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The Remnant and Common Opinion

From Vatican II to the Iraq War the Remnant has followed

the Church, not the public opinion weather vane.

Christopher A. Ferrara POSTED: Monday June 28, 2010

( I have been writing for The Remnant since 1998, when Mike Matt took notice of an essay I had written for The Latin Mass magazine (“Viruses in the Body of Christ”) and invited me to come aboard, first as a guest columnist and then as a regular. I have been privileged to publish hundreds of pieces for “the little newspaper that could” over the past twelve very eventful years for the Church and the world. It is a privilege to appear on these pages precisely because The Remnant is not popular. It is not popular, of course, because it defends the Catholic vision of life, which the “modern world” has anathematized in its relentless attack on the good, the true and the beautiful in the name of political and economic “liberty.” This fact about The Remnant suggests to me the following rather loosely associated thoughts concerning what Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, called “common opinion.”

One of the great triumphs of Liberty has been to induce the masses, including their most prominent “conservative” spokesmen, to confine themselves to the limits of common opinion in public discourse. Writing about the state of American democracy when James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” was still alive, Tocqueville observed: “Not only is common opinion the sole guide that remains for individual reason among democratic peoples; but it has an infinitely greater power among those peoples than any other.” The paradoxical outcome was that “[t]he same equality which makes him [a citizen] independent of each fellow citizen leaves him isolated and defenseless before the action of the greatest number.”

Hence, Tocqueville concluded: “I do not know of any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.” What did Tocqueville mean by this affirmation, which will come as a rude shock to non-Remnant-reading Americans, who consider themselves the blessed beneficiaries of a “religious freedom” and “freedom of speech” unequalled in the history of the world? Tocqueville explained: “In the heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single element of force and success, and nothing outside it.” That single power is the power of the majority, imposing common opinion on dissenters.

In America, Tocqueville explained, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them.” The writer who is so bold as to offend common opinion will not be subjected to an auto-da-fé or other physical restraint, but he will most certainly be “the butt of mortifications of all kinds and of persecutions every day.” Tocqueville described the sorry lot of anyone who—then, as now—sinned against political correctness by publishing the wrong ideas:

A political career is closed to him; he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any, now that he has uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, not having his courage, move silently away.

The great irony Tocqueville remarked is that even under the worst of the so-called absolute monarchs “despotism struck the body crudely, so as to reach the soul; and the soul, escaping from those blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul.” The majority says to its victims: “Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.” And once the sentence has been passed, “When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure; and those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you.” And that, we know, is what Catholics above all can expect if they dare to step outside the circle of common opinion for the sake of Christ and His Church: “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”

 The Remnant versus the “Conservative” Drones

Today, even Tocqueville would be appalled to see how the “formidable circle around thought” he observed in America encompasses a vast range of acceptably liberal opinions, some denominated “conservative,” while excluding moral truths rooted in the divine and natural law and once viewed as givens even by Protestants in America, who had not yet exhausted quite all the spiritual capital they had inherited from their despised Catholic ancestors. Among these now-excluded principles are the absolute indissolubility of marriage, the evil of contraception and sodomy, and the status of abortion as murder pure and simple, never permissible under any circumstances.  To advocate any of these principles today in public life is to step outside the circle of common opinion, suffering the consequences of having revealed oneself as an “extremist” and perhaps even a crypto-theocrat. Today’s “conservatism” is primarily fiscal and procedural, and “conservatives” have run away from a defense of moral principles considered self-evident or at least above open criticism in the 19th and even the early 20th century, although they might still hold those principles themselves as a matter of “personal” morality. Paradoxically, the circle around thought has expanded and contracted at the same time.

 The problem runs much deeper, however, than a craven failure to defend particular moral principles in public life. The Age of Liberty in which we live is afflicted by an ever-deepening institutionalized amnesia concerning the nature and eternal destiny of man, imposed upon us by the oligarchs of government, business and finance who rule the post-Christian Western world—and all the rest of the world, for that matter. The more of the truth about man and his destiny a journalist or author proclaims—that is, the greater the threat he poses to the tranquility of the collective amnesia—the less popular he can expect to be. Conversely, the more popular he wishes to be, the more of the truth he will have to pass over in silence as he climbs toward the vertices of public life that the oligarchs control. And, if he is a Catholic, should he finally reach the top he will have tacitly agreed to be quiet concerning just about everything that really distinguishes him from his fellow celebrities who do not even believe in God, much less Christ and the Church. He will have consented to operate within the range of public opinion the oligarchs of Liberty allow to him: from liberal to less liberal.

