Thomas Molnar (1921-2010) was a Hungarian-born philosopher, a professor at Brooklyn College, a friend of Russell Kirk, and the author of more than forty books, including Politics and the State: The Catholic View, originally published in 1980 by Franciscan Herald Press. In 2018, that work was reissued by Cluny in the edition under review herein: an affordable softcover volume titled The Church and the State, published with ecclesiastical permission and with the subtitle The Catholic Tradition as an Integral Element of Western Political Thought. The work is divided into a brief preface, an expansive introduction, and five chapters.
The preface begins by identifying a philosophical circumstance peculiar to American political thought. Molnar argues that Americans are reliant upon manifest pragmatism to determine the range of their political theory, as a consequence of their scepticism regarding such theories. Consequently, in America, there is a widespread acceptance (or quasi-acceptance) of only four conservative approaches to political theory: one derived from interpretations of The Federalist, one based upon the theories of Leo Strauss, one based upon the theories of Eric Voegelin, and a half-respectable, somewhat un-American one in the form of Marxism. The last of these, Molnar observes, “in spite of the popularity of its advocates in some academic circles, has not entered the mainstream of American political thought”—a statement that still rings true today, albeit less certainly than when it was originally published in 1980, now that congress finds itself beleaguered by a squad of far-left Marxists.
This narrow range of theoretical approaches poses a problem because, Molnar argues, the options on offer all suffer from the same shortcoming: a focus on the ancient world of Greek and Roman philosophy. Moreover, both Strauss and Voegelin focus on theoretical approaches, dealing with abstracts and absolutes rather than the experiential and practical results of their theories. In contrast to these approaches, Molnar offers the Catholic tradition “of theory and practice, intermingled,” as one which has been “tested in the fire of changing historical configurations,” from Rome to the present. The breadth of experience and adaptation, and its consequent realism, makes the Catholic tradition attractive, especially because “it proposes no political ideology or myth and recommends no political regime.” Perhaps for these reasons, “it is not only shunned in our public and academic discourse, it is presented with a one-sided bias by representatives of the three schools previously mentioned,” an assessment which is nearly as true today, given recent attempts to discredit the Catholic tradition by resorting to grotesque caricatures and ludicrous graphs that purport to quantify the precise efficacy of receiving communion.
In his introduction, Molnar identifies two primary avenues of consideration: first, with regard to the permanence of politics, and second with regard to the changes that take place, which follow a course established by human “lives and aspirations.” Both points of this argumentative fork are directed at the struggle of ordinary people to make sense of political theory, leading to their conclusion that politics is chaotic, inherently disordered, and beyond understanding, which in turn “discourages normal participation in politics or, worse, encourages the wrong participation.” In both directions, Molnar is on firm ground when he observes that, “In spite of the present vogue of general protest against the state, society, family, law, and institutions of all kinds, historically this protest has no basis: all periods knew them and cultivated them.”
This identification of an underlying order is essential for Molnar’s depiction of the Catholic political tradition. The book’s twofold principle is that “In this imperfect world, changes and even upheaval are normal occurrences, but that, throughout the apparent chaos, the constants may be ascertained,” and, “The Christian possesses an incomparable compass in the midst of tumult: his understanding inspired by faith and doctrine.” Consequently, “There is a Christian concept of politics and the state which is not the same as a necessarily right action by all Christians.”
American Catholics are, in particular, singled out as those who should consider these arguments. In the first place, Molnar notes that “The United States made a secular dogma of the separation of state and church(es) before other nations of the West” and that it did so for pragmatic, historical reasons related to the role of religion in the colonies. With individual states having different established or dominant religions, it was a political necessity to avoid establishing any one of them. Moreover, “A ‘secular religion’ was simply not taken into consideration as a probability, perhaps because Americans have been presumptuous enough to think that such a thing ‘cannot happen here,’ that thing being ‘semi-official but powerfully dictating systems of belief.’”
These observations seem especially pertinent now, at a point when the secular religion of DEI and wokeness has indisputably occupied a role of seductive and compelling power in the United States. Molnar’s association of the posited secular religion with the ‘cult of the Party’ present in other countries is also a useful observation, for the modern-day secular religion of the United States—now spreading elsewhere—is likewise a party-aligned movement in all but name. Moreover, the “contemporary anarchistic protest against the state and institutions” is likewise a politically aligned endeavour, a paradox which Molnar readily grasps when he remarks, “It is just as probable that those who launch these slogans aspire to an even greater state power, not in the hands of the ‘bourgeoisie’ but in the hands of the socialist state, conceived as a mild, beneficent, and tolerant fraternity.”
It is the power dynamic between the individual and the state, however conceived, which occupies the first chapter, as it occupied the ancient Greeks. Molnar begins with their debate about who should rule the polis: the aristoi, the oligarchs, or the demos. He observes that “The great political leaders and thinkers envisaged a mixed regime,” before setting out to describe the means by which the Greek, Hebrew, and Roman traditions contributed to answering this question, and eventually providing the foundation for Augustinian thought as exemplified in The City of God. Molnar notes that the medieval interpretation of Augustine, which was not necessarily Augustine’s own view, portrayed the earthly state as almost entirely evil, and imagined Christian life as an alternative to life within the state (if, indeed, such a thing is possible), for Christian life “even if it is powerless here below to secure peace and a God-fearing government, ensures the peace of the Christian’s soul.” Hence, in this apolitical interpretation of Augustinian thought, “Men who live in grace do not need state and government.”
