We’re All Traditionalists Now

by Circle or Line

Nowadays the devil has made such a mess of everything in the system of life on earth that the world will presently become uninhabitable for anybody but Saints. The rest will drag their lives out in despair or fall below the level of man. The antinomies of human life are too exasperated, the burden of matter too oppressive; merely to exist, one has to expose oneself to many snares. Christian heroism will one day become the sole solution for the problems of life.
—Jacques Maritain

The strategic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anticultural predicate upon which modern personality is being organized.
—Philip Rieff

1. A Culture of Monsters

Pro-life intellectuals and activists have accurately characterized our culture as a culture of death, following the late, great John Paul II, but perhaps it is time to update our terminology. I propose a new term, “anti-culture,” borrowing from the sociological lexicon of the late, great Philip Rieff, the brilliant and prophetic Jewish sociologist and author of the classic Triumph of the Therapeutic. An anti-culture is worse than a culture of death, for it works to render its devotees, both those witting and unwitting, both incapable of knowing the truth, and incapable of loving the truth if by chance they ever came to know it. I shall try to illustrate the suitability of this new term with a couple of examples.

The Virginia Tech massacre of April, 2007 is the most recent, well-known, and shocking illustrations of our sick culture, though we must remember that such murderous violence, both in intensity and in scope, is an almost daily occurrence in Iraq. There can be hardly anything more horrific than indiscriminate, cold blooded murder, and the obvious connection between this man’s insane acts and the pervasive cultural poisons of pornography and violent video games is undeniable. However, I think there is another example that even more effectively confirms the aforementioned quotes. In October 2006, a teenage girl in Atlanta desired an unnatural relationship with another teenage girl, but the desire wasn’t mutual. As a consequence, the girl tried to kill herself by driving head-on into another car. The girl survived, but the driver in the other car did not. The driver who died was a mother of three children, one of them a six-year-old girl.

It only takes a moment of reflection to recognize the profound evil of this crime: The senselessness of it, its utter banality, its absurdity—words can’t accurately describe it—even the word evil seems wanting. If revenge is the motive, how does killing oneself, as well as a perfect stranger, obtain it, especially if the person on whom one is attempting to exact revenge could care less about you? And why risk the life of an absolute stranger when suicide and revenge is the aim—why not just jump off a bridge? This seems beyond ordinary wickedness. Murdering other human beings from a motive of uncontrollable rage, envy, hatred, fear, or insanity is at least intelligible, though of course not excusable. But killing another person, a mother with young children for that matter, for apparently no motive whatsoever, not even the passion of hate, seems to me to be the very essence of evil. The diabolical Marquis de Sade once suggested that evil done from a motive of complete apathy is the purest of evil, since having a passion for anything, including the hateful passion for murder, indicates a lack of autonomy and self-possession. The Marquis would be proud of his twenty-first century spiritual daughter from Atlanta.

The exquisite disdain for and indifference towards human life evinced in these two seemingly unrelated and isolated criminal acts is, I submit, a symptom and manifestation of something much more fundamental and sinister than merely the wickedness of two individuals, on the one hand, or the wickedness of the “culture” on the other. Of course, the perpetrators were, as individuals, quite evil, and our violence and sex-soaked media culture did play a significant causal role in both of the crimes. But to achieve the profound level of depravity and inhumanness that these crimes evince, I submit, requires deliberate and systematic cultivation, something outside the capacity of individuals, however wicked, or the culture, however necrophillic. Rather, such exquisite cultivation is the earmark of something more sophisticated than brute evil or an anarchic cultural milieu. It presupposes a very particular social, cultural, and political milieu in which such acts can become imaginable, let alone desirable. In short, such exquisite acts of evil require a tradition for both conception and birth.

