Catholic Phoenix


Screwtape on Love, the Philosophy of Hell, and American Civil Religion

Here is Screwtape informing Wormwood about liberalism, the HHS mandate, and what the recent elections were about, without actually mentioning any of these:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. "To be" means "to be in competition".

The shadows of Callicles, Glaucon, Machiavelli, and Rousseau are all visible in this description. Every form of social contract theory, and the liberalism that develops to give it shape, stinks of the arena, where individuals are pitted against each other in a clash of desires and, eventually, rights. The American experiment, which includes the attempt to craft a civil religion nondescript enough to nurture believer and unbeliever alike, is little different in this regard, as recent social and political history demonstrates. That so many Catholics decry the Obama administration’s “unprecedented” assault on religious freedom, claiming that the HHS mandate is a violation of American political and judicial traditions, signals a failure to understand not only American history and the oppositional stance the government has long taken against the Catholic Church, but also the conceptual roots and elasticity of liberalism, which allow it to be used as a weapon to silence even those who call upon it for protection.

Consider the language of religious freedom that some Catholics appeal to in response to the mandate. They seem to believe that such freedom, which includes not only the freedom to worship how one wants, but also the freedom of self-determination in the Church’s public outreach, is forever guaranteed by the finest American traditions. While it is true that “religion” has enjoyed certain privileges in the past, it is also true that we Catholics, along with everybody else in our country, have been required to support abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, the torture and execution of political enemies, the death penalty, UN programs that export the culture of death to foreign nations, and unjust wars with our tax dollars. No religious exception has been allowed us here; our consciences are violated every day in the name of a greater good, even if no Catholic bishops are making headlines protesting government oppression. There is no reason to act surprised by the mandate, or to claim that Obama is somehow not playing fair. Rather, he is simply acting in accordance with the notion of rights and freedom that has become more visible in American public life and jurisprudence since the middle of the 20th century, one more consistent with the inherent logic of the ideology of liberalism that has developed over the past few hundred years.

Simply put, Obama sees the freedom of religion as little different from the freedom to eat a vegan diet, consume pornography, kill unborn children, or pursue a career in aeronautics. Religion, loosely understood, once provided the shelter underneath which concepts like freedom were lived and understood. However, because we no longer subscribe to anything like a shared cultural script rooted in and cultivated by religion that orders our desires and activities, “freedom” has become amorphous and individualistic, and thus for Catholics, a threat. We have always imposed restrictions on the freedom of some, of course, when we perceive that it is necessary to protect the freedoms of others. The law and public opinion will descend upon offenders with the reminder that we are genuinely free only if all are free. Yet the lie that has often been told, and at times sincerely believed, is that this arrangement is in fact value-neutral, that it refuses to discriminate unfairly. That liberalism is in fact not a creed in competition with every other creed, especially Christianity. But it is a creed, and always has been, with civil religion and a vague appeal to “spirituality” essential components, something a perusal of the European sources of liberalism confirms. Any American “exception” was always bound up with the unique social, cultural, and theological dynamics this country bore witness to. And herein lies the real problem for Catholics and all other religious believers whose faith is independent of the nondescript American civil religion, and who think freedom is a positive, or at least benign, force that must respect them.

The version of liberalism now operative in the West has turned religious freedom into a strictly legal and procedural matter, shorn of the metaphysical and moral roots that give it depth and substance. Many Catholics have unconsciously played along with this diminished version of freedom, not taking stock of its logic or transformations, and express the desperate hope that the government, the courts, or the electorate will recognize the injustice of the attack on the Church’s freedom represented by the mandate. Thus, they look to the political and judicial realms, hoping that the mandate will be overturned, the bums voted out, justice and sanity restored, and the future of the Church in America preserved. Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke would be pleased, I think, with the way the matter is being handled on both sides, and how the Catholic Church is being marginalized.

