The Question of Res publica Christiana in Post-conciliar Catholic Doctrines (Part III)

by John C. Rao

Editor’s Note:  This is the final installment of a three-part essay by Dr. John Rao on the roots of current Catholic ideas about the relationship between the Church and the secular order. The first was mainly concerned with the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ; the second, with the Uriage movement in France; the third, below, looks at the implications of pluralism for the Church’s self-understanding vis-à-vis the State since Vatican II. A version of this paper appeared in: Revista VERBO número 527-528: actas Ciudad Católica (September-October, 2014).

Embrace of American pluralism in the giddy atmosphere of “joy” and “hope” characterizing the end and immediate wake of the Council gave personalists, with their highly developed intellectual agenda, a tremendous advantage in taking control of the evangelization of the entire social order that the break of Church and State supposedly guaranteed. The innate tendency of pluralism to treat social authority as dangerously suspect worked first of all to break down the authority and morale of the old guard at the Roman Curia, turning real power to implement the Council’s decrees over to commissions, study groups, and journals dominated by those possessing the requisite “open spirit”. Paul VI’s Octogesima adveniens (1971) confirmed the pluralist approach on the ecclesiastical level by arguing that local churches would be better able than the Papacy to understand the peculiar natural Seeds of the Logos offered by their own lands and through their own corporate social institutions.

No one seems to have wanted to remember Karl Barth’s warning of just how much more susceptible to politicizing and secularizing influences local authorities had historically proven to be. Bishops and episcopal conferences failing to respond to the “teaching” of the energetic local community were quickly condemned to learn this lesson anew. Moreover, the local corporate institutions, reduced by pluralism and personalism to being mere channels for “mystiques” instead of truly authoritative societies, learned that they could not perfect the “natural messages” they nurtured on their own steam alone. They were shown that the “witness” of elitist activists—whose spiritual superiority was made manifest by their abandonment of all traditional Catholic teaching and their willful arrogance in interpreting the deeper aspirations of the varied communities attracting their particular attentions—was required to bring them to their full perfection.

“Evangelizing the social order” under these conditions took different shapes depending upon differing circumstances. The formerly Catholic social movements of Europe and Latin America were expected to continue their labors only on the basis of perfecting “natural values” that could be shared by believers and non-believers alike. Distinctly Catholic elements were not to be allowed to interfere with the development of social action in Africa and Asia where they had had little or no influence before, lest they somehow distort a Seed of the Logos in the process of development. Popular forces resisting the abandonment of Catholic ideas or the shape that social action was taking had to have their consciousness raised by superior spiritual guides appealing to the “spirit of the Council” in base communities and encounter groups. How else could backward souls come to know what their deeper aspirations really were?

The post-conciliar consequences of this type of “evangelization” have been disastrous. In so far as there was an unprejudiced dive into the vital, active milieu in which the spirit of Christ was supposedly taught, this permitted no contact with the Christ of history outside and above it. The objective reality of the Incarnate God-Man was thus ultimately called into question, with the very concept actually being identified as merely a “western” understanding of the work of “the Spirit” in human life. Personalist men were left spiritually “barren in the face of a Ramakrishna”, as Maritain, much too wedded to his Aquinas to go the whole personalist route, predicted they would be.[1]

Besides abandonment of Faith, none of the real Seeds of the Logos active in one culture were allowed the possibility of making an objective contribution to human life capable of influencing another. Greco-Roman civilization was especially stripped of all right to speak any message whatsoever, given its traditional use for precisely this supra-cultural mission in the past. All cultures became like ships passing one another in the night, with no philosophy, no theology and no Christ as polar star above them by means of which they might navigate with precious cargo safely from port to port. Reason and logical judgment lost all significance, denounced, as they were, as the useless baggage of crippled individuals seeking to stand above their more vital and spiritually exalted communities.

“Evangelization” of the social order under these circumstances is a code word for a conscious, determined burial in fallen natural desires and perceptions which might have been lifted up to God, had the tools for accomplishing that goal not been rejected, and an opening not been given instead to all the gross, banal and frequently inane fantasies to which human beings always feel their deepest pull. Moreover, no willful insistence upon their spiritual superiority could save those attempting to “witness” to such a false spiritualization from a depressing fall to earth along with the “vital energy” of their affections. Hence, the once deeply pious Fr. Dillard ended by concluding that his work in the factory was more important than his Mass, and, indeed, that the machine on which he labored itself actually had a soul.[2] Similarly, Mounier’s Ascent of Mount Carmel jettisoned prayer for psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, the Monde milieu of Beuve-Mery helped mightily to build a technocratic Europe which is now marked by the same bland, materialist “diversity” of the American pluralist circus it so readily condemned at the end of the Second World War.

