There are some books you get knowing ahead of time that you’re going to disagree with their theses, but they end up being worth the investment because they’re thoughtful, reasoned explorations of contrary viewpoints. Sometimes you get them to have a laugh, because you know the writer’s a performance artist and it’s all some sort of Andy Kaufman-style joke. And sometimes, you reach an intellectual dead end, and think hey, maybe this contrarian take can point me in a better direction! Sometimes you’re able to get what you paid for, and it all works out.
But then there are times, rarely, when you have to put the book down because you’re reeling from the intellectual equivalent of being thrown into the trunk of a car after getting bludgeoned with a hammer. Tim Gordon’s Catholic Republic is such a book, and to its credit, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. As bold as it is confusing, Gordon’s attempt at sounding off his own cannonade in the culture war seems to follow a particularly unpopular strategy: confuse the hell out of everybody around and, as that brief pause of incredulity settles across the battlefield, declare victory. This is an unpopular strategy because, as you can predict, it doesn’t work.
There are a lot of problems with Catholic Republic, and I’ll try to summarize them all as briefly as I can. Footnotes are used so flippantly that you’d expect this to have been written by a literature student with an interest in experimental fiction. There are some errors in citation—with a particularly important one being flat out wrong. Old ideas are repackaged into new, counter-intuitive labels that don’t reflect their content. Worse still is the complete disregard for historical events when discussing the motivations and fallout for those same historical events. And his ideological marriage to Conservative, Inc. frameworks of economics doesn’t help his case.
But worst of all, and we’ll deal with this toward the end of this review, is that the book’s main thesis relies upon understanding that revolution is a fundamental human right, which he misleadingly attributes to the Angelic Doctor. The flaws with believing that republicanism is the only valid form of government, that regicide is a great idea, and that capitalism is synonymous with the free market all stem from his revolutionary ideology. It’s ironic that he considers himself conservative, given that the chief intellectual godfather of the conservative movement, Russel Kirk, tried explaining away the revolutionary characteristics of the American split with England as actually owing to a particular English—and greater Western—ethos. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk used the writings of John Adams in an attempt to excuse the Revolution rather than glorify it. While he was ultimately incorrect, Kirk’s effort was one that tried to find an authentic continuity with the Old World. In that regard, he succeeded.
But Gordon’s approach is the exact opposite, and where Kirk succeeded in grounding at least some of the revolutionaries’ beliefs in a classical tradition, Gordon fails due to revolutionary sympathies that stem from his ahistorical analysis.
Gordon mentioned in an interview with Matt Fradd that he’d had some trouble getting the book published, mentioning his manuscript getting kicked back two or three times by various Catholic outlets. He doesn’t mention their comments—if they had any—but a brief flip through the book’s contents might explain why. The book isn’t exactly written like your typical e-pundit current events outing.
I’m referring to the extensive overuse of footnotes. There’s something to be said for expository footnotes, certainly, when used infrequently and to expand upon a citation that isn’t totally covered under the purview of the main thesis. The problem with the footnotes of Catholic Republic is that fewer pages seem go by without footnotes than do pages with them, and often at the expense of the text. While this can make for a confusing burden on the part of the reader, a greater question has to be asked: why didn’t the editor bring this up?
The most egregious example comes toward the end of the first chapter, in which Gordon uses a footnote to explain, in a somewhat convoluted fashion, why revolutions are ultimately good and why beheading kings should be defended from the perspective of Catholic doctrine. Absurdity of that content aside, this footnote closes that whole section. Where was the editor to come back and demand, in no uncertain terms, that this content either belonged in the text itself, or should have been axed entirely? Readers of Mark Danielewski or David Foster Wallace might be accustomed to experiments with formatting, but your normiecon Catholic media consumer shouldn’t have to be.
So after the problem with expository footnotes, we have a second formatting issue: italics. Emphatic italics are fine, when used sparingly (by which we tend to mean, almost never), however Gordon’s heavy use takes the cake for its genre. While I don’t mean to nitpick, overusing italics tends to indicate an inability or unwillingness to get a thesis across in any other way. It’s also a distraction and tiring to read. Again, experimental prose has its place, but it’s probably not the best choice of genre if you’re trying to argue a particular point. But maybe this is a California thing.
