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On ‘Political Catholicism’
My very last word.
My joy! Christ is risen.
Someone once said, “We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone.” Google says it was Boris Yeltsin, which works for me.
Last weekend, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts—a pillar of our “unintentional community” here in southern New Hampshire—sent off the class of 2023. My in-laws teach at TMC, so I’ve been to every grad since 2019. I hope to keep going every year, too, so long as God keeps me on this green earth. Yet every time feels like the last time. And that’s a great blessing.
All of us remainers (faculty, staff, alumni, and hangers-on like me) say the same thing. Graduation gives us a new appreciation for this place, our home. The air of valediction helps us to see the college, and our community, through the graduates’ eyes. We’re saying goodbye with them; then suddenly, we realize, it’s not goodbye at all.
TMC has a reputation for being the artsiest of the Newman Guide schools. And that’s fair. There’s a folk music guild, a sacred music guild, a schola, and a dramatic society. Every year, the sophomore class spends a semester at TMC’s Rome campus, which is based in an ancient villa near the Vatican. Every alumn has fond memories of sitting on the Trevi Fountain reading Dante and Richard Wilbur.
But it’s more than that. TMC also has a woodworking guild and a homesteading guild. Students have the option of becoming hunter-cerified in New Hampshire.
The newest professor, Michael Dominic Taylor, has become one of my closest friends. Last year, he won the Ratzinger Foundation’s Expanded Reason Award for his gorgeous book The Foundations of Nature. In another life, Mike was a lobsterman. Every year he takes his students for a day-trip to Boston so they can spend a day on a Yankee lobster boat.
Also on staff is a master trapper named Anton Kaska. Last year, on the first day of an open house, prospective students were surprised to find Mr. Kaska hauling in a huge beaver corpse for the natural-history class to dissect. Their parents, I think, were a little more than surprised.
I met my wife when she was a senior at Thomas More, and she invited me to the students’ Easter banquet. Whenever someone mentions TMC, that banquet is the first thing that comes to mind. I wrote about it once in the Catholic Herald:
These are the first days of spring in New England, when you begin to understand why Robert Frost said “nature’s first green is gold”. Three pigs turn on rotisseries made of brick and mortar. The men, decked in flannel shirts and waistcoats, sing folk-songs about Thérèse of Lisieux. Young women in light dresses string garlands in their hair and dance on pedals from the cherry-trees. We eat crackling with thanks and praise to the Risen Lord (not to mention the students who kept a 30-hour vigil at the spit) and wash it down with freshly-bottled ale courtesy of the brewers’ guild. A few pipes are lit; a few romances are enkindled. It’s the Feast of the Resurrection at Thomas More College, so we’re feasting—just as our fathers in the Faith did a millennium ago.
There’s nowhere in the world quite like TMC. Folks say that about every college, of course. But, here, I think it’s true.
This year’s commencement speaker was none other than Sohrab Ahmari, editor of Compact. We became friends not long after he converted to Catholicism in 2016. During his (in)famous debate with David French in 2019, I put myself squarely in the Ahmarist camp. Over the last couple of years, though, some daylight showed up between us.
On the one hand, I started to identify more closely with Tolkien’s “anarcho-monarchism.” I don’t like journalists or economists or think-tankers; I sure as hell don’t like politicians. But I’ve also become deeply disillusioned with politics. I don’t believe in journalists or economists or think-tankers; I sure as hell don’t believe in politicians. I agree with that other great anarcho-monarchist, Auberon Waugh: “It is the kindest thing one can possibly say of a politician that he changed nothing.”
My view—which I lay out in my next book, After Christendom—is that Christian civilization, at least here in the West, has been destroyed. We lost the Culture War before it even began. The Church, as Ratzinger once prophesied, has been reduced to a mustard seed. It’s too late to conserve or reclaim or RETVRN. We have to rebuild.
“Rebuilding,” first and foremost, means the following Benedict Option. I’m a disciple of Rod Dreher, and if anyone has a problem with that, we can go outside. Actually, it was my first encounter with Thomas More College that converted me to the BenOp. I wasted my youth in right-wing politics and Catholic media, but that one glorious Pascha changed everything. As I got in my car and drove home, I thought to myself, “This is the thing with feathers.”
