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Carlism and the Catholic Right

The following is one of my first posts at Talk to Action. I am reposting it here simply because it helps us better understand the reactionaries within our Church. As my good friend Fred Clarkson always says, it is important to know your opponents. -FLC

On June 6, 1970 the Society for a Christian Commonwealth, which published Triumph, and the “Sons of Thunder” under the leadership of (Frederick “Fritz”) Wilhelmsen and (L . Brent) Bozell, conducted “the Action for Life,” which was probably the first anti-abortion demonstration in the United States. Fritz, students from the University of Dallas, and others appeared on the scene dressed like Spanish Carlists, or requetes, with red berets, khaki shirts with Sacred Heart patches, and rosaries around their necks. Wilhelmsen, brandishing a twelve-inch crucifix, read from Matthew 25 and the Book of Revelation, warning America that it must someday face God and receive judgment for the killing of its children.

If we are to understand what is at the heart of the Catholic Right’s agenda, then we must understand Carlism, one of the preeminent political philosophy in Spain from the 1830s through the reign of Franco’s regime.

What is Carlism?

Carlism is a political philosophy originally developed to help reestablish the Bourbon monarchy in Spain. First emerging as political force in the 1830s, it was primarily a reaction to the increasingly progressive rules of Charles III (1759-1788) and Charles IV (1788-1808), notably the latter’s pressure on the Church to sell its property for government revenue. Similar events continued to created tension between the monarchy and the Church.

As Spain became less theocratic forces such as the Carlists, among others, engaged sometime violent struggles to impose a Bourbon monarchy that would bind the church and state as one. Between the 1830s and the Spanish Civil, five separate Carlists made claims to the Spanish throne (the Carlist label is derived from followers of Don Carlos, son of Carlos IV who initially challenged the non-salic ascendancy of Isabella II to the Spanish throne in 1833). Its efforts cumulated in the fascist-instigated Civil War lasting from 1936 through 1939.

While there are variations of this political philosophy two of its common hallmarks should stand out to those who are concerned about theocratic trends in the world. First, it sees ultra-orthodox Catholicism as the cornerstone of the state. Secondly, sovereignty is vested not with the people, but with a monarch, who in turn is answerable only to the Catholic Church.  Whether it be full-blown Carlists or those whose political vision is only influenced by it, these are the two commonly held themes that appear in their various pronouncements.

Are There American Carlists?

Carlism has had varying influence on different members of the Catholic Right. Its truest adherents are found in groups such as Tradition, Family and Property and individuals such as Dr. Alexandra Wilhelmsen.  Although not full-blown Carlists or even identifying themselves with the Carlist name, its influence is clearly present in the elitist writings of theoconservatives such as John Neuhaus, Robert H. Bork and to a lesser extent, George Weigel.

Carlism’s influence is also found in varying degrees among Opus Dei members and cooperators It’s founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer was openly Carlist (i). Two icons of the American Right during the mid twentieth century, Willmore Kendall (an admirer of neoconservative guru Leo Strauss ) and Frederick Wilhelmsen, taught at the Opus Dei-founded University of Navarra in Pampalona, Spain. Both Wilhelmsen and Kendall eventually settled in at the University of Dallas that to this day is an educational bastion of the extreme Catholic Right.  In fact, Wilhelmsen’s daughter Alexandra still teaches there and is not bashful in her admiration of the philosophy’s principle elements:

The first component of the Carlist maxim, “God,” implied an acceptance of the traditional sacral view of society inherited from the Middle Ages and still quite prevalent in Spain throughout the nineteenth century. Carlists advocated a renewed commitment by all branches of the government to Christian beliefs and ethics. The “Dios” of their motto, stemming from a strong Catholic tradition strengthened during the struggle against Islam, carried four main themes: confessionality of the State, religious unity of the nation, close collaboration between Church and State, and independence of the Church.(ii)