And the last presentation issue worthy of attention is Gordon’s terminology—specifically his reliance upon a word he made up specifically for this book: “Prot-Enlight”. He explains:
What have we established? Two “opposite” camps of thought—Protestantism and the Enlightenment—rejected Catholicism’s Natural Law principles but secretly and heavily drew on these principles in the making of early America. Let’s call this phenomenon of codependent, American plagiarism “Prot-Enlight” because it involves the two camps’ secret ripping off of their hated rival, Catholicism.1
He has two footnotes attached to this exert, by the way, and both of them say the same thing: “Prot-Enlight” already has a definition. “It’s just another name for what Pope Pius X called ‘Modernism,’”2 as he explains in one of them. Readers of his book will doubtlessly be familiar with modernism as a term, and if they aren’t, a brief explanation—not too unlike what he offers in his introduction—would certainly suffice. Inventing a new term for and old word just confuses the point, particularly when “modernism” appears only a handful of times in his volume, while “Prot-Enlight” is used on every other page.
What the new term does do, however, is confuse the relationship between Gordon’s libertarian sympathies and the modernism that they spring from, since the shift in terminology moves attention away from the fact that libertarianism falls under a large modernist umbrella. We’ll cover that next.
Libertarianism, “Big Government”, and Taxation
During the Reagan years, libertarianism ended up closely wed to the conservative voting bloc of American politics. While at the time, this served to strengthen the GOP and, though the opposition might not want to admit it, helped unite the country against the Soviets during the final years of the Cold War. Unfortunately, however, since the end of the war, things didn’t really change much for the GOP until 2016. Most of the GOP’s voting base—including many of the GOP members themselves—hold fast to libertarian sympathies, even at the expense of their conservative values.
Gordon’s emphasis on individual liberty, free markets, and republicanism are all hallmarks of this quasi-libertarian, mainline GOP ideology; his Catholicism is what makes him stick out. In order to make these two contrary belief systems work with each other, Gordon tends to draw from St. Thomas Aquinas, which results in a patchwork of Catholic-modernism the likes of which is fairly common among Republican Catholics, but rarely expounded upon in any detail. To Gordon’s credit, he actually does the legwork to plot it all out.
As an example, on page 45, Gordon says the following:
Both Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas follow Aristotle by acknowledging that a government that overtaxes its citizens immediately becomes a “thief.” Thomas Aquinas and Augustine (rejecting egalitarian redistribution) agree that it is not only properly legal but also moral for man to keep what he earns. Thomas Aquinas asserts that “if possessions were equalized among families … [it] would lead to the corruption of the polity.” 3
Here, Gordon’s citation for St. Thomas goes to De Regimine Principum, or On the Governance of Rulers, book four, chapter nine. There’s a problem with this citation, however. I’ll let the book’s introduction by its translator, James M. Blythe, make it clear:
On the Government of Rulers (De Regimine Principum) was very popular and influential in the Middle Ages, partially because it was often attributed to Thomas Aquinas (C.1225-1274). Actually, Thomas wrote at most only the first part, known also as On the Kingdom, to the King of Cyprus, and Ptolemy of Lucca continued it from the middle of Book 2, chapter 4. Some manuscripts have only the first part, a few end in the middle of Book 2, chapter 2, but many others contain all four Books. There were some medieval attributions of the second, larger part to Ptolemy, but this was not generally recognized until the twentieth century, and the whole treatise often appears among Thomas’s collected works. Objective internal evidence dates Ptolemy’s part at around 1300.The text mentions the emperor Albert I of Hapsburg (r.1298-1308)1 and states that 270 years “or thereabouts” had elapsed since the crowning of the emperor Conrad II (1027, 1030 in Ptolemy’s chronology). More subjective reading suggests a date of 1301,but no later than 1303.4
Gordon is citing book four in a volume of which St. Thomas only wrote the first book and the very beginning of its second, but he’s attributing it to St. Thomas. This exert is the translator’s opening paragraph of the introduction, by the way—and presumably, based on the block that Gordon reproduces in his footnote, the same translation that he used. Blythe begins his volume making it clear that the whole work should not be attributed to the Ox, only book one and the first half of book two. The book even internally dates itself to decades after St. Thomas’ death.
