Rejecting Zmirak's Rejection of 'Illiberal Catholicism'

By Andrew M. Haines
January 8, 2014

Daniel Schwindt's article, "Refuting Tocqueville by Way of Tocqueville," is a fantastic contribution to the swirling discussion of what Lockean liberalism means for modern orthodox Christians. If you're only skimming, a major takeaway is Schwindt's claim that Tocqueville's descriptions far outshine his prescriptions; and that "the preponderance of evidence he piles up against the Lockean state in his descriptive capacity is so overwhelming that, in the few instances where he takes a prescriptive stance, it is far too late for him to be taken seriously."

On the other hand, there's John Zmirak's Tea Party-induced eruption against "illiberal Catholicism," where we learn things like “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition," and that neo-Marxists and Cardinal Dolan (yes, equally so) are "all BLEEPING crazy." The conclusion Zmirak offers is that Enlightenment-style "freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our [Catholic] ancestors were fighting on the wrong side." Not an inarguable claim, to be sure, but certainly without any compelling reasons on the part of this author.

What divides Schwindt from Zmirak, I think—aside from tone—is a concern for ordered goods. Schwindt, on the one hand, identifies Tocqueville's "deviated conception of government as a 'necessary evil,' rather than as a divine institution for the benefit of mankind." Zmirak, on the other hand, unabashedly prioritizes political expediency over orthodoxy, and issues a subsequent injunction against "illiberal" Catholics to shape up or be damned.

Zmirak's presentation, especially his black legend about the Inquisition, has been heavily criticized. What's most offensive, though, is his willingness to rearrange a hierarchy of goods, placing wisdom below and subject to prudence. In so doing, Zmirak not only destabilizes the classical intellectual model—leaving any prospect for intelligible orthodoxy shaky at best—but also undermines the moderate endorsement of Enlightenment principles he argues for elsewhere. (Incidentally, Zmirak's conclusion, here, employs some prescriptive Tocqueville.) If Locke can be accepted conditionally, then wisdom is required to know where and how; yet a reductionist reading that Catholicism sans-Enlightenment is simply oppression and torture forces one's hand quickly away from anything impractical. The medicine against feudalist "cancer," to use Zmirak's analogy, kills indiscriminately. But it comes without a warning label, and we've already committed to handing it out.

If the options available to us include either preserving the primacy of wisdom or reducing it to rubble, the choice is easy. Therein lies the truest of freedoms. And although it's hard to create an exact formula for being a good "illiberal" Catholic—much less to admit that such a term is helpful—at least one knows more or less what he's solving for.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.