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    ceiling of Matthias Church, Budapest

    Complete Commitment for the Common Good

    A review of The Prodigal Church by Brandon McGinley

    Patrick J. Smith

    September 28, 2020
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    • Lawrence Brazier

      No parry and thrust, or thrust and parry, seems like a good idea.

    Late liberalism resembles nothing so much as the scene in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth where David Bowie, playing the extraterrestrial Thomas Jerome Newton, watches a wall of televisions transmit a montage of different programs, while Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” plays in the background. Isolated and depressed, Bowie’s character retreats into television, music, and booze for their anesthetic effects. No one watching the movie would say that Newton is doing great. In fact, he’s very much not.

    We are expected to hold an altogether different attitude toward our own version of Newton’s overstimulated isolation. Lately we spend eight hours a day doing inexplicable jobs, staring at a set of screens that run Excel, Slack, and Zoom. We spend several more staring at other screens running Netflix or Hulu. We order books and movies from Amazon. We order groceries on the computer and pick them up at the curb. Since the implementation of public-health measures intended to address the coronavirus pandemic, we have started hanging out with our friends online, and we can spend all day on Instagram or Twitter.

    Early in the pandemic, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben complained that stringent public-health measures were reducing us to “bare life.” Following the argument he began in Homo Sacer (1995), Agamben asserted that governments, invoking a state of exception, had suppressed most of the elements constituting ordinary life. Because no one – no one sane, at any rate – wants to die on a ventilator, most people went along with these extraordinary actions. However, the coronavirus merely accelerated a process that has been going on for decades. Life in a pod, illuminated by screens, punctuated by consumption, is bare life. The institutions of ordinary life – cultural, political, and religious – have been dissolving for a long time. The pod may be more or less luxurious, but the upshot is the same.

    For obvious reasons, Christians have become increasingly concerned with the dissolution of these institutions. Rod Dreher has articulated a case for strategic withdrawal, first in a series of Brobdingnagian blog posts at The American Conservative, then in The Benedict Option (2017). Patrick J. Deneen wrote Why Liberalism Failed (2018), a careful argument that the current decline is a product of the philosophical foundations of liberalism. There have been numerous other interventions from writers and thinkers like Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule. Brandon McGinley’s The Prodigal Church fits into this broader discussion, though maybe a little uncomfortably.

    Something, McGinley notes over and over again, has gone wrong. The Little Sisters of the Poor are before the Supreme Court again. The guy who runs Masterpiece Cakeshop is in court again. Many people rightly conclude that the conservative Christian strategy of focusing on judicial appointments and carefully litigating individual cases of government overreach is not working. This summer’s Supreme Court decision regarding sex discrimination will no doubt be added to the growing pile of evidence.

    This is not to say that there has not been pushback. The summer of 2019 featured an argument between Ahmari and David French (and their supporters) about what should be done. Early 2020 was taken up by the response to Vermeule’s argument in favor of “common-good constitutionalism.” His suggestion that conservative judges needn’t be reflexive originalists was met with a convulsive reaction at The American Mind, among other outlets. One has the sense that, no matter how bad it gets for American Christians, the more serious question for some is whether conservatives think the right kind of thoughts about the conservative project of the last fifty years.

    The people of God ought to act like a people – transcending nationality, ethnicity, or mere political affiliation.

    Brandon McGinley does not think the right kind of thoughts. The Prodigal Church begins with the audacious argument that it was precisely the Catholic Church’s accommodation to liberalism that left it unable to respond effectively to this process of dissolution and atomization. McGinley begins his story in the 1940s and 1950s, long considered by many the high-water mark of American Catholicism, culminating in John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960.

    Many Americans know the story in its cinematic sweep. Catholics have been in the Americas since 1492, and explored and settled vast tracts of North and South America alike. The United States, however, was very much a Protestant project. And Catholics were not always welcome, especially when they were Irish and Italian immigrants. Throughout the nineteenth century, there were periods of great hostility toward Catholics. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, as Catholics increasingly assimilated into American culture, they found greater acceptance.

    Indeed, prelates like Francis Cardinal Spellman, the powerful archbishop of New York, made a conscious effort to open the American Church up to Americanism, which is to say liberalism. And thinkers like the Jesuit John Courtney Murray tried to reconcile the Church with American principles, “or Catholic principles within the American tradition, as the case may be.” At the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Spellman and other prelates advanced Murray’s vision notably in the context of the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae (1965). The effort was controversial even at the time, with other Council fathers like Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, the influential head of the Holy Office, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre objecting. As a result of Dignitatis humanae and its reception, especially in the United States, there is a sense that the Council endorsed this opening to liberalism. After the Council, of course, there was a barrage of liturgical and cultural changes that left Catholics bewildered and confused.

