the rad-trads and ecumenical hope

Many typos and missed auto-errors now fixed; sorry about those

I find myself thinking often about this 2014 essay by Pat Deneen, one of the smartest political thinkers I know and one of the most incisive commentators on matters Catholic. The core distinction the essay makes seems to me vital. It concerns two rival models of Catholicism that have emerged to replace the old distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism.

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century…. Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin — its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism — it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence….

On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism…. The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism.

In the four-and-a-half years since this essay appeared, two significant developments have occurred that alter, but only to some extent, the story Deneen tells.

First, the collapse of liberal Catholicism — which Deneen in the essay takes as a given — has, it’s safe to say, been postponed. I doubt Deneen would see any substantive reason to question his belief that “Liberal Catholicism has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation”; but that leaves unanswered the question of whether “liberalism simpliciter” could come to run the Catholic Church, at least for a while. In any event, that’s an intra-Catholic issue and not one that I’m concerned with here. (Though I have my preferences about how it all falls out.)

Second, though: his “radical Catholics” — rad-trads, tradinistas (the latter being, I think, a subset of the former) — have grown in power and have taken over some territory that once belonged to that older conservative tradition. In 2014 Deneen could confidently identify First Things as a magazine exemplifying the older tradition, but in the intervening years the rad-trads have become much more vocal there, to the point that the older conservatism is certainly a minority position in the magazine and may eventually disappear altogether. And in at least one sense that is a welcome development: as I have noted several times over the years, my primary disagreement with Father Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, centered on what I felt was his too-great comfort with the American project and his consequent reluctance to subject it to as thorough a critique as it has often deserved.

But though I admire the rad-trad willingness to subject the liberal order to comprehensive critical scrutiny, there’s another feature of the movement that I’m not so happy with: its general lack of interest in, and in many cases even disdain for, for non-Catholics. This is an old theme with me, but re-reading Deneen’s essay has given me a new understanding of the phenomenon.

If I were writing an essay instead of a brief blog post, I’d spell this out with examples, and maybe some day I’ll do that, but for now I’ll just say this: I’ve had many conversations with rad-trads and have had no success in persuading them that any non-Catholic thinker has anything meaningful to contribute to their project. If you want to tell them that you agree wth them, they’re happy enough with that, but they’re not interested in finding intellectual resources outside the Catholic tradition (narrowly conceived) or in hearing commentary from outside the Catholic tradition. In other words, though the rad-trads in my experience rarely have anything good to say about Vatican II, they are the children (or grandchildren) of ressourcement.

More power to them, I guess — but I say that with a bit of sadness, because that older conservative tradition which they repudiate (and may be supplanting) had an interest not just in strengthening the liberal order but also in strengthening ecumenical ties among all Christians, but especially those of the small-o orthodox variety. And it now strikes me that those two projects were closely related: that is, one of the key ways to strengthen the liberal order was through drawing Christians together towards a more unified front, and one of the key ways to pursue ecumenism was through claiming a shared role for all Christians in the liberal order. So I guess the rad-trads have decided that if you want to get rid of the one you have to ditch the other as well.

There may be other factors as well: for instance, many of the rad-trads are converts to Catholicism, and continuing to value anything from the Reformation traditions might feel like a less-than-complete submission to Mother Church. (Dunno. Can’t read minds.) But in any case, I hope that in the next few years they’ll rethink their approach.

Just a couple of examples: Can the pro-life cause really thrive if Catholics and evangelicals don’t work together? Is it really the case that, as the aforelinked Tradinista Manifesto suggests, contemporary Western militarism can only be challenged by “the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory”? Might not the Mennonite tradition have something to say to Catholics — even rad-trad Catholics?

All this to say: I continue to think that, given what we’re collectively facing in this dark time, we Christians need one another — and need one another in intellectual collaboration as well as in common prayer. It would make me very happy if more of my Catholic friends agreed.