These common attitudes of “struggle,” “religious unity” and “church independence”–something more progressive Catholics view as a lack of accountability–are infused into much of the leadership of the more extreme elements of the Catholic Right. They were clearly apparent forty years ago when L. Brent Bozzell roared, “The Catholic Church in America must forthrightly acknowledge that a state of war exists between herself and the American political order” or when Institute on Religion and Democracy Board member John Neuhaus openly questions the legitimacy of American government because of its pluralism and when Robert H. Bork in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah bemoans Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.  Esoterically, what today’s Carlists or neo-Carlists are saying is that they want a society where even non-Catholics are bound by their subjective, but ultra-orthodox interpretations of Thomistic morality.

To understand how Carlist-inspired ultra-traditionalists view pluralistic society, consider this passage concerning Frederick Wilhelmsen and his daughter Alexandra:

“The main political and social theme in Wilhelmsen’s thought,” his daughter Dr. Alexandra Wilhelmsen has written, “was sacral society (instead of secular).” Fritz’s Catholic activism, his social and political apostolate as a Carlist, his Hispanidad, was inspired by the profound conviction he shared with Hilaire Belloc (iii)and Henry Cardinal Manning that “all political philosophy at bottom is political theology and that very political problem…is at root theological.” That was why Dr. Wilhelmsen often pointed out that the Carlist Militia wore Sacred Heart patches over their hearts when they liberated Madrid in March of 1939. “The world is hostile to the Church,” he wrote in 1968, “because the world is secularist and the Church must sacramentalize the whole of existence.  A sacral world is one with the Faith’s perpetual rejection of Manicheanism and of any dualism that sharpely(sic) divorces the sacred from the profane.” (iv) (emphasis added)

Dr. Alexandra Wilhelmsen’s quote is telling for several reasons. First and foremost is her description of Franco’s Nationalist forces, with its Nazi and Fascist benefactors, as “liberators.” But it also illustrates the inconsistency in Carlist-inspired orthodoxy. For example, many in this school, from Donald D’Elia to Romano Guardini to Robert H. Bork–much like their more secular Straussian brethren–warn of Nazi-styled nihilism pervading modern society. Yet in idealizing Franco’s Spain they fail to recognize how both Hitler and Mussolini played vital roles in establishing a Falangist regime on the Iberian penninsula.

It is this last characteristic that is most troubling. As The New Republic’s Jacob Heilbrunn noted, “…by and large, Catholic conservatives, like conservatives in general, chose Buckley’s way, not Bozell’s.”(v)  But there still exists among theocons such as John Neuhaus the pre-Vatican II belief that all faiths other than Catholicism are erroneous and that the liberties of these other faiths should not be protected equally.

A variation of this theme is now being played out by Opus Dei cooperator and Legatus founder Thomas Monaghan in his planned Ave Maria Florida community. Much like Franco’s Spain, orthodox Catholic teachings, not the will of the people will be the final word on public morality. But nowhere is this attitude is taken to greater extremes than with the group known as Tradition, Family and Property.

TFP is a colorful group that goes well beyond Opus Dei. The organization’s emblem even incorporates Carlist symbols such as the golden lion. Its members can be seen in their characteristic red shawls and medieval-styled banners on some college campuses and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Its members are openly scornful of liberal democracy citing the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment as the events that caused the fall of society. Their remedy is “the preferential for the nobility. It is simply impossible to be more reactionary.

And much like Neuhaus, Bozell and others of the Catholic Right, TFP advocates chivalry and manliness–something eerily similar to teachings of neoconservatives such as Harvey C. Mansfield. Similar to fascism, Carlism, TFP and others on the Catholic Right desire a theocratic world where the individual is not measured by either the merit of his efforts or his good citizenship, but more by birthright and subjective belief.

