Are Illiberal Catholics Bad Catholics?

John Zmirak has written an interesting article on religious liberty at Aleteia (a site I’m not familiar with, but why isn’t it spelled with an “h” — aletheia?, ἀλήθεια) and what he calls “Illiberal Catholicism”. If I understand him correctly, he also describes Illiberal Catholicism as paternalism, and the object of his criticisms is a familiar one: tyranny in any form. Marxist, Nationalist, and to some extent, the shapeless democratic mob. What makes the article especially provocative is his take on the pedigree of this “paternalist tumor”:

We ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment — because the American anti-Catholics of the 19th and 20th century were dead right about one thing: Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition. Do I exaggerate? Consider the fact that during the Spanish occupation of New Orleans, before the Louisiana Purchase, an officer of the Inquisition was interrogating heretics and collecting torture equipment — which he never got the chance to use, thank God. (The Inquisition did take root in Florida, and continued in Cuba until 1818.) Protestants in Spain were subject to legal restrictions as late as the 1970s. The great defender of Pius IX and Vatican I, Louis Veuillot, summed up what was for centuries the dominant Catholic view of religious liberty:

“When you are the stronger I ask you for my freedom, for that is your principle; when I am the stronger I take away your freedom, for that is my principle.”

What was the Inquisition like in Florida and Cuba? Did they torture people? I like this kind of global analysis of political problems and trying to see how a relatively local politics fits into the larger pattern, and Zmirak includes a number of contemporary anecdotes as well. While I don’t doubt that they’re true, I’m not sure how representative they really are of the these contemporary paternalists.

Some of this is a continuation of the argument about whether we should hold Voltaire responsible for the gulag.

It is, however, difficult for me to see “what nostalgic, Renaissance Faire Catholics have in common with neo-Marxists”, let alone an unwitting alliance between Cardinal Dolan and “the right-wing Catholics who downplayed the bishops’ plea for religious liberty in the face of the HHS mandate”. I appreciate any attempt to look at the contemporary scene in a way that doesn’t break down according the Republican/Democrat (or Conservative/Liberal) divide, but that distinction has become so pervasive that avoiding it can become a way of sidestepping the issues themselves. It seems to me that the way the terms “conservative” and ‘liberal” are thrown out by proponents and detractors alike indicates that they are still useful. The word “illiberal” strikes me as purely pejorative, and I’m not sure how much it really adds to the debate.


  1. oh MAN that comments section. Cosmos in the Lost even weighs in!

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    I know! Zmirek should put the comments up top and his column below … I, for one, would have read the piece much more sympathetically.

    • After sitting through a “distributist” forum at last summer’s Chesterton conference, I can understand the alliance between Renaissance Faire Catholics and neo-Marxists. If they want to return to the guilds system and get paid a “living wage” for whatever arts and crafts they’re fond of… and then get out in the real world where they have no marketable skills, it’s easy to see how they’d embrace Francis’ recent exhortation with all its criticism of the free market and worries about “inequality.” And by embracing that they are allies of the dark side unwittingly.
      I got my dad Samuel Gregg’s Tea Party Catholic for Christmas, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. The point of the book is that an educated Catholic such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton chose to support the American experiment for a reason.

  3. I haven’t read it yet – and will – but this old conversation always comes back to one issue: Satanism.

    If everyone is a Christian no one is a Christian – or rather, if no one is a Christian everyone is – even Satanists.

    But that’s not a comment on Zmirak – whom I haven’t read in this instance so much as on religious liberty (vs. tolerance) in general.


  4. Also, it was the Inquistion (the Roman more than the Spanish – but both in a sense) which led to the revolution in jurisprudence we now enjoy – trial by jury, innocent until proven guilty, being tried by a jury of one’s peers, etc.

    I might have this wrong, but I believe the only thing the Enlightenment contributed along those lines was Messr. Guillotine’s grand invention…

    A doctor he was no less. That was one bitch of a reentry for him, huh?

    C’est la vie!


  5. OK, one last point and then I’ll read Zmirak.

    “Illiberal” is actually a point of pride among Traddys – considering the fact that they consider liberalism, yes, a heresy. And therefore a sin.

    But don’t shoot the messenger!


  6. This to me seems the crux of the argument:

    “We are witnessing the collapse of a magnificent synthesis: the alliance of freedom and faith that American Catholics pioneered in the 19th century in the face of hostile Protestant neighbors and ill-considered, fallible papal statements that endorsed book burning, denounced religious liberty, and condemned the Catholics in Ireland and Poland for rising against their “legitimate” oppressors.”

