or interrogated, lest we jostle the invisible hand. We can recognize that man is not ordered to the good of the economy (i.e. profit), but that the economy is ordered toward the good of man. We’re allowed to say “ought”: we can believe that if the economy can provide food for everyone, it ought to; if it can provide housing for everyone, it ought to; if any of the means of life, it ought to; this, because of the common destination of goods. “The original gift of the earth,” we read in the Catechism, was “to the whole of mankind.” And then we can ask why, precisely, the economy is not providing these goods for all, but is instead providing a glutted superabundance for some. To correct this situation is a matter of justice. “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man,” said St. Ambrose, “but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” That capitalism makes us rich does not make it right.
The basic insight that we must recover—the universal wisdom of the ancients and the clear evidence of common experience—is that political economy is, in fact, a part of politics. This is true both descriptively, as when the state enforces the “right” to private property against Jean Valjean when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, and prescriptively, as when we suggest that the political community has a positive role to play in the right ordering of economic life and activity.
It has been the whole game of liberal theorists and economists to convince us that the spheres of “state” and “market” are, or ought to be, separate and incommensurable. Nothing is further from the truth. Descriptively and in our own time, capital is deeply intertwined with the operation of the state—from lobbying and regulatory capture to globalization and anti-working class policies—to the point that to speak of one without the other is a type of willed ignorance. This is wrong not because it is an illegitimate blending of two spheres that ought to remain separate; rather, it is wrong because it is done badly and towards a bad end. It’s a blending where capital rules to the detriment of the political community. Politics, understood in the thick, Aristotelian sense, includes all human activity done in community—as it should! It is the project of ordering our common life together well, subject to common rule. That means ordering our economic life well, aimed to the good of all.
It isn’t hard to see that capitalism has nothing to do with an economic life ordered toward the common good. When hundreds of millions of people are starving, do we have any business producing Xbox controllers? When your children starve, do you think it’s responsible to spend your time on the crossword? Is an economy ordered to the good of man one that maintains a multi-billion dollar pornography industry in the midst of extreme global poverty? It is greed—money, not human well-being—that lies at the center of our economic life. This is, of course, exactly how capitalism is meant to work: capital has always acted as the sectarian interest it is, seeking to arrogate all profits to itself, preferring its private good over the common good of all society. Even if we leave aside any notion of class, still we imagine a system of pure atomistic individuals, endowed with inviolable private property, and no imperative other than self-interest and accumulation. There is no room for any common good in it.
It has never pretended otherwise; never pretended to operate other than, as Mandeville said, by private vice. We may be excused for wondering when precisely the promised public virtue will appear. Neither can we be indifferent to the souls lost to avarice and pride in a society that encourages precisely these; “private vice” has no place in the Christian life. Newman once famously said that “[t]he Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.” And he is right. It is horrible to think of the poor souls lost forever having denied just wages, committed usuries and frauds, kept workers away from family life, and the like, because of the inhuman demands of capital.
For those of us who live in the heart of the capitalist world, it’s tempting to try to ignore these questions. I get to lead a very comfortable life, and it’s unpleasant to imagine Bangladeshi sweatshops filled with children, in buildings subject to fire and collapse. Leave capitalism alone, we think, and it will leave us alone. This is a fantasy. Even the Christian who sings the praises of capital wherever he goes will not be able to escape its demands. Capital is omnipresent, and it does not care about virtue or the faith. The same Christians who made use of gentrification to create a “Benedict Option” style community in Hyattsville, Maryland—a project written about in a previous issue of this magazine—are now finding themselves being gentrified out. The same Christians who championed free markets and corporate license are finding the ethics of Christian orthodoxy trampled on by a host of large corporations. This is no accident.
What no one can avoid is that every attempt to relate to one another as human beings is conditioned today by the requirements of capital. Everything must be transformed into a commodity from which profit can be extracted. No frontier of human interaction remains untouched by this dynamic. Care for the sick, care of children, care of the elderly: it’s all got to be filtered through the capitalist economy. When I have kids, my wife and I will be busy working, but we’ll be able to hire a stranger to raise them for us. When I’m old, I might not have any grandchildren, but I can pay for a nice young nurse to sit at my bedside while I die.
This logic of capitalism is both inexorable and fundamentally opposed to the law of Christ. We live in a society where wombs and embryos—actual human lives! real women’s bodies!—have been commodified, bought and sold in markets like so much cattle. Just as the capitalist order came into being on the back of the purchase and sale of the black body, so today do we make a woman’s employment prospects contingent on her willingness to procure an abortion. It is an unspeakable horror.
