September 2012 Print

Re-dimensioning the Catholic Simpleton

Christopher Ferrara

During a film presentation at the Democratic National Convention, the narrator made the following declaration in that folksy American tone that is supposed to convey unchallengeable practical wisdom: “Government’s the only thing we all belong to. We’re in different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city, of our county, of our state, and our nation.”1 Why shucks, isn’t that just the plain ol’ American truth?

Spouting similar folk wisdom, Mitt Romney observed during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention: “We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan; that might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don’t remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.” Of course they did. And isn’t that the American way? What unites us—the Super Bowl, for example—is so much more important than the minor things that divide us, such as religion.

Both political parties reflect the final outcome of political modernity: the reduction of post-Christian Western man to a simpleton, a two-dimensional being—the citizen-voter and worker-consumer—whose “private” third dimension, including his religion, has no bearing on his “public” life and is left behind whenever he exits his home or the religious temple of his choice.

The simpleton of the modern nation-state inhabits what the Catholic scholar William T. Cavanaugh (citing the Anglican scholar John Milbank) characterizes as a “simple space,” as compared with the “complex space” that was Christendom. Cavanaugh describes the transformation thus: “The rise of the modern nation-state is marked by the triumph of the universal over the local in the sovereign state’s usurpation of power from the Church, the nobility, clans, guilds and towns. The universalization of law and rights would liberate the individual from the whims of local custom, thereby creating a direct relationship or simple space between the sovereign and the individual.”2

The simple space of political modernity is precisely what the folksy narrator means by the proposition that “Government’s the only thing we all belong to.” The direct relationship between “We the People” and the federal and state governments that “we” supposedly created in the American Revolution is precisely “the political space imagined by Locke,” which has “two poles, the individual and the state,”3 or what Locke described in his Second Treatise as “one body politic under one supreme government.”4

According to the story that political modernity tells about itself—the story of what post-Christian man calls Liberty—the “democratic revolutions” of the 18th and 19th centuries finally brought an end to religious strife and bloodshed, inaugurating an endless epoch of peace, prosperity and domestic tranquility in “the spirit of democratic capitalism,” to quote the title of Michael Novak’s infamous and impudent attack on Catholic social teaching. But in truth the successful struggle for the subordination of religion by the state inaugurated an age of violence and civilizational decline without precedent in Western history, with the two world wars representing only a fraction of the vast carnage unleashed by the final emancipation of the nations from the influence of the Catholic Church.

Indeed, as Cavanaugh notes, the so-called wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries were really conflicts waged “by state-building elites for the purpose of consolidating their power over the church and other rivals.”5 They were “the birth pangs of the state, in which the overlapping jurisdictions, allegiances, and customs of the medieval order were flattened and circumscribed into the new creation of the sovereign state (not always yet nation-state), a centralizing power with a monopoly on violence within a defined territory.”6

This flattening and circumscription of social order involves a historically novel division of society into public and private domains, the latter consigned to a lower realm below the level of the public. That division represents a total destruction of the medieval constitution of the State as a unified moral totality whose complex structure reflects the existence of the Mystical Body with its many parts ordered to the same eternal end. In Christendom, wrote the great German historian Otto von Gierke, “the Church served as a model for a parallel system of temporal groups” existing together in an organic and hierarchical relation in which authority was exercised locally wherever appropriate, according to what Pius XI called “the principle of subsidiary function.” And this perennial arrangement made for the true liberty of the individual, for as Gierke observed it was always understood that “[r]ulers are instituted for the sake of Peoples, not Peoples for the sake of Rulers.” Contrary to the mythology of the Liberty narrative, “the doctrine of the unconditioned duty of obedience was wholly foreign to the Middle Age.… [E]very duty of obedience was conditioned by the rightfulness of the command. That any individual must obey God rather than any earthly superior appeared as an absolutely indisputable truth.”7 In this age of Liberty, however, the nations have no king but Caesar, and we are expected to obey men rather than God. Our mere opinions about Him and His will are not operative when we enter the public square, where, as Thomas Jefferson declared in his first Inaugural Address, we must exhibit “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics…”

