In Defense of Vatican II: Religious Freedom and the Insouciant Silliness of the Neo-Integralists

November 20, 2020
Defense of Vatican II

In the interest of full disclosure I begin with an admission.  And that admission is that I am a hopeless Romantic who has read too much Tolkien and who longs to live in the sacral world of Middle Earth with its enchanted woods, priestly wizards, and noble Kings who rule by hereditary right, but who are also invested with a sacramental religious authority.  Beaten down by the unrelenting drab ugliness of modernity, with its dead, flat-lined metaphysics, its bleached, inert, and dead cosmos, its grotesque and elitist surveillance technocracy, its sham democracies, and its pornified view of what our naughty bits are for, I long for a holy Monarch who can, in union with Holy Mother Church, cover the world once again with elves, pixie dust, and good tobacco.

But alas, we do not live in such a world.  And even Tolkien’s fantasy world is besotted with violence and saturated in blood, mirroring as it does his experiences in World War I, giving eloquent witness to the fact that even an enchanted world must give way to the reality of an ineradicable wickedness in the hearts of the free agents who populate his mythic landscape.  Thus does his world beckon us to the supernatural domain of Transcendence even as it counsels sobriety toward any false nostalgia for a utopian dominion of heroic Kings and the insulated, bucolic world of the Shire – – a world that never was and never will be this side of the eschaton.

The closest we have ever come, perhaps, to Tolkien’s fictional world is the amalgam of faith and civil order in the era of high Christendom.   Political Christendom was an attempt to create a social ordo on earth that mirrored the celestial ordo of Heaven.  Its vision was grandiose and all-encompassing, seeking to conquer the known world for Christ with a zeal for souls.  And its accomplishments are not to be ignored or downplayed.  In theology, philosophy, law, literature, architecture, agricultural technique, science (yes, science), education and visual art, Christendom created an unrivaled synthesis that gave us Dante and Notre Dame, Chaucer and Erasmus, Raphael, Francis, Dominic, Thomas, and a host of other luminaries too numerous to mention. And it also gave us something that is often ignored.  It gave us this thing called “Europe”.

Nevertheless, the political Christendom that reigned in Europe from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries is dead.  In point of fact it actually died centuries ago in the late medieval decline into corruption, with its carcass, like a dead and bloated whale on the beach, slowly eaten away by the carrion of the early modern world.  All that remains of its former glory are the bleached white bones of something long dead, but which still seems to beckon those of a nostalgic bent, like those modern neo-pagans who flock to Stonehenge every solstice to carry torches, dance, and then retire to Starbucks for a latte.  In other words, there is an air of pie-in-the sky play-acting in the writings of the Catholic neo-integralists who must know that the bones of the past are truly lifeless and are most likely to remain so. One can perhaps sympathize with such fantasies since, from a Catholic perspective, there is much to dislike about the modern world.  Nevertheless, there is a grave danger that such nostalgia will blind us to the lessons of history and put us on a course to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The fact of the matter is that Christendom failed.  And it failed because it embodied a view of the confessional State as an instrumentum salvationis that was wedded to worldly notions of coercive force. The confessional State, armed with the weaponized gospel that sought to suppress theological errors in the name of saving souls from perdition, and invigorated with a sense of divine right, imposed coercive fines, penal punishments, and even in some cases, death, upon Jews, pagans, and heterodox Christians.  And while it is indeed true that this repression has been greatly exaggerated in the literature on the topic, much of it generated by the Church’s enemies, both religious and political, nevertheless, as Brad Gregory documents so well in his book “The Unintended Reformation,” the repression was real and constituted a monumental failure of charity on the part of the Church.  But it also constituted a failure to understand that the Gospel is not something that should be imposed by force since the truth of Christ is constitutively ordered to its free acceptance.  In place of this view of freedom, political Christendom appealed instead to the notion of a sharply defined, and platonically hierarchical, sacral order into which the individual must “fit” or face negative consequences.