What I am trying to express with these graphic illustrations is the fact that Catholic, pro-life intellectuals are not contending merely with formidable anti-life ideas, but a systematic and coherent body of such ideas, united by a historical and publicly-authoritative narrative, and embodied in well-entrenched and concrete habits, attitudes, customs, rituals, institutions, and practices—a full-fledged, anti-life—and anti-cultural—tradition. And though not every devotee of this anti-life tradition will become an actual murderer or suicide, the most logical of its devotees will—and the implicit logic of this anti-culture is becoming more and more explicit. Archbishop Martinez makes the point well in a remarkable essay entitled “Beyond Secular Reason”:
Nihilism is today not a philosophy, it is above all a practice, and a practice of suicide even if is a soft suicide. It is the suicide of the depressed. It is also a practice of violence. The secular society lives in daily violence, violence with reality. This violence shows that nihilism cannot and does not correspond to our being. But it shows also, in a very concrete way, how the secular society annihilates itself by engendering the very monsters that terrify it most and that it itself hates most.

As I shall try to show in the remainder of this paper, what pro-life Catholics require to vanquish these monsters, or better, to prevent their conception and birth, are not only credible and coherent, pro-life philosophies and theologies, but also attractive and accessible, pro-life philosophical and theological practices. They must be attractive to invite salvific gazes from spiritually diseased onlookers, and accessible to enable and sustain willing and active participation. There is an intrinsic and extricable relationship between theoria and praxis, and practices embodying natural and supernatural ideas, more than the ideas themselves, are indispensable for both genuine spiritual conversion and effective intellectual refutation. Unless our pro-life philosophical and theological ideas be incarnated in integrally Catholic social, cultural—and political—practices, our ideas, however true and well articulated, will be as ineffective in convincing and converting the ordinary person as they would the monsters described at the outset.

II. Liberalism: The Tradition of the Psychopath

Liberalism, it must be admitted, is the established tradition in western culture. As MacIntyre has famously observed, “The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.” Yet, is the cultural soil of liberalism truly capable of germinating the kind of monsters I have been describing? Have not psychotic murders been present throughout human history Is not liberalism, at least in its classical variety, nothing more than the establishment of a level political and economic, even cultural, playing field where good and evil can freely fight it out?

The liberal claim was to provide a political, legal, and economic framework in which assent to one and the same set of rationally justifiable principles would enable those who espouse widely different and incompatible conceptions of the good life for human beings to live together peaceably within the same society. Every individual is to be equally free to propose and to live by whatever theory or tradition he or she may adhere to.

Seems quite harmless, does it not? Here, MacIntyre revises his description of liberalism’s self image:

“Liberalism in the name of freedom imposes a certain kind of unacknowledged domination, and one which in the long run tends to dissolve traditional human ties and to impoverish social and cultural relationships. Liberalism, while imposing through state power regimes that declare everyone free to pursue whatever they take to be their own good, deprives most people of the possibility of understanding their lives as a quest for the discovery and achievement of the good, especially by the way in which it attempts to discredit those traditional forms of human community within which this project has to be embodied”.

It only takes a few logical steps to realize that if the established, hegemonic tradition is one that “discredits traditional forms of human community,” such as family and church, and deprives “most people” of knowing their true good, disastrous consequences must follow. If we cannot know our good, then how can we love it? If we can not know or love our good, then how can we love ourselves and others? MacIntyre goes on:

“To be educated into the culture of a liberal social order is, therefore, characteristically to become the kind of person to whom it appears normal that a variety of goods should be pursued, each appropriate to its own sphere, with no overall good supplying any overall unity to life”.

If there is no overall and antecedent good or unity to my life, then my life is inherently meaningless—and so is everybody else’s. I might choose to create meaning for my life and others, or I might not. What is the upshot of this? Jim Kalb provides a very startling answer:

“Since it is choice itself that makes something good, one does not choose things for their goodness but simply because one chooses them. Choices thus become arbitrary, and human actions essentially non-rational. On such a view, the rational component of morality is reduced to the therapeutic task of clarifying choices and the technical task of securing their satisfaction efficiently and equally – It is the outlook of a psychopath”.

“I want what I want.” As Benedict XVI warns: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

III: Beyond Secular Reason

Liberalism, that ideology defined precisely by its rejection of and claim to transcend tradition, has transformed into a tradition itself, and it is not the tolerant and inclusive one it pretends to be, as MacIntyre suggests here:

“Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate… so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism… There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question”.