    Without venturing into the tradition vs Vat II thicket (that’s Lickona’s word for it – and a perfect description it is!), I suppose this “synthesis” is either a convenient alliance or a true synthesis – and reaches back probably to a classic vs liberal understanding of politics. To the extent, I think the Traddy would argue, that the Church has no political power, it has no redress but to form alliances beneficial to itself. The Christian liberal on the other hand would say that the Church has no political power and damn good thing too! Because better to fight the forces of secularism with other Christians than everyone with none.

    Incidentally, I think the hidden thesis in Zmirak’s piece is an indirect critique of Christopher Ferrara’s “Liberty: The God That Failed” ( The book has been making the rounds and has all sorts of right thinking people on the warpath – on both sides of the issue.


    • As a matter of fact, look at that, Mr. Ferrara is one of the commentors:

      As someone who admires your great talent as a writer, I have to say this piece is embarrassing. Do you seriously contend that some exuberantly hyperbolic knocks against our clearly decaying Republic at a “small Catholic college” represent a clear and present danger to our very existence as Catholics in America? This is simply cheap demagoguery. It is beneath you.

      But then, the essence of your position is that the Church had it all wrong before Vatican II–for centuries–and that the anti-liberal and anti-revolutionary encyclicals of a long line of Popes were, as you rather arrantly put it, “ill-considered, fallible papal statements…” Vatican II, on the other hand, you evidently consider the long-delayed and quite infallible reconciliation of the Church with a “modern world” arising from violent revolutions against the old order of fifteen centuries’ standing: i.e., the Christian commonwealth.

      I find laughable your suggestion that such things as the investiture controversy demonstrate that today the Church—in the midst of a worldwide regime of abortion, contraception, divorce, militant homosexualism, under what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism”—is freer today than she was before the destruction of Christendom. Your notion of freedom is certainly not the Catholic notion defended by Pope Leo XIII and all his predecessors who wrote in defense of the Christian constitution of the State.

      For heaven’s sake, John, even a movement of evangelical Protestants during and after the Civil War warned of America’s inevitable spiritual and moral demise on account of her embrace of the errors of the Enlightenment, and pleaded with Congress to adopt its proposed amendment to the Constitution explicitly acknowledging the divine authority of Christ over the nations. Today, these Protestants sound vastly more Catholic than the American bishops and, I must say, vastly more Catholic than you and those who think like you.

      Again, I am a great admirer of your talent. And that is why I find this piece so disappointing. And so sad. You do not serve the Church by truckling to the spirit of the age.

  7. I suppose it can seem an odd choice of topic for an article since most have no connection with the uber-Catholic traddys he mentions in his anecdotes from Thomas More in NH.
    But some rather loud Catholic voices on teh interwebs – one rhymes with “hark nay” – have a tendency to embrace Chesterton’s distributism to the extent that they appear to have a dislike for the free market system. Distributism is all well and good as an idea – that more property should be more widely distributed, as GK said the problem with Capitalism is there are too few Capitalists. Howerver, there is no way that could happen except by govt force. Zmirak sees the “Renaissance faire” types having their artisans guilds at some Christendom or Ave Maria (he does hold TAC in some regard an an exception to his general dislike for those types of schools) and living in a fantasy world where they’ll get out of school with no skills, a large family and be living in a trailer park on government assistance. I still chuckle thinking about his quip: “just because you’ve got St. Michael painted on the side of your doublewide doesn’t mean you’re not white trash…”
    So these types of Catholics are embracing Francis’ recent letter as Gospel… Meanwhile Zmirak is trying to get people to read Samuel Gregg’s book Tea Party Catholic (not about the tea party per say – but named for the first Catholic Signer of the Declaration) and deal with the chaos that Apostolic Exhortation unleashed.

    • Paul,

      I’m curious how you gleaned these details from Zmirak’s writing – (and it may also explain his sudden departure from TM).

      Would you care to elaborate on how you know Professor Zmirak’s feelings regarding the small Catholic colleges on his radar?

      Also – does he eschew such colleges in principle (of which, as you note, TAC is an exception) or just those small Catholic colleges which espouse a certain illiberality in their approach to history/theology/political thought?

      Also, this battle between Traddys and Vatican Twosters over religious liberty, as you probably know, has being going on long before Pope Francis’ ascendancy. His apparent liberalism may only have served as a catalyst for the latest round of sorties and volleys…


      • Matthew Lickona says

        Was his departure from TM sudden? The poor devil. Someone should have warned him about writing a dissertation on Percy.
        JOB, I spent Thanksgiving begging a certain academic to reinstate a certain monarchist…

        • Well, more sudden than not, from what I saw. No mention of his departure – and he seemed rather ballyhooed while he was there “Writer in Residence” and all that.

