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Why The French-Ahmari Debates Matter

...and why Ahmari most likely won the debate.

For those of you attuned to such controversies, there was a debate little noticed by the media in general but widely panned within Catholic intellectual circles at The Catholic University of America last week. 

The aptly named “Thrilla at the Basilica” or the “Melee at CUA” brought over 600 attendees to the newly restored Heritage Hall — for alumni, that’s the old cafeteria at University Center East — featuring two heavyweights: Mr. David French of National Review and Mr. Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post.

The topic of the debate?  Could have been cloaked in the language of Catholic integralism, but truly was centered more around civility in the public square. 

Let me set the table for a moment for those not entirely invested in the discussion, because this debate after 50 years of the post-Second Vatican Council Church matters a great deal to the generation of Catholics rising.

We will start with two disconsonant themes: the Second Vatican Council and the rise of postmodernism and the sexual revolution.  Consider myself firmly planted in the Patrick Buchanan school of post hoc ergo propter hoc when we point the finger at what is to blame for the collapse of Catholicism in America, but there is little question that whatever remedies the Second Vatican Council attempted to apply have had very little effect on the postmodern secular West — America included.

What is important here is that the American contributions to the Second Vatican Council — specifically here the commitment to religious freedom — exposed the Church to the idea of competing on a level playing field with error.  Catholics could afford to roll the dice, it is argued, because the dice are loaded.  After all, we are the Deposit of Faith.  If God is for us, who could possibly be against us.

Turns out, a great deal can be against us. 

There is another problem to diagnose here, and that is the collapse of the old Protestant integralism in favor of a more secular integralism.  That shift in the American fabric from a social order that prized pluralism above all other things to a more progressive and slightly-totalitarian leftism is the great concern of the next fifty years. Simply put, how should Christians cope with such a massive shift in this understanding of who we are as Americans?

The concept of integralism — simply put, that laws and society should reflect a moral order — isn’t an old one.  Simply put, lawmaking is a moral enterprise conducted by souls with varying degrees of moral virtue or vice. Such individuals create polities — good, bad and inbetween — and those laws reflect the values of society writ large.

The question raised by Ahmari and the co-authors of a document entitled “Against the Dead Consensus” in First Things in March 2019 is whether or not those of us preoccupied with tradition and the things tried and true are best served by this level playing field in the face of secular integralists who desire nothing more than to destroy faith in public life utterly.  Should we not combat this with an integralism of our own, one informed by principles that endure?

Enter David French, who was the particular target of Ahmari’s ire two months later as the former defended “drag queen story hour” in American libraries on the basis that these protections for error — even under the worst conditions of secular integralism — also extend protections to Christians as well.  For those familiar with the classic film “A Man For All Seasons” one can see Sir Thomas More rise against his soon-to-be son-in-law asking William Roper when the devil turned ‘round on him where would he hide, the laws of England being all flat?

Thankfully, I was able to attend the debate at CUA.  The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-French.  Countless op-eds pilloried Ahmari after the fact for a poor performance, with notable exceptions (Chad Pecknold, professor of religion at CUA and a co-signer to the “dead consensus” manifesto was one such exception). 

Let me offer a counterpoint to these observations.  Though I consider myself a devoted Jeffersonian and believe in human freedom as both a good Catholic and a good American, do not be fooled by the narrative.  Ahmari won the debate.

There are two good reasons to believe this after a week or so of mulling this around. 

First and foremost, the deck was stacked in Ahmari’s favor.  Lawmaking properly understood is and always will be an inherently moral (and therefore integralist) project.  We approve of moral laws, we reject immoral laws, and we discern between the two.  St. Thomas Aquinas cautions us that immoral laws are not laws at all, and as such we owe more to the totalitarian designs of the secular religions other than carving out ghettos of free expression.  In fact, we are duty bound to resist.

