The 13 June 2019 Catholic Herald carried a provocative article by a colleague whom I greatly respect: Matthew Schmitz. Entitled “Longing for lost worlds won’t convert America,” it roused rather conflicting feelings in me — which was very odd. Certainly, I agreed with its central premise, which I have spoken or written about for my entire career:
Converting America begins with love, not contempt. We should cherish our nation’s variegated traditions, its multi-racial people, its habits of piety and liberality. Anyone who presents America as irredeemably ‘commercial’, ‘Protestant’, ‘liberal’, or ‘decadent’ has conceded the territory for which he should contend. Those who dream of defending the Church against 20th-century Spanish anti-clericals should be equally eager to protect her rights in 21st-century America. Those who lament the fall of Austro-Hungary should also resist those who would tear apart the United States.
Moreover, I could certainly second his conclusion: “It may be easy to idealise what is unseen, but it is more important to love and cherish what stands near to hand. The attraction of lost worlds should move us to preserve and improve the world we have and may yet lose.” What then, was disturbing me?
A careful re-reading led to me to focus on this passage:
Invocations of lost worlds — medieval kingdoms, Catholic empires, homogenous working-class towns — have become the Third-Worldism of the right, a way of championing any people, any polity but our own. Nostalgia has important uses. It helps us hold up a mirror to our society’s deficiencies. But the task then is to remedy those blights, not idly long for what no longer exists and perhaps never did, while despising the reality around us. This is the vice of Lost-Worldism.
Now, to be sure, there are yet Jacobites in the British Isles, Legitimists in France, Carlists in Spain, and all sorts of Habsburg Loyalists throughout Central Europe — indeed, across the Continent of Europe, there are innumerable varieties of Catholic and other Monarchists. Minorities, certainly; but as the Bolsheviks could tell you, history is made by determined minorities. Nevertheless, these are not really the people that Matthew seems to be aiming at but rather their sympathisers in the United States.
I do understand what he means by “Lost-Worldism” — and I must confess I enjoy the Renaissance Faire. And he is right — it can be a kind of utopianism. But it reflects a deeper problem; while it is certainly wrong to say that these United States are irredeemable, it is perhaps just as wrong to say that its current parlous state is not the result of pernicious religious and political principles. In other words, where European and Latin American Catholics can indeed look back to a sort of “Golden Age” for their nations (partly illusory as all such visions must be), the American Catholic cannot.
The editors and head writers at Triumph Magazine — possibly one of the most scintillating collection of Catholic writers in America, before or since — faced this very issue. L. Brent Bozell was an aficionado of Franco, where Fritz Wilhelmsen favoured the Carlists. Gary Potter had been nurtured on l’Action Francaise and allied movements, where Farley Clinton yearned for the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Thomas Molnar was Hungarian, and so firmly Central European. They might all easily be accused of “Lost-Worldism”. With the exception of Molnar, however, they all had Midwestern backgrounds, and Clinton was the only cradle Catholic among them. Brilliant as they were, they could never adduce among themselves a specifically American Catholic vision. What they could see was that those who had tried to do so had only managed to produce the heresy of Americanism.
Indeed, this difficulty of achieving a vision that is at once truly Catholic and truly American has defeated a great many who tackled it. One can spin off a great many names of American Catholics who attempted to do so: Conde Pallen; Carol Jackson; Ed Willock; Fr. Charles Coughlin; Dorothy Day; Peter Maurin; Msgr. John Ryan; Wilfrid Beaulieu; Alcee Fortier; Pedro Villasenor; Frederick P. Kenkel; Fr. Edward Lodge Curran; Catherine de Hueck Dougherty; Patrick F. Scanlan; Msgr. Luigi Ligutti; and on and on. Much the same could be said of Catholic publications in addition to the afore-mentioned Triumph: Commonweal, Integrity, Jubilee, Ramparts, and the like. All them either withdrew into Lost-Worldism, allied with non-Catholic extremists, or accepted things as they are — none of which turned out to be workable strategies.
