Review of Thomas Storck’s “From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The long jagged trail to a postmodern void.” Angelico Press, Kettering OH, 2015.
Thomas Storck is a familiar name among hard identity Catholics. He has served as a contributing editor for Caelum et Terra from 1991 until the magazine closed in 1996 and the New Oxford Review from 1996 to 2006. Since 1998 he has been a member of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review. He is the author of three previous books, The Catholic Milieu (Christendom Press, 1987), Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (Four Faces Press, 1998) and Christendom and the West (Four Faces Press, 2000). The current book, under review here,”From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond” is a collection of previously published essays written for various Catholic journals over many years up to about 2015. You can read many of his excellent essays at www.thomasstorck.org
Any Catholic concerned about the current Church crisis should read Storck. In Storck you will find insights into everything from why Christendom has declined in Europe and then throughout the world; what happened at Vatican II, how Catholics should think of America; how to evaluate the 60s; Catholic social teaching, what to think of the catholic intellectual rennaissance of the early 20th century, the nature of modernity and post-modernity, the role of Church vis a vis culture, philosophy of history, political theory and what the relation should be between church and state. He is an astute observer of the political world and has a discerning eye for long term historical trends.
In “From Christendom…” we get essays on all these topics and so it is a must read for any Catholic seeking to rebuild the church and the surrounding decadent culture. In what follows I will summarize what I took away from reading these essays. My “take” on Storck’s ideas will necessarily over simplify his positions. The reader is advised to read Storck directly. But I need to summarize his positions and some of his insights so that the reader can gauge my critique of those positions. In fact I agree with most of what Storck says but will disagree on some key and very fundamental claims he makes concerning the root of the problem and the solution to the crisis.
So lets begin with Storck’s insights or claims: Storck agrees with many Catholic intellectuals who claim that the root source of modernity and the unremitting hostility to the Church in the modern period lies in nominalism or the idea of late medieval philosophers that universals do not exist, only particulars exist. If there are no universals, then there are no standards against which we can compare particulars. The loss of standards leads inevitably to a loss of intellectual rigor and ultimate truths. Similarly, if individuals or particulars or instances are the only realities then individuals should be free and unconstrained. The nominalists also overly valorized the will of God putting it before God’s other attributes (such as his logos). God’s will and power according to the nominalists has no limits—he is utterly unconstrained. This idea had the effect of portraying God as arbitrary and absolutely free. Freedom understood as no barriers became the primary value for an emerging modernity at the waning of the middle ages and the birth of the renaissance and enlightenment.
The nominalist rejection of standards and universals and its elevation of freedom as the primary characteristic of God had the effect of severing the link between reason and faith that the Church had labored to build over many centuries via the syntheses of Athens and Jerusalem by the early Church Fathers and in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the high middle ages.
Once reason was severed from faith a Luther could claim that faith was primary and that only scripture contained God’s word—not the logos inherent in reality. Sola scriptura meant that scriptures were interpreted not by the church but by the individual conscience and thus the individual conscience (not the mystical body of Christ) was the route to God. Protestantism was born and largely facilitated the cultural conditions for modernity.
i will return to a critique of these claims below.
What should Catholics think of Church and state and America according to Storck? Storck sides with Aquinas who takes the common sense approach that some combination of monarchy, democracy and republicanism is probably best. Storck sees these elements in the American polity but argues America and every other political system needs to be guided by the Church. He holds up the 1922 Irish constitution as an example of a Church guided democratic republic with a strong executive. That Irish constitution outlawed divorce and abortion, explicitly placed itself under God’s protection, provided absolute protections for religious liberty and so forth.
In America the church, according to Storck never really influenced American government. The New Deal coalition was the height of Church influence on America as catholics were key to the coalition. It gave us all the presidents from FDR to Nixon and enacted a pro Vatican and Catholic policy internationally and all the great social legislation domestically…from social security to civil rights to environmental protections—all consistent with catholic social doctrine according to Storck. The peak of the New Deal influence culturally came in the 1950s. The New Deal coalition ended when the other groups in the coalition accepted abortion legislation in the early 70s. The catholics then gravitated to the republicans but the republicans were never effective defenders of catholic positions. Today Catholics are not included in any stable political coalition in America. the Church’s social positions on some issues such as immigration and the environment are “leftist” while its cultural positions are “rightist” and its international positions unclassifiable on a right left spectrum.
Storck takes his philosophy of history from the Bible seeing the incarnation as the key event in world history. He takes the line in revelation that the apostasy of the gentiles will signal the beginning of the end of history. He sees modernity as this beginning of the end of history.
Storck says that in order to reverse the decline in Church influence and to rebuild Christendom we need to recall Pope Leo XII political and social teachings. There is NO INHERENT RIGHT to error. Only the church can preserve a polity from error so the Church has a right and duty to be the preeminent leader in a culture and polity. That does not mean we have to have a theocracy as Islam proposes. But it does mean that we need to work for political conditions that obtained in countries such as the 1922 Ireland before its recent apostasy; Spain before its apostasy, the Latin American countries before their apostasy and so forth to serve as models.
There is much else in Storck’s essays than these few remarks convey. I strongly recommend this book to every concerned catholic. It is a must read in order to think clearly about the current crisis.
Now what are my criticisms of Storck? I do not agree with Storck and the many other Catholic intellectuals who argue that nominalism was the source of the intellectual errors of modernity. This vastly overstates nominalisms influence. While Protestantism and many of the modernist philosophers share some nominalist assumptions, it is just not accurate to think that nominalism shaped their entire philosophies or even major portions of their philosophies.
The sources of modernity are complex. I think Storck is on firmer ground when he argues that severance of the link between faith and reason was characteristic of Protestantism and Protestantism was the major cultural force that ushered in modernity.
When science came on the scene during later stages of the renaissance and the beginning stages of the reformation it encountered a Christendom that either exalted irrationality (Protestantism) or could present only a hackneyed version of Aristotle’s philosophy as a guide to investigation of reality. Science, in short, found no partner among official Christian circles when it was struggling to be born.
The enmity between science and Christendom was briefly relaxed when the Jesuit order emerged in the 1500s and produced some of the best scientists in the world. The counter-reformation church had re-seized the cultural leadership during this period but it was not to last. The Jesuits were suppressed by the Pope (under pressure from despotic monarchies) in 1750 right when the enlightenment was emerging. With the Jesuits out of the picture secular intellectuals in alliance with scientists (who had previously aligned with the Jesuits) now took center stage and they have yet to be challenged for cultural leadership.
In short, Storck, like most other Catholic intellectuals has not yet grappled with science as key to modernity. For the Church to recover its cultural leadership its needs to assimilate science and it needs to produce the best scientists in the world….just as it did with the early Jesuits.