Response to Sanchez on Catholic Action

by Petrus Hispanus


At Opus Publicum, the always suggestive Gabriel Sánchez has posted a brief critique of my own brief reply to Elliot Milco’s essays on liberalism (here and here). Sánchez claims I have proposed a “deviation” from the principles of Catholic Action, and even that I have fundamentally misunderstood traditionalism by placing it in opposition to Catholic Action rather than seeing it as its continuation. He ends by suggesting concrete steps we may take in our daily lives in order to bring about the kingdom of Christ on earth, and which I cannot but wholeheartedly endorse.

From a purely historical point of view, however, it is worthwhile to note that Sánchez’s account of the relationship between traditionalism and Catholic Action is at least incomplete. Not all Catholic traditionalist movements espoused the strategy of Catholic Action. The clearest example is Carlism, possibly the most politically efficacious and doctrinally articulate of these movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is not to say Carlism rejected the ends for which Catholic Action was created—inasmuch as they were the same ends of traditional Catholic political thought, they differed in nothing. Rather, Carlism rejected the strategic assumptions Catholic Action was based upon, assumptions which, for better or worse, meant transforming traditional Catholic politics into just another political party attempting to win it out in the game of liberal democracy. It is enough to read Juan Vázquez de Mella’s forceful critique of the liberal idea of a political party (e.g. here, pp. 275-282), or Fr. Félix Sardá y Salvani’s Liberalism Is a Sin, to see the Carlist rejection of this strategy, based mostly on the reasons suggested by Milco and which I attempted to re-elaborate in my reply to him. 

Leo XIII and St. Pius X favored the strategy of Catholic Action because they came to believe, as a matter of strategy, that still-dominant Catholic majorities in many countries could be rallied under a single party in order to use democracy as a weapon against liberalism. The faithful majorities, it was hoped, would vote liberalism out of existence under the leadership of Catholic Action parties. From this miscalculation, possibly brought on by the success of German Catholics against Bismarck, would ultimately come that spectacle of progressive alignment of Catholic politicians with liberalism that was “Christian democracy.”

All of this, of course, is not to impugn on the many excellent things done by Catholic Action in many countries, or to judge the motives these saintly and venerable Popes had in favoring it. Indeed, under the circumstances they faced, it is difficult to imagine what alternative they had in most cases, seeing as the political links with the ancien régime had almost entirely vanished and a new way of “doing Catholic politics” needed to be implemented seriously, one to which the example of Germany and others gave true practical plausibility.  

In my brief piece, I wished to suggest that the reasons this strategy failed are similar to those articulated by Milco in his two essays. By reducing all political positions to a plane of procedural neutrality, where they are all forced to play by the same aseptic rules, liberalism tends inevitably to relativize the public significance (and even intelligibility) of those positions, finally leaving the principles those rules embody (fairness, tolerance, etc.) as the only acceptable political creed. There is no reason to believe Catholic political thought and action are not subject to the same rule of liberal self-radicalization, and indeed the story not only of Catholic Action, but of all forms of Christian democracy, amply bear this out.

The fact is that as a political strategy to save Christian civilization, the well-meaning attempt that was Catholic Action did not manage to recognize the threat involved in buying into the praxis of liberalism, even when done with a clear rejection of its theory. Obviously, this danger is much graver when the attempt does not even involve a clear rejection of the theory of liberalism, as has happened in the post-Vatican II Church, but the point is that the reason why both these strategies fail is the same: they subject Catholic politics and life to the pernicious liberal praxis, and in so far as they do, they manifest only the continuation and radicalization of the same error.

 In his critique of my brief note, Sánchez’s seems to commit a bit of the same miscalculation. One thing are the political principles of traditionalism; another, the particular political strategy Catholic Action and Vatican II used to attain them. I admit the use of the term “neo-Catholic” in reference to both may have been misleading, because the Vatican II mistake is not only practical, but theoretical, but inasmuch as they both espouse the practical delusion that traditionalism can defeat liberalism from within, their failures may be analyzed together. 

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