While this is probably the worst aspect of this citation, how the citation’s content is relevant to his short point on taxation is suspect as well. Fortunately, Gordon quotes the whole exert in a footnote, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll paraphrase; Ptolemy, not St. Thomas, comments on the necessity for hierarchy in any ordered society, and he offers a brief argument against the radical redistribution of property. “If possessions were equalized among families,” Ptolemy writes, “citizens would die of penury, which would lead to the corruption of the polity.”5
Ptolemy’s arguing against massive wealth redistribution reforms, the sort that you’d see coming in China or Russia after the Communist takeovers. Gordon, however, is quick to connect it to the American tax system on the basis of overtaxation—purely on the grounds that it does not incorporate a flat tax. Immediately after the erroneous citation above, he writes:
In America, of course, we do not have the flat tax—the simplest mathematical way to honor the equality of proportion. Certain taxpayers are discriminately taxed at higher rates than others. How much we are allowed to retain from our earnings is dictated arbitrarily by the government. Therefore, the right of financial property is widely inverted in today’s society. And this, too, violates Catholic Natural Law.6
You might wonder whether he mentions the flat tax anywhere else in the book so he could expand on what he’s getting at here. He doesn’t. Flat tax has never been, at least to my knowledge, something either supported or condemned by Catholic social teaching; in fact, I don’t think there’s much relevant Catholic literature about taxation one way or the other. Only two documents come to mind: Pope St. John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra and the USCCB’s 1986 address Economic Justice For All.
Mater et Magistra follows in the tradition of the Catholic social addresses of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. Although not as far-reaching or as widespread in scope, Mater et Magistra addresses key points of practical economy and taxation—if only briefly. Pope St. John XXIII writes:
132. In a system of taxation based on justice and equity it is fundamental that the burdens be proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing.
133. But the common good also requires the public authorities, in assessing the amount of tax payable, take cognizance of the peculiar difficulties of farmers. They have to wait longer than most people for their returns, and these are exposed to greater hazards. Consequently, farmers find greater difficulty in obtaining the capital necessary to increase returns.
The Pope’s words here lean strongly, if not outright, toward favoring progressive taxation. At the very least, it can’t be denied that he’s advocating for a taxation system that takes the means and resources at the disposal of the citizens into consideration. This is a far cry from a universal flat tax.
The USCCB’s address follows in much the same spirit, understandably drawing from the encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John XXIII. They echo the sentiment expressed above7, but they also go further in their explanations of how taxation should be used:
117. Business people, managers, investors, and financiers follow a vital Christian vocation when they act responsibly and seek the common good. We encourage and support a renewed sense of vocation in the business community. We also recognize that the way business people serve society is governed and limited by the incentives which flow from tax policies, the availability of credit, and other public policies.
118. Businesses have a right to an institutional framework that does not penalize enterprises that act responsibly. Governments must provide regulations and a system of taxation which encourage firms to preserve the environment, employ disadvantaged workers, and create jobs in depressed areas. Managers and stockholders should not be torn between their responsibilities to their organizations and their responsibilities toward society as a whole.8
So the USCCB agrees that taxation is—and should be, under proper circumstances—used to incentivize or disincentivize certain social behavior and economic practices. While this doesn’t necessarily refer to progressive taxation, it certainly precludes flat taxes on businesses or industries.
Gordon’s flat tax advocacy stems from his interest in avoiding the economic injustices associated with overtaxation, which is a perfectly valid interest. But the flat tax isn’t the only way to do that. Nowhere in Catholic teaching, and nowhere in natural law theory, is flat taxation considered the only means of just taxation. In fact, based on the general principle of hierarchy so relevant to the natural law, stronger arguments could be made for different progressive structures over flat taxes, anyway. The only reason to stick to a flat tax is to wed it to the egalitarian, republican ideals that he’s trying to defend.
