various people are trying to figure out “What happened?”
They tell intriguingly similar tales. The first, by David Brooks, mourns the eclipse by purely economic conservatism of “the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”
The second, intriguingly, tracks the way in which modern American Protestantism, particularly conservative Protestantism has lost its mind–and how conservative Catholics and conservatism generally has jettisoned a once promising intellectual Catholic heritage in order to conform to this. The brilliant and insightful Daniel McCarthy writes:
There’s another key factor: the transition from a small scale “micro-Protestantism,” in which various forms of hierarchical authority were at least informally present even among more radical denominations, toward mass movements and megachurches. This is parallel to the breakdown of the older, locally focused federalist system in American politics and the rise of mass politics, particularly in the form of ideologically homogeneous parties (and para-parties like movement conservatism). Thus even within Protestantism the locus of authority has shifted from the small-scale, informally hierarchical, and communally consensus-seeking to a vast domain shaped by mass communications, national struggles, and outsized personalities.
American Catholics are not exempt from all this: they too are Protestants, and the Catholic right in particular has becoming strikingly anti-clerical. The contempt that right-wing Catholics hold for much of the church hierarchy is one manifestation; another is the tendency of ultra-traditionalists to believe that their knowledge of natural law or theological punctilio consecrates them next to the pope, if not beyond him, in authority. They claim, in effect, direct access to spiritual authority through their intimacy with texts.
Catholics traditionally have not had a problem with the teaching of evolution, for reasons not only doctrinal (Catholics have a more allegorical understanding of Biblical truth than Protestants) but also structural: as a hierarchy itself, the Catholic Church is more inclined than many Protestant denominations to leave certain kinds of questions “to the proper authorities,” so to speak, observing hierarchy and a division of competence outside as well as within the faith. The radical Protestant tendency implies that every man can be his own molecular biologist as well as his own confessor.
What’s more, the distinction between popular politics and the religious congregation breaks down under the influence of radical Protestantism. A Catholic can, or should, never feel fully at home in political democracy; he must recognize a different kind of organization (not just a different domain of competence) in the hierarchical church. When fellowship or fraternité is the organizing principle in faith as well in government, however, confusing the two becomes much easier — much as Catholics once were prone to confuse the hierarchical principle in the church with hierarchy in political forms. This assimilation of American Catholics to Protestant attitudes about governance has, of course, facilitated religious-right coalition building, and it helps to account for the newfound hostility many conservative Catholics, especially intellectuals, feel for the theory of evolution.
My root objection to Protestantism of this kind is political-philosophical: it’s the principle of mass opinion or personal opinion over disciplined knowledge, of mass taste over good taste, and of constant schism, resentment, and fracture, attitudes that far from leading to freedom actually enslave the state to the demands of well-organized groups. Every 18th and 19th century High Tory or Burkean Whig who fought against radical Protestantism in the old country warned of this very thing.
But keep in mind that authority systems are dynamic. Catholic authority can lend itself to obscurantism if the clerical authority of priests is opposed to the clerical authority of scientists. And Protestant freedom — the complementary habits of making up one’s own mind and of working things out as a group rather than everyone accepting a higher, narrower authority — can also work in many circumstances. But each extreme must be tempered by its opposite: Protestants, if they’re not to turn obscurantist, must recreate hierarchies and must not be anti-clerical, even if they need not become clericalists; similarly, Catholics can remain clerical but must not neglect thinking for themselves or reasoning outside of established authority. Either of these mixtures might work well. But as an absolute principle anti-clericalism is deadly to the mind.
How does this play out? Look around. We’ve already seen the rise of the Progressive Dissenter, of course. But just as insidious (in fact, more so since he is convinced he is the orthodox savior of the Church) is the Reactionary Dissenter who routinely speaks sneeringly of the ordinary teachers and governors of the Church while encouraging a cult of personality around some celebrity (I speak from personal experience as the object of a cultus for a small sect) or worse, encouraging that cultus around himself. It gets played out in our politics as we get our information and our convictions fed to us by Talk Radio or Fox, or NRO, not from the Catholic intellectual tradition. It gets played out in our media consumption by choosing de facto gurus whom we anoint as mini-Popes (often without their knowledge or consent, and sometimes with their active encouragement). Paul had a name for it: party spirit. It is one of the works of the flesh and it is one of the besetting sins of Protestantism and of the deeply Protestantized Catholicism of American culture. We have to learn our Faith from the source and not filtered through that culture if we want to avoid the complete loss of our intellectual heritage as Catholics. That means, gasp, trusting the teaching of the Church as it comes to us from the source and not getting it all filtered through culture warriors who heap contempt on the bishops while claiming to speak for them. It also means abandoning the cult of celebrity and learning to think with the Tradition and not merely with the tribe.