For by assuming that freedom is to be approached in procedural and legal terms, Catholics have unwittingly played into the hands of those who want to silence and/or punish them. We have long been the ugly sister at the ball, and our enemies are legion. While it is true that the political influence of the Vatican no longer impresses anyone, those who witnessed the stirring effect Bl. John Paul II had in then-Communist Poland recognize that culture does in fact trump politics, and that the Vatican exercises an influence incommensurate with its political standing, precisely because so many of us look to it as mater et magister. Our allegiance, even as political subjects, is divided, as Rousseau and Locke knew well. Obama’s attempts to weaken the Church from the inside have paid him handsome dividends on this point. He can in truth claim that he has strong Catholic support—the names Pelosi, Sebelius, and Biden can be trotted out for show, not to mention the Catholic vote, all those Catholic women who use the contraceptives he wants to dispense free of charge and guilt, and the various Catholic universities offering him honors—all the while seeking to cripple the Church’s witness. Complain all you want that these are not “real” Catholics, but you will be preaching to the choir. In such a context the Catholicism that primps and preens itself into the corridors of power will always be willing to not only ignore but in the end deny the metaphysical and moral dimensions of freedom. The tragedy is that so many other Catholics, including those fully committed to the Church’s profession of faith, are willing to accept such a reduced vision of freedom, the mantra of which is “It’s not about contraception, it’s about freedom.”

Sorry, but this is about contraception and everything it represents, including a Church impervious to the vicissitudes of social and political history and willing to draw pointed attention to even the most uncomfortable truths, regardless of how friends and neighbors might recoil. It’s true that many, even most, Americans, including Protestants who share many of our concerns, flinch when we bring up Humanae Vitae or the Theology of the Body. Many Catholics are equally predisposed to reject the Church’s teaching here. All Catholics should know, however, that their Church’s teaching on sexual love is at once subtle and beautiful, inviting all into careful and reasoned consideration of a whole range of questions that the purveyors of the sexual revolution and the “sex ed” that enforces it never consider. “What is God like? What does it mean to bear his image? What is sex for?” I understand that that not all these questions can be raised on every occasion, and that prudence requires discretion in choosing our battles. But when enemies declare themselves, must we abide by their rules, especially when they exclude the most important considerations? Instead of accepting a reduced version of freedom, which will win us no lasting victories, either in the courts or the White House, we should be firm on the matters at hand, and defend the teachings we profess as part of our faith, always with the preface that Jesus alone is Lord and a living witness that conforms to this claim.

Victory in the public square is not the point, ultimately, or the measure of our success; faithfulness to Christ and the deposit of faith he entrusted to his apostles is, and especially Catholics should know that the cost of that faithfulness can be high. The Church of Christendom is gone for the time being, though some Catholics seem to think it our job to revive it. Better to remember how the Church of the Martyrs operated, for the social forces arrayed against us today will not be voted away. Christianity grew and flourished in the matrix of hostility worse than anything we see in this country today, and we rightly celebrate those members who bore faithful and fruitful witness to Christ when it had little influence on the public square, and were willing to profess the uncomfortable truths their Lord revealed, even at the point of a sword. We need to recognize that those committed to liberalism will always be guaranteed final legal and procedural victory, all the while prescinding from serious consideration of uncomfortable truths.

The mandate will likely survive legal challenge, at some point, or be reintroduced in some other form. All fifty states will likely legalize same-sex unions, at some point. The “culture war” was actually lost even before we were aware of one, when in 1930 the Anglican community made concessions for the use of contraceptives. Once that door is opened, and sexual intimacy separated from procreation, any number of sexual revolutions becomes possible. Ours used Enovid and a softening of divorce laws to pave the way for everything since, including the call for same-sex union. Polygamy will inevitably follow, along with a reduction in the age of consent. For goodness’ sake, psychologists have been speaking of “inter-generational intimacy” for some time now, and complaining that people pushing a conservative religious agenda want to deny minors access to sexual expression. Children are routinely sacrificed at the altars of compassion and convenience, while the mayor of New York bans jumbo sodas in order to protect children. This is not an invitation to defeatism or indifference, only observation and mild prediction based on recent history. But our history as Catholics is a long one, from which we should be willing to learn. We have myriad resources to draw from, including ways of thinking that escape the shortsightedness of present-day political posturing.