Gordon tackles his defense of capitalism in the book’s penultimate chapter, building off of the themes of family and self-rule that he established in the previous several. This review is long enough as it is, so I won’t be getting into much of what he wrote in those chapters; they’re mainly concerned with takedowns of moral relativism and an emphasis on self-control and self-governance being necessary attributes of a functioning republic.
While these previous chapters more or less fall in line with Catholic thought, the more Conservative, Inc., libertarian side of him returns in full force with his defense of capitalism—or at least what he believes capitalism to be. He writes:
capitalism is morally superior to central planning (i.e. all other political economies) since it alone honors these dimensions of real life, just as it alone honors the rights of liberty and property. Opponents of free markets, inside and outside Catholicism, refuse to countenance that plain fact.9
The problem is that a) all political economies, including capitalism, have some central planning authority, and b) capitalism is not the sole exception to political economies with regards to the handling of property rights with respect to autonomy. Clarifying my first point, even in decentralized forms of government, capitalism requires banks to operate; the banks become vessels of control over the economy—centralized, as it turns out—in order to dictate and manage the value of currency so that trade can remain, at least in theory, neutral and fair. Interest rates and inflation are thus managed either by banks themselves or by some questionable union between the banks and the government (as we have today). Capitalism is a general system under which a) there is a money supply, b) the banks effectively control it, and usually also c) the banks themselves are active members in the economy. C) is usually where things get ugly, but that’s a topic for another time.
Capitalism isn’t just some synonym for “the free market,” because you can have markets and not have any money trading hands. But in markets that do, the money supply has to come from somewhere. Profit motive, not necessarily free markets, is the linchpin of capitalist thought.
What Gordon is talking about here isn’t capitalism, but market economics—an admittedly tautological phrase that just refers to the free exchange of goods. This is a phenomenon that has existed as far back as the founding the first city, if not earlier than that. Capitalism didn’t even have a name until the nineteenth century; it is a specific theory regarding how the market should best be used and controlled. The normie-con efforts to flatten it into a synonym for goods exchange is, along with their efforts to flatten socialism into a synonym for ‘central planning’, as ridiculous as it is annoying.
But is he correct in stating that “it alone honors these dimensions of real life, just as it alone honors the rights of liberty and property”? Well, it’s interesting that he mentions honoring the rights of liberty and property, as they’re two of the three natural rights he claims are enshrined by the Declaration of Independence. Left unwritten, of course, is a right to life, which can’t be ignored when dealing with matters of economy from a Catholic perspective. Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI famously wrote about the need for living wages paid to workers in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. Gordon seems to simply presume that life is guaranteed under a capitalist system, probably because he treats all other economic theories as derivatives of socialism—the effects of the latter being plainly evident in the ruins of contemporary Cuba and the memory of the Soviet Union. When comparing postindustrial capitalism—which has hollowed out American commerce and replaced it with foreign labor, foreign products, opiate addiction, financial capital, and unimpeachable oligarchic corporate monoliths—it’s hard not to see validity in the argument that hey, at least most of us aren’t starving like the Soviets were.
On that note, it’s worth seeing how the International Monetary Fund has to say about capitalism:
Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in fewer hands, or do the balancing forces of growth, competition, and technological progress reduce inequality? Economists have taken various approaches to finding the driver of economic inequality. The most recent study analyzes a unique collection of data going back to the 18th century to uncover key economic and social patterns (Piketty, 2014). It finds that in contemporary market economies, the rate of return on investment frequently outstrips overall growth. With compounding, if that discrepancy persists, the wealth held by owners of capital will increase far more rapidly than other kinds of earnings (wages, for example), eventually outstripping them by a wide margin.
Well, at least they admit it. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos really does deserve every cent they’re alleged to have made in the last thirty years. The normie-con defense of the absurdly rich, which is part and parcel for their take on defending ‘capitalism’ as they conceive of it, indicts the republican system that Gordon seeks also to defend. You cannot have the egalitarian, un-coerced republic of free agents participating in a shared government apparatus when you have multi-billionaires whose wealth is so great that they regular interfere in the economies of developing nations in order to get what they want. The political apparatus will bend toward the interests of those with the money and connections to control it, as we’ve seen for the last half-century.
