“People say to me, that it is but a dream to suppose that Christianity should regain the organic power in human society which once it possessed. I cannot help that; I never said it could. I am not a politician; I am proposing no measures, but exposing a fallacy, and resisting a pretence. Let Benthamism reign, if men have no aspirations; but do not tell them to be romantic, and then solace them with glory; do not attempt by philosophy what once was done by religion. The ascendancy of Faith may be impracticable, but the reign of Knowledge is incomprehensible.” –Cardinal Newman, The Tamworth Reading Room
One of the testaments to how little influence Christianity has over secular society is how readily it is adopted by those aspiring for influence. Witness, for instance, Mrs. Bruenig now with the New York Times; the liberal superstructure, built however it may be on contraception and abortion, does not take her Catholicism as any kind of threat. The same is true for Catholic strivers among the non-neoliberal left. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy has seduced otherwise dogmatic and intelligent Catholics into the belief that they can and should support him. Matthew Schmitz with the Catholic Herald went through the motions. Same with the Washington Examiner in its fairly recent (though everything before Super Tuesday seems distant), “Meet the Traditionalist Catholics Bernie Bros.” Again, we see two aspects of the same issue: Catholics believe they can in conscience support such candidates, and those same Catholics are seen to pose no threat to the larger leftist project.
At one time the Democrats were merely the party of abortion. Now they can boast of being the party of hormone-blockers for children, drag queen story hour—it’s a long way to November, so maybe more. In the meantime, the Trump administration has been excellent on pro-life issues, and exceptionally moderate on conservative bugbears of entitlements and deficit spending. Voting for Democrats is less defensible than it ever has been.
As such, I suppose it would be fair to accuse these Catholics of hypocrisy or straight-up lying about the Faith. But I don’t really believe this. No, what the Berniekampf shows to me is an interesting display of the hierarchy of values, even among people who hold all the same beliefs. We live in a time of extreme polarization, and because of this, we rely too much on facial affirmations and facile creeds. What a man says he believes is surely important, but as long as that man has more than one belief, the emphasis and ranking he gives to his beliefs is just as important as the beliefs themselves. I won’t dispute that Catholic Bernie Bros have orthodox beliefs (at least not here). But in the real, practical world, the hierarchy of beliefs is just as crucial as belief itself.
In all this, I am reminded of John Henry Cardinal Newman, in both his life and his works. The relationship between dogma and conscience, between belief and action, was the great underlying theme of Newman’s career. Newman began his public life as an Anglican pastor, and spent his early years trying to reinvigorate the Church of England. This Oxford Movement brought together the best minds of that era, all united under Anglican creed, all for the purpose of strengthening and invigorating their church. Yet by the end of it, many in the Church of England had drifted towards Protestantism, and Newman himself had defected to the Church of Rome. How did so many devout men, all positing the same creed, all starting from the same point, end in such starkly different positions?
Clearly, it was not enough to merely know what creeds a man hold to understand how his beliefs actually motivate his actions. More than just a facial acceptance of belief was required, and this was the project St. John Henry understood. Newman was never so much a theologian as a student of how religious belief affects us. During his lifetime, the cardinal made self-deprecatory comments about his possible canonization, stating that a worldly man like himself was not fit to reside among the contemplative saints. There is some truth to this, for Newman was never concerned so much with ideas, in the manner of most theologians, as with the relationship between ideas and the practical world. His famous Development of Christian Doctrine and Apolgia pro Vita Sua are both deeply entrenched in the study of the living expression of ideas.
The acme of Newman’s career was his Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent. It best lays out Newman’s beliefs on the interaction of beliefs and actions. Newman’s investigation is primarily concerned with religious topics, but more generally it is a brilliant volume on the philosophy of ideas, and deserves to be read by anyone interested in the intellectual history of the past two centuries.
The essay is a study of deeply held. beliefs, which Newman refers to as assents. To Newman, an assent is not matter of probabilities or guesswork, as posited by Locke, but an all-or-nothing proposition which the intellect either accepts or rejects. Religious beliefs are, of course, among these assents. Though of course assents can and do change over time, these changes do not come about by stochastic weighing, but by the gradual precedence one assent gains over the others. This is, if nothing else, psychologically more accurate than Locke’s thesis; when we truly adhere to a belief, we do not treat it as a matter of probability. Likewise, when we do change assents (say from atheism to Christianity, or vice versa) it is not in a sudden moment of epiphany, but a gradual process whereby an assent comes to grab us more strongly.