Likewise, we have the one resource that can demonstrate in the public square that all our talk is more than that. David Bentley Hart once wrote that the way forward for Christians in the culture wars is through militant fecundity. That is not only clever, but perceptive. But beyond flooding the world with Catholic offspring and waiting for them to reach voting age, we should also recognize that our secularized neighbors are not likely to pay much attention to our calls to honor marriage when we don't seem all that intent on doing so ourselves. Our divorce rate is similar to those outside the Church; we use contraceptives like everyone else; our marriages often appear as joyless and formal exercises in social propriety; our homes are as closed to those outside our social circles as everybody else's. Unless we can witness to the type of marriages our Church proposes as God's will, why on earth would anyone, much less legislators and judges, take us seriously when we say marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman? Unless we show by our love that we follow more than ancient custom, a social construct now relativized by changing social consensus, or even our conscience, but the Lord who elevated marriage into a sign of God's presence and his own Trinitarian nature, we bandy words to little effect.

For the dispute we have with liberalism, the American civil religion, and those who promote them is ultimately not about the freedom of religion, but about love. Screwtape recoils from love, endorsing the sort of antagonistic individualism that social contractarians see as natural to the human condition. This is an error that spreads in many directions, and we see it in the HHS mandate, precisely because liberalism assumes an adversarial stance in every form of human sociality. Filtered through the rights talk we have been speaking in America, we conceive of my rights as opposed to your rights. The powers that be will respect my rights, but only if they don’t infringe on yours. This is faulty anthropology, but also faulty theology. Continuing his description of the philosophy of Hell, Screwtape perceives this when he says:

Now the Enemy's philosophy is nothing more nor less than one continued attempt to evade this very obvious truth. He aims at a contradiction. Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls love, and this same monotonous panacea can be detected under all He does and even all He is—or claims to be. Thus He is not content, even Himself, to be a sheer arithmetical unity; He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature. At the other end of the scale, He introduces into matter that obscene invention the organism, in which the parts are perverted from their natural destiny of competition and made to co-operate.

Elsewhere Lewis spoke of the Trinitarian God in poetic terms that challenge the individualism that liberalism assumes. In Christianity, “God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” This has social and political implications insofar as the “whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-personed life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made” (emphasis added).

Contrast that with the philosophy of Hell, and the liberalism of both American political parties, for whom happiness has more to do with protecting ourselves and our rights from others. “They are to be many, yet somehow also one”: this is decidely not the American e pluribus unum or any other comforting myth of the American civil religion, which celebrates the autonomy of each individual, but a revealed mystery that shapes our discourse not only about God and the Church, but the polis, rights and freedom, and, yes, even contraception, all in communal terms. In the context of liberalism, it is as subversive as were Jesus’ words to Pilate: “You would have no power over me unless it were given you from above.” For we profess a God and a faith who not only demands that we relativize every political arrangement, every understanding of rights and freedom, but that we seek to conform our lives and social arrangements according to the communal nature of God Himself.