This is not a bug of capitalism, it’s an in-built feature. Even supposing Gordon’s view of capitalism is true, you’d still expect a hierarchy of talents to be reflected in a hierarchy of wealth distribution—the only difference is that in the real world, where people have friends and relatives and are able to collude with one another, the correlation of talents to wealth isn’t always so clear or proportionate. Add on top of this free trade, currency manipulation, and investment banking, and suddenly that hierarchy ceases to hold any pretense of proportion or correlation.
So the capitalism that Gordon defends results in a system antithetical to the operation of the sort of true republic that he also defends. Would capitalism be fixed if every agent within the system was a good Catholic? Well, in real life, probably not, due to the manner in which currency is controlled and how the banks make money. But even in Gordon’s interpretation of the system, the answer is a quiet and hesitant “maybe.”
Gordon acknowledges that the system has its flaws, admitting the problems with consumerism and careerism. His solution is the repetition that “free, natural economy requires moral oversight by the family.”10 Dispensing with consumerism and careerism, tempering the morals of the consumers, and advocating for a localized economy dependent upon free exchange are all things that should sound familiar to Catholics who have read literature on distributism, which Gordon has plenty to say about later on. More importantly, however, they’re also things that Austrian capitalist economist Wilhelm Röpke warned about more than sixty years ago:
It is the precept of ethical and humane behavior, no less than of political wisdom, to adapt economic policy to man, not man to economic policy.
In these considerations lies the essential justification of ownership, profit, and competition. But […] they are justifiable only within certain limits, and in remembering this we return to the realm beyond supply and demand. In other words, the market economy is not everything. It must find its place within a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition.11
Unfortunately, in an age of Free Trade, foreign labor, and financial capital having free reign to destroy markets as it pleases, Röpke’s warnings went unheeded. Those that still call for a humane sense of economy tend to be sidelined as socialists, despite having no interest in the massive government programs that socialism requires. With that in mind, we can turn our attention to Gordon’s critique of distributism which hinges around a single issue:
the distributivists are never willing to say exactly how universal property ownership should come to exist. Universal ownership is not the present case. So the method of its achievement remains a mystery.
But not really.
In the passage quoted above, our distributivist author admits all we need to hear, saying “They were advocating the redistribution of the means of production.” We infer that this indicates government action: government distributes private property to all (by taking from certain private-property holders and giving to others).12
If what he’s saying is true, then distributism could certainly be considered a form of socialism. But it’s not necessarily true. The use of the government to break up monopolies, wield anti-trust legislation, forbid certain kinds of corporate mergers, interfere with bank lending—or alternatively, subsidize it—are all examples of the government doing exactly that: redistributing property by indirect methods. You don’t need, necessarily, a bureaucrat with a spreadsheet that manages who gets what in order to alter the overall stakes of ownership in a given society. You just need a moderated system of incentives and disincentives; it’s preferable that it be run by private interests, but public ones would be necessary when those failed in order to keep the movers and shakers of the markets in line. And this isn’t even a case of advocating for a “controlled economy,” either, it’s simply echoing the words of Röpke, who himself, perhaps unknowingly, was echoing Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI: the economy must work for the people in it, not the other way around.
It’s worth noting here that I’m not a distributist as I have qualms with both the movement and the theory. I mention this only because I don’t intend to offer a defense of distributism against Gordon’s criticism so much as to point out that he has a lot more in common with the distributists than he does differences. The problem seems more to be the imprecise vocabulary that Conservative, Inc. types use has muddied the waters past the point of reasonable discussion.