There’s an integral relationship between a “consumerist” culture and an economic system built only for profit: appetites must be created in order to satiate them in order to stoke them again. People embedded in the love of friends and family, or worse, holy people satisfied in the love of God, all have a terrible tendency towards contentment: this is death to a growth economy. Social atomization and perpetual mobility are fantastic for driving down wages; so also is a mistreated and exploited migrant underclass. There’s a fundamental tension between a capitalist order and a society of peace, united in the pursuit of the common good of all.
A million analyses can be done along these lines. Do one or two of them, and suddenly the world snaps into three dimensions. When you avoid doing political economy, it eats you alive.
It would take another essay to fully develop this theme. I am barely scratching the surface. But an understanding of the political economy under which we live is the note of the liberal order most often missing from Christian writers’ understanding of it. It’s that engine that moves the world. Capitalism drives secularism; capitalism drives the “sexual revolution” and the abortion regime; capitalism drives white supremacy and imperialism; capitalism drives climate change. These things will not wither away spontaneously without capitalism to support them, but they certainly depend on it for life today.
Christians must begin to think—and live—beyond capitalism. That capitalism is preferable to feudalism—or Soviet communism—is not, after all, a proof that capitalism enables us to live well. The contours of this project are highly complex; it will be enough in the short-term for us to begin to recognize the capitalist order as hostile both to mankind and to the Church.
II. A society of indifference
Our order’s juridical liberalism is perhaps its clearest feature. Its slogan is “freedom from” (implicitly, “from coercion”): we create legal spaces in which anything goes. These are our famous First Amendment rights, our freedoms to marry, to own guns, to dispose of our property exactly as we see fit; our freedom of speech, of religion, of the press; our freedom in all things to choose, without reference to the content of the choice, of the action. To will is all. The mere exercise of these “rights” is its own good. The fact that these rights are protected is also an implied approbation; if it really were bad to do, we’d stop you from doing it.
Voltaire’s apocryphal liberal aphorism that “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it” obscures the moral impact of legal indifferentism. I don’t agree with anyone’s decisions to engage in torture or murder, and there’s no world in which I’d defend to the death a right to cruelty and violence. The implication—which has been entirely absorbed by our culture—is that religion and speech and belief and so on are purely private matters, ones which are of relatively little significance either socially or personally. It would be wrong to punch a Nazi—that’s assault!—but we’re indifferent to whether anyone engages in Holocaust denialism. This is how Richard Spencer’s venomous white supremacy gets the backing of the ACLU—ideas, after all, never hurt anyone. It’s as though the soul doesn’t exist.
The notion that liberal rights might codify tolerance of certain evils for the sake of some social good seems significantly undercut by the fact that liberal rights today in fact license simply whatever behavior. More damning is that no normative standard is specified in any liberal rights-regime against which we might be tolerating, let alone evaluating, evils. It is right for even the most chauvinist Christian constitution to tolerate the practice of other religions, while recognizing that it is only in the true faith that we are saved. But not even the natural law binds on the liberal state, as Antonin Scalia was constantly happy to remind us; there’s simply nothing in liberalism to tell us what might be good or bad. This is how “expression” has become a broad enough category to encompass Milton, pornography, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Many have tried to rescue liberal rights-regimes by adverting to “duties” that are alleged to accompany liberal rights; having never seen these in any liberal constitution, written or otherwise, they’re as real to me as Frodo Baggins.
The same dynamic operates in all areas where “rights” rule. The right to choose includes, somehow, the right to kill. A people can resist a wicked law, but the hardest lesson is always that law does teach—as it should! Even the secular state retains its sacral character. In earlier iterations of the liberal state, church and family strictures may have been strong enough to instill the idea that not all exercises of rights enable us to live well. This has evaporated in the sea of indifferentism in which the liberal state has educated us. Christians are barely willing today to meekly suggest that salvation can only be found in the Church. Though the lesson has taken centuries to be fully learned, we’ve become indifferent to a great many things; said another way, this is the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Beyond protecting their “rights,” it’s simultaneously come to pass that the other major function of our legal order is to deliver goods and services to individuals, individually—as though that legal order were, as MacIntyre puts it, the telephone company. I can tally up my relationship with the state in fines and taxes I’ve paid, in exchange for the credits, utilities, and social benefits I’ve received. There is nothing substantive to discuss in politics, no question of the end we should be seeking, the goodness of the goals of our life together: only a technical, administrative question of how best to manage resources. This has always been part of the law; rarely has it been so dominant.
Rights and state services: that’s what politics is about. Rights that you exercise individually; services that you consume individually. Consequently, the goods that these rights and services defend have become privatized and individualized, so that our entire idea of what it means to live politically becomes individualized. The result is that goods which ought to be common become fractured and atomized. And this, not coincidentally, rhymes and harmonizes with the social effects sought by capital.
