Errors of Will
Kevin Roberts invites a conversation about theological error in the public square.
In his recent plenary address at the third National Conservatism conference in Miami, Florida, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, Kevin Roberts, took aim at “integralists.” While praising their zeal, and their battle against the global wokism of the Left, he soon inveighed against them: “They think the only solution to wokism is to subordinate the state to an institutional church. I don’t.” Without naming names, Roberts blamed the zeal of conversion for leading some “prominent” unnamed figures into the error of seeking a “fusion” of church and state. In making such an allegation, Mr. Roberts invited a public conversation about whether there is theological error in our contemporary political landscape.
Ironically, Roberts’ rhetoric mirrors the Left’s mudslinging against national conservatives as “theocratic fascists.” But whether he sincerely holds fellow Catholics to be misguided, or merely intends to scapegoat others for accusations anyone would be eager to avoid, the charge of theological error should always be taken seriously — in private consultation whenever possible, but publicly when necessary.
As a theologian and as a scholar of the history of the Church’s relation to political communities, I want to state unequivocally that the Catholic Church condemns any “fusion” which would collapse distinct orders into one, just as much as it condemns the liberal idea of a strict separation of the temporal and spiritual authorities, indifferent to our final end.
Defining Our Terms
A half-dozen years ago, when people were struggling to understand the tradition of thought sometimes called (since the 19th c.) “integralism,” Pater Edmund Waldstein rather helpfully penned his “Integralism in Three Sentences,” offering a definition which has come to be widely accepted. Mr. Roberts may have read it, but if he did so, it’s clear he did not understand it. While the definition does stand against “the liberal separation of politics from the end of human life,” this in no way entails a fusion of “church and state.” Indeed, the definition continues to distinguish “two powers” — two utterly distinct institutions and jurisdictions which are nevertheless related as to the source and end of their distinct powers. Each is caused by God, each have God as their end, and each in different respects — i.e. they are always distinguished and never “fused” into one another.
Perhaps Mr Roberts was confused by the use of the word “subordinate.” But even a cursory glance at the definition would make clear that it does not and cannot mean a dictatorial or hierocratic conception of the spiritual authority “taking over” the temporal authority. That sort of “fusionism” is actually much closer to the way liberalism has worked as a “spiritual authority” to separate political communities from God (though that is a subject for another essay).
“Subordinate” means that the temporal power is lower because ordered to the end of temporal peace and justice, and the spiritual authority is higher because ordered to the perfecting principle of Christ, whose graces are communicated perfectly in and through the Catholic Church. As a definition, it doesn’t make any grand claims about how such a recognition of hierarchy would cash out in different political communities. In fact, the definition is quite modest. It only recognizes some principles of order, leaving open a wide range of possibilities for rightly relating distinct higher and lower powers in a variety of historical contexts and conditions.
What should be clear by now is that this definition of integralism never speaks of “a fusion” of two powers, nor does it envision a hierocratic rule of priests, nor does it even insist on a single course of political action.
The Truth About Free Will
While Mr. Roberts’ failure to understand this widely available definition is to be lamented, I found it refreshing that he turned to make a theological argument in public. This itself is not something to scorn but to celebrate. Theological truth and error are constantly at work in our public disputes, and so it is better to make our theological premises explicit. Mr. Roberts missed his target by misunderstanding a definition, but his second theological charge was more interesting: his unnamed integralists denied free will.
He made clear a contrast between a protestant nation which safeguards “free will” for all, and those who would deny that freedom is a first-order good. In support of his own view that America’s protestantism is good for Catholicism and America alike, he appealed to papal authority on the freedom of the will, invoking Pope St. John Paul II’s affirmation of the “legitimate autonomy” of the temporal power, and his emphasis upon freedom. Though in the very sentences he cites, the pope speaks of both “freedom and obedience.” Why would freedom be paired with obedience in Catholic teaching? This is a question that Mr. Roberts does not ask, but since the implication is that “integralists” are in error about the free choice of the will, and Mr. Roberts claims to better represent Catholic teaching, it’s necessary for me to don my missio canonica as a theologian, and examine what the Church actually does teach about the freedom and obedience of the will, and whether integralists or fusionists are manifestly at odds with it.
Behind Pope St. John Paul’s pairing of “freedom and obedience” stands Fr. Servais Pinckaer’s famous distinction between the “freedom of indifference” and the “freedom for excellence.” The pope was in the habit of holding together freedom and obedience precisely because he understood the proper teaching on the free choice of the will: our freedom is not in the power to choose itself (indifferent to what is being chosen) but rather our freedom is to be found in the will’s conformity to what is true and good, which is to say in conformity with God as our final end.