But I would add to the Benedict Option a need for evangelism, meaning the Old Evangelism.
Here, too, community is first and foremost. Tertullian, that great Father of the Church, spoke of how many pagans were converted by the witness of charity shown by one Christian to another. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See how they love one another,’ they say.” But we should also perform the Corporal Works of Mercy in the wider community. To quote David Bentley Hart:
Thus, in the late second century, Tertullian could justly boast that whereas the money donated to the temples of the old gods was squandered on feasts and drink, with their momentary pleasures, the money given to churches was used to care for the impoverished and the abandoned, to grant even the poorest decent burials, and to provide for the needs for the elderly.
Above all, though, I think, we need good old-fashioned street evangelism. That’s why, every month, our first charitable donation goes to the St. Paul Evangelization Institute.
Sohrab has more time for politics than I do. He’s also quite a bit more friendly to the State. That’s why I’ve criticized him on this very blog once or twice in the last few months. And I stand by what I said. He and I have substantial, big-picture disagreements. There’s no use in pretending otherwise.
Having said that, Sohrab got to spend a few hours drinking Allagash Whites, chain-smoking, and (in the best tradition of the modern Catholic Church) building bridges. Here’s what he told me:
He and his confreres totally support community-building, evangelism, and all the rest. But they feel called to offer Christian witness in the temporality. He, personally, is drawn to political economy. He wants to realize Leo XIII’s vision of the State guiding a modern industrial economy to benefit workers, especially working families. And he believes we can find common cause with American populists—Donald Trump, Victor Orban, J. D. Vance, and the like—as well as certain “anti-woke” Leftists, to achieve that goal.
Sohrab isn’t opposed to the Benedict Option as such. But he rejects the idea that we can pursue these nonpolitical avenues while neglecting the political (which clearly isn’t Rod’s error, though it may be mine). As he wrote in an essay for the Catholic Herald back in 2020,
These are the sorts of problems that the Fathers of Vatican II entrusted to the laity when they called upon us to “penetrate and perfect the temporal order” (Apostolicam Actuositate). We must solve them at the level of the state, lest they choke more seed and hinder the re-emergence of Christian peoplehood for generations. And we must pursue today’s versions of the Constantinian conversion, since what states believe to be humanity’s ultimate or highest end necessarily shapes their approach to the Catholic Church, not to mention the temporal common good of citizens.
By the way, I haven’t run any of this by Sohrab. I might be fudging the details. If so, I apologize to Sohrab.
And, for whatever it’s worth, I still don’t entirely agree with him. I’m still more of a shake-the-towndust-of-neopaganism-from-your-feet kind of guy. I’m a proud distributist, localist, agrarian, and Luddite. But if Ahmari & Co. make the world a better place for Christians—Christians like the kids at Thomas More—they’ve got my support.
So, let me be clear where I stand.
I embrace Constantine but I reject Charlemagne. I welcome Christian statesmen, and Christian statecraft, but I reject anything like forced or coerced conversion.
I believe that Christians, working within the temporality, can strive towards the Common Good, as defined—though not exclusively known—by the Church. At the same time, I believe that to be a Christian is to be a lover of God (Mark 12:30) and a friend of Christ (John 15:15). Neither love nor friendship can be forced by even the most well-meaning State. Rather, both are a free offering of the individual will.
To that end, I agree with St. Gregory the Great: “humility and kindness, teaching and persuasion, are the means by which to gather in the foes of the Christian faith.” And, above all, I want to gather in the foes of the Christian faith. Failing that, nothing else matters.
Parse the difference—if there is a difference—however you want. I’m going to bed.
Haven’t had enough? Well, you masochists can listen to me chat with Fr. Robert McTeigue about this very subject on his radio show, where we discuss the “New Apostolic Age.”
Read Sohrab Ahmari’s inspiring address to TMC’s class of 2023.
Speaking of things with feathers, all of you (especially parents) should subscribe to my friend Mary Ellen Barrett’s impossibly beautiful Substack. Seriously, what a gift you’ll give yourself.