Thus the Christian Middle Ages laboured under new kinds of challenges: in the place of a state within which the temporal and sacred were united, now the two existed as separate, but both divinely-inspired, spheres. This development set the stage for conflicts between the two, and for opportunistic manoeuvring by parties who sought to align themselves with one or to play one against the other. By the 13th century, Molnar argues, the temporarily ascendent power of the Church was being checked by developments inside of mendicant orders, and by a theory advanced by William Ockham, amongst others, that the secular power need not subordinate itself to the spiritual power. According to Molnar, the sharpest end to these arguments came in the form of Marsilius of Padua and his radical treatise, Defensor Paris, which argued that “The ‘peace’ that must be defended is that of the entire Christian community, threatened by the Church’s claim to spiritual authority.” Molnar is sympathetic to the motives behind some of these arguments, even as he deplores the ends to which they were eventually turned:
Such theses were put forward, as we said, by the emperors’ and kings’ lawyers, partly to safeguard the secular ruler’s theoretical power base. In this endeavor, the lawyers were justified. But with Marsilius and others who came later, the legitimate self-defense of the secular ruler against ecclesiastical encroachment degenerated into an ideology, a radical affirmation of a cause and an enterprise of demolition of the other cause.
The kings and emperors whose lawyers were successful in these endeavours—and Molnar is right in asserting that they were by and large successful—found themselves facing a dilemma: having justified the separation of the spiritual from the state, they realised that the spiritual had a certain necessity. Molnar observes that “No community can stand unless the spiritual element (which is also the civilising element) is integrated with its existence and structure.” Moreover, “The secular state … is able to generate only an ersatz spirituality (ideology), which works not at its preservation but at its destruction.” Consequently, such rulers were only capable of replacing the excised spiritual element with something that would seek the destruction of the state itself. The modern-day application here is not lost on Molnar, who notes that it applies “to the medieval or the modern, the liberal or the Marxist.” However, it may be still more obvious to present-day readers who have an everyday familiarity with a level of American social disorder and degeneration that would have been unimaginable in 1980.
Molnar argues that, during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the Renaissance-derived exaltation of rational man led people like Fichte and Rousseau to engage in a political discourse that “proposes as its objective the abolition of politics, since neither the ‘great souls’ of German idealism nor Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ needed it,” leading to a political literature that was “utopian literature with an activist bent.” The result was totalitarianism, which Tocqueville later named the ‘Tutelary State.’ Molnar further argues that liberalism, which appears to offer a response to such a programme, “resembles, in fact, the other ideologies, inasmuch as liberalism also regards the state as something close to an evil concentration of power, to be at all times watched and, if possible, reduced.”
Molnar accounts for the popularity of liberalism, but concludes that “In a liberal regime, all sorts of contradictions arise, though they are masked for a long time by the possibilities that liberalism offers to individual energy and to a nation’s expansionist spirit.” The reader may well understand, then, the unique power of the American experiment to cover those contradictions. The liberal regime, and its proponents, “cannot comprehend its own fallacy because the worldview it professes does not recognize anything above the individual, except ‘culture’ and ‘values,’ which are nothing but expressions of individual tastes and preferences.” After addressing liberalism, Molnar turns to Hegel and Marx, prefacing his full argument with a brief account of Marxism’s unique features:
The Christian critique, addressed to Marx, is then also the critique addressed to Hegel but aggravated by the special features of Marxism. Some of these features are: the materialist ontology; man is a product of nature, to whose materiality he is bound to return; the design to create a new man, even more harmonious with matter; the concept of conflict and struggle as a result of class differences; the determination of mind, morality, art, and convictions by material conditions and membership in a class; and so on.
Molnar replies to this set of conditions by noting that “These are the philosophical foundations for a political thought which can only be called extremely elementary.” He sets about categorically disassembling the principles of Marxism and notes that any political entity that was to rest upon its precepts would necessarily incline towards becoming extremely exploitative and unequal in practice, as history has validated in each and every instantiation.
“Hegel held that morality, like religion, is a subjective feeling,” Molnar observes, but the Catholic worldview is vitally different. In the Catholic tradition, “The human being possesses the ability to acquire natural knowledge of morality; he does not need the state to reveal it to him. This is genuine intellectual knowledge, resulting from true insight into an intelligible object, the good.” Because that conception emanates from God’s unchanging mind, it is neither arbitrary nor capricious, unlike the ‘good’ arrived at by a state or by the Party. Moreover, because the state is necessary—and, as such, communities cannot long endure without it or outside of it—it must acknowledge and respect the existence of the real good, rather than seek to supplant the good with its own preferences, proffered as if those were the good. Here, as in so many places elsewhere in his argument, Molnar seems to identify the blights that afflict our particular political moment.
The Church and the State is carefully argued and yet readily intelligible. Throughout its 178 pages, Molnar provides historical contexts, philosophical diagnoses, and logical extrapolation of abstract theories which are often quite complex in their modern applications. Persuasive in its presentation of the historical Catholic tradition, it deserves a place on the shelf of anyone who claims an interest in political thought, especially conservatives who wish to critique modern political trends without falling into the impoverished three ways identified in Molnar’s preface. The world seems now to need Molnar’s political insight more than during the Cold War, when his book was first published. Hence we may express gratitude that, despite originating in those last decades of the 20th century, The Church and the State seems as though it were written with the challenges of the present day firmly in mind: timeless wisdom, indeed.