Newman divides between two forms of assents, the notional and the real. Notional assents are those based on mental reflection, whereas real assents are undergirded by tangible senses, concrete apprehension. Says Newman, “In its notional assents as well as its inferences, the mind contemplates its own creations instead of things; in real, it is directed towards things, represented by the images they have left on the imagination. These images, when assented-to, have an influence both on the individual and on society, which mere notion cannot exert.” As one example of this, Newman cites the Duke of Wellington’s letter on national defense. The letter was essentially a dry policy paper in support of more defense spending. No one disputed the Duke’s logic or conclusions; at the same time, no one acted upon it. It was not until an attempt on the life of Louis Napoleon that anyone acted upon the Duke’s policy proposals. Nothing changed by way of belief. Everyone assented to the Duke’s proposals before and after the assassination attempt. The difference is that prior to the attempt, the nation’s assent to the proposal was notional. The correctness of the Duke’s position did not rise to the level of real assent in the minds of the English public until civic murder could be contemplated, and it was at that point the English public decided to act.
It is clear, as a motor of action, that real assents have greater power than notional. “That which is concrete exerts a force which nothing abstract can rival. That is… because the object is more powerful, therefore so is the apprehension of it.” Thus patriotism, while it may exist and be beneficial as an abstract virtue, is only a motor of action when tied to an actual place. Men will not fight and die for country; they will fight and die for their country. (One of the interesting developments post-9/11 was seeing a gaggle of deracinated neocons trying to drudge up patriotic feelings, all while disdaining America’s people, history, and religion.)
Newman goes on to show how the most fundamental elements of the Faith rely on real rather than notional assents. The Nicene Creed is almost entirely full of elements which require real rather than notional assent: “One God.” “Creator of Heaven and Earth.” “The remission of sins.” All these tenets create an immediate image in the mind, and demand assent at that moment, without any need for conceptualization. The idea of “One God” may be infinitely complex, but it nonetheless smacks one with its immediacy. There is no middle ground of cowardice; contemplation that comes with this fact must be built on top of Unum Deum, no amount of intellectualizing can erode it. Real assent is the bulwark of the Faith.
This shows the different levels of refinement in religious thought. Says Newman, “To give real assent to it is an act of religion; to give a notional is a theological act.” Take the flat assertions of the Athanasian Creed about the members of the Holy Trinity—“For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.” Taken individually, not one of these three propositions is difficult to understand. How these three distinct persons can yet form one God, in contrast, is not simple. Except for a few blessed mystics and doctors, the fact that three persons are One God is a proposition that is not immediately tangible, and can only be apprehended through rather abstruse theology—a notional assent. “Hence theology has to do with the dogma of the Holy Trinity as a whole made up of many propositions; but religion has to do with each of those separate propositions which compose it, and lives and thrives in the contemplation of them.” The elements of religion, rather than theology, are the ones that move us to concrete action, because we hold them with real rather than notional assent.
The great crime of the post-Vatican II Church is the intellectualizing of the Faith—of turning Her creeds and dogmas into matters of notional assent while downplaying the real. As an effect, almost all modern Christians in the public sphere are theologians rather than dogmatists, and are in fact rather uncomfortable with the real assents required by the Faith.
Take, for example, the Church’s opposition to homosexuality. The Church’s teaching on this has not changed. Sodomy is still condemned universally by all real Catholics—to fail to assent to this proposition is to abjure the teaching authority of the Church, and the best a liberal can do is downplay it. But look at how even orthodox “conservative” prelates treat the issue. Visit the US Bishops’ website, or watch a video from Bishop Robert Barron. Sodomy is not treated as one of the sins crying out of the earth for vengeance. Homosexuality is rather an “orientation” that is out of line with something called the “human person” and the “nature of human sexuality.”
Compare this with E. Michael Jones’s statement on the topic: “The anus is not a sex organ!” No books, not even Jones’s own, could probably compare with the brilliance of this pungent remark. It smacks you in the face. To accept or deny it—to assent to it or not—requires real, not just notional, assent. We are not allowed high-falutin language about true humanity, true sexuality, true agape. You are forced right away to confirm or deny it. And yet such brunt statements are criticized as overly homophobic (or something like that) even among conservatives.
Maybe the greatest fault of the modern Church is the replacement of real assent as the heart of the Faith with the merely notional. This change has been the most direct effect of the Second Vatican Council and the creation of the Novus Ordo mass. The preconcilar Church was gloriously simple. A preconciliar Catholic may not have known Latin, but he had no doubt that what he was witnessing—with the incense, with altar servers, the whispers, the bells, the altar—was something real. I like to refer to the old mass as the Missa pro stultis, for even an idiot can tell what is going on.