Furthermore, the confluence of Church and State involved the Church in a regime of acquisition wherein the Church also gained worldly sorts of temporal power as well as vast amounts of wealth.  And once gained, this power and wealth were not easily relinquished since they fell into the hands, as wealth and power always do, of men with small souls and mendacious minds.  The corruption that ensued should not be viewed, therefore, as an aberration but rather as the inevitable byproduct of this ecclesial spirit of grasping acquisition.  And while it might be romantic to conjure up images of “holy Kings” and so forth, the fact is the Church had little issue with the feudal system of indentured servitude that made the aristocratic governing structure of the time possible. To be sure, the Church did a lot for the poor, especially in its vast monastic system, but such efforts were largely palliative and did not address the systemic economic injustices that were eating away at the social fabric.  Indeed, the religious orders themselves, including the Franciscans, became fat with the worldly lard of land and treasure.

Christ’s warning that you cannot serve both God and mammon should have alerted them to the fact that money is a demanding and dominating mistress who brooks no other suitors.  But as is always the case with faithless and feckless men, their spiritual rot consumed their minds with a silent, syphilitic rigor and caressed their will with the soothing allure of primal pleasures. Lost in their ribald revelry, they were made blind and could not see that the only path to a specifically Christian “glory” is the Christ of the cross – – a grotesque and humiliated figure of worldly defeat – – which is a path that we too, if we are truly seeking to live the gospel, must tread. Nor can we say that such insights, retrojected backward, are an anachronism unfairly imposed on the Church of that time.  Because there were numerous saintly voices in that era who were desperately shouting the same warning.  In short, the Church had the same gospels we do, replete with numerous Dominical sayings condemning wealth,  but it chose to ignore them.

Before I go any further I want to be clear in what it is that I am arguing against. It needs to be affirmed, as I point out below in my critique of Liberalism, that all governments are “integralist” in some fashion or another. All governments, in the ordo that they seek to facilitate, embody a set of implied metaphysical and anthropological claims. Strict neutrality, therefore, toward the deeper questions of existence is a dangerous illusion. All States are ultimately “confessional” and all citizens are some variety of an integralist. Therefore, my argument is not against integralism as such but against those forms that explicitly reject the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae on the issue of religious freedom. The schism between the SSPX and Rome revolved precisely around the former’s rejection of Dignitatis which they view as a contradiction with past magisterial teaching. Archbishop Vigano has recently expressed similar views and he has become increasingly popular with certain conservative Catholics who are sympathetic with this rejection of Dignitatis.

There are obviously many varieties of Catholic integralism with many laudable and noteworthy academics developing a critique of political Liberalism and who do not support the creation of a confessional State that rejects the notion of religious freedom as a fundamental civil right. But it would be wrong to assume from this that they represent the entirety of the integralist spectrum, which they most certainly do not. And my fear is that if there ever did come a day when Catholic confessional States once again became common, that it would not be the saner heads that would prevail.

To return then to the main line of the narrative, as political Christendom died the world groaned and in an agonistic paroxysm of violent reaction birthed, over several centuries, a new ordo.  Political Liberalism emerged, therefore, both out of the Christian cultural matrix and in reaction to it.  There were, of course, various shades of emphasis but the one thing all political Liberalisms had in common was a steadfast belief in the autonomy of individual freedom conceived of negatively as the mere absence of outside coercion, especially in matters of religion.  There did remain certain countries with “State Churches” (which remain to this day) but the trajectory was clear and decidedly in the direction of allowing for a wide swath of religious freedom.  Indeed, even those countries with established churches gradually saw those establishments become attenuated and largely ceremonial, with the principle of religious freedom enshrined in law, if not in constitutional principle.

What cannot be emphasized enough is that Liberalism cannot be understood outside of its historical context as a reaction against political Christendom.  And to that end, Liberalism championed the notion that the State must remain neutral with regard to all grand, metaphysical claims, and must especially remain neutral in matters concerning religion.  But of course, all governments, as I said above, are ultimately theological since whatever ordo they adopt always implies a metaphysics and an anthropology.  In other words, all governments ensconce some form of integralism, even if it is now a secular creed, and the strict neutrality toward religion that Liberalism asserts is, therefore, a shell game and a sham.  For if the claim is that the State must be indifferent toward religion, or between religion and irreligion, then it follows by an inexorable logic that Liberalism is claiming that religion is, at best, irrelevant to the social project of governing, and, at worst, a positive hindrance to the same.  All religions are “equal” because all religions are equally trivial and irrelevant – – a relic of our infantile and adolescent past, which we have now happily outgrown in the age of reason and science.

