by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.
This year’s Fall Conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame was on the the theme “Higher Powers.” The closing colloquy of the conference was on “Catholicism and the American Project” (embedded above), and featured Patrick Deneen, V. Phillip Muñoz, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule. The colloquy was a remarkably clear presentation of different ways in which Catholics understand the “higher powers” which God has ordained to govern our human lives (Romans 13:1).
In my essay “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy” I argued that there are basically three ways in which Catholics understand the higher powers: Augustinian radicalism (a problematic term, as I shall explain), integralism (or “political Augustinianism”), and Whig Thomism (or “liberalism”). In the Notre Dame colloquy the three possibilities were represented by Deneen (radicalism), Pappin and Vermeule (integralism), and Muñoz (Whig Thomism). While I hold that integralism is the only true position, I do want to point out that each of the others has elements of the truth, as can be seen by briefly considering them.
Patrick Deneen was the first to speak. And in his opening statement he referred, with enthusiasm, to a speech that Michael Baxter had given at an earlier conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture. Later on in the discussion, Deneen argued that the Church is always in opposition to the world and can never be fully at home in it. He therefore rejected both integralism and Whig Thomism as inadmissible attempts to reconcile the Church and the world. Now, there is an important element of truth here. The world, while created good, was subjected to the devil through the sin of our first parents. Christ defeated the devil in principle, but until He comes again in glory, a part of the world always resists His victory. As the book of Revelation shows, the devil is still Prince of the worldly powers who rage against the martyrs of Christ. Many Christians have concluded from this that the true Christian witness should have nothing to do with worldly powers, but should rather spend this temporal life resisting the injustice of worldly oppressors by a sort of anarchist social activism. One of the greatest and most heroic practitioners of that conviction was the co-foundress of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day. And one of Day’s most sophisticated expositers is Michael Baxter, whom Deneen cited. Day’s famous aphorism, “Once you give to God what is God’s, there’s nothing left for Caesar” contains a profound truth: everything is God’s and no power can be tolerated apart from him. And yet, this aphorism cannot be the last word of Catholic theology on our duty to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
In my paper on integralism and Gelasian dyarchy, I called the Christian anarchism of Day and Baxter “Augustinian radicalism.” This is because thinkers of their sort often appeal to St. Augustine’s deep pessimism about earthly powers to support their position. The term was, however, infelicitous, since Augustine’s own position was much closer to the medieval “political Augustinianism” that it inspired— that is, to integralism. In the City of God Augustine argues that while the pagan empire is dominated by a disordered lust for power, benevolent rule is actually intended by nature:
For [the just] do not give their commands out of any desire for domination but rather out of dutiful concern for others, not out of any pride in ruling but rather out of compassion in providing for others. This is what the order of nature prescribes; this is the way God created man. (Civ. Dei XIX,14-15; see my paper “The City of God: An Introduction” for a defense of my interpretation of this text).
There is a kind of paradox here that comes from the fact that the Gospel is a gospel of salvation and redemption. Christ did not come into the world in order to destroy creation, but in order to heal, liberate, and perfect it, opening up a higher end which includes the natural end while exceeding it. He did not therefore simply declare all earthly authority deposed. Christians are meant to submit to what is legitimate and natural about earthly authority, but to lead it to conversion from the libido dominandi and the slavery of sin and devil.
This is indeed the teaching of Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.” In commenting on this passage, St Thomas Aquinas writes as follows:
It should be noted that in the early Church some believers said that they should not be subject to earthly powers on account of the freedom they received from Christ, since it says in John: if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36). But the freedom granted by Christ is a freedom of the spirit, by which we are set free of sin and death, as was said above: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2). The flesh, however, remains subject to slavery, as was stated above (Rom 7:14). Therefore, the time when a man freed by Christ will not be liable to any subjection, either spiritual or carnal, will be when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (1 Cor 15:24). (In Rom. ad loc.)
