At first, John Zmirak’s recent essay on “Illiberal Catholicism” reads like a confused jumble of ideas. Strange third-hand anecdotes about Catholic liberal arts students immolating pigs sit alongside Zmirak’s potted political history of Europe and his undisguised rage at the “paternalism” (there’s nothing that liberal culture loathes more than the figure of the Father) and “intolerance” of everyone from Plato to Pius IX.
There is a unifying thread, however. Zmirak rejects “illiberal Catholicism” because he thinks its rejection of post-Enlightenment liberal culture threatens to stall or reverse the gains that Catholics have made in the culture wars. In order to credibly defend the sanctity of human life, traditional marriage, and the religious freedom of Christians, Catholic citizens must make it absolutely clear to their “non-Catholic neighbors” that “we reject utterly the paternalism of the past and treasure their religious, political, and economic freedom as much as we treasure our own.”
Yet Zmirak’s argument smacks of hypocrisy, because the culture wars project in which he is so heavily invested—and which he thinks “illiberal Catholicism” threatens—is itself a profoundly illiberal project when liberty is measured by the Enlightenment standards Zmirak endorses.
Despite the name, “culture” warriors often have little interest in actual culture. Instead, they focus their interest on law, and in particular on law’s power to coerce. Regardless of whether they are speaking about abortion, homosexuality, or some other issue, culture warriors on both sides of the aisle spend very little time treasuring or attempting to appeal to the moral freedom of their opponents, or even treating them as rational agents who have any capacity for moral reasoning at all. Instead, both liberal and conservative culture warriors seem more intent on seizing control of the constitutional levers of power so that they can use the law to force their opponents to behave properly.
Zmirak himself, for example, asserted recently that “our nation needs to bring back anti-sodomy laws,” arguing that those convicted of gay sex should be sentenced to community service. Zmirak suggests that a suitable “symbolic” punishment would be for homosexuals to be forced to plant flowers in public places. He argues that acts of private sodomy should be punished for the same reason we punish acts of racial discrimination even in some private contracts—because both acts “violate the mores of our society.” It’s difficult to imagine Zmirak’s ideas being received well by the sort of secular liberals he thinks Catholics need to placate.
Though I don’t, I have no doubt that there are quite a few who fall under Zmirak’s “illiberal Catholic” label who also want to bring back sodomy laws (though perhaps with more useful and humane penalties), but that is beside the point. They, after all, are not the ones who have to explain to twenty-first century America how their support of sodomy laws is compatible with the rejection of paternalism and the treasuring of individual liberty that Zmirak claims to embrace, and which he castigates the rest of us for not embracing.
“If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society,” Zmirak argues, “we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too.” But for someone trying to convince his secular, cosmopolitan, liberal friends how “freedom-loving“ he is, it makes little sense to be outraged at the illiberalism of Catholic college students who refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving when you’re out there making arguments for gays to be publicly humiliated planting daisies and daffodils all along the highway.
In theory, I am not opposed to the idea that political communities can and should enforce certain moral standards—whether those standards are about how we use our sexual faculties or about how we treat those whose ethnic background is different from our own. But that is because, unlike Zmirak, I do not claim to be appalled by the concept of “paternalism”—the idea that political communities can and should limit the individual autonomy of their members for the good of those members (and therefore, by extension, for the common good of the political community itself).
For the heroes of the liberal tradition, this idea was anathema. Thomas Hobbes, for example, was not only unwilling to concede that a political community had this sort of natural “paternal” power over its members, he was unwilling even to concede that parents had this power over their own children. In Leviathan, he attempts to argue that “paternal dominion” is the result of the child’s “consent,” even if that consent is not “expresse” but only implied. Though that may sound absurd (and it is), it makes perfect sense from the liberal perspective, in which the authority of another person over me can only be legitimate if it is in fact an extension of the absolute authority I have over myself.
Zmirak’s liberal instincts are right about one thing, however, and that is that we should be afraid of any sort of paternalism that manifests itself in the form of “the omnicompetent secular state that crushes civil society and replaces everything from the family to the private school with some agency of the government.”