This problem has been apparent to the knowing for a long time. An historical figure highly regarded by both Matthew and myself is the late architect and writer, Ralph Adams Cram. Converted in Rome from New England Unitarianism, Cram became an Anglo-Catholic rather than a Roman Catholic (although an extremely Papalist one, and a co-founder of Commonweal). As a church and university architect, Cram literally left his mark across this entire country. But his efforts as a political philosopher were decidedly less successful. Back in the 1890s Cram was responsible for the founding in the Boston area of the American branch of the Society of King Charles the Martyr and the Neo-Jacobite Order of the White Rose (OWR, the lineal predecessor of today’s Royal Stuart Society). The first, of course, was a purely devotional Society; but the second advocated for the claims of the House of Stuart to the British throne. Where did that leave an American Jacobite like Cram (or Isabella Steward Gardner, who hosted the OWR’s meetings at her palatial home)?
In 1899, Cram addressed that issue in the Order’s communique:
While we owe our existence to the Order in Great Britain and are honoured in the intimate connection that exists between us, we are yet established in a distant land, surrounded by different conditions, with new problems confronting us. In the fundamental principles for the defense of which we are constituted, we are at one with the Order throughout the world: loyalty, chivalry, honour, the defence of lawful government and legitimate Princes, denial of the heresy of popular sovereignty, the upholding of the Divine source of power, belief in a monarchical system of government at having Divine sanction and as being the best guarantee of liberty; devotion to the memory of our martyred King and to the Royal House of Stuart — in all these things we must hold with the Order that gave us life, and work earnestly and loyally with it in all things. But in the matter of practical action, the action that is for today, that is taken towards the amelioration of local and contemporary conditions, here we must act as the peculiar circumstances may demand. We must give our loyal sympathy to the work of our kinsmen overseas for the defense of monarchical government throughout the world, and, if it should be so, for the restoration of the rightful line of monarchs in Great Britain; such of us as live in the territories of the British Crown on this continent must in duty and in honour hold these causes supreme, but for such as live in the Republic of the United States, these latter questions must be secondary to those that press upon us by reason of our personal allegiance.
So what was were the political objects of the American branch of the Order to be?
An hereditary monarchical government is for us an impossibility as far as many can now foresee. This fact we must recognize, and accepting it turn at once to such efforts as may result in making better that which we have. Two charges may be brought against the government of the United States. First: It is based on a false conception of the nature of power and the essence of sovereignty, and on a foolish theory of political rights. Second: It is corrupt and inefficient in its workings, demoralizing in its influence on civilization. Yet it may be so reformed as to prevent these evil results if the fundamental law is so amended as to place it on the true basis of lawful government, and the organization of the State laid out on lines harmonious with this basic principle. Such reforms are not impossible of achievement, indeed, we have but to turn to the scheme of government laid down by, perhaps, the greatest man this continent has ever known — Alexander Hamilton — to find a system that, even if it does not admit the true doctrine of the source of sovereignty, is yet based very justly upon it. Almost by accident, Hamilton’s Constitution was abandoned for the democratic follies of Jefferson, and no man can assail us if we endeavor to reorganize our government on Hamilton’s just and noble lines. Were the Hamiltonian system substituted in place of the false and inadequate Jeffersonian scheme, the second charge that may be made against our government would no longer be possible, for we should then have a system that would be stable, dignified and efficient, the “practical politician” would be eliminated, the civil service would become permanent and no longer subject to the “spoils system;” private legislation and interference in the government by a venal and incompetent Congress would cease, and in all its machinery and methods our government would not differ from that of constitutional monarchies.
Cram here echoes Matthew’s sentiments in a sense — and does a good just of doing so. But looking back at this time 37 years later in the American Mercury, Cram makes some interesting observations:
I call to mind a period, now some forty years gone, when those men with whom I was then associated were convinced monarchists, not to say Legitimists and Jacobites. This was at the very meridian of the age of Triumphant Democracy, and to none of us, I fancy, was it more than a pious aspiration; certainly we did not quite expect to be taken seriously, nor, it is hardly necessary to say, were we so taken.
