I haven’t had much time to read this past month, with a family member in the hospital and a day job getting more intensive by the day. That said, I have tried to make some effort to catch up on my exhausting-looking pile of review copies and picked what seemed like a light reading of 160 pages a few weeks ago. I didn’t imagine I’d still be reading it four weeks later, but that’s solely because the experience of reading it was exhausting.
Before I go in-depth on Félix Sardà y Salvany’s Liberalism is a Sin, I should note where I am coming from on the matter of this book. I have become somewhat interested in post-liberalism in the past year, as a result of reflection and due consideration of the state of the world. Philosophically, my heart still very much belongs to classical liberalism and the benefits it provides to society.
However, the recent breakdown in civil society has me convinced that Republican Democracy is nearing the final stages of its development. All of the energy in our society is dedicated to tearing down tradition and none of it is directed to repairing society. We are rapidly burning through the last inches of civility and unity that exist, leaving nothing but raw power, loyalty, and violent solutions as the only means of resolving problems. Such a reality points towards civil war and collapse, whether soon or in the distant future.
As such, it is at least worth it to consider what society can or should look like in the aftermath of the collapse of the current American Empire. And many such alternatives have emerged from the Neo-Reactionary movements and New Right movements all too popular on the right—from Caerarism to Neo-Monarchism. The most arguably aggressive system is Catholic Integralism, which has emerged through minds like Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule to become a favorite for young radicals.
Tan Books was kind enough to send me a review copy of one of the group’s proof texts, Liberalism is a Sin, a reprint of an 1884 Catholic tract that was subsequently reissued by Catholic presses in 1993, with a handful for annotations for modern readers—as the original text was specifically written as a tract against the decline of the Papal States and likely something of a popular proto-text for the burgeoning Spanish Nationalist movement of the early 20th century.
As an Anglican, I was not expecting to have a violent reaction to the tract. My tradition mostly operates in parallel to many core Catholic beliefs. That said, I did not enjoy the reading. More than that, I actively disliked it. It was an exhausting read, punctuated by moments of theocratic rage, hostility, and incuriousness fitting to only the least tolerant and least thoughtful of Traditionalist Catholics—the sort that rant about the horrors of Jews and Freemasons on a regular basis, and who treat Protestants as disgusting disreputable Pharisees.
Editor Thomas A. Nelson reveals a lot about the reason the book was reissued in the introduction, where he snidely refers to Christianity as solely a Catholic religion, barely even granting Protestants the right to call themselves Christians.
As the book defines it, “liberalism is the mistaken notion that one religion is as good as another,” as well as “the dogmatic affirmation of the absolute independence of the individual.” This is a more narrow definition than I would use, which tends to focus on liberalism as a value system about the importance of individual autonomy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. That is the core contention of the book though. The author very clearly delineates that this relatively harmless conception of civil liberty is not only a dangerous slide into apathy but an active force by which the Catholic Church is dissolved and through which all of society is damned. One must assume a wide definition would be more heavily scrutinized.
The book operates under a fairly clear sense of transitive logic: A. The Catholic Church is the sole arbiter of truth and revelation as set down by God. B. All knowledge is either fully true or untrue. Therefore C. Any knowledge that is non-Catholic is innately anti-Catholic and risks the damnation of the souls of the entire world.
This is not merely at the individual level but at the level of society, meaning that any society that isn’t an overt Catholic Theocracy is doomed. Because liberalism allows for religious pluralism, peaceful coexistence, and rationalism, it can’t abide by the total submission traditional Catholicism demands.
The book is exhausting to litigate for this reason, and its arguments—with a handful of sparring and notable witticisms—all stem from this exhausting train of logic that Protestantism and Liberalism are the sources of all the world’s problems, for it pushes against Catholicism, thus making it untrue. Liberalism is treated merely as a mush of purposely obfuscation, incompetence, and inconsistency masquerading the true intentions of the devil.
“Protestantism, with its sliding scale of creeds, is simply an inclined plane into the abyss of unbelief,” says Fr. Félix.
“Liberalism is, therefore, a greater sin than blasphemy, theft, adultery, homicide, or any other violation of the law of God, save in such case as where one acts in good faith, in ignorance, or without thought.”
It’s almost fair to say that this book has nothing of value to offer anyone outside of Traditionalist Catholicism. But even contemporary vernacular language Catholics are outside of the realm of salvation within this book’s diagnosis. Fr. Félix saves his most virulent anger against “Liberal Catholics,” directly accusing them of being “traitors and fools, seeking to please the enemies of the faith.” A Liberal Catholic is a contradiction of terms to Fr. Félix.
Traditionalist Catholicism of this sort is aggressively collectivist and totalizing, not criticizing classical liberalism merely for its moral confusion but actively stating that it has nothing to offer good Catholics. At the height of the book’s intensity, Fr. Félix even goes as far as to argue that readers ought not to even socialize or engage in unnecessary discourse with liberals. Liberal books are not to be read, liberals are undeserving of charity, and only deserve scorn and insults. Readers shouldn’t even voluntarily associate with them as friends. They are merely rotting limbs to be cut off from the world.
I understand philosophically what he is saying, that one should not taint himself with what is incorrect and potentially allow one’s mind to fill with heresies, but as an outsider I can’t help but feel there is an incuriousness to his arguments—that the strain of Catholicism he is defending is so brittle or fragile that even the slightest molesting will tear it apart. It is innately popular among modern TradCaths though because it is authoritative. That is its chief appeal. Young radicals, soothed by the siren call of total authority, crave this sort of Catholicism.
If anything, the fact that the book was reissued in recent years shows just how much this line of thought has been mainstreamed. The idea that Classical Liberalism is the cause of all modern error has become an extremely popular idea on the dissident right from transgressive philosophers like Mencius Moldbug and Bronze Age Pervert, quoting Catholic Integralists who have become so far right that they want to abolish capitalism for promoting degeneracy.
I fully acknowledge that ideas have consequences. And it is certainly true that a modern permissiveness born in the ideas of liberalism, the enlightenment, and religious pluralism has created the space for modern cancerous ideas to fester. That said, I have a hard time merely acknowledging the point without acknowledging where that line of thought leads. At its heart, the critique of liberalism is also a critique of liberty and freedom.
As tempting as it is to want to live in the Old World—a world of cathedrals and moral certainty—the modern world is still a good place to live. We are free to follow Christ just as we are equally as free to defile his name. If the cities are corrupt, we are free to live amongst the blameless Amish in quiet serenity. Of course, that isn’t enough for some people merely to be a free Remnant among the corruptions of Babylon and Sodom.
A Catholicism of the sort Liberalism is a Sin wants is very much the sort of thing most Traditionalist Catholics seem to want—a total refuge from modernity that they hope will slowly encroach and snuff out the evils of this world. Such a realm might be welcoming for some, but it is a sturdy imposition—a painful life hellish and draining to anyone who doesn’t freely choose it and one our ancestors fought very hard to undo the knots of for a reason.
Fr. Felix offers nothing to me as an outsider—neither the joyful wittiness of G.K. Chesterton nor the unassailable rationality of C.S. Lewis’s medieval moralism. There isn’t even the gentle welcoming kindness of modern Catholic apologists like Bishop Baron and Fr. Schmitz. There is no meaningful contemplation of power, nor hope for a different vision of the world—merely the raving reactionary ramblings of a misanthropic Spanish priest advocating his own readers to pluck out their own eyes and cut off their right hands.
If anything, the book is just a reminder of why I am a classical liberal in the first place—because I would be burned in Fr. Felix’s world for thinking evil thoughts.