To say, for example, that man has “God-given rights” is still within the permissible limits of common opinion, for the God who gave man his rights in the distant past, but hasn’t been seen or heard from since, is a deity suitably disengaged from the politics of Liberty and the business of its oligarchs. But to say that there is a living and ever-present God who has revealed Himself in the flesh and given us His law, a law that imposes duties not only on the individual but also on the State, is a one-way ticket on a bullet train back to oblivion.  You want to be famous?  Shut up about man’s eternal destiny and the law of the living God.  That’s the deal.  Take it or leave it.

What distinguishes The Remnant from the secular press and even most “mainstream” Catholic publications is precisely its steadfast editorial refusal to adapt itself, even slightly, to common opinion in order to gain in popularity. For The Remnant recognizes that it is common opinion, both “conservative” and liberal, that has forged the manacles by which an entire civilization has been reduced to a hive of easily managed drones who have agreed that the truths of revelation are a private affair that has nothing to do with public life.  Some of these drones actually think they are radical opponents of the oligarchs when they call for such daring assaults upon the hive as an audit of the Federal Reserve System, or a return to the gold standard, or the “nullification” of federal laws by the states.

The Latest Buzz from the “Conservative” Drones:“Nullification”

Speaking of nullification, which federal laws would be subject to it, and under what moral standard?  No standard, apparently, other than the same old majority opinion. Which is why “nullification” was the theory behind the Jim Crow laws of the southern states, purporting to “nullify” the Fourteenth Amendment by such righteous prescriptions as separate drinking foundations for those disgusting Negroes. Then there was the attempt by Virginia and Kentucky, in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, to assert “nullification” of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and South Carolina’s attempt to “nullify” the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832. This was followed by the southern states’ protest against the purported nullification of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 by northern states, which the southern states condemned as a breach of the Constitutional compact and thus grounds for seceding from the Union. Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Nullification himself, who authored the Kentucky Resolutions anonymously—showing just how much confidence he had in his position—had earlier endorsed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 as a valid exercise of federal power in defense of the property right in slaves, including his slaves, as secured by the Constitution (Article IV, § 2, Clause 2) prior to the Thirteenth Amendment.

First-rank American historians such as Samuel Eliot Morison have long remarked the laughable hypocrisy of the “nullification” game.  As the southern states themselves complained when it suited their purposes, the Constitution says nothing about “nullification.” On the contrary, it declares (Article VI, Clause 2) that the Constitution and federal statutes enacted pursuant to it as interpreted by the Supreme Court (Article III), such as the Fugitive Slave Law, are the “supreme law of the land.”  The “nullification” ploy tries to undo, on a conveniently selective basis, what the Framers did. But the anti-Federalists were right from the beginning: Madison and the other delegates in that locked room in Philadelphia staged a coup d’etat by junking the Articles of Confederation and creating a new and powerful federal government with broad powers today’s “conservatives” like to pretend were “strictly limited.”  Please.  It hardly required a prophet to see, as Patrick Henry did, that the Constitution on its face was a massive power grab.  That is why he decried the “tyranny of Philadelphia” and refused to attend the Constitutional Convention. (Yes, of course we Catholics can swear an oath to the Constitution in good conscience, for our religion teaches respect for constituted authority, even the authority of pagan Roman emperors, in all things except sin.)

And how is it that we are now hearing “nullification” noises concerning only such pocketbook issues as the admittedly outrageous federal mandate to buy health insurance under Obamacare, rather than the infinitely more outrageous Supreme Court death warrant for children in the womb? Answer: the common opinion of the conservative drones does not countenance anything so radical as state nullification of Roe. Yet Roe is patently null and void on moral grounds, without need of a “nullification” gimmick that would be just another extension of mass democracy unrestrained by the objective moral order. But then, the conservative drones will not advocate defying the federal government on the basis of the moral law. They rely instead on Jeffersonian liberalism, which is within the circle of acceptable common opinion: let the people decide which federal laws they will obey. Under that principle, if the Supreme Court someday overruled Roe and held that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid abortion as a deprivation of life without due process of law, the majority in a liberal state such as Massachusetts could “nullify” that decision as unconstitutional! And so it goes in the politics of the post-Christian West.

This nullification business, the latest “conservative” product in Liberty’s supermarket of liberal ideas some of which are labeled “Certified Jeffersonian,” is all about money and “personal autonomy.” On those things all “conservatives” can agree, and the oligarchs of Liberty will tolerate the conservative drones having their fun at the Freedom Concert with the help of Ted Nugent’s guitar riffs, the Charlie Daniels Band and what’s left of Lynyrd Skynyrd. And why not let the conservative drones stimulate the economy by selling and buying their books and all those nifty items at the Freedom Store? Nothing says freedom like a tee shirt, a poncho or a ball cap with FREEDOM CONCERT 2010® emblazoned on it. Shop till you drop; scream yourselves hoarse. Make Hannity and the rest of the Tea Party ringleaders richer than rich.