He then goes on to explore the evolution of his own thought, and the changes that took place around him:
Now I frankly associate myself with those who believe that monarchy is a better system of civil government than democracy. I began to think this long ago when parliamentary governments, based on universal suffrage, seemed still to be working fairly well; I mean during the ’Nineties of the last century. Study of the theory and scheme of government became rather a cherished avocation, as soon as I got beyond the glamor of romantic monarchy. Through the framing of the American Constitution, I worked back by way of English government and the French Revolution to the Renaissance monarchies (which set me back a bit, they were so obviously out of key with the fundamental principles of justice and liberty) and so to the free kingship of the Middle Ages. Once there it did not seem necessary to go farther, for a sane model then came into view. The study of political theory in the Middle Ages, and of its practical working-out, is illuminating and, as well, a commentary on the lack of intelligence, or the deliberate propagandism of the writers on this subject in the nineteenth century.
So, one might therefore conclude, Cram over four decades abandoned his youthful pragmatism, and — he makes clear in his 1919 book Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh — opts for absolutes in Church and State in a way he simply did not when he was younger.
Whence came about this change? Well, Cram was a great friend of Henry Adams — and was in fact responsible for Adams publishing his well-known autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. A descendant of two presidents, Adams chronicled the decline (as he saw it) of American politics and culture and the rise of technology. He ended on a dismal note:
A traveller in the highways of history looked out of the club window on the turmoil of Fifth Avenue, and felt himself in Rome, under Diocletian, witnessing the anarchy, conscious of the compulsion, eager for the solution, but unable to conceive whence the next impulse was to come or how it was to act. The two-thousand-year failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway, and no Constantine the Great was in sight.
Yet where Adams saw in the Catholic past only an unrecoverable semi-utopia (as in his Mont-St.-Michael and Chartres, or the chapter in The Education of Henry Adams, “The Virgin and the Dynamo”), Cram saw a religious answer that would provide cultural and political ones as by-products. This then led him — as he has described — to re-examine his present in the light of the past. This is a important fact to keep in mind — both Adams’ despair and Cram’s hope.
That in mind, let us look at another of Matthew’s assertions:
Anyone who has had the misfortune of spending much time among brainy right-wingers will have heard someone say, ‘The only government I could support is the Habsburg Empire’, or ‘Politics has become impossible since the rise of the nation state. We must return to the reign of Louis IX’, or ‘The only worthy political venture on the continent died with the conquest of Catholic Quebec.’
Well, on the one hand, if he has heard such sentiments seriously expressed, I can see why they might annoy him. I can also see the temptation to feel that way — New France, the Old France of the Moyen-Age, and Austria-Hungary are all tangible things that really did exist once, and still can be felt to-day when you travel in those regions — and elsewhere, as the various enthusiasms of the Triumph crowd reveal. A Catholic past that was — and might yet be again — is infinitely more enticing than a possible Catholic future in a region that — as a unified nation — never had the Faith (despite those fortunate islands existing within it). However, I certainly agree with Matthew that it is the duty of every Catholic American to attempt to do just that — facing reality on its own terms.
Having said that, however, there is another variety of “Lost-Worldism” — and that is the kind that looks back to the past of the United States as some sort of Golden Age that could be recovered if only we … did what exactly? I can say from my own experience that the United States of my birth — the land of the Boy Scouts and the Elks, the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, Norman Rockwell and Irving Berlin; the land that had achieved the titanic miracle of reconciliation after the Civil War — that land is deader than Austria-Hungary (which is showing strange signs of possible recrudescence). It is one with lost Atlantis. With every Confederate monument destroyed or removed, every observance of Columbus Day altered to Indigenous People’s Day, every toppling of statues of such as Kate Smith, every LGBT history publication of the National Park Service, it recedes further into history.
Of course, having been born the day JFK was elected, my first memories are of the imposition of the Great Society. Seemingly overnight in my little tot’s vision, the world went from looking like Perry Mason to something more like Woodstock. In a word, the America of my childhood was already on its way to where we are now. So where are we to find our ideal America? The 1950s? Before FDR? Before Wilson? Before Appomattox?