There was once a time when liberals would decry even the suggestion of its potential for establishment as a betrayal of liberalism, a reversal of the Enlightenment, a corruption of the universally accessible reason it is founded upon by a regressive admixture of exclusivist, irrational belief. However, things have changed. To use the phrase of Archbishop Javier Martinez of Granada, we have moved “beyond secular reason.” The era of Enlightenment, modern, foundationalist, universalist, idealist liberalism has been displaced by post-Enlightenment, post-modern, anti-foundationalist, particularist, pragmatic liberalism. Many of today’s liberal theorists, such as Richard Rorty, Jeffrey Stout, and Gary Gutting, have not only admitted liberalism’s traditionalist identity and hegemony, but have defended it precisely as such. Tom Bridges summarizes the raison d’etre of the traditionalist liberal project:

“If liberalism is to survive the collapse of Enlightenment culture, liberals must now attempt to de-universalize or contextualize their political language, to learn to explain and advocate liberal democratic moral ideals in a vocabulary that can express the particularism of liberal political norms without thereby invalidating them.

And Jeffrey Stout, perhaps the most sophisticated spokesman of postmodern liberalism, writes:

“There is much to be gained by abandoning the image of democracy as essentially opposed to tradition, as a negative force that tends by its nature to undermine culture and the cultivation of virtue. Democracy is a culture, a tradition, in its own right. It has an ethical life of its own, which philosophers would do well to articulate. Pragmatism is best viewed as an attempt to bring the notions of democratic deliberation and tradition together in a single philosophical vision. To put the point aphoristically and paradoxically, pragmatism is democratic traditionalism”.[1]

What liberals have awoken to, and what many orthodox Catholics thinkers, unfortunately, have not, is that the Enlightenment is over. As Jurgen Habermas stated in his remarkable 2004 exchange with the former Cardinal Ratzinger, Western culture is now “post-secular.” Liberalism has finally recognized and accepted the contingent, particularist, historically and culturally conditioned, non-necessary, non-self-evident (pace Thomas Jefferson), and eminently debatable character of its first principles. The post-modern, traditionalist liberal no longer has to bear the impossible burden of identifying his philosophical system with reason itself, and, now that it has become firmly established as a living tradition, where before it was only an abstract system of thought, he can defend liberalism in the same manner as Catholics defend Catholicism, as both our tradition, and as the best tradition, as both good for us and for others, as historical and limited in origin and embodiment, but timeless and universal in scope and significance.

IV. We’re All Traditionalists Now

This traditionalist turn in liberalism necessitates a radical change in strategy for pro-life, orthodox, traditionalist Catholics—and all Catholics are traditionalists by definition. Unlike the liberal Catholic, we endorse wholeheartedly integrally Catholic practices and discourse; yet we limit the participation in and scope of these to the in-house crowd, as it were. For those outside our tradition, and for the secular public sphere in general, we have pursued a program of translation. We urge ourselves to speak only the language of universal public reason to strangers, thereby secularizing, moralizing, and politicizing what is distinctly theological and spiritual in our tradition, both in doctrine and in practice, so as to render it intelligible to non-Catholics and practically effective for secular society.

However, this strategy presupposes two fundamental ideas that in light of the traditionalist turn need to be reexamined. The first is that there is such a thing as the “secular,” that is, an ideologically neutral, universal, public world accessible to and based upon a universal public reason, abstracted from the practical and speculative particularities of tradition. If there is no objective, public reason, then all we are left with, this idea fears, are the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion, where any affirmation of true or good are unmasked as wither mere idiosyncrasy or the will to dominate. The second idea that must be reconsidered is the easy separability of theoria and praxis, the confidence that one can effectively strain out from the concrete practices and particularist discourse of one’s tradition a secular, universally accessible remainder intelligible to all regardless of traditional allegiance.

Regarding the existence of a secular reason or public space neutral to any particular tradition, MacIntyre writes:

“Either reason is thus impersonal, universal, and disinterested or it is the unwitting representative of particular interests, masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry”.