But Christians are bound to pursue the common good. As many have helped to recover a ”thick” notion of politics that includes what might more commonly be called “civil society,” so must we also recover a “thick” idea of the common good. The common good of political life is the highest good—outside of the bond of charity—we can participate in as human beings. If we want to live well, we have to find a way to live well politically. Politics is how we order our life together, and this life together is the preeminent shared activity; as in the orchestra in which people take varied but harmonious parts, in a well-ordered polity, we live with each other, and not just alongside each other, in justice and mutual service, enjoying a peace that is more than merely the absence of conflict.
A rediscovery of the common good means a rediscovery of the authentic peace in which God has ordained for His creation to live. Peace is not founded on mutual antagonism or a truce between warring parties. Peace is the harmonious activity of God’s creation working together within the order of divine providence for the good of all and the worship of God. It is not a condition in which we agree not to go to war because of mutually-assured destruction; it’s a mom and a dad delighting together in raising a child. Those images that we see after natural disasters of ordinary men and women looking out for each other in community? That’s the peace: it’s bustling, it’s fruitful, it has things to do. A politics of peace is busy and dynamic, but it’s always ordered toward building one another up in virtue. Peace should govern every level of our political life: this is what it means to promote the common good.
And it is not wrong to expect a legal regime that respects the common good to respect it in its juridical form. Instead of indifference to a variety of goods, the law exists to direct us toward the good and away from the bad. There’s no reason we have laws against smoking except that it is bad for us to smoke; there’s no reason we have speed limits other than it’s bad for us to speed. Everyone naturally understands this. It’s only when there’s widespread social disagreement about the morality of the principle at hand that we protest that the laws ought to be morally neutral. There is no neutrality; there is no such thing as indifference. What we are saying when we affirm that a law should be neutral in a particular case is that there is no right or wrong in that case.
This kind of neutrality, the neutrality inculcated by liberalism, has nothing to do with prudence as that virtue is meant to operate in the legal order. Prudence always aims for the good, which is fixed: either by choosing among means toward that good or by tolerating some mischief that we might secure some other good. It has never meant taking up a neutral indifference to the good. While it would, I suspect, save many thousands of souls from eternal hellfire to lock up anyone caught in the possession of anime, we’re right to give the nerds some license for the sake of social order. That’s prudence.
What we must come to recognize again is that—with Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Thomas Aquinas—an unjust law is no law at all. God has promulgated the natural and divine law from all eternity, which we participate in both in conscience and whenever we make positive law in politics. It is not an esoteric matter: the law of God is accessible by reason and written on the hearts of men. And whenever we violate God’s preexisting law, we really do legislate and judge invalidly. It isn’t sufficient to throw up your hands and say there’s nothing we can do simply because some gravely immoral law was passed by Congress, signed by the President, and judged constitutional by the Supreme Court. Procedural soundness cannot be the sole mechanism by which laws are evaluated, any more than it can be the sole mechanism in evaluating the economy. In both cases, the substance of the act, and not just the process, must be considered. It is a farce to allow any invalid law to stand on the books, and all those that contradict the law of God are invalid.
That doesn’t mean that every good needs to be secured by the nation-state and recognized in its laws. Christians will be well-advised to think beyond the nation. There are many modern challenges that require collective supranational action: among these, climate change, terrorism, mass migration, global capital. It’s an esoteric Thomistic manualism that the natural law requires world government—echoed in Pope Benedict XVI’s calls for a world order “with teeth”—and we can retain suspicion of the anticlerical UN and EU while recognizing the common good of all mankind. And there are many goods that require the empowering of “lower” authorities than the nation-state, notably the family. This is a more authentic reading of “subsidiarity”—each challenge responded to by a unit adequate to responding to it, each good secured by a unit capable of securing it, the lower and higher mutually reinforcing one another—than the liberal reading, which sees political authority as in perpetual need of diminution, with the nation-state as the measure of all things. Since we can see political life itself as a common good, we do not need to see it as necessarily antagonistic to “civil society” or “the family” or especially “the Church.”
Nor should Christians be afraid of the idea that political society ought to be ordered to the Church. Just as everything I do in my life should be ordered toward the glory of God, so too should everything done in political life glorify Him. The idea that we ought to live politically as non-Christians and only privately as Christians is a very recent one and not one that I think will last. It’s impossible to maintain dual loyalties: as a citizen on the one hand, and as a Christian on the other. It’s natural to live as a citizen, and we’re called to live as Christians: we should strive for a society in which the two societies of Church and polity mutually reinforce one another and coexist harmoniously.