    The price of assimilation for American Catholics has long been silence about the church’s perennial political and social teaching. Catholics are inclined to stop being weird, which is to say that they stop talking about the necessity of the subordination of the temporal power to the spiritual power. In return, yellow journalists don’t whip up fervor about the Pope’s Fifth Column and the Klan doesn’t sponsor any more compulsory public education to break the iron grip of the Propaganda Fide on Irish and Italian youth. This is a little rough on Pius IX and Leo XIII, to say nothing of the two thousand years of Catholic thinkers that preceded them, but no one seems to mind much.

    It is tempting at this point to talk about integralism, the argument that Catholic faith should be the basis of law and public policy. McGinley is assuredly an integralist by any conventional definition, but The Prodigal Church is not a narrowly integralist book. He takes it for granted that the church has a legitimate role to play in politics, pointing to St. Ambrose, who excommunicated the Emperor Theodosius over a massacre, as a model. However, he doesn’t spill a lot of ink on technical questions like the subordination of the temporal power to the spiritual, or whether the church ought to be in the business of coercing the erring faithful.

    What McGinley does do is present a call to all levels of the church to act Catholic once again. The church’s accommodation of liberalism in the 1940s and 1950s has, he argues convincingly, left Catholics unable to act distinctively Catholic. He does not, as many do, set up some sort of dialectic between the faithful and the hierarchy: McGinley does not see a faithful congregation set against cowardly bishops and faithless priests. Everyone is in the same boat; everyone needs to proclaim the truth as the church teaches it.

    Here McGinley has an unlikely predecessor in Douglas Hyde, a former communist and editor of the Daily Worker. In 1956, Hyde wrote a slim book, Dedication and Leadership, detailing the techniques of recruitment and development he had experienced in the British Communist Party and how they might be applied by Christians. Hyde discusses frankly the complete commitment expected of communists, contrasting it with the sort of exhausted cultural Catholicism McGinley condemns. Indeed, Hyde notes that, at least in England in the mid-twentieth century, one might hear very little about the exceptional dedication required to be a Catholic.

    Hyde talks about big demands and big responses. The communist, Hyde tells us, knows he will be asked to demonstrate his total commitment to the revolution. The Catholic – asked to do much more than the communist, who, after all, might get what he wants this side of heaven – is rarely presented with such big demands and, accordingly, rarely makes big responses. McGinley’s book demonstrates that since Hyde wrote Dedication and Leadership, the church’s demands have become, if possible, even more modest and the responses of the faithful have dwindled to a small size indeed.

    It is necessary for families to form real friendships with other families, and by means of these friendships slowly build up community.

    McGinley’s ultimate answer to this problem is what he calls ethnogenesis. The people of God, McGinley argues, ought to act like a people – transcending nationality, ethnicity, or mere political affiliation. “Ethnogenesis” may be a technical term, but at this point in 2020 it’s a term that perhaps McGinley would not want to use if he had a second chance. A less charged way of putting it would be to point to St. Augustine’s adoption, in book II of De civitate Dei, of Cicero’s definition of “commonwealth.” It is simply true, as Augustine himself demonstrates, that Catholics have a common conception of right and the common good. This is true both with respect to eternity end and the temporal, and McGinley’s very simple point is that Catholics need to act like that’s the case and constitute a parallel commonwealth.

    Of course, having this discussion in dry terms misses a lot of the charm of McGinley’s book. He very movingly insists that the way Catholics – and, one supposes, any other Christians – constitute a parallel commonwealth, in addition to sharing conceptions of right and the common good, is by forming true friendships. This is where he is at his most compelling. It is possible to talk about friendship in very technical terms, with plenty of references to Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and McGinley does a little bit of that. But in describing his neighborhood friends, it is clear that he writes from experience.

    McGinley makes another important point: There is a temptation to look to the nuclear family as the solution for the atomization that is dissolving our religious, cultural, and political institutions. Certainly, as he explains in a lengthy section on the family, there is a central role for it in the process of reclaiming Catholic identity. However, atomized families are not much better than atomized individuals at resisting the transformation of life into life in a pod. It is necessary for families to form real friendships with other families, and by means of these friendships slowly build up community.

    This is a big demand. Ultimately, McGinley wants Catholics to undertake the difficult task of making Catholicity spatially visible. Liberalism – and American Catholicism’s accommodations with it – have dissolved all the structures Catholics once considered solid. It is clear that help is not coming, either from the courts or a political system that seems content to allow everyone to become Thomas Jerome Newton. One is compelled to agree with McGinley that ordinary Catholics will have to begin this work. In his thoughtful approach, McGinley makes the demand seem like something that average Catholics can achieve. But not alone, of course. Never alone.

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    Contributed By Patrick J. Smith

    Patrick J. Smith writes from Southern Indiana. He has contributed to The Lamp, The Josias, and Ius & Iustitium.

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