This implied de facto atheism at the heart of the Liberal project was masked for centuries by the dominant cultural religiosity of the time.  But over time, the secular, atheistic soul of modernity took its toll, with religion now viewed as a boutique shop accessory complete with dream catchers, crystals, angel pins, and books on self-fulfillment by Poperah Winfrey.  But there is one thing religion must not do and that is step outside of the boundaries of this strip mall aesthetic and into conservative, political agitation. “Christianity” in a Leftist register is allowed into the political sphere largely because everyone knows that liberal Christianity is just secularism in religious drag.  John Lennon’s execrable song “Imagine” is indeed a modern anthem to this sensibility, the theme of which is reducible to “Don’t believe in anything and we can all get along.”  But get along with what?  Buying Lennon’s records I guess and the rest of the flotsam and jetsam produced by our culture of consumption.  It is a call for a “Pax consumptionis” where the binding spiritual glue of our society is nothing more than a collective of concupiscence.

It is precisely this pseudo-neutralist posturing of political Liberalism that most exercised the 19th century popes and it is against this historical backdrop that their various fulminations against democracy and religious freedom must be read. Sadly, there is also not a little clinging to the carcass of that dead and desiccated whale in many of these statements as well, as the popes desperately clung to the Papal States and the shopworn and outdated notion that unless a Pope has temporal power he could not wield his spiritual power freely.  As political Christendom was breathing its last, in the gurgling death throes of its terminal condition, the Vatican desperately fought rear-guard actions in a flurry of diplomatic concordats with various governments, seeking to protect (rightly, of course) the liberty and freedom of the Church in the new secular order. The doctrine of papal infallibility was defined during this era as well, as the Church fought against a surging tide of Gallicanist rebellions, as well as new forms of the old doctrine “cuius regio, eius religio” (but this time with secular religions) which found expression in places like Germany with its Kulturkampf against the Church of Rome as a “foreign power”.

The upshot of all of this was that the Church was in a bit of a sociopolitical pickle and did not have a clear vision of how to move forward without simply reverting to the impossible dream of a restored Christendom.  I am reminded of a scene from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” where the lead character, Everett (played by George Clooney), an escaped convict with two other escapees, exclaims in response to the three of them being trapped in a barn and surrounded by the police “Damn. We are in a tight spot here!”.  In many ways the analogy is an apt one because the Church of the early 20th century did seem like an escaped convict from an earlier era, hemmed-in and cornered on all fronts by a bevy of enemies, both real and imagined, with no real plan for how to get out of the “tight spot” it found itself in.  The temptation, of course, was for the Church to dig in its heels and double-down on dreams of a new King Louis IX emerging out of the ashes to save the day.  Thankfully, the Church did not do this. Whether out of a true realization that the past was flawed and not to be retrieved, or out of a simple observation that there were just too many Orcs at the gates, I cannot say.  But one thing was clear:  political Christendom was dead and it was not coming back.

All of the foregoing is the historical backdrop to the issues that confronted the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) was the most controversial document the Council produced garnering the most negative votes (70) of any conciliar document.  And it is the document most reviled by the neo-integralists of our own day, echoing the earlier rejection of Dignitatis by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who founded what later became the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X.  What they all have in common is a belief that Dignitatis contradicts earlier magisterial teaching on religious freedom and that its adoption of the idea that religious freedom is a fundamental human right grounded in the dignity of the human person fosters a dangerous religious relativism.

