Kevin Gallagher’s essay on “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism” is elegantly written, incisive, and largely quite persuasive. I commend it to you, and hope you read it straight through.

[Pause while you read it straight through.]

Now, I want to call attention to the essay’s final paragraph, breaking it into two parts. Here’s the first part:

Across the political spectrum, electoral dislocations and popular discontent have persuaded many that the liberal intellectual consensus of the last century is crumbling and unhelpful; what will succeed it is nowhere yet clear. But the resurgent discourse of identity suggests that the era of the naked public square is over, and political arguments made with baggage attached — representing a particular tradition, nation, or tribe — may now be admitted to the bar.

I have a question: Whose bar? Because the idea that there is a permanent, viewpoint-neutral court in which disputes can be adjudicated is the governing fiction of the very liberal order that Gallagher says is now collapsing. That belief in such a bar did indeed govern, and was indeed a fiction, was convincingly shown many years ago by Stanley Fish in the pages of First Things, back when First Things was the parish magazine of fusionism:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable.

The collapse of the liberal order means the collapse of the very category that Gallagher invokes here: “arguments made with baggage attached.” After liberalism all arguments are understood to have baggage attached, which means that the relevant question becomes: What baggage are you carrying? And the baggage carried by Catholics is simply not welcome at the bar of the New Just City. Gallagher is implicitly rehashing here the old saw that “postmodernism brings a level playing field,” when in fact it relieves the rulers of the obligation to level that field. Under the ancien regime of liberalism people needed to come up with reasons for dismissing religious positions, and typically did so, even when the reasons were very badly formed indeed; now the reasons are unnecessary. “You’re a bigot” does the job just fine. As I once heard Richard Rorty say, “The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” There may be, and indeed I think there are, good reasons to abandon fusionism, but the idea that in our current order integralist and other post-fusionism arguments will have greater purchase than fusionism did is, I fear, a fantasy.

Now on to the second half of that paragraph:

For Catholics, this is an invitation to boldness, to parrhesia: there is no point in watering down traditional teachings to comply with the norms of a decaying liberal discourse. And for non-Catholics, it offers the possibility of new political alignments, based not on a false equation of Catholicism with any other school of thought, but on the identification of genuinely shared goals. As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

Again, I agree with the conclusion but not with the reasons stated to support it. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Catholic particularism will have any more “credibility” to the society at large than Catholic fusionism did. “The Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice” not because that will be more credible or effective but because it is the Catholic tradition’s own voice. Calculations of political effectiveness are misplaced in a social environment where all substantive (and hence exclusive) religious stances are indistinguishable from the grossest bigotry. The dogma living loudly within you won’t win many friends or influence many people. But it ought to live loudly within you anyway.

Which leads me to my chief point: earlier I pointed out that Gallagher was employing a category (“arguments that carry baggage”) that in our moment has become invalid, and now I’m going to point out one that’s absent from his essay but I think has some use. That category is “Christian.” Note that Gallagher writes of “non-Catholics” and then, a little later, writes of “nonbelievers” in a way that suggests he sees the two terms as synonymous. I suggest that they aren’t. But Gallagher’s essay contains only the vaguest of hints that non-Catholic Christians exist.

This means that he doesn’t note that one of the natural outgrowths of Catholic fusionism was a certain attention to ecumenism. If, as a Catholic, you could make common cause with free-market conservatives, then you certainly ought to be able to make even more common cause with free-market conservative Protestants, especially if they also shared your views on abortion. Thus the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, which began, more or less, here and is now moribund.

For many years I tried to persuade reluctant or indifferent Catholics that this kind of ecumenism is not just feasible but mandatory. I typically did so by citing, enthusiastically and in great detail, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (See an example of this kind of argument here. I was so innocent then.) But eventually it dawned on me that the Argument from Catechism was wholly ineffective. For liberal Catholics, it is a product of the very Magisterial authority that they try hard not to think about; for integralists and other traditionalists, its close association with the much-loathed Second Vatican Council — very large chunks of the Catechism are copied and pasted from the documents of Vatican II, and this is especially true of the sections dealing with the “separated brethren” — tends to make it even less appealing to them than it is to liberals.

I just wish I had realized this about a decade earlier than I did.

So I am left with a few questions for integralists and other traditionalists. Without asking that you in any way compromise your integralism or traditionalism, I wonder:

  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you theologically?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean?
  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you politically, and especially in the American context?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean? Do you think of these particular matters in ways distinct from the fusionists?