It’s a shame that the opening chapters do such disservice to the book, and likely will be the occasion of many readers not arriving at chapter 3, where the book actually begins and becomes interesting. Alas, occasionally the spirit of the opening pages appears in the later chapters, but the central chapters of the book reveal Greaney and Brohawn in stride. Here they suggest a hermeneutical key to centuries of debate—namely, that in an excess of charity, the natural and supernatural orders became inverted, and the natural law principles of justice are overlooked in favor of the supernatural laws of faith and charity. This error, which could generically be termed “modernism” but that is more precisely described as “ultrasupernaturalism,” absorbs nature into the supernatural, thus distorting both. It is, in the words of Ronald Knox, quoted by the authors, “an excess of charity [that] threatens unity.”
Rather than nature and natural law maintaining their integrity, an integrity true and applicable to all people given their shared nature, ultrasupernaturalism does not follow the Thomistic view that grace presupposes and perfects nature but has faith and charity supplant reason and justice. When faith supplants reason in the natural order, opinion, especially the opinion of the elite, the vanguard, the enlightened, is authoritative, and doctrines and principles are held or rejected not for their truth or falsity but for their usefulness or inconvenience to the project, to what the elite are attempting to construct and create. Similarly, charity jettisons the norms of justice, which to charity’s eyes seem too moderate, too inclined to allow freedom and imperfection, and demands perfection, insisting that any politics other than the kingdom of heaven on earth, immediately, is inadequate. Enthusiasm and irrational utopian dreams cannot but follow. Further, voluntarism is embedded in all this. Reason is not only replaced by passion, but this results in a “self-directed faith based on personal opinion”—in short, modernism.
Greaney and Brohawn do not leave such claims in the abstract, and the strength of the book is as a history text. They rightly note the weakness of the church’s response to the French Revolution as well as to the Industrial Revolution, that is, the church’s inability to articulate a compelling vision to changed social, political, and economic realities. Pope Pius VII had started some needed reforms in the Papal States, which stalled out through the pontificates of Leo XII and Pius VIII. Consequently, Gregory XVI encountered social and political confusion, as well as the philosophical and theological innovations of the “new religion,” or the “Democratic Religion” as promoted by men such as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Charles Fourier. Nor was all well within the church, and Gregory considered the greatest threat to come from L’Abbé de Lamennais, the founder, according to Greaney and Brohawn, of social Catholicism. For Lamennais, it was not grace that perfected the individual but rather collective humanity was to be saved by establishing the kingdom of God on earth. Against Lamennais and his allies, Gregory wrote in 1832 what the authors call the first social encyclical, Mirari Vos, “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism,” largely targeting collectivism of various sorts.