Revolution & Founding Myths
Speaking again of Conservative, Inc., we’ll move along from markets to myths. Conservatism, at least at one point in time, is a natural enemy of revolutions and the revolutionary spirit. You could even say that it’s right there in the name. In addition, the term “right wing” traces its origin back to the French loyalists who opposed the revolutionaries at the very early days of the French catastrophe. But, like most ‘conservatives’ in the movement today, Gordon justifies his love of American aesthetics not by connecting it to the people it comes from, nor the history of his nation, but by contradictory defenses of revolutionary ideology. Conservatism, for him, means classical liberalism; it means free markets, individual liberty, “small government,” all the standard Conservative, Inc. talking points. What it doesn’t mean is grounding governance in the actual nation being governed; a government for the people and of the people not in an abstract universalist manner, but in a direct manner that states “this particular government exists for the sake of this particular people.”
The universalism on display with contemporary accounts of the American founding turn “American exceptionalism” into “American idealism,” where you end up with rubes like Ben Shapiro insisting that foreigners can make better Americans than people whose stock have been born here for generations. Blood, language, and culture stop mattering. That’s the revolution. But while even the American founders didn’t intend for such a liberal reading of the Bill of Rights, their Whiggish backgrounds left that door open enough for the interpretation to have some validity. The flaws of contemporary law and governance in the US can be chocked up in large part not just to the decay of its people’s morals, nor even the pluralization of its people into an array of ethnic identities, but to an understandable lack of imagination on the part of its founders. This leads to the problem with written constitutions in general; you can only write for the future that you predict would come about, and two hundred years ago, the idea that America would ever be anything other than a nation of cantankerous, exiled Anglos was completely absurd.
The difference between these more mainline Conservative, Inc. types and Gordon is that most pundits have the decency to attribute the revolutionary Americanist impulse to John Locke. Gordon, on the other hand—perhaps out of a love for the Church—has tried to find support for these ideas in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Stapling the undead cadaver of modernism to the thought of St. Thomas is possible only for someone who has so thoroughly embraced the modernist revolution that he’s lost sight of what exactly he’s defending. Worse, in Catholic Republic, he loses sight of what he’s even arguing. His thesis that the specifically Catholic tradition of natural law theory is necessary for any functioning republic forces him into the confusing position of labeling everyone who has reasonable beliefs about law as “crypto-Catholic” and everyone who doesn’t as “Prot-Enlight”.
But perhaps worse still is the very framework he’s presenting in the first place. While ideology certainly played a large role in the American Revolution—as it plays in all revolutions—the Revolution cannot be effectively studied divorced from the historical events of its beginning. The founders didn’t arbitrarily come together in Philadelphia some hot summer morning and decide to draw up the Declaration of Independence, and there wasn’t some relatively bloodless divorce from the mother isles. While Gordon doesn’t attempt an historical survey per se, by examining the American founding in a purely ideological framework, his analysis of what the American founding actually was remains incomplete.
To begin with, Gordon seems to pitch the American Revolution as a foregone conclusion, without bothering to justify the revolution in the first place. It’s clear this isn’t an historical survey, but beginning without explaining why revolutions are good things in the first place is an enormous misstep in his presentation. “Revolution,” he claims,
must be called a natural right because it pertains to citizens of all countries. But it must also be distinguished as a contingent right, because it “kicks in” only upon violation of life, liberty, and property. And, as Thomas Aquinas had long before urged, it must be undertaken in proportion to the state’s violation of those rights. One does not have the right to revolt simply because he happens to suffer a minor or temporary lapse in his rights.13
He clarifies on how the Angelic Doctor “urged” the so-called right of revolution a little later on:
Long before the American Revolution, Thomas Aquinas and his followers put forward an unequivocal right of revolution: “He who kills a tyrant to free his country is to be praised and rewarded.” About this particular passage, it has often been noted that “Thomas certainly does not go out of his way to differentiate between tyrannicide and less drastic forms of disobedience.”14
Here he quotes from St. Thomas’ Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, Book II, Distinction 4415, and also a blog post from an undergraduate named Elfin Ethicist. A fuller quote from the Commentary reads thus:
Ad 4. To the fourth argument the answer is this: An authority acquired by violence is not a true authority, and there is no obligation of obedience, as we said above.
Ad 5. To the fifth argument the answer is that Cicero speaks of domination obtained by violence and ruse, the subjects being unwilling or even forced to accept it and there being no recourse open to a superior who might pronounce judgment upon the usurper. In this case he that kills the tyrant for the liberation of the country, is praised and rewarded.