Numerous statements coming from the Vatican during the reigns of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to explain the Council’s true meaning regarding its relationship with the outside world in ways that sought to correct the horrible consequences for Catholic Social Doctrine stemming from the victory of the pluralist and personalist mentalities. Nevertheless, the embarrassment attached to making such statements due to the stigma accompanying recourse to the use of all forms of social authority whatsoever in the life of “free, dignified, individual modern man”, has generally rendered such valuable theological corrections utterly meaningless in practice.

In practice, Church and State have never been more united than ever before in history—in a common commitment to allow fallen nature to have its way with society, against the dictates of both Faith and Reason. And, ironically, as so often in the past, it is renegade clergy, proclaiming the liberation of the laity and then preventing it from exercising its Faith and Reason in its proper spheres of political and social action who have been most guilty to cementing this new union of Throne and Altar. The Church is still a “sign of contradiction”, but, unfortunately, contradiction of her own divine character and mission, which has become nothing other than subservient to the voice of “the Promethean lust for material power that serves as the deepest common drive behind all modern Western cultures”.[3]

Without the truly authoritative and coercive guidance of Faith, Reason, Church, State, and substantive corporate societies to lead it, the nature and limitations of a Catholic Social Order has to be defined by the strongest individual wills seeking the satisfaction of their strongest willful desires. They are the sovereigns, in Carl Schmitt’s sense of the term, determining who are to be recognized as their friends and who their enemies. And, despite all of the continuing efforts of more leftist interpreters of energetic communities around the globe to provide a Marxist-sounding definition of Catholic Social Action, and claims that the present Roman Pontiff is on their side, I do not see Pope Francis presiding either over a serious worker priest charge into battle or even over a variety of totally contrasting guides to the Church’s position—a complexio oppositorum a la Schmitt—concerning which he is capable of pronouncing final judgment.

What I see the post-conciliar pluralist and personalist opening to the outside world to have achieved by 2014 is the equation of the res publica Cristiana with that form of individual willfulness that has proven itself to be the strongest: the willfulness coming from the moderate Enlightenment, John Locke guided, “will of the Founding Fathers” obsessed American experience. All of the Catholics involved in the struggles of contending factions in the United States—liberal, conservative, neo-conservative, and libertarian—tie the defense of the Catholic cause together with the victory of American freedom and the will of the Founding Fathers as they interpret it. All have clergy active in their ranks. All of them work to convince people that there is no alternative for Catholics but support of either American Way. All actively exercise an enormous influence over Rome on behalf of their concerns for either a sexual or economic libertinism, with the both ultimately tied together and weighted on behalf of the latter. So successful are they in their work that even Pope Francis, who perhaps thinks that he represents a more radical current of Catholic Social Doctrine, is going about his work of “reform” with the aid of American public relations companies and with the enthusiastic support of every contrasting faction in pluralist America. In short, the Catholic Church the globe over is the slave, whether consciously or unconsciously, of American, Lockean, faithless, irrational, individual willfulness. To paraphrase the old slogan of Liberal Catholics, she is now a “willful Church in a willful Society”. This was not what the personalists wanted, but this, I would argue, is what they were fatally destined to get.

I wish that I could do say that I thought that resurrection of the hunt for a truly Catholic social order was just around the corner. If it is, it may be that it will be due to the aid of the kind of calamity which charity forces one to pray can still be avoided. Still, God cannot be mocked forever. Nature will turn against those who have used her name to abuse her. The destruction of history that has come along with the general attack on Tradition may wipe the memory of Enlightenment naturalism in general and John Locke in particular from the human mind. Demographic changes of drastic proportion may ensure the victory of Islamic Law, against which Catholic faithful will have to fight or die. But in the meantime, all that we can do is what we are doing at the moment, keeping up the work of education and resistance provided by organizations such as this one. That work, while often highly frustrating to young people who want to act and win cannot be avoided. For as Ernst Jünger, a man of highly militant temperament himself has noted:[4]

Now battle had to be joined, and therefore men were needed to restore a new order, and new theologians as well, to whom the evil was manifest from its outward phenomena down to its most subtle roots; then the time would come for the first stroke of the consecrated sword, piercing the darkness like a lightning flash. For this reason individuals had the duty of living in alliance with others, gathering the treasure of a new rule of law. But the alliance had to be stronger than before, and they more conscious of it.


[1] Hellman, Emmanuel Mounier, p. 42.

[2] Poulat, p. 327.

[3] Gawthrop, R., Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth Century Prussia (Cambridge, 1993), p. 284.

[4] Ernst Jünger, On the Marble Cliffs, XX.