In Christendom, Gierke wrote, “Church and State were two Co-ordinate Powers” between which there was to be “an inseverable connexion and an unbroken interaction which must display itself in every part and also throughout the whole” of society.8 The Church, in short, was the soul of the body politic. But with the Protestant revolt and the so-called Enlightenment, the body politic of Christendom was inexorably divested of its soul, and thus its organizing principle, leaving only the great mass of “sovereign” individuals and the government their “sovereign will” supposedly created—the two poles of the simple space we now inhabit. The result, Gierke concludes, was “[a] combat…in which the Sovereign State and the Sovereign Individual contended over the delimitation of the provinces assigned to them by Natural Law, and in the course of that struggle all intermediate groups were first degraded into the position of the more or less arbitrarily fashioned creatures of mere Positive Law, and in the end were obliterated.”9

The formerly intermediate groups still exist in one form or another, of course. There are still churches and associations of various kinds, perhaps more than ever before. But they no longer exist as autonomous agencies with a determinative social influence upon the whole—least of all the Catholic Church, whose overthrow as the conscience of the State was essential to the building of the New Order of the Ages. That is, the once intermediate agencies are no longer publicly relevant, which is all that matters in the modern secular state. This was the diagnosis of Robert Nisbet in his Quest for Community, an ultimately futile Burkean conservative complaint about a post-Christian social order whose false principles Nisbet was unwilling to challenge.

Think of the modern nation-state, then, as a kind of sociopolitical Flatland whose two-dimensional inhabitants—bodies without legally cognizable souls—subsist in a condition of direct subjection to “their” government. Any potential countervailing authority, particularly the Catholic Church, has been consigned to an invisible third dimension known as the “private voluntary society.” If the Church is envisioned as a three-dimensional reality, her appearance in this Flatland can be likened to a physical impossibility.

Today, even Catholic Churchmen, captives of the Zeitgeist and the Second Vatican Council’s prudentially disastrous embrace of “religious liberty,” are unable to imagine the Church’s operative presence in the Flatland of American politics. Hence the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressing its utterly impotent opposition to the contraceptive mandate of Obamacare, insisted: “This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.”10 Being good citizens of Flatland, the American bishops consent to the reduction of all social questions, including matters involving the very foundations of the moral order, to a mere contest for votes in the two-dimensional simple space of the American political arena in which members of the Catholic hierarchy agree to be mere citizen-voters like everyone else. For after all, in the New Order of the Ages government is the only thing we all belong to.

How do we escape this absurd predicament before the suicide of the West is completed? It is useless to speak of “states’ rights” and secession, for the states are merely subdivided congruent spaces within the vast simple space of the United States. Thus the last attempt at secession, known as the Civil War, merely cut the overall simple space in two, with each resulting half (including its respective states) being governed by the same Enlightenment-bred principles, expressed in virtually identical constitutions. (The Confederate States Constitution was borrowed from the United States Constitution, including a federal supremacy clause and bans on any establishment of religion, including Christianity, or any religious test for office.)

What is needed, rather, is an internal secession from simple space, involving nothing more or less than a re-dimensioning of the Catholic simpleton into a three-dimensional Catholic man who refuses any longer to accept a life in that flattened and circumscribed realm known as the secular. “Once there was no secular,” writes Milbank. “Instead there was the single community of Christendom with its dual aspects of sacerdotium and regnum.…The secular as a domain had to be created or imagined, both in theory and in practice.”11 What this means is that we have always held the key to our own imaginary jail cell—a prison we ourselves confirm by accepting the errors of the Enlightenment from which it emerged.

The key to the jail is the Word Incarnate. Without firing a shot, and within the framework of existing institutions, re-dimensioned Catholics in every station of life—from the voter to the ruler, and beginning with the hierarchy of the Church whose divine commission is to make disciples of all nations—need only speak Truth to power. The results would be astonishing, as we have seen with formerly communist Hungary’s stunning adoption of a new Christian constitution only last year.

The “only thing we all belong to” is not a mere civil government, but rather the Kingdom of Christ, which embraces all men and all nations. When Catholics shake off their Liberty-induced stupor and act as if they still believe that Christ is King and Lord of History, the world will begin to change again, just as it did most miraculously in the days of the Roman catacombs. The question is not whether but when this social metanoia will occur, and what will be left of our world by the time it does.



2 Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time (London: T & T Clark, 2002), 99.

3 Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmans Publishing, 2011), 21.

4 Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), II, 89.

5 William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 162.

6 Cavanaugh, “Beyond Secular Parodies” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock (London: Routledge, 1998), 191. Emphasis mine.

7 Otto von Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age (Cambridge University Press: 1900), 21, 34-35.

8 Ibid., 16, 2.

9 Ibid., 100.


11 Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 9. Emphasis in original.