Ralliement: Two Distinctions

by Adrian Vermeule

A few analytic notes on ralliement — a notion stemming originally from Leo XIII’s 1892 encyclical Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, which urged French Catholics to rally to the Third French Republic in order to transform it from within. The idea has become more general, suggesting that Catholics would do well to rally to and work within a liberal-democratic political order. I have two conceptual distinctions to sketch, merely in the hope of clarifying the terms of the conversation.

Naive vs. Strategic

The first distinction goes to the goals of ralliement. I believe there are actually two distinct ways to understand those goals, which — entirely tendentiously — I will call the naive and strategic versions. In the naive version, Catholics seek a genuine long-term rapprochement with liberal-democratic political orders, hoping to baptize them from within and even to recall liberalism to its best self, while otherwise retaining the regime’s outward character. Speaking in very broad terms, one might see the project of European Catholic Democracy after World War II in this light, although there are obviously many qualifications to be discussed here.

In the second, strategic version, Catholics deny that liberalism has any best self to which it might somehow be recalled. They work within a liberal order towards the long-term goal, not of reaching a stable accommodation with liberalism, even in a baptized form, but rather with a view to eventually superseding it altogether. Pater Edmund Waldstein sees this strategic version as the one Leo XIII himself favored: “For Leo the ralliement was meant as a stage towards an integral restoration of Christendom. That is, Catholics were to work for the common good in the current un-ideal framework of a state that did not recognize the superiority of spiritual over temporal authority, but the hope was that this would lead eventually to a restoration of an integrally Catholic state.“

In the short run, there are superficial similarities between the two approaches. After all, both reject visions in which Catholics retreat from politics into thick local communities. But in their long-run aims, the two versions of ralliement are entirely different, indeed diametrically opposed. Here let me quote with approval an analysis of the difference between Ross Douthat’s backward-looking version of ralliement and my own:

Neither Douthat nor Vermeule retreats into gated communities or enclaves … in the bayou. Indeed, in both men’s visions, you will see intelligent Christians educated at elite schools entering the service of the regime. Some will go into government, some will go into the institutions the government serves, like finance, and others will go back into elite schools to prepare the next wave. In time, perhaps not a very long time, you will see the regime get better. But this is where Vermeule and Douthat’s visions diverge sharply. At a certain point, Douthat and those who agree with [him] will [say that] “Liberalism is itself again.” Vermeule will say, simply, that we are well on our way to our goal.

Parliamentary Democracy vs. Bureaucracy

The second distinction goes not to the goals of ralliement, but to the institutional context in which it occurs. An important objection to ralliement holds that participation in liberal institutions tends to suborn those who do the rallying, in part by forcing them to participate in public practices and discourses that can only ever be cast in liberal terms, and that will bind the ralliés to liberal presuppositions. On this view, “the procedural principles liberal strategies are based on, being the only common ground, the only language anyone can use in public, quickly become the only acceptable creed.”

This is a legitimate and forceful concern, but I do not think it is necessarily a fatal objection. One must ask, I think: ralliement to what sort of institutions and practices, exactly? In one version, Catholics rally to and participate in institutions that have distinctively liberal justifications and modes of operation, including discursive practices. Carl Schmitt argued, for example, that parliamentary institutions, when conceived not as part of a system of estates but as sovereign representative bodies, embody an essentially liberal-discursive set of principles. Rallying to, participating within, parliamentary democracy might then indeed have a pernicious suborning effect.

But even within liberal-democratic political orders there are always institutional forms that long predate liberalism, that have no necessary connection of principle to liberalism, and that will certainly survive liberalism’s eventual disappearance. One candidate for such an organizational form — and there are others as well — is bureaucracy, which has flourished in nonliberal regimes from Sung China to Salazar’s Portugal. (Indeed Schmitt also suggested, tongue partly in cheek, that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant instinctively recoils in horror from  the Catholic Church because the Church is itself “a celibate bureaucracy”). The ideal-type principles of hierarchy and unity of top-level command that animate bureaucracy, especially but not only military and security bureaucracies, are not obviously the sort of principles that threaten to inscribe liberalism within the hearts and minds of participants. Hence my own version of ralliement, which hopes for eventual integration effected from within institutions currently extant in liberal-democratic orders, focuses on executive-type bureaucracies rather than on parliamentary-democratic institutions per se.