Sohrab Ahmari makes the case for traditionalist Catholicism
Sohrab Ahmari described his conversion to Roman Catholicism in his 2019 book, From Fire, By Water. The book illustrated that Ahmari’s conversion was to a juridical church, one characterized by authority and law, a church that looked more like the 19th-century church of the First Vatican Council than the 21st-century church that followed the Second Vatican Council. Ahmari defines himself as a traditionalist, by which he means that tradition—marked by authority and law—provides a bulwark that preserves the church from the pernicious influences of the world. This is a form of traditionalism that is increasingly attractive to many Catholics today.
Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, is a defense of the merits of traditionalism in the face of a society he understands to be unmoored from tradition and therefore disordered. It is a society made up of individuals with no ability to integrate their lives because they lack “a vision of the whole that has endured the test of time.”
His concerns about American society are personal. Ahmari is a new father and is gripped by anxiety when he thinks about the influence contemporary Western culture will have on his son, Max. He worries that despite his best intentions, his son will pay only lip service to the Catholic faith of his father, declaring himself spiritual but not religious, as so many do today; that he will seek his happiness and purpose not in anything greater than himself, but in money and ambition; and that he will adopt wholesale a culture “that will tell him that whatever is newest is also best, that everything is negotiable and subject to contract and consent, that there is no purpose to our common life but to fulfill his desires.”
To make his case for traditionalism, Ahmari poses a series of 12 questions, ranging from “Can you be spiritual without being religious?” to “What is freedom for?” to “What’s good about death?” For each question, Ahmari focuses attention on the life and thought of one thinker who articulated what Ahmari understands to be a traditional response to the issue at hand.
Ahmari’s book is not written solely from a Catholic traditionalist’s perspective, as illustrated by the diverse collection of thinkers to whom he appeals.
Ahmari’s book is not written solely from a Catholic traditionalist’s perspective, as illustrated by the diverse collection of thinkers to whom he appeals. Acknowledging that this appeal to non-Catholic traditions may seem odd to those who know of his own religious commitments, Ahmari points out that in the face of the myriad of threats posed by modern Western culture, people from different traditions may find they have more in common than not.
There is much within The Unbroken Thread that can and should speak to all Catholics, traditionalist or otherwise. Ahmari argues throughout the book that Western society’s individualism and obsessive focus on material well-being result in profound unhappiness and the fragmentation of society itself. Moreover, in an illuminating chapter that focuses on the great civil rights figure Howard Thurman, Ahmari rightly notes that oppression and domination of one group over another is rooted in an unwillingness to acknowledge the inherent dignity of others, a dignity rooted in the divine. The lesson he draws from Abraham Joshua Heschel regarding the need for Sabbath rest and a rethinking of our priorities is an important one, as is the chapter on filial piety, which focuses on Confucius.
More troubling from a Catholic perspective are Ahmari’s chapters on politics and on sex. In a chapter called “Is Sex a Private Matter?” Ahmari characterizes the 2010s as a sexual extravaganza during which everybody seemed to agree that all sex was good and healthy. His two main conversation partners in this chapter are Andrea Dworkin, a feminist with a reputation for being anti-sex, and St. Augustine of Hippo, whose understanding of sex shaped and continues to shape Catholic discourse on the topic. Ahmari rightly points to the devastation wrought by unrestrained sexuality, particularly for women, but he doesn’t appear to find any way to think of sex as anything but a violation of human dignity.
Ahmari rightly points to the devastation wrought by unrestrained sexuality, but he doesn’t appear to find any way to think of sex as anything but a violation of human dignity.
“Once the ‘sex-passion’ takes over,” he writes, “it beats into submission our noblest convictions about human equality and dignity, about restraint and self-mastery.”Ahmari asks whether it’s possible to have sex without lust (he doesn’t think so) and asks whether we should abolish sexual intercourse altogether—also not possible since children are the result of intercourse and nonsexual reproduction brings with it more “monstrous exploitations.”