I included the passage immediately before it as it serves to highlight exactly where St. Thomas is coming from with his explanation. It’s easy to see where Gordon gets his angle from here, but it does more harm to his case than good. Gordon does assert that the Revolution was, in a certain sense, less drastic than that of France, since the French actually followed through with a regicide that—although he doesn’t mention this—the colonists were largely uninterested in pursuing, to say nothing of their lack of means. But what he doesn’t mention is the same thing that most Conservative, Inc. types feel the need to leave out of their surveys of the Revolution: exactly how terrible, violent, and malicious it really was. Noted Catholic lawyer, Christopher Ferrara, cites historian R. R. Palmer, who explains
that Whig tyranny in the colonies and new states actually produced more refugees per thousand of population than did the Jacobins during the Terror: 24 per thousand in America versus 5 per thousand in France. Rothbard goes Palmer one better and proposes a “corrected rate” of 50 Americans per thousand, yielding “fully tenfold the exile rate of the supposedly more radical French Revolution.16
The exile, plundering, and in too many cases, outright murder of loyalists during the Revolution is a topic too many American conservatives try to hand-wave away with that Jeffersonian flair: “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” As if his point wasn’t clear enough, Ferrara continues:
As Palmer concludes: “The Revolution could be carried out, against British and loyal American opposition, only by the use of force. Its success ‘was impossible without a revolutionary government which could enforce its will.’” Even Rothbard, whose praise for the Revolution is unbounded, is constrained to recognize that “Liberty” was imposed by means contrary to the very principles professed by its self-appointed vanguard: “Thus, a Revolution and revolutionaries dedicated to the cause of liberty moved to suppress crucial liberties of their opposition—an ironic but not unsurprising illustration of the inherent contradiction between Liberty and Power, a conflict that can all too readily come into play even when Power is employed on behalf of Liberty.”17
Given the indisputable fact that the revolutionaries seized power by force, the question to be decided is whether they had legitimate grounds to do so. Gordon leaves this unanswered, since for him, it’s a foregone conclusion. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. The causes of the war are so complicated that the war’s legitimacy is still something that periodically gets argued about by scholars today. It usually includes talk of unpaid debts accrued from the French and Indian war, territorial disputes, unfair treatment by Parliament, belligerence and disobedience by the colonies, piracy, inter-colonial trade, and the private interests of the founding fathers.
But what this also demonstrates is that the revolutionaries’ seizure of power by force would, according to the quote of St. Thomas that Gordon used, put into question the very republican ideals that Gordon defends. Forget the feasibility of returning the US to some sort of Catholic republic; left unanswered is whether the republic has legitimate grounds for existing in the first place.
In any case, it turns out that St. Thomas’ position on revolution is a bit more nuanced than either Gordon or his quoted commentator would like to imply. You can read the Elfin Ethicist’s commentary on this passage for yourself, but for our purposes, we’ll look at what a qualified commentator has to say about St. Thomas’ take on civil disobedience:
St. Thomas gives two other reasons for rejecting vigilantism, one of them theological, the other philosophical. The theological reason is that it contradicts Apostolic teaching; the philosophical reason is that it is imprudent. Why is it imprudent? Because if the assassination of undesired rulers by private presumption were an option, then it would more often be seized by wicked men to slay good kings, than by good men to slay tyrants.
This warning would seem to concern not only solitary rebels, but also rebel armies. Suppose the rebels claim to represent the people as a whole; after all, St. Thomas does hold that a morally competent people should be ruled with their consent. Although he does not discuss this possibility that rebels might make such a claim, the tenor of his argument suggests that he would not be impressed with it. Many competing groups may claim to represent the people as a whole; that does not mean that they do. Besides, he has already explained that factional conflict tends to produce tyrannies even more bitter than those it sweeps away.
