Unsurprisingly, Pope Francis' reported comments to President Biden last week have further stirred the pot of politicized polarization. Without pretending to know any more that what everyone else knows about what was allegedly said and what may have been explicitly or implicitly intended, this episode - and the larger context of conflict of which it is a highly charged symbolic part - sent me back 130 years or so to the lasting legacy of the great 19th-century Church-State conflict between the Church and the Third French Republic. It sent me back, more specifically, to the attempt by Pope Leo XIII, perhaps the most politically consequential pope since the Middle Ages, to extricate the Church from an apparently all-or-nothing political impasse. I refer obviously to the papal policy known as the ralliement, most explicitly formulated by Leo XIII in his 1892 encyclical Au milieu des sollicitudes.
Adrien Dansette, in his Religious History of Modern France (tr. John Dingle, Herder, 1961), observed that, while in 1890's France "most of the monarchists were Catholics and most of the Catholics were monarchists," there was a diversity of political positions depending on whether one "was simply a Catholic, both a Catholic and a monarchist, more Catholic than monarchist, or more monarchist than Catholic" (vol. 2, p. 75). For Dansette, Pope Leo's policy, in proposing a way out of the conflict between the Church and the French Republic, was also providing a way out of the conflict between the Church and contemporary (late 19th-century) society, "indicating for Catholics a via media between the two extremes of intransigence and liberalism," in the process calling into question "associations of ideas and feelings habitual among Catholics for several decades" (p. 100).
Is Pope Francis following the great Pope Leo in likewise challenging 21st-century American Catholics to revisit "associations of ideas and feelings" that have become habitual among many American Catholics in recent decades, especially since Roe v. Wade (1973) and the political strategies adopted by both sides ever since?
In 1892, Pope Leo lamented that the safeguarding of Catholic religious interests was being interpreted in terms of an "ambition of securing to the Church political domination over the State" (Au milieu des sollicitudes, 9). In our present political context, Catholic adherence to the liberal presuppositions of pluralist constitutional governance is once again in contention.
At issue is not the private or public profession of sectarian religious beliefs (protected in the American constitutional order by the First Amendment) or even the freedom to practice sectarian religious beliefs publicly in society (a right also constitutionally protected, but limited jurisprudentially by other competing rights). Nor is it about whether it is legitimate, by ordinary means of political persuasion accessible to all, to attempt to promote sectarian religious beliefs about morality for implementation in generally applicable civil laws. The latter is certainly legitimate on liberal, pluralist principles. And it has been tried. Thus, for example, the 20th-century secular liberal philosopher and famous author of A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, recognized this possibility of religious advocacy in a way which meets what he called the criteria of "public reason." He explicitly cited Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's argument in The Consistent Ethic: What Sort of Framework? as such an argument, "clearly cast in some form of public reason." (On this, see Rawls, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," The University of Chicago Law Review, volume 64, number 3, Summer 1997, especially pp. 798-799.)
As right-wing pundit Rod Dreher has observed in a recent argument against contemporary Catholic Integralism, "Perhaps the best thing about liberalism is that it makes persuasion an ideal." Inevitably that means that not all will be persuaded! Accordingly, one must be willing, as Dreher is, to allow room for a right for some people to be wrong. And, at least since Vatican II, the Church herself at a magisterial level, has seemed to have made its peace with that aspect of our human condition.
Whatever his personal feelings about liberalism's philosophical inadequacies, Dreher remains unwilling to surrender it "in large part because we still live in a highly pluralistic and diverse society" and because "any non-liberal alternative would probably be tyrannical." In response to what he calls "the repugnant fantasy of Catholic integralism," he notes, "if you think that the United States of America - a majority Protestant nation that is rapidly de-Christianizing - is open to a revived throne-and-altar Catholicism, you're deluded."
All those observations are - or ought to be - obvious. If the prospects for intransigent monarchist Catholic integralism in 1990s France were poor at best and warranted the response of a papal ralliement, how much more evident is the need for such a ralliement against intransigent, anti-liberal, anti-pluralist integralism in the United States today and a corresponding rediscovery of a politics of persuasion and mutual respect?
(Photo: Pope Francis and U.S. President Joe Biden, Catholic News Agency, October 29, 2021)