Our Enemy Is Turned Into a Friend

At the end of his “Biglietto Speech,” the freshly-minted Cardinal Newman famously expressed confidence that despite the seemingly irresistible spread of theological and political liberalism in his lifetime, which might “be the ruin of many souls,” Providence would ensure that the Church as a whole would ultimately prevail against the “great apostasia.” The only question was how:

What is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.

We may distinguish here two theses about the relationship between liberalism and Catholicism, one of which has been explored in more recent thinking, one of which has not been discussed recently, as far as I am aware. To find intimations of the second thesis, we have to return not only to Newman, but also to de Maistre and other 19th-century Catholic critics of liberalism. The theses are as follows:

  1. Liberalism is self-undermining—that by internal causal processes it generates forces that destabilize its own supremacy and, in the extreme, depose and even destroy it. This corresponds to Newman’s “our enemy falls to pieces of himself.”
  2. Liberalism, although indisputably error in itself, is actually the very means by which Providence benefits the Church and helps it to fulfill its mission in history. I will call this “liberalism as a felix culpa,” locating it in the tradition of providentialist theory that sees either the Fall itself, or particular heresies and crimes in history, as means by which grace more abounds, such that Providence actually turns error into blessings that could not have come about absent the error.

In this way, Providence fulfills de Maistre’s profound definition as “that for which even obstacles are means.”[1] To this idea corresponds Newman’s other surprising possibilities, in which “our enemy is turned into a friend” or that “he does just so much as is beneficial, and is then removed.”

As we will see, Newman distinctly held a felix culpa view of liberalism, according to which theological liberalism, although a grave error, is itself an indispensable part of the developing process by which Providence both constrains the reason for the sake of reason’s own well-being, and also advances the infallible truths of dogma proclaimed by the Church.

It is necessary to begin with some general remarks on the felix culpa, both as a global claim about salvation history and in illustrative local applications. Next, we will consider the two distinct critiques of liberalism and locate Newman’s felix culpa theory against the backdrop of Catholic critiques of liberalism after 1789. Finally, we will focus on Newman’s own major example, arguably the master motif of his thought: the conflict between infallibility and reason, between authority and private judgment.

The Felix Culpa Tradition

The global version of the felix culpa should be distinguished from local applications and variants. In its largest sense, the felix culpa is a counterfactual theological claim about the whole of salvation history, according to which man's Fall through disobedience to God was not merely a fault but a “happy fault.” God in his providence, by means of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, brought forth out of the wreckage of the Fall a redeemed creation, one that, crucially, is greater still than the old. Absent the Fall, the summit of felicity might never have been attained.

This is not obviously good theology. One might argue, without logical error, that the counterfactual is incompletely specified. Unfallen man, that is, might have enjoyed felicities unimaginable to us, and greater still even than those enjoyed by redeemed man. The Tradition is otherwise, however, and holds with Augustine in the Enchiridion that “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” As Aquinas puts it (ST, p. 3, q. 1, a. 3 ad 3):

For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Romans 5:20): “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.” Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: “O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!”

By contrast, local variants of the felix culpa are arguments about the effect that particular historical developments have in particular places, rather than the whole of salvation history. The scriptural examples are familiar (See: Gen 45:5; Esth 4:14; Rom 8:28; et al.); let me offer instead some less familiar examples from early-modern theorists.

In response to the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Pedro de Ribadeneira argued that God allowed heresy to flourish so that his glory might all the more abound. “[God’s] power was glorified in the {eventual, long-run} victory over it; his wisdom was manifested in that he raised up teachers to refute the heretics; his goodness was revealed in that he inspired men to die for the faith; [and] the presence of heresy was a test of faith.”[2]

Bishop Bossuet argued that the Roman Empire served as an indispensable means for the propagation of the Gospel, in two ways—both as creator of the Pax Romana, and also as persecutor of Christians:

The commerce of many different nations, formerly strangers to one another, and afterwards united under the Roman dominion, was one of the most powerful means that providence made use of for the propagation of the Gospel. If the same Roman empire persecuted for the space of three hundred years that new people, which was growing on all hands within its compass, that persecution confirmed the Christian church, and made her glory shine forth conspicuous together with her faith and patience.[3]

Of these two points, only the second is a felix culpa argument. The second point is hardly original to Bossuet, of course; as Aquinas put it, “there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution” (ST, p. 1, q. 22, a. 2 ad 2).

