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How To Catch Fish

Stanley Fish is infamous for his subversive talents, especially his ability to deconstruct what seem to be impregnable arguments with a mixture of penetrating intuition, rigorous analysis, and ironical wit. Catholic scholars skeptical to the coherence of liberal political thought owe Fish a great debt for his uncanny ability to expose the rotting skeleton of liberal orthodoxy, revealing the irrational and intolerant dogmas hiding underneath its shiny skin. Although normally the enemy of secular liberalism is the friend of Catholicism, this is not quite the case with Stanley Fish; for, Fish's postmodern anti-liberalism is really a more advanced metastasization of modernism, and is therefore as much an enemy to traditional Catholicism as enlightenment Liberalism. Nevertheless, Fish has done some great work, and it is worthwhile for Catholics to study him. We should appreciate and utilize the good wherever it can be found. Fish affords Catholics effective arguments against the regnant, ubiquitous, and deceptive liberalism, and we can profit from them.

Liberalism is a Liar

"All of liberalism's efforts to accommodate or tame illiberal forces fail, either by underestimating and trivializing what they oppose or by mirroring it." (Stanley Fish "Mission Impossible: Settling the Just Bounds between Church and State" in S M Feldman, ed., Law & Religion: A Critical Anthology [New York University, 2000], 383-410. All quotes from Fish are taken from this article.) Fish argues for this thesis by first identifying Locke as the original liberal theorist of Church and state separation to whom all subsequent theorists owe their existence and upon whom no one has been able to improve. Why? Because the fundamental condition for setting up the problem of the separation of Church and state has been and will continue to be (as long as liberalism reigns) to accept Locke's infallible pronouncement of orthodoxy that "every church is orthodox to itself." From within this dogma, there can be no outside position from which to arbitrate and adjudicate the "just" bounds (meaning just in itself, not just only to Locke) of Church and state. Thus for Fish, he who presumes to know the "just bounds" is a liar: If everyone is orthodox to himself, then it follows also that "everyone is just to himself." And since liberalism in all its forms purports to proceed from an "outside" position of universal vision from which justice can be seen and articulated as it is in itself (just think of the title of John Rawls' famous book A Theory of Justice—it isn't called My Theory of Justice), it contradicts itself most violently. Liberalism lies as soon as it opens its mouth.

The only reason people are unaware of this is that it is a deftly hidden lie that all but the most anti-liberal simply can not—or will not—see. Fish sees it, and he wants to show us what he sees. The question though is whether Fish is able to see it because he is anti-liberal or because he is the consummate liberal. To prove his thesis (though I am not sure what "prove" can mean to an antifoundationalist like Fish who accepts no independently accessible locus of truth) Fish discusses three types of liberal theorists that constitute the ultimate liberal antipodes outside of which a theory may not be properly identified as "liberal." These three types of liberals are:

(1) Those who urge fairness and deliberative rationality as ways of securing political order against disruptive energies, especially the energy of fundamentalist religions,

(2) those who believe that fairness and deliberative rationality are stalking horses for a political agenda that will not announce itself, and

(3) those (actually one) who offer as an antidote to disorder more of the same.

Fish calls their work "empty" and explains the content of that null set in the rest of his essay. The question is whether Fish himself unlocks Locke's "lock," so to speak, or does he rather give us an even more impregnable one than the one he purports to break.

What Fish means by "theory" is fundamentally important for understanding his argument. For Fish, "theory" is opposed to "belief" in that "theories are something you can have . . . beliefs have you, in the sense that there can be no distance between them and the acts they enable." Now, theories are always bound up with some "principles" that are akin to theories in the "distance" one can have from them. That is, when one claims to know a theory based upon principles, he is claiming to proceed "from no angle or from an angle so wide that it takes in everyone, no matter what his religion, political affiliation, ethnic identification, and so on." But for Fish the principles that constitute a theory are always (by the very nature of things) "tied to some moral or political agenda." Therefore, "liberal theory," which is inevitably made up of "principles," is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as liberal theory, or any theory for that matter, because there is no such thing as a belief-neutral theory, no such thing as a human perspective with "an angle so wide that it takes in everyone." Insofar as liberalism purports to have achieved this angle, it is a liar.