“Be not afraid!” remains a compelling reminder only if we recognize the true nature of that which threatens us. Obama has been demonized by Catholics and others who have both a short memory and a sanguine reading of liberalism and the freedom it promotes. He is not the great enemy, but another representative of an ideology that masks its true nature and aims well enough to become incorporated into a civil religion that has more in common with Screwtape’s philosophy of Hell than with genuine freedom. Prescinding from the theological dimensions of the current disputes, as too many Catholics have done, only guarantees that Obama need not take the Church very seriously, for he has all the benefits of home field advantage, not to mention Catholics willing to invoke their faith as reasons for supporting him. The Church’s cry for respecting our freedom will be ignored, unless we are able to shift the terms of the debate. This will not be nearly as easy as pulling a lever in an election booth, as it requires the long, hard work of demonstrating in our lives and communities that we genuinely believe what we profess. The witness of the saint is our only real answer to liberalism or whatever mandates are around the corner, for only the saint reveals that our participation in the drama of the Trinitarian life is the path to happiness. Christianity long ago faced a hostile government that promoted infanticide and sexual immorality, and it conquered Rome and its serial pathologies not by usurping its political language, but by subverting it through the witness of lives lived in faith, hope, and love. May we have the wisdom and courage to do the same.

11 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Pingback: Tithing Original Sin Widows Scribes Substance Style | Big Pulpit

  2. Mike Lueken

    I usually fast from the internet on Sundays, but an exception must be made in order to say thank you and well done. This penetrating and courageous post is one of the most hopeful and beautiful flowers of wisdom I have seen in this desert in some time. Thank you! The recent election requires this sort of clarity. One side didn’t seem too interested in hearing about the unborn. The other side (as one commentator put it) seemed less interested in preaching Christ and him crucified than in preaching James Madison and him justified. Both sides seem blind to the true situation which this post so ably illuminates. David L. Schindler recently wrote in a similar manner about the danger of adopting the language of liberalism in the confrontation over the HHS mandate. I might just add a couple of points to consider. First, as one Catholic has written: “Christianity is not a moral code organized around natural law; it is a stupendous claim about the supernatural.” He adds: “The moral teaching of the Catholic faith only make sense within a divine economy.” How would this apply to the hot issues? Well, see A. Scola: “A culture that does not accept the revelation of the Trinitarian God ultimately renders itself incapable of understanding sexual difference in a positive sense.” So what should we learn from the election? First of all who is the “we”? We need to be the Church and do the hard work, not of capturing political power, but of showing the world what love looks like. That will require embodying and speaking the dramatic dogmas of the faith. We should speak Christian rather than translating our language into supposedly neutral language. We need to stop confusing God’s story with the nation state story. Thanks again for speaking up, through the fog. I have to also recommend and for other helpful voices in this conversation.
    Mike Lueken


    1. Anthony DiStefano


      A couple related pieces are very helpful, I think. Rodney Howsare of St. Francis DeSales University, one of our better Balthasar scholars writing today, has paid some recent attention to these questions, and all his posts are worth tracking down. His latest offering can be found here:

      Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame (formerly Georgetown, which he left in the wake of the Sebelius appearance there) has also written some perceptive pieces, including this one on Front Porch Republic:

      His latest piece is called “Unsustainable Liberalism” and appears in the August/September edition of First Things.


    2. Jeremy Beer

      Tony, great post. And Mike — I think you have nailed it by asking us to consider “who is our we?” It seems to me that it is part of our fallen nature to consistently, if often only implicitly, get the answer to this question wrong; we want to say that our “we” — the most important “we” — is our village, or our tribe, or our family, or our nation, or our party, or our race, or our ideological movement. To the extent that we don’t see that we are wrong in primarily identifying with such subordinate we’s, we have failed to internalize the Christian revelation. That’s a great insight, and I thank you for it.


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  4. Justin Schmitt

    Excellent piece, Mr. DiStefano.

    I’ve recently ‘found’ this website, and I’ve enjoyed catching up on former essays. As a former Scottsdale resident, I wished I learned of this website during my brief stay. Alas! I’ll have to settle for yet another virtual ‘community’ for engaging thought, hope and sanity.

    To all the contributors — Thank you for your time!


