By Godefroy Desjonquères

This essay is part of a symposium on the thought of French political thinker Chantal Delsol in light of her latest book, La fin de la Chrétienté or The End of the Christian World.

Chantal Delsol’s essay offers a sharp and convincing description of the state of Christianity in the twenty-first century. She also proposes an eloquent but controversial account of the subsequent role Christians ought to be playing in the upcoming era, as followers of a religion made politically powerless by its cultural marginalization. Drawing on a comparison between the two major “normative inversions” of our history, namely the rapid Christianization of the West in the fourth century and its even faster unraveling since the second half of the twentieth century, she outlines a possible ethos for contemporary Christians, revolving around the recognition and acceptance of the end of Christendom. Believers are invited to become “secret agents of God,” patient witnesses of Christ in a world gone back to paganism. Political action is to be replaced by testimony, evangelization, and patient equanimity. In other words, the “culture war” is lost, and believers ought to be reaching hearts and souls rather than seeking votes and political influence. 

By reaffirming the distinction between Christendom and Christianity, Chantal Delsol implicitly brings attention to the proximity the latter bears with modern liberalism, in that it affirms the separation, within each individual, between the citizen and the believer.[1] It is thanks to this distinction that her political pessimism (she openly writes as a Catholic, with the diminishing societal stance it entails) can coexist with spiritual hope (as is demonstrated by her vibrant reference to the contemporary importance of monasteries). And it is because of this distinction, she seems to assert, that Catholicism can survive its own cultural and political annihilation, if it is able to redefine its ethos accordingly.

Chantal Delsol thus raises a decisive question: is spiritual engagement compatible with political retreat? By giving some elements of comparison between her analysis and Louis Dumont’s anthropological approach of the same matter, I want to suggest that, while her demonstration is extremely convincing on a religious level, it underestimates some of the political conditions that make her own stance viable. 

From Saint Paul to Diognetus: The Outline of the Christian Ethos

In his Essays on Individualism, Dumont draws on the distinction between holism and individualism to try to shed light on the anthropological nature of Christianity and its role in the birth of modern ideology. Christianity, he asserts, is founded upon a hierarchical distinction between the spiritual and the temporal. On the spiritual plan, all temporal distinctions are reduced to insignificance by the individual relationship between God and the soul. As Paul writes, in a famous passage of his letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, at its fundamental level, Christianity asserts a radically individualistic and universalist doctrine. Inside this level,[2] however, on the temporal plane, those very distinctions are recognized as fully legitimate: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In Dumont’s analysis, Caesar’s dominium is made legitimate by Christianity because of its utter insignificance in the only dimension that Christianity concerns itself with: the spiritual. From which comes Dumont’s anthropological definition of Christianity: “the emancipation of the individual by a personal transcendence, and the union of individuals-out-of-the-world in a community who walks upon the earth, but whose heart belongs in heaven.”

The concept of the “individual-out-of-the-world” (i.e., the individual whose defining values are related to a higher plane than the temporal) allows Dumont to define the ethos of primitive Christians. And this ethos resonates remarkably with the one outlined in Delsol’s essay: a calm recognition of a certain latitude in temporal affairs, including those that contradict the evangelical message. It is to this ethos that Chantal Delsol seems to be referring. One of her avowed models is the one defended in the Epistle to Diognetus, an anonymous work of apologetic written under Roman pagan rule, in the second century:

[Christians] display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. 

It is in this sense, I think, rather than in a strictly anthropological one, that Delsol’s diagnostic of a Western return to paganism is to be understood: from a Christian point of view, ethics is to be defined once again from the hierarchy (in Dumont’s sense) between Jerusalem and Babylon. “Once again”: because as Dumont saw, it was the Christianization of the West, culminating in medieval Christendom, that made this ethos irrelevant. 

The Temporal Transformation of Catholicism

As Antiquity progressed into the Middle Ages, the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual progressively lost its political relevance. Earthly affairs became more and more inspired by the spiritual (the abolition of slavery, equality between man and woman, religious “enchantment” of daily life, etc.); in return, Christianity (and, at its center, the Church) gained more and more temporal power. Thus, Christendom was born out of the very phenomenon that would see it disappear, after one thousand years of relative stability. The history of modernity is the history of the transformation of the individual-out-of-the-world into an individual-in-the-world, one who demands that the values formerly limited to the spiritual plane be applied on the temporal one. The Christianization of the West and its secularization are two sides of the same coin, i.e. the progressive blurring of the separation between the temporal and the spiritual.