Second and perhaps less recognized was the exchange between French and Ahmari on civility in the public square.  French admonished Ahmari on the Biblical call to love one’s enemies as a non-optional call that reinforces civility in the public square as a virtue.  Ahmari’s response — that we are called to love our enemies, but we are also called to recognize them as enemies — rewarded him with a good three second pause. In a room of six hundred souls, one could have heard a pin drop.

Yet the centerpiece of the French-Ahmari debates really isn’t over integralism per se.  Both French and Ahmari exhibit varying degrees of moral integralism in their worldviews whether it is recognized or not.  Nor is the debate over the merits of liberalism and whether the illiberalism of the left should be countered with an illiberalism of our own — though this debate has merits and can even be conceded in parts.

Rather, the question revolves around civility — and this is where in a room packed with many in the Washington D.C. orbit who attend to the thoughts, ideas and movements of the old conservative elite that Ahmari successfully baited French into demonstrating that incivility in the face of incivility matters.

Towards the end of the debate, Ahmari was clearly worn out over French’s recitation of his achievements — notable as they are.  When Ahmari asked whether President French would have fought for Brett Kavanaugh after the now much discredited allegations broke, French’s service in Iraq was raised. 

Sensing blood, Ahmari mentioned that French’s service was behind a desk with the Judges’ Advocates General Corps…. and French, rather than opting for a more Reaganesque “there you go again” moment chose to descend to Averno and rise to the bait — as Ahmari smiled ever so slightly.

At that point, the debate was over and the argument decisively won — and Ahmari knew it.  One doubts that any French supporters changed their minds, but among the students in the crowd there was a certain sense that Ahmari had demonstrated two salient points: (1) that at some point in time, we need to stand for something and reimpose moral values on the public square, and that (2) this isn’t going to be discussed calmly in a classroom, but rather fought for with a resolve that matches the vehemence on the left.

There were areas of agreement, though.  Jon Ward writing for Yahoo News offered a moderately secular viewpoint, namely that he was absolutely shocked that the room — 600 strong — really did believe that we were on the cusp of an environment where Christians were heading back to the Colosseum, that persecution was firmly and first in the minds of those debating and the future intelligentsia of Christendom.  Shocking to the political left, perhaps… but not shocking to those of us who exist in the public square as Christians first and political co-religionists a distant second.

This boils us down to a final point, namely that Ahmari entered the room with precisely nothing to lose.  French had the crowd; if Ahmari made just one convert, then he won the exchange. 

One is reminded of the contest between Wittgenstein and Popper where the great man (Wittgenstein, of course) asked his interlocutor to name one example of a moral law.  “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers” was Popper’s response, to which Wittgenstein threw his poker down and marched out of the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge. 

In a final repartee, it is worth noting that there are two fatal flaws to Ahmari’s argument.  First, Jesus Christ had the option of leaving behind a government as strong as the Roman Empire. Yet rather than doing this, Christ left us a Church.  If the divine sacraments are not sufficient enough to inculcate virtue, then what shabby temporal assistance does Ahmari believe grace requires? 

Second and perhaps less evident is the proposition that one ultimately cannot coerce virtue… and the integralism Ahmari seeks isn’t one that seems authentically Christian in the sense of power relations. Leviathan, yes. Constantinian? Perhaps. Christlike? I remain unconvinced.

Of course, there are several responses to my lasting embrace of that old Jeffersonian classical liberalism.  For instance, I have zero qualms about insisting that abortion should be proscribed by law and human personhood affirmed either by judicial ruling or constitutional amendment.  Yet therein lies the solution: good laws prohibit the practice moral vice and foster the freedom for moral virtue, not as a matter of positive law but as a matter of negative law. That’s an important distinction, if for no other reason than good laws are designed to punish lawbreakers and protect law-abiders — not in an attempt to mold good citizens, but to allow free citizens the liberty to choose the good and protect them when others choose evil.

Given the animosity, one wonders where to start. Yet if there is a middle ground to be discovered, perhaps the “dead consensus” writers can begin there.

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