These distinctions should be familiar to Catholics. They are, in fact, very ancient ones which go back to Saul being knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus. One of the most famous articulations of the Church’s teaching on the nature of our freedom is found in St. Augustine’s De libero arbitrio voluntatis, on the free choice of the will. It is a philosophical dialogue with Augustine’s friend Evodius who is asking whether we could ever say that God is the cause of the evils that we choose. He puts his question in a variety of different ways, but it was essentially this: If God created us with the power of choice, then isn’t God ultimately culpable for our inclination to sin? Augustine answers that evil is nothing other than the absurd turning away from Goodness (privatio Boni) which occurs in the lower appetites of the will, not in the higher parts of the rational soul which is restless only for God. Our will is “subordinate” to the intellect, but the trouble with our will is that it can disorder our intellectual desire for the good, and so make the intellect “the slave of cupidity.”
Mr. Roberts mentioned the consequences of original sin, and Augustine teaches that the will is weakened after the Fall, and so requires help. For the will to be free, it requires help not only from the intellect (which is required before the Fall) but also supernatural assistance. The idea that the freedom of the soul is precisely in the choosing power is not unknown in history. It was the view held by none of other than Augustine’s opponent, Pelagius, who taught that the excellence of our nature was in our capacity to choose. “The glory of the reasonable soul is located precisely…in it freedom to follow either path [good or evil].” (Letter to Demetrias, 3) As Augustine showed, Pelagius believed what made us free was precisely our power to choose. Indeed, this power to choose is what Pelagius called “grace.” So when bishops inquired as to whether he believed that God’s grace was necessary, Pelagius would say yes, but what he meant was the grace of our choosing capacity. God gave us the capacity to choose, and so gave us the power “to will and to do” according to that capacity. Augustine responded that this was really a rejection of divine assistance at the level of human will and action. Pelagius had made the choosing capacity the very glory of the soul, and the condition for virtue, whereas Augustine located the freedom of the soul only in willing and doing what is right and just. For Augustine, freedom is not in our choosing power, but is found only in those acts which arise from a recognition of right order, and proper use of the will.
Which brings me to the question that Mr. Roberts raised. It is indeed bad if his unnamed integralists have fallen into an error about free will. But what exactly is the error he has in mind? Pelagius thought Augustine had denied the freedom of the will because he stressed obedience to God, since God does not command what is impossible, but only what is right and just. This raises a question for me as a theologian. Is it integralists who have fallen into an error about the will, or is it the new fusionists?
Free Will at the Origins of Fusionism
In 1962 Frank Meyer wrote his famous essay in National Review on “The Twisted View of Liberty.” In that essay, he proposed a fusion not of church and state, but a fusion of “the traditionalist” and “libertarian” views. The traditionalist view was that God has established a moral order and we must conform ourselves to it; the libertarian view was that a choice is only free if it is freely chosen, “uncoerced.” That would surely exclude regarding Saul’s conversion on the way to Damascus as a movement towards freedom, but fits very well with the view of Pelagius. You would think these views were as incompatible as Augustine and Pelagius, but not for the secular minded Meyer. He thought these two views could be fused. As Meyer put it, “fusing” the traditionalist and libertarian positions “recognizes at one and the same time the transcendent goal of human existence and the primacy of the freedom of the person. … [I]t maintains that the duty of men is to seek virtue; but it insists that men cannot in actuality do so unless they are free from the physical coercion of an unlimited state.” What Meyer actually does is fuse two competing views of freedom, and calls them harmonious, and this “fusion” has plagued conservatism ever since.
The immediate response to Meyer came from the by-then-marginalized figure of L. Brent Bozell who argued essentially what I am arguing, that this is an utterly incoherent and errant fusionism that will have very bad effects on our country and on our faith. Bozell took the Augustinian view that freedom was hierarchically directed towards virtue, and the human will needed assistance, the help of law and custom, and yes true religion. For Bozell, freedom only has value in relation to ends, so the freedom of the will needs help, and it is the place of custom, law and true religion to provide an order in which it is easier for people to choose truly good ends. Bozell gave the example of divorce laws in Spain where they were still restrictive vs. the United States where they were becoming lax. In one order, legal limits on divorce actually aided human beings to choose the common good over private preference, whereas the other regarded that one could only be virtuous if you were truly free to get divorced without any impediment from government. In which scenario, he asked, is the will more free?
I do not know if this is what Kevin Roberts meant in his appeal to free will. I suspect the very ambiguity is writ into the Meyerian fusionism which has plagued conservatism for so many decades, and which still seems at work in the desire to construct “a new fusionism.” The appeal emphasis upon the freedom of the will has deep roots not in the teaching of the Catholic Church but rather in the modern conservative movement itself.