But all of that is, as we say in Nebraska, horse hockey. Given all of the thorny issues involved, Dignitatis, which is, after all, a very brief document, made no pretense that it was offering a complete “theory” on anything, least of all a complete theory on Church-State relations. It begins by explicitly stating that all previous magisterial teaching on the topic remains intact. It remains largely silent on the issue of “confessional States”. And it also remains silent on the topic of the establishment or disestablishment of religion in the constitutional order.  The critics of Dignitatis are, therefore, guilty of reading the document through the lens of what came after in civil society (Liberal indifference to religion) and counting it as guilty by association.  The logic seems to be as follows:  Vatican II taught that we must accept the principle of religious freedom.  Modern Liberal regimes also teach religious freedom.  Therefore, Vatican II has endorsed Liberalism.

But Dignitatis did nothing of the sort and to claim that it does is just hyperbolic hysterics at best, and/or an ideologically driven willful distortion of the facts at worst.   The Council forcefully reiterates the moral obligation of both individuals and societies to use our freedom to seek the truth about God.  Freedom is thus defined, as it has always been defined by the Church, as a freedom to pursue the truth owing to the constitutive orientation of all freedom to the truth.  There is no hint in Dignitatis of a view of freedom as a raw autonomy wherein the individual is morally free to seek anything he or she so desires.  The traditional view is that rights imply obligations and everything in Dignitatis points in that same direction. Freedom, therefore, is not viewed by the Council as a negative freedom defined by the mere absence of coercion.  And so the Council pointedly rejects the model of Liberal indifference and relativism.

It is very clear, therefore, to any fair observer, that the Council is charting a course between two extremes.  On the one hand it eschews any romantic nostalgia for a return to the good old days of a “hard integralism” with its banned books, penal Inquisitions, and the entire sclerotic apparatus of clericalist social control so historically prevalent in predominantly Catholic countries.  On the other hand it also rejects, as already noted, the false metaphysical neutrality of Liberalism as well as its nihilistic, and manifestly self-contradicting, epistemic “humility” toward the question of God.  Dignitatis offers no clear blueprint for what kind of social order needs to emerge in the light of the foregoing rejections and leaves such adjudications for future theologians to unpack, well aware that a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach is no longer viable.

What then did Dignitatis affirm that gets the neo-integralists into such a lather?  It is the fact that it teaches that even in a confessional Catholic State religious freedom is more than a mere “toleration” of error for the sake of public order. And despite the best efforts of some to spin the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae in this direction, the Council, to its credit, went with the French bishops who, with the support of folks like theologian Ratzinger and bishop Wojtyla, taught that religious freedom must be respected in a civil sense because freedom is oriented to truth, and that all human beings have a moral obligation to seek the truth about God.  But of equal importance, as Ratzinger notes, is that truth is oriented to freedom as its only proper medium of reception.  Therefore, what we see is that the Council endorsed a fully orthodox view of freedom as a “right” that is rooted in a prior “obligation,” which entails a Christologically grounded positive view of freedom rather than a purely formal Liberal notion of freedom as a neutral entity that merely needs to be “left alone.” It also rejects, therefore, the integralist’s view that the State has the right to coerce people into the faith “for their own good”.

Thus does Vatican II endorse both the older view of the moral obligation of freedom to seek truth, as well as a deepening of this view, through a Christocentric theological anthropology that sees all truth as a mere abstraction until it is rooted in the relational dignity of a person. As such Dignitatis Humanae represents an enormous step forward, and a key linchpin in Vatican II’s broader project of renewing Catholic theology through a Christological concentration.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we read Dignitatis in relation to the Council’s voluminous statements on the dignity of the laity and its proper role in the Christianizing of the civil sphere.  If the Council did offer any hint of how a modern State with a majority of Catholics would operate it would be a social order animated by a concern for human rights, human dignity, freedom of conscience, moral truth, and a concern for the poor, but with a strong “leavening” of the democratic process through the contributions of a vibrant and educated laity.  And in a society without a Catholic majority, the role of the laity is to provide a constant witness to the truth in the civil sphere – – a witness that will increasingly take on a martyrological form as the full arsenal of Liberalism’s “benign neutrality” is brought to bear against those recalcitrant few who continue to believe in Transcendent truth and, more to the point, its intelligible knowability.

