Are we witnessing the ugly end of culture-war Catholicism? The conservative Catholic media landscape—born out of a battle with social liberalism that goes back at least to Pat Buchanan’s popularization of the term “culture war”—seems to have entered a decisive new phase of its decline. As Pope Francis makes call after call for peace and global solidarity among all people, the culture war troops continue to find new ways to generate enmity through agitprop. Formerly middle-of-the-road Catholic conservative magazines and personalities have become dispensers of crude arguments that are meant to end reasoned debate and inspire outrage. It really is far worse than it ever was. A recent (non-satirical!) article by David Carlin, published in The Catholic Thing, captures perfectly this devolved culture-war mentality:
I find homosexuality disgusting. I find drunkenness disgusting. I find prostitution disgusting. I find drug addiction disgusting. I find abortion disgusting.
As for people who don’t find these things disgusting—I find them disgusting.
Liberalism (and I am using that term in a deliberately blurry way, to encompass all that the culture warriors oppose, even if it tends to center around post-World War II secularism, social progressivism, and the heritage of the sexual revolution) has become so profoundly other in the mind of the culture-war Catholic that it can no longer be examined dispassionately, let alone be engaged with respectfully. It is simply “disgusting.”
At one time, I saw liberalism as a titanic ideological and technological force that could only be resisted, and perhaps one day overcome, by a reactionary politics devoted to restoring a pre-liberal social order. But alas, I can’t abide the increasing tendency of the Catholic right to portray their opponents as either imbeciles or demons. The culture war has turned our moral reflexes into automatic expressions of disgust, leading us to engage in a never-ending caricature of debate. The political allegiances and machinations demanded by the culture war drain us of charity, numb our consciences, and deform our faith.
Having said that, I must admit that I agree with those more high-minded culture warriors, the Catholic “Integralists,” about one thing: liberalism functions like a religion and should be treated as such. But liberalism is not all abortion-as-sacrament extremists and Drag Queen Story Hours. It binds people together in a shared system of belief in universal values (however vaguely defined these may be), with the goal of creating a global order in which humanity can flourish. It is more than merely political, but that is why we should engage with liberalism according to the principles of the new evangelization, or even those of inter-religious dialogue.
The culture war represents the stark opposite of what the Holy Father has put forward as the true path of Christian evangelization. Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, writes that “evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition” (15). This aspect of evangelization, which is according to Pope Francis its primary purpose, is notably absent among many culture-war Catholics. Instead we find a largely ineffectual style of proselytism mixed with conspicuous expressions of disgust. Practicing Catholics are a minority nearly everywhere in the world, and in many ways we are succumbing to the maladies that minority-status brings: insularity, a longing for a semi-mythical golden age, a persecution complex (that often overshadows the real persecution that Catholics face in many parts of the world), and in some cases a combativeness that is quixotic at best and pathologically destructive at worst.
More than ever we need to expand the Courtyard of the Gentiles, in order to encourage the dialogue that is a necessary part of true evangelization. It should be obvious that this dialogue must never degrade into gladiatorial combat. As Pope Francis says, “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time” (EG 24). The establishment of a genuine new Christendom may not come for a very long time; it will be a slow process involving an exchange of ideas in the context of mutual respect, and Catholicism will be transfigured through the incorporation of cultures and ways of thinking that developed outside of its influence, or even in opposition to it. This transfigured Catholicism is perhaps the end-goal of Pope Francis’s dream in Evangelii Gaudium:
I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. (27)
Some people in our secular age turn to Catholicism as an alternative to modern liberalism. I was one of them. But while some of what this liberalism proposes is antithetical to Catholicism, some of it is broadly compatible. The work that the Catholic Church and individual Catholics have done in collaboration with the UN and similar organizations is testament to this. Liberalism informs and undergirds our lives as Catholics in ways that we simply take for granted. And although we certainly can’t ignore the evils liberalism has produced, or fail to protest against them, we also have to make an attempt to understand why such things are no longer seen as evils for many in our society. Motives matter a great deal. Those who support abortion or euthanasia are usually not depraved, but have been led into ignoring evil through good intentions. We can attempt to convince ourselves that liberals are generally depraved, but if we ignore the obsessively amplified extremes, we will discover that the average secular liberal is no more or less depraved than the average religious conservative. On that foundation of understanding, we can establish dialogue and a path to conversion. By imagining that we can exploit and intensify the friend/enemy divide—which political theorist Carl Schmitt famously identified as the dichotomy underlying the political—with the long-term goal of establishing a new Christendom, we end up playing Satan’s game.
By engaging in the dialogue required for evangelization, we may be surprised by what we find. Sometimes the remnants of Christianity that are still smoldering in liberalism provide more heat and light than those of an insular or exhausted Catholicism. Even in the great clashes between liberalism and the Church, we can find opportunities for growth and development. For example, liberalism ushered in the sexual revolution, and some have pointed to this as one of the causes of the tragedy of the abuse crisis in the Church. There is some truth in this, but at the same time we have to recognize that liberalism gave us developmental psychology, the recognition of the rights of children and adolescents, and an awareness of the long-term effects of abuse, which allowed us to recognize the crisis and, eventually, develop effective strategies to deal with it.
In engaging with contemporary liberalism, Catholics have two choices: the culture war or the mission field. Only one of these choices reflects the message of Pope Francis and that of his recent predecessors. The other choice will not lead to a restoration of Christendom, but only to moral degradation, conflict and division, and ultimately a retreat from reality into the romanticism of the lost cause.