Published June 27, 2023
My parents were committed Catholics. I was one of four children, and we were raised to take our faith seriously. Which I did, with the brief exception of four drugged-out years at Notre Dame in the late 1960s. I’ve been happily married, to the same woman, for 52 years. We have four children—one with Down syndrome, another who’s adopted—and 11 grandchildren, three of them with serious disabilities. These experiences obviously shape my views about the nature of marriage and the family, sex, abortion, transgenderism, and related issues.
As for economic, foreign policy, judicial, and other matters: They’re clearly important. I’m grateful to my fellow scholars for addressing them. But they’ve never been my main focus. I believe, with Christopher Dawson, that religion is the soul of every civilization. Protecting religious belief and practice is therefore my priority, with an attached interest that I’ll explain in a few moments, in tech and scientific issues.
Ideas have consequences. And for me, the most consequential ideas about Catholic faith and the American experiment have come from John Courtney Murray—regrettably a Jesuit, but a good priest nonetheless. Murray was a key player in the development of favorable Catholic attitudes toward religious freedom and American democracy. And while he saw clearly that the United States is the product of Protestant and Enlightenment thought, he believed that Catholics could not only “fit into” American life. They could also thrive here and contribute their beliefs to the moral health of the country. That’s been proven true…at least in part. We Catholics have done very well in America. Arguably too well for our own good.
Today Murray is probably best remembered for his work on Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty and for his book We Hold These Truths, a book that Catholics on the post-liberal Right tend to dismiss as too sweet on America and too naïve about its founding. But there’s another side to Murray that I’ve always seen as an interesting footnote to his book. In 1940, he delivered a series of lectures that later became an essay entitled “The Construction of a Christian Culture.” And in it, he said the following about the country he loved:
American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Christian culture at its roots, the denial of metaphysical reality; [the denial of] the primacy of the spiritual over the material; [and the denial] of the social over the individual…. Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism…. It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.
Elsewhere in the same text he says, “in view of the fact that American culture is built on the negation of all that Christianity stands for, it would seem that our first step toward the construction of a Christian culture should be the destruction of the existing one. In the presence of a Frankenstein, one does not reach for baptismal water, but for a bludgeon.”
Murray wrote those words more than 80 years ago. His sympathy for the American project was very real. But it was contingent on the nation preserving its biblical leaven, and Catholics staying faithful to their religious identity. Neither has happened. Just the opposite.
In the last eight decades we’ve seen the splitting of the atom; the sexual revolution; the marginalization of religion in public life; the rise of the administrative state; massive developments in science and technology, including the human genome project, powerful AI, and invasive surveillance tools; a sharp decline in popular religious practice; and the transition of the United States from a continental republic to a de facto commercial and cultural empire with global influence. We Catholics get the added bonus of an ambiguous and difficult papacy, in many ways inadequate to the needs of the moment.
Walk the Walk
The America of 2023 would be unrecognizable to the John Courtney Murray of 1940 or even 1960. And the rate of scientific and technological change is accelerating. This has disruptive effects on the stability of the culture and the psychological health of individuals. And this, in turn, results in our pervasive atmosphere of confusion and conflict. I have a great life that’s been filled with blessings…and yet I find myself angry much of the time. Most of the people I know are angry about something most of the time. It’s in the air we all breathe. And this translates into the violence, the vindictive politics, and the crackpot, destructive thinking that characterize so much of our current public life.
None of this should be news to anyone reading these words. Christopher Lasch foresaw and diagnosed our current realities 30 years ago in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. We’re living through a sea change unlike anything in the last 500 years. It has different names and explanations—the Great Reset, the New Reformation, the Great Awokening, the Upheaval—but the same transformational content at society’s cellular level. And old answers don’t work. Old thinking doesn’t work. In saying that, I don’t mean that we should abandon serious scholarship and engagement of policy issues. We can’t just move to another solar system. And in any case, if we’re religious believers, we have an obligation to do whatever we can to make the world better, here and now as we find it.
But what I mean is this. Many of us—probably most Americans—believe that we live in a familiar country with a familiar history, familiar rules, familiar division of power, and a familiar personal role in governance through the ballot box. That country is exiting stage left, if it is not already gone. The theft has been accomplished by the same leadership class, with its vanities and its bigotries, that Lasch described decades ago, masked now by an analgesic haze of consumer distractions, disinformation, noise, and entertainment. We won’t retrieve the best of the America we once lived in—and as a Christian, I have to believe that it’s possible—with the standard civic pieties and framework of thought that I grew up with.
This is why I admire the work of Patrick Deneen, Michael Hanby, the late David Schindler, and similar thinkers, even if I disagree with some of their conclusions. I don’t think the founding doomed us to end up where we are. I don’t think the liberal order automatically determines the kind of mess we’re in. That would suggest that we’re not really free. And it would also absolve us from the real problem: We behaved ourselves into our current circumstances, and the only solution is the hard work of behaving ourselves out again.
What Deneen and Hanby and others do achieve, though, is asking important questions that force us to examine our premises, our strategies, and our tactics. And I worry that many of us who consider ourselves culturally conservative haven’t done enough of that. Which is why the woke revolution feels like an ambush, when it’s actually been a long march through the institutions. “More of the same” didn’t work in Vietnam, and it’s a lesson we might profitably keep in mind for the current culture war as well.
Here’s an old piety: the family really is the key to renewing a nation’s life. And that’s true. It’s our “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch often said, so protecting the home and its intimacy needs to be a priority. But Noelle Mering very wisely pointed out to me that just saying this is not enough. We also need to be practical and prescriptive. We need to propose real ways that people can actually experience the beauty and security of a healthy family. And Aaron Kheriaty added that one of the ways to do that is creating networks of friendship that enable believers and their families to support each other. In effect, we need to build the informal “parallel polis” that Václav Benda, the Czech Catholic dissident, sought to accomplish in his homeland during the Soviet era.
I’ll conclude on that note. I turn 75 this October. These days I feel a bit like Old Major, the prize porker in Orwell’s Animal Farm who prophesies the future and then conveniently dies before the revolutionary sh*t hits the fan. The good news is that plenty of younger and smarter people than me are out there…and they might see things I can’t. So maybe everything will turn out just great. But if so, I hope it happens quickly. I’d like to be around to enjoy it.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.