The liberal and Protestant historian Herbert Butterfield actually argued that the (putative) horrors of the Wars of Religion were a felix culpa by which Providence prepared men’s minds for liberalism:

Once the medieval Church had been split by the Reformation, the wars of Protestants and Catholics, precisely because they were so horrible, led to a different set of conditions, and brought about a new order which the modern world, from a certain point of view, would regard as superior, in that it was based on toleration. Initially neither party wanted toleration nor even conceived it as an ideal; but reflecting on that tragedy and making a virtue of necessity, men in the after-period established toleration, and came to rejoice in—came, not merely to recognize it as the best thing Providence could arrange in a world of religious differences, but even to be glad that a religious schism had taken place to make such a benefit possible (emphasis added).[4]

We should be clear that although the global and local variants have a common conceptual structure, turning on counterfactual claims, they hardly entail one another. Even if one believes that salvation history overall has a felix culpa structure, it would be a rank instance of the fallacy of division to think that any particular historical episode itself conduces to the overall felix culpa path of that history. The latter may or may not be true, but would be true, if at all, for separate reasons.

Liberalism and its Critics

The felix culpa will now be situated in the broader context of critiques of liberalism, with special attention to Catholic critiques. Many, both Catholic and otherwise, have argued that liberalism in some way undermines itself. I need not rehearse the whole history of this class of argument; a few landmarks will have to suffice. As to theological liberalism, Newman begins from the premise that “false liberty of thought”—that is, reason applied to the subject matter of Revelation, the great category mistake of the fallen reason in Newman’s thought—is not only an error, but a suicidal error, in which reason falls into an all-pervading skepticism, including skepticism about its own powers, and thereby immolates itself.

As to economic liberalism, there is Schumpeter’s idea that capitalism undermines itself by generating an intellectual class that is relentlessly hostile to capitalism[5]; Carl Schmitt’s thesis that “A society built exclusively on progressive technology would thus be nothing but revolutionary; but it would soon destroy itself and its technology”[6]; and the inquiry, pursued most famously by Kenneth Arrow and Albert Hirschman, whether markets undermine themselves by depleting the pre-liberal social and moral capital on which the efficient functioning of markets depend.

As to political liberalism, there is a large literature adumbrating, in one form or another, famous words spoken to Napoleon by the poet François Andrieux: “You can lean only on what offers resistance.”[7] Political liberalism, on this account, relentlessly undermines the non-liberal institutions in civil society—family, community, and church—that are necessary to buttress the liberal regime itself.

So much for the self-undermining thesis. An entirely distinct thesis is that liberalism, although an error or indeed a heresy taken in itself, works providentially over the long run to benefit the Church and the divine order of society that it promotes. These two theses are logically compatible, but it is important that the first does not entail the second. It is perfectly possible to hold that liberalism eventually undermines itself while counting its rise and spread, while it lasts, as a pure cost—a pure deviation from Catholic truth that, as Newman notes, might result in the loss of many souls while the error runs its course, even if that error cannot ultimately prevail against the Church.[8]

Great critics of liberalism have held the first thesis without holding the second, or at least without emphasizing it. Louis Veuillot often argues that (theological, economic, or political) liberalism defeats itself, but he seems to assume that, counterfactually, the world would have been strictly better off, from the standpoint of Catholic truth, if liberalism had never come into existence—precisely what the felix culpa thesis denies. As to Protestantism, which for Veuillot is theological liberalism and thus the direct ancestor and cause of other strands of liberalism, he writes:

If Catholic unity had been maintained in the sixteenth century, there would be no more infidels, no more idolaters, no more slaves: the human race would be Christian today, and by the number and diversity of nations united in a common faith, it would have kept clear of the global despotism that is such a threat hanging over it now.[9]

On this view, the implicit counterfactual is simply that Catholicism would have been far better off without liberalism. There is no suggestion that absent liberalism, Catholicism could not have obtained some desirable benefit, to which the existence of liberalism was in fact indispensable.

In contrast to Veuillot, there is a robust tradition of Catholic felix culpa theorizing about liberalism. After 1789, and with increasing urgency through the nineteenth century, a major question for Catholic critics of both theological and political liberalism was how to account for the rise and terrifying spread of ideas and forms of social life that they took to be antithetical to holy Catholic truth, or even demonically inspired. Felix culpa accounts suggested that liberalism, although culpably sinful in itself, was the indispensable means by which Providence prepared Catholicism for an even greater future. Let me illustrate briefly by invoking the unholy trinity of de Maistre, Donoso Cortes and Carl Schmitt, before turning to Newman’s version, the most developed among the Catholic critics of liberalism.