  5. Rich

    Re: the conclusion of Love, Hell, and Civil Religion — Did we Catholics confront the Roman Empire simply with the testimony of our faith in the King of kings, or did we, inordinately grateful for the cessation of our persecution, eagerly enter upon an era of ever intensifying civil service for the Empire? We became not only un-persecuted, but also un-barred from participation in the civil life of the Empire. We indulged in, or complied with, many civil excesses of the Empire, e.g., autocracy, slavery, imperialism, war, etc. I would propose that we were just as worldly back then as we are now. This proposal sours the note of triumphalism heard in the conclusion of Love, Hell, and Civil Religion. Have there ever been ‘the good ole days’?


    1. Anthony DiStefano

      I was addressing the days of persecution, not the aftermath. Of course many Christians were then too happy to indulge in the “civil excesses” of the Empire post-312, though I’d be careful to toss around charges indiscriminately, as if “we”—all Christians? I’m not sure what you mean by this—were complicit in every pathology. And no, there never were any “good ol’ days.” There were days, however, when believers had little choice but to rely on bearing witness to the faith through non-political means. We live in a much different world, and can’t simply return to the strategies of the 3rd century; we can learn from them, though, I hope, and apply them in creative ways today, especially when so many believers think that liberal democracy and its distorted understanding of freedom is our dear friend and protector. I don’t think this counts as triumphalism.


      1. Rich

        From the conclusion of Love, Hell, and Civil Religion: “Christianity long ago faced a hostile government that promoted infanticide and sexual immorality, and it conquered Rome and its serial pathologies not by usurping its political language, but by subverting it through the witness of lives lived in faith, hope, and love. May we have the wisdom and courage to do the same.” How credible a rallying statement can this be since: 1) prior to 312 A.D. this did not happen as a simple consequence of our Catholic testimony to a then hostile Empire; 2) subsequent to 312 A.D. we Catholics participated so fully in the civil life of the Empire that social amelioration attributable to Catholic testimony alone would be difficult to prove; and 3) generations of American Catholic “lives lived in faith, hope, and love” coupled with their participation as citizens, civil servants, and political thinkers have succeeded only in forestalling the present enmity of the State? If there never have been “the good ole days,” then maybe there never will be.


        1. Anthony DiStefano

          1. It did clearly establish a difference between professions of faith and the possibilities of denying the priorities, political and otherwise, of Rome. Must the good life be rooted in the options articulated by the spokesmen, official or not, of an imperial theology? Christianity offered a new way, truly good news, in a time of increasing pessimism and the proliferation of mystery cults trying to resist the spiritual and moral exhaustion of the age. Our testimony was powerful indeed; ask St. Lucy, whose feast we celebrate today, about the counter-cultural witness of this faith.

          2. “We Catholics” were often profoundly skeptical of participation in the civil life of the Empire. Eusebius was not the only voice in the post-Constantinian Church. Augustine’s testimony suggests a healthy reticence toward any form of Christian imperial theology, and the development of 4th-century monasticism, and the bloodless martyrdom it encouraged, shows the critical attitudes toward the types of compromise frequently encountered when Christianity became the official creed of the Empire.

          Moreover, “Catholic testimony” includes more than preaching or theology. My Roman History prof from years ago, no friend to Christianity, acknowledged how the types of hospitality practiced by Christians was a leading cause, maybe the leading cause, of the spread of Christianity in the Empire. This subverted the ethos of the age every bit as much as the profession that Christ, not Caesar, is Lord; it was in fact a clear example of what is meant by such a confession.

          3. No doubt Catholics have often been badly confused about civil religion and its demands. The State has always shown enmity toward us, in one form or another. Keep in mind the sense of accomplishment when JFK was elected. “We’ve finally arrived” was the subtext of much of the self-congratulatory celebrations. Such a sense is possible only in light of an inferiority complex, an understandable one given how the Protestant mentality of American religiosity has looked at Catholicism with a thinly veiled hostility.

          Good old days don’t exist, and I’m puzzled by the implication that I was suggesting they do. Patterns of faith, hope, and love can, however, provide guidance in times of challenge like our own. Catholics insist upon this, if they take the saints seriously.