          At any rate, one day, someone said there were some major changes taking place at TM and the next thing I know Zmirak is no longer writing for Crisis or a member of TM’s faculty. I’m not quite sure about my timeline, but I am quite sure his departure has at least something, if Paul is to be believed (and I have no reason not to) to do with his hell among the Traddy yearlings…

          Thus, my question(s) to Paul.

          And yes, that round of volleys and sorties was my introduction to the war; I had no idea you were so intimately involved in the peace talks…


          • He just said he had to get out of there…
            I think I was following his posts on Facebook when I saw he mentioned moving back to Queens. Then I worked up the courage to “friend” him and after meeting him at the Mozart’s Requiem Mass at St. Agnes next to Penn Station, we set up a time to meet.

            • *Grand Central Station… bah, I never take trains – can’t keep them straight.

              • Matthew Lickona says

                I wish I had known him; I would have counseled him to hang on at least long enough to write a cracking satire. Much more fun than the dreary reporting of fact.

                • I wish the two of you could collaborate on something!
                  With your Devout Catholic Guilt™ and his rollicking wit I have no doubt it would be incredible. I’m sure your mutual love of wine, whiskey, and song would be more than enough to break the ice.
                  (Not to pigeonhole you two into just those categories but seriously… this needs to happen!)

                  • Matthew Lickona says

                    At least you got the TM in there. No sense living in a pigeonhole if you can’t establish ownership. Maybe someday…

          • Matthew Lickona says

            Go ahead say it: “writer in residence.” Oh, it is a lovely sound.

      • Would you believe me if I said I had a lengthy discussion with him at a Chinese food joint in Rockland County NY back in November?
        He did edit a book for ISI… Choosing the Right College, btw. We discussed my own sad, catholic in name only alma mater, St. Thomas Aquinas College. Since I got away with almost no debt due to a scholarship and I have a degree that practically guarantees me a career, I really have no regrets. Sure I’d have loved to be surrounded by like-minded folk, but at that point he interjected that same anecdote about attacking “Americanism.”
        Lickona, you came up in discussion as well as the noble Korrektiv, which I mentioned as a haven of Percy lovers. Zmirak said that he regards TAC as the best of the lot academically, but nowadays when an MBA has replaced the undergraduate degree in value & bachelors are as common as high school diplomas, it’s hard to justify all the expense of going to a liberal arts school. Of course if it means you can get your daughter married to an upstanding young catholic guy, maybe it is worth it… (ladies, call me!)

        • Matthew Lickona says

          Of course I’d believe you. The Catholic world is insanely small, despite its name. Happy to hear he remembers me, we shared a friend in John Jones. I’m still impressed as hell that he managed to get The Grand Inquisitor published, and still wish I could see it mounted as a play with certain images projected on the backdrop. TM should have put it on.

          • I mentioned how I loved the Grand Inquisitor and also mentioned Alphonse. He wasn’t quite sold on the idea of a vengeful fetus but I still think the whole “untimely ripp’d” horror theme is badass.

          • He did mention it was originally a play. I mentioned seeing Kevin O’Brien’s Theater of the Word do a bang-up job with Peter Kreeft’s Socrates Meets Jesus and wondered if they would consider that undertaking. (It’s quite hilarious, set in a modern university’s religion and philosophy department: youtube link) Apparently though Zmirak and O’Brien were on opposing sides of the “lies, truth, abortion clinic undercover phone sting” argument/discussion, so that’s not likely. :/

        • Paul,

          I’ve heard that criticism before – but you also have to look at it from the other direction: Parents without much more than their own wits (even classically trained wits) have little in the way of options for their children. I don’t see why after four years of a liberal arts college a student can’t take his pick of MBAs and go from there…

          It might be easy for Zmirak to say what he does in hindsight, but if the Catholic grade/high schools schools aren’t helping parents who want to give their kids a great formation in the faith, I’ll go to the mat fighting for the idea that the most important thing schools like TAC can do is give young minds a lasting introduction to the idea that objective truth is not only to be believed but even reasoned to, and that the most lasting thing they leave school with is not the ultimate bong hit but the ultimate truths of faith and reason.

          By the way, in my freelance days I worked for Zmirak as one of his subsubs on that college book. Great fun. Never spoke directly with the man, though. Unfortunately.


          • I also lucked out as I was homeschooled grade 3-12 (via Seton) and had that formation in the faith, so I didn’t have as much need to “rediscover” it I suppose, as Lickona describes in Swimming with Scapulars. I absolutely agree with you that if Student X had gone to a typical Catholic school with substandard formation, a CUA or TAC would be a benefit to him. Heck if parents are gonna throw around $30,000+ a year for 4 years for their child to end up with something useless like Business Administration or English, why not spend that money and learn why Beauty and Truth are worth pursuing.

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