This movement transformed Catholicism from an individualistic, Stoic-like religion, living in the world from outside it, to what Delsol calls a “holistic religion”, one actively defending an organic and hierarchical organization of the mundane, in the name of Christian principles. It is this transformation, she demonstrates, that made Catholicism an anti-modern force until the second half of the twentieth century. And it is this transformation that Christians should now renounce. The end of Christendom, in other words, should mean the return of the “Diognetian ethos.” It is interesting, in this regard, that Delsol should identify the legalization of abortion as the ending point of Christendom; and that, as an example of the Christian ethos she calls for, she evokes the renouncement to anti-abortion political engagement. It is indeed the very example chosen by the apologist in his epistle:

They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring

Abortion and infanticide, condemned by Christianity, were accepted and practiced under Roman law. But political engagement in this matter does not enter the author’s reasoning as a Christian apologist. The fight against abortion is a spiritual one, not a political one: it works through prayer and individual conversions, not through law-making and collective ethical schemes. 

Spiritual Engagement and Political Renouncement 

Delsol’s historical and ethical demonstrations thus appear in their coherence. Christendom was not the original paradigm of Christianity but its historical deviation. Modern liberalism, in this regard, is to be regarded as an opportunity to come back to the original paradigm, one of strict separation between the temporal and the spiritual.

But the comparison with Dumont’s own analysis raises a serious question about the viability of the individual-out-of-the-world ethos. For the Christian, the submission to earthly powers is made acceptable by their relative inferiority towards spiritual powers. For the modern liberal citizen, it is quite the opposite: the submission to spiritual powers is acceptable only insofar as it is subordinate to a submission to the temporal order. In this regard, Chantal Delsol writes very convincingly to her coreligionists, but it does not seem to be her goal to address citizens of liberal countries. The problem is that the majority of today’s Western Christians fit both descriptions. How, then, is a Christian citizen supposed to act qua citizen in a post-Christian era? 

On a practical level, the evangelical message is such that there is no fundamental incompatibility between one’s ordering it as hierarchically superior to his citizenship on the one hand, and their country’s demand that they recognize the preeminence of the civil order, on the other hand. Any contradictions between these two orders should be resolved by political docility (“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also”) and the Stoic acceptation of the insurmountable distance between this world and the next. In extreme cases, it is to be assumed all the way to martyrdom, as was the case with early Christians, and still is in some parts of the world. But this is a Christian answer, which does not resolve the problem of political engagement in itself

Thus, Chantal Delsol’s essay compels us to reformulate a classic problem of contemporary Christianity, that of the practical organizations Christians should create or adopt to live their lives as Christians. Should they “run for the hills” (as is suggested, for example, by Rod Dreher) to create independent communities governed by Christian ethics? Or, answering their earthly vocations as witnesses of evangelical truth, should they fit in, insofar as it is compatible with their beliefs? 

What Catholicism recognizes, and what Thomas Aquinas teaches us, following Aristotle, is that there is no moral life possible outside the political community. It also teaches us that a political community that abandons all notions of the common good, as modern liberalism does, is no fertile ground for moral development. Although earthly affiliations are to become irrelevant in the Kingdom, where all are to be “one in Christ Jesus,” on earth they are a necessary condition to developing the moral virtues that enable one to live a sanctified life. If Catholics accept this premise, the question is not whether they should engage in political matters, but rather: where do they identify their communities? If they are to correspond to the political communities of modern liberalism (i.e., the nation-state), the political disengagement Chantal Delsol seems to defend would be incompatible with the development of moral life. Are they, then, to be defined “out-of-the-world,” in secession with the mundane, on the model of monasteries? It is not what Chantal Delsol seems to suggest, and neither does it seem compatible with what the Epistle to Diognetus defined as the Christians’ mission to be “the soul of this world”:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity.

This problem may constitute the main intellectual and political challenge for contemporary Catholicism. It is not in itself the subject of Chantal Delsol’s essay. But one of the great merits of her deep and engaging reflection is that it presents the issue with all its philosophical and spiritual depth by reminding Catholics that, whatever the answer, they ultimately and fundamentally remain strangers in this world.

Godefroy Desjonquères is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. His dissertation explores the political and moral implications of holism in social philosophy, drawing mainly on the works by Ludwig  Wittgenstein, G. E. M. Anscombe, and Alasdair MacIntyre. In parallel with his thesis, he is currently translating MacIntyre’s Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity into French.  

A version of this essay was originally presented at a conference on the themes of Chantal Delsol’s latest book hosted by the Abigail Adams Institute, First Things, and the Zephyr Institute.

[1] This idea of Christianity as a self-secularizing religion has been analyzed by many authors, including Marcel Gauchet and Louis Dumont.

[2] The geometrical imagery is important, as it relates to Dumont’s definition of hierarchy: “A hierarchical relation is a relation between larger and smaller, or more precisely between that which encompasses and that which is encompassed” [1967, p. 42]. The relation of hierarchy is often one of contradiction, which is rendered viable by the distinction of hierarchical levels: “Essentially, hierarchy is the encompassing of the contrary.”


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