Off-Key in the Canticle: Some scattered notes on “post-liberal” order

Off-Key in the Canticle: Some scattered notes on “post-liberal” order January 12, 2018

On Wednesday I went to a discussion at the Catholic Information Center here in DC, hosted by Fare Forward (I’m in the magazine! reviewing a Czech genocide-tourism novel, it’s fantastic, I think the review is pretty good too), on “Christianity, Liberalism, And the Challenges of Our Day.” You can watch the discussion here. Before I plunge in, I will say that I have not read any of the authors’ pieces in FF, because this is my blog and I am lazy. Diligence is for capitalists.

# The discussion was sort of “Catholic critique of liberalism 101” and probably fulfilled that mandate–I heard one young pup say to his friend afterward, “That blew my mind!” For me the most striking part of the discussion was Jose Mena’s image of the Canticle of the Creatures as what our politics should strive for. Order as harmony, all things united in praising and serving God.

This harmony with God and neighbor is what (at their best) Catholic leftists call solidarity and Catholic rightists call order. The longing for harmony, and the recognition that it can only emerge as the result of personal submission to an outside authority, emerges more strongly the greater your experience of individualistic disorder–a lot of Infinite Jest is about this btw.

But so far I am not sure I’ve seen any discussions of Catholic “postliberal” politics which acknowledge the need for any peaceful social order to accept and accommodate disharmony. If your temporal political goal is public harmony you can either a) make a lot of compromises with unbelief and sin for the sake of peace or b) impose order by force, thus creating a lot more chaos, cruelty, and sin. This is the thing I talked about at the beginning of my Hans Fallada review. Any reasonably okay society will have a lot of uncriminalized sin and a lot of unpunished crime, because the things you need to do to root out and punish sin will themselves involve sinful abuses of power. People coming up with ideas about how public life should be too rarely ask themselves about the sins and temptations of the imagined enforcers. (Including the less-coercive enforcers, the people who set social expectations and uphold moral order–the people Oscar Wilde’s plays are about.) That’s part of why I said the thing I say at the very end of this review, about the limitations of political philosophy.

Side note, the more medieval history I read the more I am struck by the chaos of life in Christendom. Churchmen and saints are constantly flailing around trying to correct and reform, trying to make priests not teach heresy and make everybody confess and do penance for their sins, and meanwhile the more you press down on one end of the sin-balloon the more it bulges out at the other.

Probably these lacunae will not be filled simply by taking on the perspective of criminals and criminalized communities–the people willing to break law and social harmony, and the people against whom law and social harmony are weaponized–but it can’t hurt. And hey, the Pet Shop Boys have already written our anthem!

# Sure, I’ll stick this here: From the Roman Empire to the American, the consistent sticking point in every Catholic political fantasy is the Jews. And every reimagining of Catholic politics which is not explicitly and uncompromisingly opposed to Jew-hate will be slowly corroded by it. This is another thing you notice as you spend more time in Christian history. I am not totally sure why it’s always the Jews but I suspect it’s because Judaism is in certain important senses true.

# Okay, but so, I do have positive suggestions and not only criticism. Recently some friends were talking about whether it made sense to call America a “post-Christian” country. And I ended up kind of accidentally suggesting, as one major criterion for being a Christian country, that the public calendar follows the liturgical calendar. So in that sense we still do have a weekly marker of Christianity, in that on Sundays lots of things are closed. Ditto Christmas. This is much less true than it used to be, as many more places are 24/7/365 etc, but it’s still somewhat true. And this is not a marker of Christianity which I think most non-Christians resent, you know?

The public calendar could be and has been a lot more Christian. My favorite example is English bank holidays: Until 1834, the Bank of England recognized “about 33” (for real, Wikipedia? how many is “about 33”? lol you can see how well I know this history) major feasts and saints’ days as public holidays. In 1834 this number was reduced to four. Dear The Bank of England, give us our saints’ days back! But no, one fairly obvious way to honor God in the public sphere is to close your business on major feasts and solemnities. This would also (although it’s probably not the only thing you should be doing on this subject) add some predictability and rest to increasingly unpredictable work schedules. Increasing (I think?) percentages of American workers no longer have any real sabbath at all.

Caveat: I don’t know how people are actually responding to e.g. that new Polish law phasing out Sunday trade. But God bless Chik-Fil-A, basically.

# Speaking of things employers can do, I still want to hear about examples of employers honoring nonmarital forms of Christian kinship. There are a lot of complex questions there but it’s a pretty obvious area where premodern ways were less atomistic and more open to networks of caregiving than our current economic order.

# I’ll be writing more about this later this year (so please do bombard me with your thoughts) but two premodern practices we desperately need are ceremonies of public penance and public reconciliation of penitents. These are very scattered thoughts, but–what if the whole “wear black to the Golden Globes” thing had been cast as penance? Not necessarily even for personal sin, but for corporate complicity? It was a public gesture shaped like penance but never actually requiring any person there to admit fault or responsibility. (Which are different: I’ve been to a penitential service of prayer in reparation for abuse by clergy, and the people praying were not as far as I know themselves abusers–I’m guessing lots of them were abused–but we  accepted responsibility as members of the Body of Christ.)

I’m trying to come up with examples of voluntary public penance & all I can think of is the women at the March for Life with the I REGRET MY ABORTION signs.

Public penitential processions are good in themselves, they are a reclaiming of public space for God, and they are also a traditional form of Christian public life which is uniquely suited to a culture where the Church has earned a lot of mistrust.

Public reconciliation of penitents is also desperately needed but generally forgiveness relies on a genuine understanding of the gravity of the harm done, so let’s start with penance. Where penance is honored, it becomes in itself a ceremony of reconciliation and restoration to the community; this is the classic Christian overturning in which confession of your shame becomes witness to God’s glory.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!