Dignitatis Humanae and John Courtney Murray

The undemocratic belief of Church and state as one began eroding within official Catholic teachings with the onset of the Second World War. One of the primary heroes in doing away with this archaic concept was John Courtney Murray, S.J. Although personally conservative on many Vatican teachings, Murray wrote for the Jesuit periodical America understood that secular society does not erode religious liberty but in fact guarantees it. To this end, Murray believed that the liberties of all faiths should be equally protected.

Murray came to his view in light of the rise of racist variants of fascism in Germany, Italy–and Spain in the run up to World War II.  He fully understood that in the war Americans and many others were giving their lives to preserve the true meaning of religious freedom. And t that end, he came to believe that the Catholic Church could be more effective in its advocacy by engaging in the democratic process rather than trying to suppress it.

For his troubles the Vatican censored Murray, refusing to allow him to publish any religious tracts. This occurred during the period aptly described by Garry Wills as “the silent terror,” which prevailed during the papacy of Pius XII. But with the aggiornomento or openness of Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II, Murray’s ideas took root in mainstream Catholic thought.

The result of this sea change was Dignitatis Humanae. In what could be considered one of the greatest victories over the forces of reaction, it proclaimed that everyone has a right to religious liberty, a right that is grounded in the essential dignity of each individual. While the Church still viewed itself as the vessel of “the truth,” it wisely concluded that individuals must be free to seek the truth without coercion. That is still the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Why Carlist Thought is Still a Danger to American Society

Yet as illustrated above there are nefarious forces working within Catholicism to return it to a new reign of terror.” They will utilize membership in groups such as Opus Dei to effect this change with the church while using vehicles such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy to do the same within other denominations.

For those who would have Americans bow before monarchs, only the obvious need be stated: we abrogated such loyalties at Yorktown more than two hundred years ago. Similarly, for those who would make us subject to “benign” tyrants, history has demonstrated that there is no such thing. Tyrants by their very nature are far from benign. It is why we stood up to the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and Stalin.

But we must once again return to admonition of Jesuit priest Wilfred Parsons: “‘The great tragedy of Spain was that in the nineteenth century the working masses apostatized from the Church, as Pope Plus X once remarked.  And, it is well to remember, it was poverty, destitution and injustice which made them apostatize. They got to hate the Church because they hated the friends of the Church, who exploited them and whom the Church did nothing to rebuke or correct.”

Among those hated “friends of the Church” described by Parsons were the Carlists and other pompous plutocrats who place their exalted position on Earth well above the common good. And while many on the Catholic Right are not calling for a return to monarchy, they are influenced by the Carlism’s core notion: a nation answers not to the will of a pluralistic people, but to the will of Vatican law. It is at the heart of George Weigel’s recent declaration, “Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale teaches us that, while there are many lenses through which history can be read, theological lenses help us to see deeper, farther, and more truly.” (vi)  When Weigel speaks of “consent” he is more concerned with religious authority than with vox populi.

Unfortunately, Carlism’s American heirs–George Weigel, Thomas Monaghan and John Neuhaus–all believe in a society not built upon the meritocracy of the common citizen, but of one that unjustly gives deference to birthright and privilege. If they were ever to succeed it would end the noble experiment of American democracy as generations have known it. Then the last best hope for mankind would take a giant step back into the Dark Ages.

And that is just what the Carlists want.


(i) The Irish Echo, “Soft Focus Opus,” Peter McDermott; Posted for July 26 – August 1, 2006 edition. Link: http://www.irishecho.com/newspaper/story.cfm?id=17834

(ii)  Wilhelmsen, Alexandra, Carlism’s Defense of the Church in Spain, 1833-1936, Link: http://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/FR90403.TXT

(iii)  The citing of Belloc by the current Catholic Right exposes further hypocrisy on their part. While Belloc advocated orthodoxy, he also advocated Distributism economics–a key feature of New Deal economic policies. Obviously, this is one feature of Belloc’s teachings that are conveniently ignored by the Catholic Right, the very thing that makes them “Smorgasbord” Catholics.

(iv)  D’Elia, Donald, Citizen of Rome: Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, citing “Hallowed Be They World,”  page 143.