What Fish wants is to make us aware of the lie by convincing us that "conflict is the name of our condition." Liberalism does everything in its power to destroy this awareness by convincing us that "we can all get along" as long as we accept one of its "judgments of all mankind," to use words of Locke, that is proffered to us obsessively by liberal theorists and the religious, cultural and political "authorities" that pay obeisance to them. But since the content of this so-called "universal judgment" is, in truth, just the personal, subjective, moral agenda-promoting belief of the particular theorist or authority in question, a belief that by very definition possesses no objectively-evaluative feature that can be recognized and accepted by others ("others" inevitably see a theory "from the outside"), every appeal to principle, even if it is worded as an appeal to "procedure" or "fairness" or "equality" or, dare I say it, "freedom," and characterized as a self-evident reality, whether it be Locke's negative standard of "madness," Rawls' positive standard of "reasonableness," or the modern liberal's criteria of "hate and prejudice," is just a big, fat lie. It is the very tyrannical imposition of a particular view of the good the eradication of which liberalism pretends to base its entire project upon! In fact, it is a more tyrannical imposition than any dark-aged autocrat could have envisioned; for, whatever tyrannies existed under the rule of Throne and Altar, they were, at least, honest tyrannies; the modern brand of tyrant rules, as E. Michael Jones has demonstrated, by convincing his willing victims that he brings "liberation" in the form of access to pornography, contraception, abortion, McDonalds, and MTV.

Once we see we have been lied to, we can escape from the immorality of living out this lie by rejecting liberalism absolutely and seeking to overthrow it, "The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch." For Fish, true morality can come about only if we have purged the liberal lie from our souls, for then we can be truly free to "figure out what you think is right and then look around for ways to be true to it." This is the content of morality for Fish, and he finishes his essay with an exhortation to be moral. In short: Liberalism is immorality; reject liberalism and become moral! There seems to be no more radical rejection of the liberal order possible, since liberalism identifies itself as morality itself, and exhorts us to reject anti-liberalism to become moral. If I were Fish, I would hire a bodyguard. Liberals cannot be trusted to be tolerant.

Bad Fish

“The genius of the liberal state,” Kenneth Craycraft tells us, “is precisely its ability to afford a rather wide range of individual religious liberty, while denying the most fundamental and authentic freedom— that of a church which would presume to judge and, when necessary, condemn the regime as immoral.” (Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. The American Myth of Religious Freedom. [Dallas: Spence, 1996], 100). The liberal regime is analogous to a modern Pontius Pilate. The Pontius Pilate in this case is the liberalized Catholic citizens of the modern state, habituated out of the consciousness of their moral obligation to hold Caesar in check through authoritative prophetic witness. We have been told that to presume such a moral power is "unreasonable." The “crowd” (the Jews in the Gospels, the neoconservatives, neo-Catholics, and Americanists of today) would just not have it.

Now, Fish's solution would be to have a state in which everyone has the right to judge and condemn the regime at every moment, since, for Fish, "conflict is the name of our condition." I agree that conflict is intrinsic to a fallen world and hence a fallen politics, and anyone who disagrees with this is just plain stupid. Chesterton said that the dogma of original sin is irrefutable—just read the newspapers. But the only logical conclusion is outright war, if we digest Fish properly. And no one wants that, at least not as the only indicator that we are being moral! Fish thinks that politics is war because he is an anti-foundationalist when it comes to morality. He is like Hume in this respect, except Hume was happy enough with his tea-time at 3:00 PM, even if violent anarchy could never be perpetually avoided according to Hume's own principles; at least it wouldn't happen in his lifetime, he might have gambled. Fish would rather skip the tea and urge us all to join the moral army of fighting for our beliefs right now, even if we can't know for sure that they are true beliefs! A nihilistic army of moral warriors, all against all, is the truth of things, so let's, at least, live honestly.