Again writing in the American Mercury a year before his Monarchy article (“Back to What Constitution?”, published in December 1935). Cram asked his readers that question:
‘Back to the Constitution!’ is a mouth-filling and plausible phrase. It is an excellent campaign slogan. But what, exactly, does it mean? To what Constitution do those who use it refer: to the Fundamental Law promulgated in 1787, or to the same document as it stands today? This is a question that should be settled; for between the two documents there is very little relationship.
He goes on to illustrate the difference between two, first comparing the Founding Fathers to politicism (and declaring the few of the Founding Father were anything like modern ‘pols’) and then saying:
The Constitution of 1787 was what may be called an aristocratic-republican form of organic law with no salient democratic features. The Senate was an elective House of Lords, the members of which were chosen by the legislatures of the several states. The House of Representatives was the House of Commons chosen, as in the England of that day, by a privileged electorate. The President was a replica of the British sovereign, except that he did not occupy office by hereditary right, but was chosen by special electors: he was to hold office for four years, but it was assumed that he would be re-elected indefinitely if he gave good service.
Cram goes on to characterise the Constitution in his time:
Or is the present Constitution the document to which we are urged to return? If so, the proponents thereof can hardly call on the memory and the just fame of the Framers for support, since the Constitution of 1935 bears scant resemblance to the fruit of their labors and, as already said, runs counter to their most solemnly cherished convictions. To substantiate this statement, it is only necessary to consider separately the several Amendments, from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth, inclusive.
He then outlines the changes he believed need to be made:
Yet drastic amendment is admittedly necessary. At present the Supreme Court possesses and exercises a more than absolute veto of legislation, which somehow seems inconsistent with the Framers’ idea of the division of governmental powers. The Sixteenth Amendment has given Congress such exorbitant, even extortionate powers over the personal property of individual citizens and corporations that there is no impediment to its becoming confiscatory. Recent experience would indicate that some curb should be effected at this point. The same experience would lead to a belief that nullification of the Twelfth Amendment (at least in intent) should also be rectified, with the election of the President removed from popular (ie., partisan) control, while in the interests of democracy and sound principle the Seventeenth Amendment should be abrogated and the choice of senators either restored to the state legislatures or in some other way completely differentiated from the manner in which elections are carried out in the case of the House of Representatives. Finally, in one way or another, the electoral franchise must be measurably restricted and the fundamental principle re-established that suffrage is a privilege and not a right inherent in man by virtue of his inclusion in that debatable genus, Homo sapiens.
As other of his book-length writings reveal, Cram would become ever more skeptical of whether the existing American system could be saved from itself — and ever more convinced though only turning to that which had built Western Civilisation in the first place could it be saved from ultimate collapse. In this he came to a similar conclusion as another (albeit a century earlier) New England Catholic convert born Unitarian — Orestes Brownson.
In his 1845 essay, “Catholicity Essential for Popular Liberty,” Brownson argued as Cram did that the Constitution originally set up an aristocratic republic that for good or ill had “degenerated” into a democracy. He held further that only conversion of the American people to the Faith would allow them and their institutions to avoid become the sport of demagogues and criminals. It did not happen, of course, because Catholic Americans were willing to forfeit any sort of large scale evangelisation for a “place at the table,” and the hope that “one of our own” would one day be president. Almost from the day that happened (as mentioned, my birthday), the American Catholicism we had known — the Church of Fulton Sheen and Bing Crosby, began to implode, and has been in freefall ever since, as the career of “Uncle Ted” McCarrick shows. Even envisioning a Church capable of converting someone begins to feel like another kind of “Lost-Worldism.”
The sad truth is that that label may be easily applied to anyone who hopes for better than we have in either Church or State. While I could not agree more that “[t]he attraction of lost worlds should move us to preserve and improve the world we have and may yet lose,” I must add two caveats: a great deal of what we think we have is already gone; if we ever do succeed in converting America, whatever is left will be transformed into something as radically different from what we have as the seat of the Popes was from Ancient Rome.
It is impossible to guess what that shall be like (though my thoughts do stray to A Canticle for Leibowitz). But whether these United States convert and survive in some transformed manner, or collapse of their own sinful weight, one day soon this present time shall be a Lost World.