Thomistic scholar J. Budziszewski falls in line with what would be expected—the very same line of thought that Gordon is trying to argue against. While St. Thomas never really goes against his early remarks in the Commentary, he does refine them. Reading Budziszewski’s full post on this subject is worthwhile, as he also explains that the tyrannicide endorsed by St. Thomas isn’t of the revolutionary sort in the first place, but rather a matter of just warfare—a concept that Gordon doesn’t even touch on because, again, such a diversion would require an historical survey of the period that would only undermine his thesis.
Worse still, I’d prefer to leave unsaid the implications of bringing up the errors of the US Government in the same chapter that attempts to define legitimate grounds for revolution (on such factors as the infringement of rights to life, liberty, or property, no less). Gordon is certainly no James Mason, but there doesn’t seem to have been much forethought on how this would come across.18
There’s experimental fiction like William Gass’ The Tunnel, which mocks edgy biopics written about questionable historical figures, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which mocks self-indulgent literati in the form of an epic poem and his own reflexive commentary on it. While Gordon lacks the writing credentials to be included in such austere ranks of modern madness, the effort should be duly noted; after all, what other genre of writing has room for a footnote, three pages in length, that tries to draw a straight line from Whiggish natural law theory through the Glorious Revolution, capping it off with a remark that the regicide of Charles I “should have been, but wasn’t, attributed to Catholic natural law tradition.”19
On a more serious note, this book is a roller coaster that smashes together mainline liberal-conservative thought with the Thomism of the Church. These two things don’t really seem to go together, and Gordon’s attempt to explain how they do only makes the combination more striking in its strangeness. While I think he fails to offer real solutions, he does at least posit that families have to be made the center of American life or the entire country is lost. His unwillingness to rely on the state to reinforce this, however, only spells an early surrender.
I didn’t touch on some of the more obvious pieces of the book, such as the thrust of its thesis—that America is secretly “wired” Catholic, or that all of its ideas are “crypto-Catholic”—because, simply put, they don’t make any sense. Gordon wants to write a narrative that the founders plagiarized specifically the Catholic tradition of natural law theory, but without necessarily knowing they did so, which means it couldn’t have been plagiarism. The second problem here is that, speaking in a more secular mode for a moment, Catholicism refers to a way of life and social organization that includes far more than natural law legal theories. It refers to a confessional state, a sacramental order, a variety of rites and liturgies. It’s impossible to claim America is “secretly wired Catholic” when there is zero attention paid to the very heart of Catholic belief anywhere in America’s founding doctrines and its early ethos.
What is Gordon really saying when he repeats the phrase “secretly wired Catholic,” anyway? The founders weren’t Catholic, which he admits, and nor were the majority of writers that they drew from, which he also explains. Is it “secretly Catholic” if enlightenment and protestant thinkers of the early modern period drew from the extensive, voluminous tradition of medieval Catholic philosophy? That’s just called the history of early modern thought. There’s nothing secret or Catholic about it. Quoting St. Thomas doesn’t make someone’s ideas Catholic.
With this in mind, Gordon’s efforts to read St. Thomas Aquinas into what are, in reality, the regurgitation of John Locke, come across as wishful thinking. He’s quick to point out the similarities between Catholic thought and modern implementation in an effort to justify his patriotism, but that’s the extent of his thesis. And I don’t begrudge him the patriotism. He just doesn’t make a good case.
On a more positive note, Gordon’s Catholic beliefs on display in this book are unimpeachable. He advocates for a strong families and strong fatherly headship. He clearly sees that there are problems with the American system and the American way of life that need to be addressed. And he addresses them, passionately, in his own way.
I can’t recommend this book, however, due to all the reasons I outlined above. The problem isn’t even my fundamental rejection of the liberalism that he espouses. This isn’t a problem of conflicting viewpoints. The problem is the entire framework he’s trying to make work just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
5Ibid, Book 4, Chapter 9, Paragraph 4
7United States Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice For All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, USCCB, 1986, 18
11Röpke, Wilhelm, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, 1960, ISI Books, 2014, 6
15He cites it somewhat infuriatingly as Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences 44, 2, 2, leaving out which book it was from, which made it a pain to actually find.
16Ferrara, Christopher, Liberty: The God that Failed (Angelico Press, 2012), 167