This week in the United States we begin a new presidential administration and a new congress. As we endure the weirdest year of most of our lives, and after several years of unprecedented partisan turmoil, it is a suitable time for Catholics to discuss society’s present problems, and to describe possible solutions. It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion, co-authored by Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley, offers some timely answers to pressing questions. It also leaves important questions unanswered.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright has often pointed out in recent years that Christians living in the post-Enlightenment West misconstrue Jesus’ words to Pontius Pilate in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Rendered more accurately in the NRSV translation as “My kingdom is not from this world,” the kingdom is, without question, for this world. We may not live in Christendom anymore, but our faith can never be relegated to a private sphere. In recent years, Christian intellectuals have debated how to be ambassadors for Christ’s kingdom as crises of liberal modernity have become more apparent and more frequent in the United States and Europe. Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue is a seminal text, and Patrick Deneen’s more recent Why Liberalism Failed is another important work in this field.
It Is Right and Just joins the burgeoning post-liberal conversation. And, as one would expect from a book with Hahn’s name on it, the work is highly accessible. It is entirely likely that someone picking up this book would have no idea what “liberalism” is (likely mistaking it as a synonym for “progressive” or “Democrat”), let alone why it may be a shaky foundation to keep building on. In this way, the book appeals to an important demographic that is unfamiliar with and likely uninterested in arcane Catholic Twitter squabbles among Integralists, Left-Caths, Dads, and the like.
Hahn and McGinley propose that Catholics are suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome.” We have unconsciously accepted the idea that a common religion serves as an unnatural sedative (Marx’s “opium of the masses”). Under the guise of freedom within a secular state that allows us to keep our particular flavor of spirituality among many, Catholics have come to rely instead on the opium of popular entertainment and cheap consumer goods, just like everyone else. But religious neutrality, pluralism, and coexistence are ruses. The options before us, as always, are either to organize our families and societies around Christ and his Church, or worship idols.
It Is Right and Just notes that where things have continued to function well in secular society, they have only done so while there remained an underlying “Christian patrimony of dignity, justice, and grace” (132). “Progress was possible,” Hahn and McGinley tell us, because despite the Enlightenment’s false promises, people still behaved as if we were progressing towards the true and living God. Lately, however, caricatures of virtues have replaced God, in whom we know what virtue really is. “Justice emanates from love” (59), and with a system that is not designed to reorder our disordered love, justice will remain both an unattainable ideal and a partisan talking point. A nation that cannot agree on any first principles about the nature of God and creation has a hard time giving a person what he or she is owed.
The book’s discussion on the need to replace secular gods with true religion evokes James K.A. Smith’s important 2009 volume, Desiring the Kingdom. And since Hahn and McGinley are Catholics, their understanding of true religion solves a problem that Smith, a Protestant philosopher, could not. The discussion of liturgy in It Is Right and Just is the best part of the book, calling to mind thinkers such as Romano Guardini and Alexander Schmemann. Hahn and McGinley remind us,
Reality bursts into our everyday life in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but it doesn’t go away after we leave. We bring the grace of the sacraments and of our own prayer life into the world by honoring the Trinity throughout our days. (147)
Nowhere is it more important for this Eucharistic formation to occur than in the family, out of which the evangelistic impulse should naturally flow. Eucharistic people should form Eucharistic societies.
Hahn and McGinley try their best not to overplay their hand in suggesting society-wide implementation of a post-liberal order. Too often among good Catholic thinkers, sound arguments about the flaws inherent in the current system give way to pure flights of fancy. For example, even if a Catholic Empire of the Americas were a desirable thing, it is such a remote possibility that it may actually be counterproductive to talk about it, let alone work for it. As Larry Chapp recently wrote, “The power of the coercive, confessional State to impose Catholicism from above is as dead as disco.” Instead, Hahn and McGinley write, “We are not saying that the civil order must compel attendance at Mass,” but what it must do “is recognize the sacramentality of reality itself” (83).
And yet, even with a more conceptual than concrete goal, I find myself scratching my head. The current Church is left with an incredibly heavy lift.
How can Catholicism be the organizing principle for society until it has resolved at least some of the larger disputes in its interior life? Putting aside the overall lack of trust in any institution among the general public—and the Church near the top of the list—I wonder which current vision of the Church is supposed to be able to supplant liberalism any time soon. The faithful leaders in the Catholic hierarchy have more than enough to do just to keep pulling the levers of the modest, outdated machines entrusted to their maintenance. The Rad-Trad reactionary movement has yet to demonstrate it can escape toxic cosplay to embrace the common good. Progressive Catholicism, like the Anglican Communion that was my spiritual home for sixteen years, is inherently unproductive, acquiescing to the culture instead of transforming it. If we are to take seriously Hahn and McGinley’s proposals about a renewed society rooted in the Church, we first require a renewed Church. As we work patiently towards that end, therefore, we must in parallel try to shore up the foundation of the liberal order, too, at least for a while, lest it come crashing down on our heads prematurely.
Hahn and McGinley make a good case for Catholics to remember whom they serve. It may be debatable that “the Catholic Church has always been liberalism’s foil” (85), but Catholics should all agree that it “is not a peculiar sectarian belief but, simply, reality” that Christ is already King (168).
By Christ’s mysterious grace, may we all wake up to something like the benevolent reign It Is Right and Just imagines—sooner or later.