A Christian Strategy

A strategy to what end?

“The problem is the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the church. The solution is an equally radical form of strategic flexibility on the part of the Church, which must stand detached from all subsidiary political commitments, willing to enter into flexible alliances of conveniences with any of the parties, institutions, and groups that jostle under the canopy of the liberal imperium.”

Thus begins Adrian Vermeule’s advice to the Catholic Church on how to overcome, or respond to, its problem with Western cultural modernity. In his view, it’s a political problem, and needs be dealt with in a gloves-off, no holds barred political manner:

“Strategically, the Church can be flexible as necessary on all dimensions save one—the gospel teaching and sacramental proactive of the magisterium, which perpetuates itself by apostolic succession. . . . ultimate allegiances to political parties, to the nation, even to the Constitution may all have to go if conditions warrant it. It is not that the strategic Christian may not respect, support, and participate in upholding such things . . . when and so long as there is no conflict with the Church’s teaching and mission.” (Wow!)

And what is the Church’s mission?

“The ultimate long-run goal is the same as it ever was: to bear witness to the Lord and to expand his one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church to the ends of the earth.”

Mr. Vermeule’s political advice appears to be to do whatever you find it helpful to do to advance your mission; with anyone, anywhere, about anything, short or long term, just so long as it does not conflict with the Church’s teachings and end-game. Be true and honest to (only) yourself. On the surface, that may seem a bit Machiavellian, and it is. And as I also see it, in the end, if successful, it will have ended up cannibalizing all other political players and institutions. Who will be the last man standing? A Catholic in “an apostolic Church to the ends of the earth.” At least in the West, we’ve been there, done that (centuries ago), and at this point in time, few (and fewer) seem to want to repeat that history. And that’s the Church’s dilemma: they aren’t getting things their own way, so everyone else (the late stage liberal imperium) is at fault and in the wrong.

It’s the old story: if you can’t defend your own position, all you can do is to attack the opponent’s. The Church is, by definition, authoritarian, conservative. Our culture today is in many ways anti-authoritarian, liberal, in no small cause due to the Church’s past teaching and social position. Given the opportunity to make up one’s own mind, many choose not to be catholic—or even religious. Unfortunately the Church stands to lose, long term, under such “liberal” cultural norms. It’s a pity it hasn’t developed more positive positions in support of its traditional teaching. I wish it could, but sense at this point it’s highly improbable.

Mr. Vermeule, a late-in-life convert to Catholicism, is a professor of administrative and constitutional law at Harvard University. His political strategy presented here seems consistent with his philosophy of judicial interpretation, such as that courts “should enforce clear and specific constitutional texts, but should disclaim any role beyond that. Where constitutional texts are ambiguous or open ended, courts should let legislatures interpret them. Under this rule, courts would cease enforcing the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. In particular, freedom of speech, due process and equal protection of the laws would all be remitted to legislative enforcement.”

I’m not a big fan of his Machiavellian approach to dealing with the Church’s perceived problem, but I have little argument with his judicial philosophy, so long as the “legislative body” is representative, i.e., is not, in effect, the Church.

Thomas Richard Harry
August 2018

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