What is more, the conservative drones can even be allowed to repeal Obamacare, should they be able to muster enough votes. Just so long as they accept that the America of today must always be more liberal in principle than the America of yesterday, and less liberal than the America of tomorrow. Just so long as they say nothing about God, His law, or His judgment. Just so long as they stick to common opinion. Then they can play the game as long as they wish, and even make a lot of money at it. Because in the end, the house wins and they lose.  And we all lose.

Catholics know that the root cause of the social crisis of our time is Western’s man rebellion against the law of the Gospel, including the destruction of the family through divorce and contraception. The simple truth, repeated by Pope after Pope in a stack of prophetic encyclicals, is that our civilization is “tottering to its fall,” as Pius XI put it, on account of its collective apostasy. As I argue in The Church and the Libertarian, the end of the influence of sanctifying grace on the conduct of human affairs has meant the loss of the entire tradition of the virtues in the life of the State, and it is useless to speak of “freedom” as the answer to the crisis without addressing its root in apostasy and the loss of grace.  There is no freedom but the freedom of the truth that makes us free. That is why even in the midst of the colossal failure of the post-Vatican II “dialogue with the world,” Pope Benedict, writing in Caritas in Veritate, still proclaims “the indispensable importance of the Gospel for building a society according to freedom and justice,” declares that all men are “called to make themselves instruments of grace,” and defends, in line with all his pre-conciliar predecessors, “the Church’s social teaching, which is… the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society.”

But the law of the Gospel and the role of divine grace in saving our civilization are the last things one will mention if he seeks prominence on the American scene.  A Catholic aiming to be a popular political or social commentator in America must be prepared never to mention the very thing that is fatally wrong with the post-Christian Western world.  He must be willing to confine himself to dispensing Band Aids for terminal social cancer. One can sell millions of Band Aids, as the ringleaders of the “Tea Party” movement demonstrate with their immensely successful mass marketing of political nostrums to legions of increasingly frightened people desperately seeking the answers that only Christ and the Church can give them.  But there are no gravy trains leaving the station for anyone (including the Pope) who is willing to prescribe the one and only cure. 

The situation today is rather different from the one Tocqueville chronicled. Europe and Canada have raced ahead of America in following the logic of Liberty to its inevitable conclusion: the formal punishment of politically incorrect speech by civil and penal law. How prescient it was for Jacques Maritain to argue, in all seriousness, that “in a lay society of free men the heretic is the breaker of ‘the common democratic beliefs and practices’” and that “the democratic community should defend itself against him, by keeping him out of its leadership, through the power of a strong and informed public opinion, and even by handing him over to justice when his activity endangers the security of the state…” (The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, p. 137.)

In America, for the moment, it is still possible to publish without legal penalty opinions that transgress the dogmas of Liberty and even argue for overturning them, as The Remnant does. But the penalty exacted by public opinion is far more onerous today than in Tocqueville’s time, given a network of mass media whose thundering, ubiquitous and instantaneous objurgation of heresy Tocqueville could scarcely have imagined.  So, he who hopes for a career in public life, which involves remaining firmly within the realm of common opinion, would be well advised not to appear on these pages. And he who has appeared on them, but seeks advancement on the national scene, would be well advised to repudiate all ties to The Remnant and the Roman Catholic traditionalist movement it represents. And at least one former Remnant columnist (we all know who) has done just that, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reported with smug satisfaction over the effectiveness of its investigation of The Remnant as a “hate group.”

Revisiting Some Issues

Having written all this, it occurs to me that an astute reader might object that The Remnant itself followed common opinion in advocating a vote for McCain-Palin in the last election. I myself even argued that such a vote was morally obligatory.  But here, as with all the other issues it addresses, The Remnant followed Catholic teaching, not common opinion, even if application of the teaching to this particular case was entirely debatable.  The Church has always taught that Catholics living in a democracy have a duty to vote in order to avert grave harm to the common good. Hence in 1948 Pius XII bound Catholics under pain of mortal sin to vote against the Communists in the Italian election of that year, even though the opposition candidates were hardly orthodox Catholic statesmen. The Pope declared that it would be “a grave sin, a mortal offense” [AAS 40 (1948), 119] to abstain from that election.  