For MacIntyre, it is only through active participation in particular authentic traditions that men are rendered capable of discovering and achieving their ultimate good. For it is always through a particular tradition that we ascend to universal truth. Indeed, without tradition we are unable to make any sense of reality at all, because our bodies, minds, and souls are, largely, products of tradition themselves. As body and soul composites, our encounters with reality are mediated by bodies, which are themselves mediated by history and culture. Even the words and concepts we use to interpret and make sense of the brute facts of reality originate and develop in what MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” All men are necessarily habituated into a particular tradition, even if it is an incoherent and considerably defective one like the tradition of liberalism. Outside of tradition coherent knowledge and discovery of the good is practically impossible. We are, in MacIntyre’s improvement on Aristotle’s classic definition, “tradition-dependent rational animals.” As Paul Griffiths puts it:

“To be confessional is simply to be open about one’s historical and religious locatedness, one’s specificity, and openness that is essential for serious theological work and indeed for any serious intellectual work that is not in thrall to the myth of the disembodied and unlocated scholarly intellect”.

Regarding the capacity to translate particular religious truth into non-religious public reason, MacIntyre articulates what can be called the traditionalist dilemma:

“The theologian begins from orthodoxy, but the orthodoxy which has been learnt from Kierkegaard and Barth becomes too easily a closed circle, in which believer speaks only to believer, in which all human content is concealed. Turning aside from this arid in-group theology, the most perceptive theologians wish to translate what they have to say to an atheistic world. But they are doomed to one of two failures. Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves”.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? If there is, the indispensable condition for its realization, I maintain, is the recognition of the illusory nature of pluralism. There is no such thing as state pluralism, only the domination of one tradition over another in the public sphere, and no such thing as liberalism, if this means a sphere of reason or action that escapes the particularism and exclusivity of tradition. And since traditions of rationality are distinguished by the particular way they grapple with matters of ultimate concern, all traditions are ultimately religious. In what I consider to be one of the most remarkable passages I have ever come across, in its simultaneous profundity, comprehensiveness, and terseness, David Schindler writes:

“A nonconfessional state is not logically possible, in the one real order of history. The state cannot finally avoid affirming, in the matter of religion, a priority of either “freedom from” or “freedom for”—both of these priorities implying a theology”.

If Catholics do not think, speak, and act distinctively as Catholics, bringing their intellectual, moral, and liturgical tradition wherever they go, as it were, in imitation of Socrates, whom Catherine Pickstock once declared a “walking liturgy,” then we stand no chance at converting the liberal traditionalists of the culture of death, traditionalists who have no qualms about communicating to themselves and others exclusively in their religious parlance of tolerance and diversity, and inviting all into their liturgical practices of abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia. Indeed, they see themselves as the “true believers,” the only ones truly defending “life,” with us as the heretics, obsessed only with death and control, as H. Tristram Englehardt insightfully points out:

“The new culture does not regard itself as a culture of death, but as a culture of life and liberation. Each culture is to the other a counter-culture, marking a profound break in our history, our self-understanding, and our appreciation of life and death”.

How can these deluded devotees have any hope of ever renouncing their enslaving tradition unless they are made aware of its enslaving character? And how can they become aware unless they have some palpable experience of an alternative? The tradition they inhabit deprives them of the existential conditions required to see moral truths, let alone religious ones, as Englehardt points out:
In the grip of Enlightenment dispositions regarding religion, few are inclined to recognize that the moral life once disengaged from a culture of worship loses its grasp on the moral premises that rightly direct our lives and foreclose the culture of death.

I conclude with a quote from D. Stephen Long, who, though a non-Catholic, seems to understand the priority of tradition better than many of us. Notwithstanding the tradition-constituted nature of rationality, and the manifest superiority of the Augustinian-Thomist tradition over all others, those outside our tradition sometimes can perceive its character more clearly than those inside who are, perhaps, blinded by proximity:

“Beginning with the flesh of Jesus and its presence in the church, theology alone can give due order to other social formations—family, market, and state. The goodness of God is discovered not in abstract speculation, but in a life oriented toward God that creates particular practices that require the privileging of certain social institutions above others. The goodness of God can be discovered only when the church is the social institution rendering intelligible our lives… For a Christian account of this good, the church is the social formation that orders all others. If the church is not the church, the state, the family, and the market will not know their own true nature”.

[1] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 13.

Dr. Thaddeus Kozinski