De Maistre’s Considerations on France, addressed specifically to 1789 and its aftermath, argued at length that the Revolution, although in itself profoundly criminal, was an irresistible force supported by Providence to sweep away obstacles to the even greater glory of a Catholic and royalist France. As to the monarchy, “All the monsters of the Revolution have, apparently, labored only for the monarchy . . . Thanks to them, the king will reascend his throne with all his pomp and power, perhaps with an increase of power.” As to the Church, “the priesthood in France needed to be regenerated;” the constitutional oath of support for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy “sifted the clergy” such that “all those who swore it saw themselves led by degrees into an abyss of crime and disgrace.”[10]

Donoso Cortes, writing to Montalembert in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848, argued that “Considered in a certain way, revolutions, like heresies, are good because they clarify and confirm the faith. I had never understood the enormous rebellion of Lucifer, until I saw with my own eyes the senseless pride of Proudhon.”[11]

Finally, and most grandly of all the three, Schmitt’s 1923 work Roman Catholicism and Political Form outlined a vision of the providential destiny of the Church, brought to its apotheosis through and by means of the spread across the globe of “economic rationality,” which for Schmitt included both the economic liberalism of the West and the economic planning of the Bolsheviks. Economic rationality attempts to depoliticize the public sphere and to reduce all public questions to managerial, cost-benefit calculations. It is the great opponent of the entirely different rationality of the Church, which is both juridical and authentically political. The spread of economic rationality is itself, however, the crucial precondition for the Church’s triumph at the end of history, because it drives out feeble compromises and forces all mankind to a final decision, in which an authentic form of life cannot be found extra ecclesiam:

Should economic thinking succeed in realizing its utopian goal and in bringing about an absolutely unpolitical condition of human society, the Church would remain the only agency of political thinking and political form. Then the Church would have a stupendous monopoly: its hierarchy would be nearer the political domination of the world than in the Middle Ages.[12]

Authority and Private Judgment

Let me now turn to Newman’s own felix culpa argument, which is less romantic, and generally more English, than those of the other great Catholic critics of liberalism covered above. As I mentioned, the crucial problem for Newman is the self-destructive tendency of natural rationality, which inevitably tends to fall into theological liberalism—“false liberty of thought” —by subjecting Revelation to a rebellious, acidic scrutiny. In so doing, reason descends into a helpless, self-consuming skepticism.[13]

As against this, divine mercy provides mankind with the Church, an institution possessed of infallible authority, to shape and constrain the natural reason, preventing its suicide. “[The Church’s] object is, and its effect also, not to enfeeble the freedom or vigour of human thought in religious speculation, but to resist and control its extravagance.” From the fear-stricken standpoint of the liberal individual, this submission to an epistemological authority that is simply given by Revelation, not itself chosen as an authority by the individual’s reason, itself portends the very death of fallen natural reason. However, for Newman, in the fifth chapter of the Apologia, it is the very existence of the constraint that paradoxically allows the reason to express and fulfill its real nature:

It will at first sight be said that the restless intellect of our common humanity is utterly weighed down [by infallible Authority], to the repression of all independent effort and action whatever, so that, if this is to be the mode of bringing it into order, it is brought into order only to be destroyed. But this is far from the result, far from what I conceive to be the intention of that high Providence who has provided a great remedy for a great evil,—far from borne out by the history of the conflict between Infallibility and Reason in the past, and the prospect of it in the future. The energy of the human intellect “does from opposition grow;” it thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely-fashioned weapon, and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown (emphasis added).

So far, this is a paradox but not yet a felix culpa argument. Newman has merely said that from the standpoint of the objective well-being of the reason, the existence of infallible constraint is both a necessary and a beneficial limitation, however much the reason might chafe at it. Rather, Newman’s great felix culpa claim occurs when he proceeds to argue that the error of theological liberalism is itself an indispensable element of the larger providential operation of the Church’s magisterium.

To understand the full picture, a few definitions are necessary. For Newman, “private judgement” is the exercise of individual reason. It is not that private judgment is intrinsically erroneous; there are, of course, vast stretches of human life that infallible authority does not purport to reach, nor are regulated even by fallible social authorities for that matter. Newman is clear that “Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty.” The problem of private judgment then, is that it inevitably produces theological liberalism unless checked.

