In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the “received wisdom” in the West, particularly the United States and Europe, was that the Catholic Church had not only made its peace with liberalism, but had internalized its core tenets.
Editor’s Note: This Introduction is the first of a multi-part series examining the recent pushback against liberalism from primarily Catholic academics, churchmen, and writers in the light of the Society of Saint Pius X’s (SSPX) half-a-century witness against the destructive forces of liberalism. In particular, the words and writings of the Society’s founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, will be examined with special attention drawn to how today’s “illiberal Catholicism” both complements and contrasts with the anti-liberalism of the SSPX and the traditional social magisterium it relies upon.
Although there are numerous definitions of liberalism with many nuances available, this series applies the word liberalism to “certain tendencies in the intellectual, religious, political, and economical life, which implied a partial or total emancipation of man from the supernatural, moral, and Divine order.” (H. Gruber, “Liberalism,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)).
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the “received wisdom” in the West, particularly the United States and Europe, was that the Catholic Church had not only made its peace with liberalism, but had internalized its core tenets. Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty, opened the doors to religious indifferentism, both within society and the Church. Other declarations of the Council, along with the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” which prevailed during the decades after, ushered in reforms to the Church’s liturgy, theology, canon law, and governance structure. Although Church officials maintained a strong stance on critical social issues such as abortion and euthanasia, an ever-growing number turned a blind eye to moral matters such as contraception, promiscuity, and unnatural unions.
In the political realm, the mainline Catholic Church has all but endorsed liberal democracy as the best political system. This positive attitude endures despite many liberal-democratic principles, including the false notion that political authority derives from “the people,” were expressly condemned beginning in the 18th century. With regard to political economy, both free-market capitalism and socialism—two economic forms that often compete for dominance within liberal polities—find acceptance in contemporary Catholic circles. And yet even a cursory read of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum or Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno reveals stern dismissals of both as incompatible with divine and natural law.
While a great deal more will be said about the SSPX and Archbishop Lefebvre’s anti-liberalism in subsequent articles, a few introductory words are in order. Following Vatican II and the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae, Archbishop Lefebvre established the SSPX for the primary purpose of keeping alive the traditional Catholic priesthood. Bound up with this apostolic work was the duty to speak out—sometimes forcefully—against the liberal errors that invaded the Church in the 1960s and wreaked havoc over the course of the following decades. Shunned by his fellow prelates for refusing to accept such Vatican II novelties as religious liberty, collegiality, and ecumenism, Archbishop Lefebvre and his nascent fraternity of priests struggled on, providing traditional catechesis and sacraments to the faithful while disseminating timely information on the crisis in the Church.
In the United States, for instance, Angelus Press was created to deliver traditional Catholic instruction, news, and devotional material to an ever-growing number of Catholics who realized that they were face-to-face with a Church their forebears would barely recognize. Over the years, Angelus Press and its magazine, The Angelus, brought to English-speaking readers the words and thought of Archbishop Lefebvre, including his learned, insightful, and stern critiques of ecclesiastical and political liberalism. Publications, such as Louis Veuillot’s 19th-century classic The Liberal Illusion and the encyclicals of the great anti-liberal popes such as St. Pius X, were also made available in the hopes of inoculating Catholics against the false tenets of liberalism. This endeavor, though fruitful, has not come without setbacks.
Liberalism, as an ideology, is totalizing. In every facet of Western life, from religion to politics, liberalism reigns supreme with few bothering to question either its intellectual underpinnings or its effects. As such, it is not uncommon to find Catholics, including traditional Catholics, who believe that at least some acceptance of the liberal order is good or at least permissible, despite what the Church has taught historically. It is even true that committed anti-liberals can fall into the trap of internalizing liberal inclinations due to the ideology’s ubiquity. Only the Catholic Church, the pillar and ground of the Truth, provides a pure horizon beyond liberalism.
While the Society’s witness against liberalism is ongoing, a fresh wave of anti-liberal voices is rising up both within and outside the Catholic Church. Last year, Rod Dreher, a convert to Catholicism who, unfortunately, has since joined the Russian Orthodox Church, has trumpeted his dissatisfaction with liberalism through his blog housed at The American Conservative magazine and in his well-selling book, The Benedict Option (Sentinel 2017). Though Dreher has been cagey at times over just what “the Benedict Option” is supposed to be, his call for Christians to live out their faith in intentional communities dedicated to the preservation of Christian culture and society (what was once known as “Christendom”) parallels the message and work of the Society and those faithful Catholics to whom it ministers. Dreher believes, rightly, that liberalism in the United States is now forcefully anti-Christian.
Another recent text, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press 2018), is receiving acclaim in Catholic circles for making bare the inherent flaws and contradictions to be found in political liberalism. However, despite his confessional commitments, it is hard to say that Deneen writes firmly from within Catholic tradition itself. At the same time, other American Catholic outlets, such as the historically neoconservative First Things magazine, have published anti-liberal writings, albeit unevenly, while prominent Catholic writers such as The New York Times’s Ross Douthat and Harvard University’s Adrian Vermeule have questioned in print and on social media the union of liberalism and Catholicism.
More in line with the spirit, if not the substance, of the SSPX’s anti-liberalism are projects such as The Josias, which seeks to re-freshen and promote Catholic integralism, and the books, articles, and online features by traditional Catholic luminaries like Brian McCall, John Rao, and Christopher Ferrara.
Given these developments, it stands to reason that Archbishop Lefebvre, the SSPX, and the traditional magisterium they represent would form the cornerstone of the new anti-liberalism. That is not the case, however. Most of the new anti-liberals, save those who maintain a close association with the Society, are either unaware or apparently afraid of the Archbishop’s words and writings. Why? Some possible answers to that question will unfold over the course of this series. While it is not the intention of this series to single out or critique the new anti-liberalism in toto, the argument will be made that this new anti-liberalism remains both indebted to the oft unacknowledged work of the Archbishop and the SSPX and, at times, suffers from not leaning more heavily on his apostolic work.