John Zmirak on the Enlightenment

21 Jan

We have discussed the Enlightenment a number of times here, both within posts (e.g. here) and also in the comments at various posts (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

As one can see, generally, neither we nor our commenters think very well of it, to say the least.

It was with much curiosity and interest, then, that I read this article by Catholic writer John Zmirak, in which he bemoans the growth of an illiberal strain of Catholicism (one I have also encountered, particularly among the reactionary crowd on Twitter), and actually has some positive things to say about the Enlightenment.

Some quotes from the essay:

In fact, there is something very serious going on in Catholic intellectual and educational circles, which — if it goes on unchecked — will threaten the pro-life cause, the Church’s influence in society, and the safety and freedom of individual Catholics in America.  The growth of illiberal Catholicism will strengthen the power of the intolerant secular left, revive (and fully justify) the old anti-Catholicism that long pervaded America, and make Catholics in the United States as laughably marginal as they now are in countries like Spain and France — nations where the cause of the Church was linked for centuries to autocratic government and religious intolerance.

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.


A personalist politics of liberty also arose from Christian sources, to match the exalted Christian idea of each human being, and was expressed in institutions like the English Common Law and Swiss democracy.  It co-existed with the older, pagan authoritarian strain, and in a few countries, such as England and Switzerland, the idea of liberty won out against its rival. In one of God’s little ironies, as Russell Kirk showed in The Roots of American Order, it was largely Protestants who championed the rights of Christians against the State, while Catholics endorsed old Roman, pagan conceptions of the State and its nearly limitless prerogatives.  After the Reformation destroyed the Church’s political independence, popes saw little choice but to baptize, and try to morally inform, the absolutism of monarchs. (The nadir was reached when Catholic kings — who already picked all the bishops in their countries — forced the pope to suppress the Jesuits, who had eluded their royal control.)  In the wake of the French Revolution, any talk of liberty seemed tainted by the blood of murdered priests, nuns, and Catholic peasants.  The fear of revolutionary violence was enough to make Pope Pius IX side with the tsar and his Cossacks against the freedom-loving Catholics of Poland, and with the British Crown against the Irish.

In the 20th century, the paternalist tumor metastasized. It grew into full-blown totalitarianism, as leaders like Hitler and Stalin (who scoffed at Enlightenment liberties) engineered genocides, ruthless wars of conquest, and the violent persecution of various believers. The clash of opposing paternalisms in World War II culminated in communist dictatorships controlling half the countries on earth. It took all these monstrous evils for the Church to get over the French Revolution and really assimilate the moral truth that liberty, especially religious liberty, is a non-negotiable demand for any decent politics. [emphasis in the original]


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.”

As Americans, too, we must be self-critical, and acknowledge that in their reaction against the paternalism of the past, men like John Locke made grave philosophical errors — and unwittingly poisoned the ground of human dignity where the roots of freedom must rest.  Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker do an excellent job of explaining Enlightened errors in Politicizing the Bible, as does Edward Feser in his classic The Last Superstition.  In Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg shows in detail how freedom-loving Catholics can reintroduce the critical truths about human nature that our Founding Fathers overlooked.  Such constructive criticism of the Enlightenment project, which we might call “reparative patriotism,” is essential to preserving the lives of the unborn and the integrity of marriage, among many other things.

It is one thing to say that John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had flawed views of human flourishing.  It is quite another for Catholics — given our long, unhappy heritage of paternalism and intolerance — to reject the Enlightenment wholesale; to pretend that religious, political, and economic freedom are the natural state of man, which we can take for granted like the sea, the sun, and the sky.  These freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our ancestors were fighting on the wrong side.  If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society, we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too.  Denouncing the Enlightenment a mere fifty years after our Church belatedly renounced intolerance, at the very moment when men as level-headed as Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Burke are warning that Catholics face the risk of persecution, and we desperately need allies among our Protestant neighbors… can anyone really be this reckless?

Some food for thought, perhaps.


Posted by on January 21, 2014 in America, culture, religion, spirituality, The Kulturkampf


11 responses to “John Zmirak on the Enlightenment

  1. Peter Blood

    January 21, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    What a blowhard, he should be hooted off the stage. Even now we can see various right-liberals expressing their fear that those further to their right are gaining confidence, and hate liberalism with a deep burning fire.

  2. Will S.

    January 21, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    You don’t think he has a point, in that if the trend of triumphalist-spirit Catholicism gains steam, that it will become another thing for the Left to castigate Catholics for, and perhaps gain street credibility thereby?

  3. Carnivore

    January 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Peter Blood is correct. There’s so much wrong with that article, I wouldn’t know where to start.

    @Will, yes he’s right, however too late. If “main stream” Catholics actually followed and proclaimed their religion, Catholics would long ago have had a much smaller spot on the public stage or would already be persecuted.

  4. Peter Blood

    January 21, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    If the left isn’t hating on you, you’re not over the target. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

  5. Will S.

    January 21, 2014 at 7:45 pm


    Well, I’m no fan of the Enlightenment, overall, myself, but I do cherish religious and political liberty – but I credit the Magna Carta far more than the Enlightenment for political liberty, and of course, I directly credit the Reformation for religious liberty.

    I normally like John Zmirak, and think he’s an interesting thinker. But I don’t always agree with him.

    I thought it was interesting, anyway.

    And I do think he’s right in at least this much, that it’s America’s tradition of religious liberty which indeed has allowed Catholics to practice freely thus far; to have gained acceptance.

  6. Will S.

    January 21, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    ” The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

    And so it was, is now, and always will be…

  7. Nicholas

    January 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    At first I thought Zmirak’s description of this reactionary spectre gathering dark followers across the land was just that typical progressive kind of overreacting persecution complex, and that there really weren’t that many. But I’ve happily grown to realize that he’s right. You don’t need to look far – the combox on his article is full of them. Illiberal Catholicism (what a great name!) is on the rise. Deus vult!

  8. Will S.

    January 23, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Indeed. Zmirak is a conservative, not a progressive by any stretch.

  9. Carnivore

    February 11, 2014 at 9:00 am

    While that article touches on a few good points, it’s written in a vacuum. It’s a lot of hot air blabbing about the verbal and written duels of Catholic university professors, political pundits and think tank members. What is obviously lacking is any comment on leadership by bishops, from where the leadership and instruction should come.

  10. Will S.

    February 11, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Fair enough.

    I was mostly posting it because it commented on the above piece by Zmirak, and the apparent controversy it set off, which I thought was interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s