That is, in this short space of time between the promulgation of the Gospel and the Second Coming, Christians continue to remain subject to higher powers.
Christians are not, however, subject only to earthly powers; there is also a spiritual power to which they are subject. This point was explained by the next two speakers at the colloquy: Gladden Pappin and Adrian Vermeule, who both defended integralism. As Pappin argued, integralism is above all an ecclesiological doctrine. It is the doctrine that the Church has been established by her divine founder as a societas perfecta, a complete society. Not a voluntary club ordered to some particular end, but rather a community with a real coercive authority: a power established by God to lead human beings to their supernatural end. True, no one can enter the Church except through a free act of submission to Baptism. But that act is commanded by the God who loves all men and wishes all to come to knowledge of the truth. The Church is not therefore merely a set of beliefs or practices and institutions meant to sustain those beliefs and practices. Rather, the Church is a community of those who share in the divine life through the one Baptism, and who are subject to a higher power established by God: the hierarchy of the successors of the Apostles, and above all the pope as the bishop of the Roman Church, the mother of all the churches, in whom the princes of the Apostles witnessed the faith by their blood. God has therefore established two higher powers to which we are subject: the temporal power, and the spiritual power. And since the things of God are ordered, there must be an order between these two powers. Clearly, the spiritual power, as it has a higher end, is superior to the temporal power. Liberalism, however, insofar as it denies that there is any spiritual power, cannot be accepted by Catholics. Vermeule referred to John Joy’s proof of the irreformable character of that teaching. He argued further, that the common objection to integralism as being “unrealistic” in the United States, given the deeply ingrained Protestant culture of those states, neglects how malleable human culture really is—as demonstrated by recent huge shifts in sexual mores, the lifting of the iron curtain, etc.
The final opening statement was given by Muñoz who gave a defense of a liberal (or “Whig Thomist”) understanding the higher powers. Muñoz did this by offering a defense of the the essential principles of the American Founding: equality, liberty, and virtue. Muñoz defended these principles by arguing that the equality of rational nature means that human beings have no natural human superiors, and should therefore be ruled only by their own consent. He argued further that the dignity of a nature which moves itself by reason and will demands that any government over rational creatures should be limited, and that in particular government should leave rational beings to determine by their own conscience what manner of worship they owe to God, without establishing a religion. Finally, he argued that virtue is necessary to a polity in which equality and liberty are preserved, and that America is an experiment meant to see whether such virtue can survive without government being directly ordered to it.
There are some elements of truth to Muñoz’s premises, but he draws the wrong conclusions from them. Human beings do indeed have a natural equality, since each of them has been given a rational nature, which enables them to attain to the end of all things. But it does not follow that they cannot be governed except by their own consent. For, that nature is a political nature. Human beings are rather obliged to obey the temporal power as actually constituted for the sake of the common good of the persons with whom they live. Did the early Christians “consent” to the rule of the Roman emperors? Surely not. And yet St Paul teaches that they are required to obey the emperors as powers established by God. Rational nature does, however, impose a duty on rulers to rule not for their private good, but for the common good of their subjects. Arguments can of course be made that it is a good idea to include the many in political deliberation in order to help discern the common good, but this is not a precondition for the existence of political authority.
Muñoz is also right that the ability of human beings to move themselves by reason and will imposes limits on earthly government. This is, indeed, one reason why the unbaptized cannot be compelled to accept Baptism. But it does not follow from this that the earthly power has no obligation to recognize the true faith, and act as the Church’s arm in enforcing baptismal promises. For all of those things serve the true dignity of rational nature, which is found in subordination to the true common good of all.
On the third point, Muñoz is obviously right that virtue is necessary to a good political life. And he seems to be right that the American Founders were engaged in an experiment to see whether it could be preserved in a regime that did not explicitly promote virtue. But, as the other three participants pointed out, that experiment has “spectacularly falsified” the hypothesis of the Founders.