Is he more with Frank Meyer, or more with Bozell? Is he more with Pelagius or Augustine? One is at odds with Catholic teaching, one is at war with it, and the fusion of both views sits at the heart of the incoherence of the old fusionist movement, and possibly the new fusion re-emerging around these disputes. At the end of his plenary address, Mr. Roberts invited us to talk as friends about the way we must go. I would welcome that conversation, but as fellow Americans and fellow Catholics who want only to know what is true and good, public ad hominem aimed at things not yet understood is no way forward.
The libertarian appeal to the individual as a sovereign chooser is fundamentally liberal, and while one could argue it is fundamentally American, it cannot be argued that it is fundamentally Catholic. Which leaves Mr. Roberts in a difficult theological position with respect to the charges he has leveled against unnamed persons. Either he can affirm the Catholic teaching summed up in Pope St John Paul II’s phrase “freedom and obedience” as being in accord with the Augustinian and Thomistic tradition, or he can make that unnatural fusion that Mr. Meyer made long ago at the beginning of the conservative movement which has lost so much for us in the intervening years.
Roberts’ said that he was patriotic for his “protestant country” suggesting that protestantism was good for his Catholicism. This was similar to a sentiment expressed at NatCon’s panel on Catholic Political Thought. As Professor Mary Imparato reported in these pages,
“In his plenary address, Heritage president Kevin Roberts said integralists’ zeal had led them into the error of seeking a fusion of church and state. Roberts, a self-described West Coast Straussian (but we’ll leave discussion of that error for another day), claimed that integralist positions undermine free will, which is essential on our path of salvation. He did extend an olive branch however, requesting that these conversations continue as among family members and not as among enemies. Daniel Burns took an alternate approach to integralism, arguing from what he claimed was a realist standpoint. Because the American voting public is largely Protestant or ex-Protestant, for religion to have any impact on public life, he said that religion would have to be some version of the Christianity that Alexis de Tocqueville saw: “low-church Protestant and reconciled to Mammon.” While eschewing secularism, Burns said that we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that the United States is now and “in some sense ought to remain” Protestant.”
My only quibble with Professor Imparato’s reporting here is that, in truth, Professor Burns does not have an alternate approach to Mr. Roberts, but the same one. Just as Professor Burns spoke in defense of protestantism as America’s proper civic religion, and just as he spoke in favor of a Catholic political posture that’s reconciled to protestantism and mammon alike, so did Mr Roberts signal that it’s precisely America’s protestantism that’s good for Catholicism. Now I am believer in friendly ecumenism, and cooperation between Christians, but this is something different than that. Roberts spoke against “Big Church” in the same tones as he spoke against “Big Tech,” “Big Pharma,” and “Big Government.” I fear that this tendency to speak against “Big Church” is deeply protestant, and I fear most of all that it is a form of anti-Catholic hatred of self.
I am as frustrated and saddened as anyone, indeed, more aggrieved than most, that the Church in her lower parts, i.e. in her members, has been so vicious and sinful, now, in recent decades, and throughout history. But what saddens me saddens me even more is the false theological conclusions this produces in some. Early on his plenary address, Roberts insinuated that the integralists must be dismissed because of the priest abuse crisis, saying “Integralists, heal thyselves” in light of such sin and disorder in the lower parts of the Church. It grieves me that so many American Catholics, left and right, have taken the liberal, and frankly anti-Catholic view that this means the Catholic Church — “Big Church,” as Mr. Roberts put it — is somehow defective, that it is not the divinely instituted ark of the very purifying principle for souls and cities alike. Mr. Roberts aim was not admirable here, ascribing the ugly sins of the “massive child abusive scandal” to the “leading lights” of integralism was the sort of vulgar ad hominem one expects from anonymous anti-Catholic accounts on Twitter, not from respectable Catholic leaders on podiums. But it also revealed a deeply problematic “Americanism” which has plagued Catholic thinkers in this country for a very long time, and for which we are seeking a cure.
I really appreciated this essay, particularly your highlighting of Pelagius’ views on freedom and choice (of which I was unaware), and its parallels to the libertarian position that freedom is primarily located in choosing, itself, rather than in choosing the good.
“For Bozell, freedom only has value in relation to ends, so the freedom of the will needs help, and it is the place of custom, law and true religion to provide an order in which it is easier for people to choose truly good ends.”
You highlight divorce laws as an example of legislation that the integralist might enact to facilitate people choosing good ends. What are some other such laws that the folks at The Postliberal Order are seeking to restore or promote?
A truly excellent summary and spot-on considerations on widespread anti-Catholic trivialities we must counter.