III. A society of idolatry
Here I must discuss theological liberalism. The highest common good of all, even beyond the earthly common good of political society is, after all, God. He is the Good which we all are ultimately meant to share. Liberalism must deny this. It is premised fundamentally on the idea of amoral neutrality between various notions of “the good.” What I mean to indicate by the idea of theological liberalism is exactly this indifferentism, but in matters of the sacred. In this respect I have in mind John Cardinal Newman: “liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” This is particularly troubling for anyone who imagines, as I do, that we ought to confess Christ truly in order to be saved.
By now, of course, many good and holy Christians have responded to this notion, all with the same basic counsel: seat yourselves in the wisdom and riches of traditional, orthodox theology. There is Truth in religion, and He is seeking you out. Faith is a divine gift to know the divine life and sacred revelation: it’s not just a feeling of coziness with Christ, it has specific truth-content. The tripersonal God who made the universe is our Father and our rightful King. We, having turned away from Him, were enslaved, were dying, were alone, were afraid. But we had heard rumors that it would not always be that way, and two thousand years ago those rumors came true. The second person of that Trinity became a baby, grew to be a man, and for the love of the world and of you and me, died, and did not stay dead. Those are some of the outlines of the Christian faith, and if it’s true, it matters that it’s true. To affirm what does and does not belong to Christian orthodoxy is not always an easy thing to do; but it is even today part of what we do. We must be sensitive to the fact that our age is not simply an age of moral disorder, but also of theological disorder, driven by the indifference of liberalism.
But there’s something more sinister lurking beneath our putatively indifferent order. In place of a great multiplicity of creeds, most folks seem to subscribe to a common one. At the root of liberalism is superstition. It’s a fantastical hallucination of how human society works, based on something like Newtonian physics: each subject of liberal rule is an atom, interacting with others according to neutral rules that govern the ways they are to behave and the relationships between subjects. But each of these atoms has within it a force, the only force that really matters in this system: will. Always at the bottom of liberalism lies the principle of unconstrained and indifferent choice. In law this yields Justice Kennedy’s ayahuasca-encomium to the “heart of liberty,” from his defense of abortion in Casey: that liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In political economy, the principle brings forth absolutist regimes of “private property” totally unyoked from any common good. And in theology, it produces a complete indifferentism that reduces every question of the sacred to a matter of private, rational judgment.
That will and choice lie at the foundation of our regime is explanation enough for the license given to the ungodly forces that dominate our society. Indifferent to the truth and to the good and scarred by original sin, it’s hardly surprising that we indulge our basest impulses. Free will is indeed a gift, but it’s a gift supplied in the matrix of the gifts of goodness and of truth. An idolatry that severs choice from the good and the true is a monstrosity. So we have fallen away from God and into the thrall of Moloch and Mammon and Asmodeus: the gods of concupiscence. To Moloch we offer the sacrifice of uncountable multitudes of the unborn, the genocide of native peoples, the continued brutalities of white supremacy, the policy of eternal overseas war, and so on; our bloodlust is insatiable. Our offering to Mammon: the instrumentalization and exploitation of the world’s population in service of what is called “growth”—a giant pile of money. To the demon of lust, we offer all manner of stunning perversities and depravities; to achieve pornographic theosis in communion with this god is among the highest pursuits we can imagine today. They are not jealous: you will find Christians as well as Muslims, Jews, and atheists—devotees from every sect and religion—offering sacrifice at their altars.
This is the supernatural character of the liberal order. The eschatological significance of Progress and the Arc of History means nothing other than the triumph of these gods. It is capital, now, that provides for the mystical bond between us, and it is money that both effects that bond and that is our common object of desire and adoration. In any major city, you will find great liturgical processions every year commemorating the victories of the demon of lust. What is the Super Bowl, if not the highest feast-day of the secular calendar—a pure celebration of bloodsport and rampant commercialism? It’s the common witness of Scripture, tradition, and basic experience that when we leave aside the worship of the true God, we fall under the dominion of other, darker forces. Liberalism culminates as an order of demons.
Since these forces share a common root, they cannot be resisted except as a whole. This is not a matter of political coalitions, but of the basic and inexorable corrosion accompanied by liberalism. Anywhere the capitalist rules, he demands unfettered license to do just whatever he likes with his property in order to satisfy his greed; anywhere the debauched man rules, he demands unfettered license to do just whatever he likes with his member in order to satisfy his lust. These spheres are not separable. Whenever I win a victory in favor of license in service of the passions, I win a victory for all of the false gods of the liberal order. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” as the satanists have it: this is the fundamental rule of the liberal order, modified with the understanding that will often requires power. And this rule is one to which no one is indifferent. Unless we are willing to resist this mentality wherever it manifests—in religion, in law, in political economy, anywhere in society—we will not see victory over it. A spiritual warfare is required just as much as a political-economic one. In this we can take solace in the fact that Christ already is enthroned as King over all of humanity, whether we choose to recognize Him or not.