The felix culpa twist here is that this dynamic process—in which private judgment produces false liberty of thought, which is in turn checked by infallible authority, whose judgments must then be interpreted, and so on—is for Newman a positively desirable process, not merely a costly form of damage control. The errors and excesses of reason contribute to, are a causal force within, the success of the process itself. In this sense, it is a mistake to think that “false liberty of thought” is bad, simpliciter; it is a mistake for Catholics to simply read the wild epistemological rebellion of Protestantism in reverse. Of course theological liberalism is not only bad, but is a wicked and indeed literally damnable error, taken by itself. But it is also providentially transformed into the very means by which the infallible dogmatic teaching of the Church is developed and refined over time as he argues in seventh chapter of the Apologia:

It is the custom with Protestant writers to consider that, whereas there are two great principles in action in the history of religion, Authority and Private Judgment, they have all the Private Judgment to themselves, and we have the full inheritance and the superincumbent oppression of Authority. But this is not so; it is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel. It is necessary for the very life of religion, viewed in its large operations and its history, that the warfare should be incessantly carried on. Every exercise of Infallibility is brought out into act by an intense and varied operation of the Reason, from within and without, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a re-action of Reason against it; and, as in a civil polity the State exists and endures by means of the rivalry and collision, the encroachments and defeats of its constituent parts, so in like manner Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism, but [it] presents a continuous picture of Authority and Private Judgment alternately advancing and retreating as the ebb and flow of the tide.

Indeed, the same process operates not only within the ordinary life of the Church, but at the level of the Church’s extraordinary councils as well, seen as a process of successive correction over time. As Newman wrote, rather presciently, after the First Vatican Council:

It would seem as if the Church moved on to the perfect truth by various successive declarations, alternately in contrary directions, and thus perfecting, completing, supplying each other. Let us have a little faith in her, I say. Pius is not the last of the Popes—the fourth Council modified the third, the fifth the fourth.[14]

Epistemologically, on this view, the Church must be understood a vast complexio oppositorum, in which the challenge of individual reason to the Church’s infallibility is itself subsumed as an indispensable part of the providential design. In this way (to end where we began) Newman believes that “our enemy is turned into a friend . . . he does just so much as is beneficial, and is then removed.” This is perhaps the most elegant exemplar of the species of argument I have tried to uncover here, the vision of liberalism as a felix culpa.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a version of the paper delivered at the colloquium The Civil Dimensions of Ecclesiology: A Political Inquiry on 27 May 2019 in Paris, France. The event was organized by the Faculté de droit de l’Université Paris Descartes and the University of Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, with the support of the Centre d’études du Saulchoir. It took place under the direction of Gladden J. Pappin, Giulio De Ligio, and Thierry Rambaud. Church Life Journal will feature all the essays from this colloquium in the coming weeks. An earlier version of this particular paper appeared in Postliberal Thought (our special thanks go out to Susannah Black for her help).

[1] Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France, trans. Richard A. Lebrun, 3.

[2] See: Robert Bireley, SJ, The Counter-Reformation Prince (1990), 115.

[3] Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, An Universal History, from the Beginning of the World, to the Empire of Charlemagne, trans. R. Moore (1821), 315.

[4] Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (1949), 98.

[5] Joseph Schumpter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942).

[6] Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. G. L. Ulmen, 27–28.

[7] Quoted in Jon Elster, Alexis de Tocqueville: The First Social Scientist (2009).

[8] A third position is that liberalism and Catholicism are fully compatible as a matter of principle in the first place. I am trying to think my way through the Catholic critiques of liberalism on their own terms, accepting their fundamental assumptions, so I will bracket and ignore this unlikely possibility here.  

[9] Louis Veuillot, The Liberal Illusion, trans. George Barry O’Toole (1866), chapter 10.

[10] De Maistre, supra, at 17, 19.

[11] Juan Donoso Cortes, Selected Works of Juan Donoso Cortes, trans. Jeffrey P. Johnson, 62.

[12] Schmitt, supra, at 25.

[13] Incidentally it is not even close to being true, as one sometimes hears, that Newman cares only or mainly about theological as opposed to political liberalism. He comments acidly on the latter throughout his corpus. What is true is that he thinks political liberalism is, conceptually and historically, an offshoot of theological liberalism, and that the latter is the root of the evil.

[14] The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. 25, The Vatican Council: January 1870 to December 1871, (1973), 310.

Featured Image: Piero Della Francesca, From "The Death of Adam," 1458; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Adrian Vermeule

Adrian Vermeule is the Ralph S. Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. He is the author of several books, most recently Law’s Abnegation From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State.

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