And that brings me to my final point.  Namely, the necessity of putting aside once and for all the idea, so beloved by the integralists, that the social Kingship of Christ implies the necessity of authoritarian forms of government. They speak as if the ascension of our Lord signaled the end of Christ’s cruciform modality and that this form of his existence is now totally eclipsed by his glorification.  Christ is indeed vindicated in the resurrection and ascension, but to listen to the integralists it is a vindication perched now on the precipice of revenge with a view of Christ as a kind of Schwarzenegger Pantocrator.  Like a celestial Terminator he vows “I’ll be baaack” and this time he will be pissed.  Of course, that is a bit of snark and a caricature, but it essentially characterizes accurately the neo-integralist emphasis on a Christ of dominating power as well as the concomitant emphasis on his earthly regents in the civil sphere mimetically instantiating the same kind of coercive power.

Thus, the integralists are wrong on four fronts.  First, they get Dignitatis Humanae wrong, and in my view, deliberately so because their ideologically driven agenda demands that the distortions that crept into the post Vatican II Church be placed directly on its shoulders, no matter the evidence to the contrary.  Second, they get wrong the true nature of the social Kingship of Christ.  The New Testament clearly portrays the risen and ascended Christ as “The Lamb who was slain.”  The resurrection narratives emphasize the continuity between the risen and crucified Christ, with his resurrected bodily modality still bearing the marks of his torture.  And as the great cloud of martyrs testifies, it is a cruciform modality that is still the primary mark of the true Christian. Third – – following in line with its misunderstanding of the social Kingship of Christ – – it misconstrues the nature of authority in any putatively Christian State.  Christ gave us a model for “authority” and that model is the path of kenotic love where service is defined as a death to the egoistic self for the sake of others.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last, as we humbly submit ourselves to the indignity of washing the feet of our “inferiors”.  Such a model is decidedly against any formulation of Christian civil power as a regime of top-down coercion in matters of religious conscience.  And finally, the integralists are wrong in their tout court rejection of all things modern.  As many modern theologians have noted (e.g. Balthasar, Ratzinger, Guardini, among others) there is much to commend in the modern emphasis on the importance of human subjectivity.  The Church’s longstanding emphasis upon objective truth is extremely important, especially today, but it is just a fact that this emphasis has caused the Church to ignore the role played by human subjectivity in the reception of that truth.  Therefore, while it is true that “error has no rights” it is also true, as many others have noted, that those who are in error do.

In Augustine’s great masterwork, “The City God”, the great saint highlighted the earthly struggle between the libido dominandi and the amor Dei.  But he did not posit this struggle as one between the Church and the world, between the religious and the non-religious, between the Christian and the non-Christian. Rather, he saw this struggle as cutting through the heart of every individual, in the agonistic subjectivity of their souls, as we all struggle to pursue the Good. And it also must not be forgotten that he penned his masterpiece as a response to the anxiety many Christians were feeling as the Pax Romana crumbled around them.  Thus, his work, rather than being viewed as an endorsement for a coercive regime to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, should be viewed instead as a grand reminder that Christians should avoid placing too much hope in any regime of worldly power, reminding us that the Kingdom of Christ is, ultimately, “not of this world”.

We do indeed, in our contemporary situation, find ourselves in a “tight spot”.  But the insouciant, ideological, play-acting of the neo-integralists is a superficial, reactionary, and thoroughly unrealistic fantasy.  And as such it is a dangerous diversion from the task at hand.  In short, it isn’t a serious attempt at anything and it helps us not one wit to get out of this tight spot.  Dignitatis Humanae, on the other hand, is a serious attempt, by serious men, to at least begin the conversation again, with fresh eyes and a historically chastened memory.  The Christological form looms large in their counsels, and it is a cruciform model that privileges service, kenosis, and the witness of martyrdom in our secular age, over the model of a regime of coercive force.

I for one do not want to live in the world imagined by the integralists.  And despite Vigano’s ravings to the contrary, Vatican II does give us a Christological path out of our tight spot.

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