In The Remnant’s view, then, the Presidential election of 2008 presented such a scenario, even if we can all agree that the Republicans are a joke—Palin included, mea culpa—and that the election (as do all American elections) presented a choice between the lesser of two evils.  But so did the Italian election of 1948. Again, application of Catholic teaching here is debatable, but it was not common opinion, but rather Catholic teaching, that motivated the position we took: that the election of McCain-Palin would (if only for a time) avert greater harm to the common good. It seemed to us that America would be better off with Pat Buchanan, Bill Donohue and Focus on the Family exerting influence over the White House than Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the Southern Poverty Law Center; that despite their shortcomings, we’d also take a Roberts or an Alito over a Sotomayor or a Kagan on the U.S. Supreme Court any day of the week. From a traditional Catholic perspective, McCain-Palin were a dismal duo, and we never contended otherwise. But it seemed clear to us that this dismal duo would at least have slowed down America’s freefall into the hell that Obama and his minions are now preparing in haste, while they still hold power.

Were we wrong?  Consider that a year ago one objector wrote to The Remnant to complain: “there is absolutely no reason to think that a Republican government would have slowed the revolution to any degree…” Absolutely no reason? To any degree?  Does anyone still believe this after eighteen months of the Obama administration? First of all, the very issues that now agitate the Tea Partiers and the nullification crowd would not even be issues had Obama been defeated. Moreover, the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan continue as before, while the Afghanistan debacle has only gotten worse, so the argument that Obama, unlike McCain, would at least end the war is now shown to be the canard The Remnant argued it was before the election. The federal government will be funding abortion again through Obamacare, and has already resumed that funding within the U.S. military. Sotomayor is on the Supreme Court, with the noxious Kagan soon to follow. The federal deficit created by the Democrat Congress will soon exceed the GDP—the sign of a nation in its economic death throes. And, as this article appears, Congress is poised to pass both the DISCLOSE Act, which neutralizes grassroots political opposition by imposing chilling disclosure requirements on small advocacy groups while exempting all the big ones, and the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act (PCNAA), which will give Obama “emergency powers” to commandeer the Internet—an “Internet kill switch,” as critics are calling it.  Even the ACLU is alarmed by the DISCLOSE Act and is calling upon the Senate (the House has already passed it) to defeat the bill. 

And what about the Iraq War? When common opinion was screaming “Disarm Hussein!” and “support our troops!” The Remnant, following not common opinion but Catholic teaching, was arguing that Bush’s war did not meet the Church’s just war criteria, that no weapons of mass destruction would be found, that the war Bush just had to have would turn into a pointless quagmire claiming thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, fanning Muslim hatred of America across the world, that a fundamentalist Shiite regime would replace the Hussein regime, and that Iraqi Catholics and other Christians would be driven from the country.  Right on all counts. 

Does any Catholic still believe the Iraq War is some sort of Christian crusade against the evil of Islam?  Go watch minute 26, hour 8 of the PBS documentary on life aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz during its deployment to Iraq and elsewhere. A young petty officer is asked whether he viewed the Iraq War as a Christian crusade. His answer says it all: “Do I think we’re imposing Christianity into the Middle East or anything like that? No, I don’t. I think we’re imposing our culture more, which incorporates Christianity, but incorporates McDonald’s a little bit more.” The Iraq War is no crusade for Jesus Christ; it is a crusade for Ronald McDonald. According to the McDonald’s website, “We have not set a firm date for the development of McDonald’s restaurants in Iraq. Eventually we will take steps to open McDonald’s restaurants in Iraq… Click here to apply for a franchise in Iraq.” There may be no Christians left in Iraq thanks to this “Christian crusade,” but there will be Happy Meals.  Mission accomplished. 

Are any of the super patriots who cancelled their subscriptions in a huff over the war back in 2003—about a thousand, Mike Matt tells me—still prepared to defend “Operation Iraqi Freedom” today now that Commander-in-Chief Obama is in charge? Come forward, please, and explain yourselves! What, no takers? Well then, how about sending in a written apology to the Editor, along with your new subscription order?


Long before I came aboard, The Remnant was navigating successfully through the twin tempests of the crisis in our Church and the crisis in our civilization, guided solely by the polestar of Catholic teaching.  I am not saying that its navigation has been perfect at all times.  What I am saying is this: The Remnant has never allowed itself to be guided by the drunken sailors who take over the ship of state in Plato’s famous allegory of democracy in The Republic.  Unlike the American ship of state, with its “conservative” and liberal contenders for the wheel, the Good Ship Remnant has always stayed away from the deadly shallows of common opinion. It will not go there for money, for fame, or even to please its own subscribers. That kind of integrity is almost impossible to find in the realm of journalism today.  And I am proud that The Remnant will let me be a part of it.

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