In contrast, one almost has to be a theologian to make heads or tails of how the post-Vatican II Church can be united with the Church that existed two thousand years before it. The Latin Mass demanded real assent. The mass, conducted on a bare table, is far less so. One in the pews of a BoomerMass may give full assent to what is occurring, but his assent will be more notional than real—more dependent on his past experience assenting to the Faith than anything immediately before him. It is no surprise that Catholics have fallen away from this notional church, just as it is no surprise that the Protestant sects which have best retained moral orthodoxy have also made a point to retain exterior forms. The statues, the altars, the bread and wine, all serve to reinforce the fact that the Faith is not some Laputan system in air, but a real flesh-and-blood thing.
The matter of abortion is much the same. A murdered child is a murdered child. If you are not immediately affected by this, there is little I can do to convince you. The pro-life movement is about the one area of Catholic public life that is strong and vibrant, and it is so precisely because the terms of the debate are so immediate. I don’t doubt that many Christians nowadays, in the face of so many incompetent and evil prelates, retain their faith largely because the church stands as a contrapose to this very real murder.
But as I said, the rest of Catholic public life is a matter of notional assent. Give Western bishops the chance to talk about murder of the innocent or the “dignity of the human person,” and they will almost invariably choose the latter. The effect of this has been to confuse abstruse theories and the fundamentals of the faith, of esoteric theological matters with the bare dictum Thou Shall Not Kill.
There exists in the Church’s magisterium something called “Catholic social teaching,” regularly used as an alternate term for the Church’s teachings on economics and sociology. These teachings are wise and just, and all Catholics are obliged to give their assent to them. But, as Cardinal Newman understood, not all assents are equal. And theories about economics, sociology, and other social sciences are matters of notional, not real, assent. The social sciences are not well suited to immediate perceptions; if we could immediately and indubitably see the effect of, say, a wage control, we would not need the science of economics in the first place. For example, we feel deeply about the existence of the poor and suffering, about the idle and invidious rich. But aside from a few autists, no one feels that strongly in favor of free trade or the minimum wage. Maybe more precisely: When we are proponents of free trade, we are so because of our notional assent; when we are opposed to free trade, it is because we or a loved one has lost his job—when the policy has become real to us in its effect. It is just not part of our makeup as humans to feel as deeply about theories.
Put alternately, it is not healthy for our beliefs about economics to be as meaningful to us as our beliefs about baby-murder. When all things are held notionally—or more precisely, when the Church requires only a notional assent from her adherents—the moral hierarchy becomes confused. To be fair, Bernie Sanders’s language attempts to invoke the poor and suffering, and the evil rich. There is something more real in his language than the standard neoliberal syntax. But it doesn’t change the moral perversion of the Bernie Bros, for whom voting for or against pro-life candidates is viewed not with relation to the tangible evil of baby-murder, but coolly—the way you would analyze the effect of a minimum wage on labor demand—a mere variable in the regression analysis that is capitalist society.
I don’t dispute that Catholic Bernie Bros hold Catholic beliefs. I just don’t think they take those beliefs as seriously as they should.
Grammar of Assent is a completely Christian book. But its applicability goes far beyond the religious sphere. Even those uninterested in religious topics owe it to themselves to read it to learn about our current regime. Put bluntly, all white non-deviants are put in the same position as Catholics: They are forced in public to assent to this beliefs only notionally. That is, just as with the religious topics I cited above, the prospect of letting real assent determine our positions and politics is frowned upon or condemned. We still have freedom of conscience in the West; liberal ideals have required this. But rightists are limited as to how deeply we are allowed to hold these beliefs.
Take C.S. Lewis’s idea of “men without chests.” Lewis developed this creature in his great defense of natural law, The Abolition of Man, but his exact definition of a “man without a chest” is somewhat lacking; perhaps Lewis was relying on the evocative phrase and for our chests to do the thinking. My own definition would be this: A man without a chest is one whose beliefs and actions are driven by notional assents, and who distrusts the beliefs and actions founded on the real. The man without a chest lives his life by notional assent. In fact, he distrusts anything that strikes him as too real, because the real has the element of animalism, of hot-blooded emotionalism. The man without a chest is afraid of any draught that has not been watered down with triple distillations of the intellect, whose beliefs cannot be scrutinized and analyzed by other men of good sense.
