In Praise of John Zmirak

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I’ve called John Zmirak a troll, but now he’s showing himself to be quite a funny, amusing sort of troll. He’s been trolling “illiberal Catholics” again, but this time it’s trolling de haut niveau, and I found it quite clever. The sociological points he makes about “illiberal Catholics” were highly amusing, and not without fundamentum in re. Trolling is an autotelic activity, and Zmirak presumably enjoys it for its own sake, but he is not merely trolling; he also has a serious point to make. So I want to respond to one of the Qs he puts to the likes of me:

Hasn’t the Church historically taken whatever is true in the secular world, used it as a common ground by which to approach the unbelievers, and tried to baptize and elevate it—rather than tear it all down and start from scratch in a barren wasteland. Wasn’t Augustine a patriotic Roman citizen? Or did he endorse the barbarian invasions in some text that you have uncovered from secret archives?

To which I answer: well, yes. In fact I do try to be patriotic (to both of my countries; I have dual citizenship) in the way in which Augustine was patriotic toward Rome. Here’s Augustine on Rome, and I (and I think most “illiberal Catholics”) would say the same sort of thing (mutatis mutandis) of current political (or imperial) communities:

This, then, is the place where I should fulfill the promise gave in the second book of this work, and explain, as briefly and clearly as possible, that if we are to accept the definitions laid down by Scipio in Cicero’s De Republica, there never was a Roman republic; for he briefly defines a republic as the good of the people. And if this definition be true, there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s good was never attained among the Romans. For the people, according to his definition, is an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests. And what he means by a common acknowledgment of right he explains at large, showing that a republic cannot be administered without justice. Where, therefore, there is no true justice there can be no right. For that which is done by right is justly done, and what is unjustly done cannot be done by right. For the unjust inventions of men are neither to be considered nor spoken of as rights; for even they themselves say that right is that which flows from the fountain of justice, and deny the definition which is commonly given by those who misconceive the matter, that right is that which is useful to the stronger party. Thus, where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero; and if no people, then no good of the people, but only of some promiscuous multitude unworthy of the name of people. Consequently, if the republic is the good of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice. Further, justice is that virtue which gives every one his due. Where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God and yields himself to impure demons? Is this to give every one his due? Or is he who keeps back a piece of ground from the purchaser, and gives it to a man who has no right to it, unjust, while he who keeps back himself from the God who made him, and serves wicked spirits, is just? (Civ. Dei IX,21)

2 thoughts on “In Praise of John Zmirak

  1. I was amused to see you link-checked by John Zmirak’s unreflective imagined interlocutor. John Zmirak seems to me to be striking an oddly symmetrical balance: on one hand he makes fair points about certain aspects of American Catholic subculture and is right enough to point out that it’s little practical use arguing for the best of high medieval socio-politics while the best of American democracy is both closer shelter and itself in need of defense; on the other hand, he himself has a tendency to infuse the American republic, even in its accidental qualities, with a providential weight that can seem somewhat excessive. On the oft-recurring question of how much America can be reasonably smuggled into (or out of) Thomism, he satirizes the more self-ghettoizing partisans of one side, while exemplifying the more ‘who-needs-Thomas-when-you’ve-got-Murray’ partisans of the other. And I say that being on his side, so to speak.

    For example, I don’t think Patrick Deneen pointing out that Hobby Lobby isn’t anyone’s beau ideal of economic and social justice really merits the level of scorn it receives. Especially since as long as we’re engaged in defending the best of America as Zmirak would wish, we could recall that Tocqueville identified a rough equality of condition as essential to the American order–and that not only is inequality of condition growing, but it’s growth seems often either minimized as unimportant or positively defended by the political allies of those on the Brownsonian/Murrayite/Maritainian side of the spectrum. Deneen’s objection to Hobby Lobby wasn’t primarily that it is tacky and encourages sterile strip malls (although, guilty), but that the nationalized, corporate economic structure of which it is part and example has gutted one of the key supports of the American republic in whose defense Zmirak wishes us to unite.

    Zmirak’s gliding over the thrust of Deneen’s point and responding with a vaguely reverse-snob jab at those over-delicate europhiles with their wild disdain for strip malls sort of highlights the weakness in the substantive point underlying his admittedly all too fair critique of his ‘illiberal Catholic’ opponents.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let us cut to the chase. Despite some attractive-sounding verbiage, Zmirak must be rejected for false and uncharitable claims, which are endless and numerous, like this one from the Daily Caller: “Bishops who are so inclined — including the Bishop of Rome — can continue to garner headlines…. As men without children, they don’t need to worry about their descendants. They are confident of eternity, since they don’t believe in hell.” To suggest Pope Francis does not believe in hell nor care about descendents because he does not have children is really an attack on Christ. (“No Marriage, No Papacy,” The Dailey Caller, October 20, 2014, John Zmirak).

    Liked by 1 person

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