IV. Toward a politics of the common good
The situation for Christians—indeed, for anyone—today is complex. Some will advocate for a less intimate accommodation with the liberal order. It may be that another—doubtless very different—ralliement is the best we can do with the tools at our disposal, until some fatal crisis of liberalism. Secession-in-place along the lines of Dreher’s Benedict Option is not a straightforward or complete solution. Those inspired by him have often focused primarily on sexual morality and on the education of children. But this approach can become just another lifestyle choice, another form of privatization, and it often has fatally little to say about economic and theological liberalism.
Our fortunes moving forward will depend upon how well we begin to answer these questions. We are in a strange time, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to anticipate old coalitions dissolving and new ones quickly beginning to form. It’s not clear to me that the liberal order has much life in it anymore, other than inertia and the death-cults of its gods.
Rejecting the liberal order, we find ourselves rejecting one version of ecumenism. “Evangelicals and Catholics together in support of capitalism and the liberal state and sexual orthodoxy” is no longer an option open to us. And so, away from the fog and vagueness of indifferentism, there will be a sharpening of distinctions between Christians of different traditions. As others have begun to point out, how exactly you respond to the problems of the liberal order will depend a great deal on how you answer basic ecclesiological questions. But if it can feel like a parting, it is a parting that drives towards final unity. The liberal order was a false peace in the Christian world, one that let us retain our differences by pretending they didn’t matter. They do matter, and we should always be as deep in our resources as we can be—and as sharp up against our interlocutors as we can be—in the pursuit of unity in truth. We should have confidence in that eventual unity, because of our common baptism in the name of the common good who is Christ to whom we all confess our allegiance, and we know that it is His effectual prayer that we will be one.
Resisting the claims of the liberal order, it is right to look to the example of men and women religious for guidance. The evangelical counsels have a perennial vitality and are all the more relevant today. Against the dominion of Mammon and the ravages of capitalism stands the vow of poverty and, in apostolic fashion, the holding of property in community; against Asmodeus and the tyranny of concupiscence stands the vow of chastity; against the dual-indifferentism of juridical and theological liberalism stands the meek vow of obedience to a superior, Jesus Christ, and the Church’s revealed tradition. Just as St. Benedict met the needs of an agrarian, feudal age and the mendicant Sts. Francis and Dominic met the needs of an urban age, we will need today new saints who will meet the age of global capital.
I live in the West, so I have written of the West. But just as the tentacles of the liberal order extend to every corner of the globe, so must our concern ultimately begin to encompass the common good of all mankind. One does not hide from liberalism. It is good to enjoy the common goods of political life in your own state or nation or city; sadly, hardly anyone does. And just as our societies today struggle in the mire of liberalism, so too will any of our projects struggle that do not reckon with the global liberal order. A local vision requires a universal scope. That will mean a solidarity with the global poor and working classes who too often bear the costs of our extravagant lifestyles. That will mean efforts to better unite ecclesial communities across racial and class lines. It will mean new and creative ways of doing-politics that are not limited to the ballot box.
This work of understanding how to live together well and justly and in peace is a task that is truly human, and the common good that we ought to pursue is ultimately the common good of all humanity. We need each other, and the community that God seeks to bring about in us is one in which everyone lives well. Politics is a natural science: this is just as much a matter for non-Christians as Christians. But the profundity of the idea of the common good also includes the idea of the City of God, the heavenly kingdom in which we are all perfectly united in charity. Christians are called both to be good citizens—to build up the political common good—and to live as saints—to live in the company of the blessed. And just as charity rules in the beatified soul, so too does charity rule in the Christian polity. This society, in imitation of the heavenly kingdom, is one where those who are less powerful are not despised, where the least are greatest, where all delight in virtue. It’s a society where the goods of the earth are shared, and where we share, too, in an understanding of what we are and what we are made for, and a true and hearty enjoyment of the good that we can only have together.
Fundamentally, it is this notion of the common good that strikes at the heart of the liberal order. Instead of a political economy that serves only the sectarian, partisan interest of a few, we should pursue one that serves the common good of all. Instead of a juridical order that recognizes only individual, private goods, we should pursue one that serves authentic peace. And in place of private theological judgment, we should all seek our own true fulfilment, and true unity with each other, as we worship and adore in one voice the common good who is God.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]