Recall the controversies surrounding the work of the late Roger Scruton. The heart of Scruton’s project was nothing radical. Scruton’s asserted goal was merely to defend the existence of the home. But this goal required getting men in touch with their chests again: to remember that country, family, and place are not mere words, but the objects of our deepest affections, and worthy of defense. Home is not a mere place we find in sociology textbooks or the phonebook, but something tangibly real. The shocking thing about Scruton’s work is that it could even be controversial. How is it that something so basic as love for the home become susceptible to attack in the first place? Scruton was in essence attempting to convince people of what should have needed no convincing.
The force of Roger Scruton’s politics made him a bigger target for the Left than his politics per se would suggest. This is because conservatives (and all decent people) are allowed their beliefs, so long as they make it clear those beliefs are notional, not real. Conservative thought is not censored, and is given a token slot in most liberal publications. The proviso is that conservative beliefs (and the men who hold them) must be gutless. David French speaks for himself. Ross Douthat is allowed to cite all the studies about divorce he wants so long as he does not cross the line to being disgusted by it, to proving that he feels it in his gut and doesn’t just contemplate it in his head. This is the line someone like Michael Brendan Doherty must walk, and which the choleric Irishman often stumbles, as his quickly-deleted tweets often show. MBD is forced to censor his disgust more than his beliefs, which he must process through Buckleyite prose. Conservatives are allowed to pique the intellect, but not go for the gut blow.
Nothing like this happens on the woke Left. The degenerate liberal is allowed images of bullwhips and gas chambers, of Emmitt Tills and Matthew Shepherds being brutalized for all eternity. This is their entire politics. It is what a conservative has to fight against. Meaningless terms like “racism” and “sexism” are allowed heat and feeling, even when precise definitions cannot be given. The left fights, always and everywhere, to ensure these weak and vacillating ideas are held with real assent. Meanwhile, conservatives themselves fight to ensure their ideas are held only notionally. Republicans like to brag that they are a “party of ideas;” it would be closer to say they are a party of ideas alone.
The hierarchy of assents also gives the lie to the “natural conservative” meme. It may be true that Latinos and blacks hold conservative beliefs on social issues. But when material considerations bear down, when the welfare goose stops laying eggs or Uncle Tito can’t get his remittances, “natural conservatives” vote contrary to those beliefs. A good many black folks might believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but even more of them believe it’s nice to receive checks for doing nothing (who wouldn’t?). In a completely plebiscitary democracy, black folks might actually function as their “natural conservativism” would suggest. But in our system, they are Democratic Party hacks, because checks trump morals. The material considerations to which we all must assent outweigh ideology.
For non-whites at least. Perhaps the most important political project since the Progressive Era has been to browbeat Europeans out of their basic survival instincts. As I write, the coronavirus plausibly threatens to kill thousands of Americans and inflict incredible social harm. Yet proper preventative measures are stifled because implementing them would be racist. Who could imagine “racism” being a reason not to take reasonable measures to curtail a virus that could kill you and your family? To any man in 1960 it would’ve been ludicrous beyond satire. But it has leverage today. We are all still led by our gut feelings; we know, instinctively, that some things are necessary for survival, and we assent to it as any animal must. But our gut feelings are not allowed to have any role in our politics. What is most real to us—at least if “us” includes white American males—is disallowed in the political sphere.
I’m tempted to say that this is the natural product of industrial society; that in any complex society our assents must tend to become more and more notional, less and less real. For as we become more dependent on the expertise of others, so we rely more and more on the increasingly complicated theories that tie us together. Everyone, at a gut level, would want the coronavirus contained. This, in itself, should not be that hard: Ninety percent of it is just staying home. But this isn’t an alternative—for what would such autarkic behavior do to the nebulous entity called the “global economy?” And here is the present trap. Most everyone would prefer to save his life by staying home, by putting off needless commerce, by living off what he has. And no one is gut-positive about the effect of an x-percent change in employment would have on his welfare. And yet we are bound to the great economy whether we desire it or not, and the market for iPhones becomes almost as important as the market for food. The peasant used to know that he would starve if he didn’t work—an outcome every man in his gut understands. Modern men may become destitute if not enough of them buy electronics and services—an outcome that is completely insane.
Moderns are not so much a war of ideas or beliefs, but a war over how deeply those beliefs can be held. The modern Christian is allowed his beliefs precisely because those beliefs have so little organic power over society and even his own actions. To be most engaged in the modern world is to assent to things that do not greatly move us. We are alienated from our own beliefs by the necessity of living in a complex society. The good news for rightists is that, as the coronavirus outbreak has shown, the real always has a way of breaking through our petty notions, and gut-girded faith in the things we are least able to explain are better than all our philosophies.