“I prefer redemption,” Ahmari writes near the end of the chapter, “and I can’t view embodied sexuality as such as evil.” But despite this caveat, the chapter as a whole reads as a diatribe against sex itself, even in the confines of heterosexual marriage.
This conception of sex is somewhat ironic, given the chapter on contemporary gnosticism that immediately follows, in which he argues against Western society’s attempts to divorce identity from our embodied state. Moreover, the vision of sexuality portrayed by Ahmari is out of step with the church’s own teaching. Recognizing that the procreative understanding of sex did not fully take into account the unitive function of sexual expression, Vatican II, in its pastoral constitution “The Church in the Modern World,” recognized sex within marriage as “noble and honorable,” and the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.” The procreative function of sex cannot therefore be separated from its unitive function, and vice versa. Indeed, while Ahmari believes that the procreative function of sex has been separated from the unitive to disastrous effect, I would argue that he is himself guilty of separating the two.
While there is much of value in Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread, there is also too much “prevarication and ruin.”
However, even more disconcerting than Ahmari’s depiction of sex is his argument for an integralist vision of politics. While at no point in his chapter on politics does Ahmari use the word integralism, it is telling that he draws on the work of the Rev. Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk whose writings on his website, The Josias, have done much over the past five years to popularize an integralist political vision. It is a vision that calls on the church to reject the facile separation of church and state that characterizes Western liberalism and once again to carry the mantle of political power so as to direct society to higher spiritual ends. As Ahmari puts it, “if human dignity has divine origins, then a society that wants to fully honor it must also honor the divine.”
The problem, as Ahmari depicts it, is that liberal society shunts spiritual concerns to the private sphere and submits that religion can have no role to play in politics whatsoever, given competing political and religious visions. From Ahmari’s perspective, liberalism is therefore at the root of the moral chaos that characterizes modern Western society, and the only thing that can adequately address this chaos is a political order structured around a higher spiritual good.
There is a logic to Ahmari’s argument, a logic that is undoubtedly tempting to those who experience anxiety in the midst of a world that is rapidly changing. Ahmari wants to see constancy instead of chaos, and a temporal order that is subject to the spiritual order. It is a logic, however, that opposes the teaching of Vatican II on religious liberty and the separation of church and state, teaching that focuses explicitly on the identity of Jesus as the suffering servant who did not establish his kingdom by force.
Ahmari presents a vision of tradition that is attractive to many. But it is a vision that is incomplete, insofar as it often relies too heavily on the juridical.
By Ahmari’s account, the choice is between a political order in which the church possesses political power and a political order where the church is silent and acquiescent. But this stark depiction does not account for the rich history of Catholic political thought, nor does it adequately allow the life and teachings of Christ to shape our conception of the political. As such, Ahmari’s account of the political lacks the kind of theological nuance that does justice to the tradition he is defending.
Ahmari is right to note that young people, and people of all ages, feel rudderless in contemporary Western society, and he presents a vision of tradition that is attractive to many. But it is a vision that is incomplete, insofar as it often relies too heavily on the juridical. Missing from Ahmari’s appeal to tradition are the contemplative traditions found in all the great religions, including Catholicism. And while he had the opportunity to focus on this when delving into the importance of liturgy when addressing the question of being spiritual without being religious, Ahmari does not delve into the rich eucharistic tradition within Catholicism, particularly in terms of how we are united to God and to one another through the body and blood of Christ. This eucharistic ecclesiology was re-emphasized by Vatican II after too many years of neglect, but it is an ecclesiology as old as the tradition itself.
In his opening address at Vatican II, St. John XXIII spoke out against the “prophets of gloom” who see in the modern age only “prevarication and ruin.” One of the great contributions of that council was to encourage the church not to take an inherently adversarial approach to the world, but instead to dialogue with it, learning from it. This dialogical approach was not an innovation of the council but was itself a re-emphasis on a tradition that extended from early Christianity through to the great doctor of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas.
While there is much of value in Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread, there is also too much “prevarication and ruin.” As he continues to explore the richness of tradition, my hope is that Ahmari will also recover the dialogical thread, which remains unbroken.
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