A Catholic Debate over Liberalism

"Yet there are limits, for now, to how mainstream integralism can become. For about a year, in 2017–18, First Things sustained a flirtation with integralist ideas. It published a book review by Pater Edmund and several essays by Vermeule and Smith. In October 2017, First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz called for a “humane integralism” to “supplant integral humanism.” Then, in January 2018, the magazine published an essay by theologian Romanus Cessario, a defense of the Church’s decision, in 1858, to kidnap Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy living in the Papal States who had been secretly baptized by his family’s Catholic maid. Cessario defended Pius IX’s conclusion that the boy’s baptism, though conducted without his parents’ consent, had transformed him irrevocably into a Christian. The Church was thus obligated to ensure that he received a Christian education by removing him from his Jewish household.

The essay proved controversial, to put it mildly. First Things editor R. R. Reno partly walked it back, defending his decision to publish it but calling the Mortara affair a “stain on the church.” His semi-apology, in turn, angered the integralists. Smith, who dismissed the backlash as “comfortable bourgeois moralism” on his blog, published his last article for First Things in March 2018; Vermeule’s last byline was in November 2017. First Things has since embraced a sort of religiously inflected nationalism, and Schmitz has become a vocal critic of the integralists. Reno told me that he now considers the Mortara essay a “grotesque miscalculation.” Yet part of him was still clearly drawn to Cessario’s argument. “The Mortara essay, in my mind, was purely a provocation to Catholics—as in, the logic of this is pretty powerful. Dignitatis Humanae, liberalism, and Catholicism go together perfectly. Now what do you have to say about this?”"