But of course, Fish can't know for sure, according to his self-sabotaging epistemology, that this state of moral war is the truth of things! Thus, his writing is no different in its deceptiveness than Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration or Rawls's Theory of Justice. Fish, like Locke and his modern disciples, can give us nothing other than yet another iteration of "the universal judgment of mankind" or "reasonableness" or "democracy" or "the war on terror" or what have you, that is, some "from the inside" platitudinous truth claim that masks itself as "the way things are" and is ostensibly accessible from the outside. (Why else would Fish publish his writings if they weren't publicly accessible?)

In spite of Fish's deceptiveness, I admire him—in the same way I admire Nietzsche. They both have the courage to display openly the intellectual, moral, and political consequences that ensue when one denies the existence of objective truth with respect to God's will and the ability to know such objective truth. This is what liberalism denies, hiding its denial. Insofar as Fish exposes this subterfuge, he is an effective enemy of liberalism and a friend of Catholicism. However, insofar as he engages in this denial himself, even though he is open about it, he must still be considered an enemy to the cause of Christ.

The Protestant Revolutionaries denied the certain truths declared by the infallible teaching authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, as well as the capacity of Her custodians and all faithful Christians to be certain of Her possession of the truth. They supplanted this authority and certainty with Sola Scriptura, an inexorably subjective and "from the inside" conduit to definitive and saving knowledge about Christ. The Enlightenment liberals then built on this subjectivist sand and supplanted the Bible with "reason." The post-modernists then supplanted reason with "irony," and the "truth" that there is no access to universal truth about the will of God, or at least no way to know that one has access to it. And at the end of this line, we find Fish.

The Fisherman's Line

Ultimately, only Jesus Christ has the authority to settle the just bounds between Church and state because He is the author of both. By the fact of His Incarnation, he brought together Church and state, Heaven and earth, divinity and humanity for the first time, and after bringing them together, He commanded their proper separation: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Therefore, in order to know we owe Caesar and God today, we must listen to His authentic and infallible mouthpiece. Unless we have access to the voice of Christ, Fish is right—there is no way of solving the problem; it is mission impossible.

Yet, there must be a solution because Christ commanded us to solve the problem. In short, Christ must have given us a sure and "from the outside" way of determining His will regarding the proper ordering of Church and state. Anything but a living, visible, unified, universal, hierarchical, concrete, corporal institution whose unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity can be recognized by all "from the outside" could not afford us the clear determination of Christ's will. Anything less inevitably perpetuates both the denial of access, and the subjective uncertainty of that access, to the definitive truth regarding Christ's will, a denial and uncertainty that makes the just separation of the prerogatives of Church and state impossible. What we would have without it is either outright war or the Procrustean attempt to make the message of the Gospel fit into the arbitrary will of whoever happens to be ruling the state - in short, chaos or a hopelessly compromised Christianity.

Is our only alternative a perpetual chorus of liberals like Locke and Fish telling us what reality is and what the "true" Church is and what God wants, people who claim to know something they don't know and to do something they can't do? Is there no end to the Lockes, Rousseaus, and Rawlses; the Jeffersons, Madisons, and Wilsons; the Weigels, Novaks, and Neuhauses, that is, deluded, prideful men daring to instruct the Catholic Church on what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, whether in the name of “nature,” “freedom,” and “democracy” – or even in the name of the Church Herself?

No one but God can define His Church and Her relationship with the state; no man is God but Christ; and no one can authoritatively speak for Christ other than His Holy Roman Catholic Church. Only She has absolute freedom of conscience; only She has been authorized to speak for God on what belongs to Him! To hook Fish and unlock Locke, we repair to that line of expert fishermen that traces its ancestry back to that first fisherman, a fisherman who was also a locksmith; for he was told by Christ to be "a fisher of men," and was given the keys of the Kingdom.CW

This article was published in the April, 2005 issue of Culture Wars.

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