But for this reason it is puzzling that among “illiberal Catholics,” Zmirak singles out Michael Baxter and his America magazine article “Murray’s Mistake” for particular criticism. In “Murray’s Mistake,” Baxter argues:
For several decades Alasdair MacIntyre has been arguing on Thomistic-Aristotelian grounds—the same grounds on which Father Murray argued—that the natural law does not serve the modern state but subverts it, that the modern state must be resisted because it is corrosive to the practices and virtues necessary for genuine political community. Only small-scale, practice-based communities, MacIntyre argues, can support the kind of practical reasoning aimed at achieving the common good. Only a polis, as envisioned by Aristotle and re-envisioned by Aquinas, can sustain the moral and intellectual life through these dark and difficult times.
Providentially, this task of constructing local forms of community has been taken up by increasing numbers of Catholics. Troubled by a sense of political homelessness in America, disaffected with both liberal and conservative ideologies, they have turned from state-centered, partisan politics and devoted themselves instead to the political life of local communities wherein the common good may be embodied: unions, worker co-ops and neighborhood organizations; agrarian projects and charter schools; ecclesial communities of prayer, friendship and works of mercy; houses of hospitality for the poor, unemployed, elderly, disabled, unwed mothers and immigrant families.
The significance of these efforts was acknowledged by the U.S. Catholic bishops when they unanimously endorsed the cause of the canonization of Dorothy Day. For almost five decades Day urged Catholics to turn aside from the impersonal, bureaucratic and often violent politics of the nation-state in favor of constructing genuine political communities where it is possible to take personal responsibility for the care of others.
Zmirak accuses Baxter (and the MacIntyreans) of advocating an Amish-like “quietism.” Yet the accusation—that the MacIntyrean “Benedict Option” is radically at odds with the Christian evangelistic impulse and with concern for wider culture—does not stack up. Dorothy Day, after all, was hardly a quietist. The Catholic Worker Movement has mushroomed to include hundreds of autonomous communities within only a few decades, and yet each individual community remains on the sort of smaller scale “wherein the common good may be embodied.”
The reality is that unless we as Catholics can envisage and build communities for the formation of the moral self on a smaller-scale than the nation state we are left with two very unattractive options. The first option is the option that seems to be inevitably implied by Zmirak’s attacks on “illiberalism” and on “paternalism.” That option is that the only moral community we are left with is a purely procedural night-watchman state that does not see itself as a “moral community” at all, but as a neutral referee safeguarding the liberty of individuals to pursue their private visions of the good.
This option, of course, is untenable, since the human person is by nature a political, social, and moral animal, and these features of our nature are inseparable. Humans instinctively seek to live out the moral life communally. In other words, morality is by definition a social enterprise, and wherever there is human community, there is a shared morality. The idea of a procedural state that concerns itself with the “right” but not with the “good” is less a chimera than a fantasy. Wherever this vision of the state has been tried, the result has simply been that its vision of the right—the liberal vision—has become the shared vision of the good.
If the option of the procedural state is untenable, this leaves us with only one realistic alternative to the “small-scale, practice-based communities” for living out the moral life advocated by MacIntyre, Baxter, and Day. That option is that the moral life should be lived out in the context of the omni-competent, sprawling, nanny state that Zmirak is right to fear. Even if, by some miracle, Catholics were ever in control of (or even had a say in) such an entity, and the mores enforced by the nanny state were Catholic or broadly Christian, the sheer size of such political communities means that enforcement of morals is inevitably harsh and inhumane. Unlike smaller-scale communities in which the moral life is embodied in and perpetuated by participation in shared customs and practices that imperceptibly shape the moral self, the moral life of the nanny state is one whose size renders impossible the formation of a genuinely virtuous character. It is the sort of community in which the sinner cannot be reformed and redeemed, but only assigned to pointless activities like planting flowers. The Christian version of this kind of nanny state becomes like Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, in which nothing except the outward shell of morality is enforced, and that only by fear.
Given the increasing realization that the modern liberal state is “corrosive to the practices and virtues necessary for genuine political community,” the question for Catholics is less, “Nietzsche or Aristotle?,” and more “General Franco or Dorothy Day?”