(v) “Neocon vs. Theocon: The New Fault Line on the Right,” The New Republic, posted, December 12, 1996 . Link: http://web.archive.org/web/20010914000605/http://www.tnr.com/arch

ive/1996/12/123096/heilbrunn123096.html Heilbrunn does go on to overstate the importance of Roe vs. Wade, by claiming it significantly radicalized American Catholic conservatives. While some conservative Catholics did become hardened in their orthodoxy, such a reaction is more the exception than the rule.

(iv)  Weigel, George, “Europe’s Problem–and Our’s”; First Things 140 February 2004, pages 18-25.


11 Responses

  1. How I wish you were correct! Unfortunately, most of the men that you cite (Fr. Neuhaus, George Wiegel, Mr. Monaghan, etc.) are really quite liberal when it comes right down to it. They might have a purely theoretical allegiance to the social kingship of Christ, or they might understand Catholic doctrine a little better than average Joe, and try to practice it a little more rigorously, but they are all quite satisfied with the changes Vatican II wrought, and certainly none of them will be agitating for an American monarchy anytime soon.

    Would that they would do so, however! Since when, I’d like to know, does Catholicism, a coherent theological and philosophical belief system with explicit teachings, been open to question, or to dissent by its members? What gives a Catholic the ‘right’ to speak against a teaching, any more than the Americans had a ‘right’ to commit treason against their lawful sovereign before God and men in 1776?

    No man has a ‘right’ to error. Error can be tolerated, when it would be the lesser of two evils because the sword should not be used to compel men to become members of the Church, but in a society of Catholics, it would justly be forbidden for an outsider to come into town, erect a Protestant building, and start some sect. Obviously, this would be a great evil, because this is heresy, and heresy is falsehood -akin to spiritual murder, particularly as it sends souls to hell. A Catholic society could in good conscience not admit false preachers to seduce the people into heresy, any more than it could allow public drunkenness or other moral vices.

    And, of course, in principle every society should be Catholic, because every man should be Catholic, because Catholicism is, as Our Lord said, “the way, the truth, and the life.” One cannot be saved except by becoming a member of Christ’s Catholic Church, and so we should be very solicitous to convert as many people as possible -who will then form Christian societies, forbid heresy, etc.

    The ‘dark ages’, as they’re so derogatorily referred to by many moderns, were actually a glorious time. Life was undeniably harder, without many of the material comforts and conveniences we appreciate today, but men had a much greater likelihood of saving their souls, and much more ready access to the sacraments, etc. Men were real men, women were real women, and there were a huge number of saints. How many saints do you think our time produces, when virtually everybody is ensnared in worldly pursuits due to the modern lifestyle, redolent as it is of ease and comfort?

    Long live the Carlistas —Dios, patria, Rey, fueros!

    • Eric,
      Catholicism has always been open to question. It may well be a “coherent philosophical system”, but that does not mean we are expected to switch off our brains and bow down to the voice of the Catechism. This is just as well, for history shows that the official teachings have frequently been wrong. (on slavery, usury, and the “dangers” of democracy, for example). This is why the formal teaching of the Church in fact requires us to think for ourselves, insists that we have have not only the right but the duty to follow conscience where it is in conflict with the formal teaching, and obliges us, in canon law, to speak up and tell our pastors when we think they are wrong.

      Your words give you away, when you you glibly dismiss the quoted thinkers as “really quite liberal when it comes right down to it”, and add ” but they are all quite satisfied with the changes Vatican II wrought”. If you believe, as you appear to do, that “liberal” views and acceptance of the church’s declared belies, as stated at a general council disqualifies one as a Catholic in good standing, then you, not they, the one out of step with the formal teaching of the Church.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Terence.

    I disagree with your premise -that is, that one must ‘switch off one’s brain’ in order to accept some of the things in the catechism. Indeed, one should never accept something unquestioningly -every single article of the faith is in conformity with reason: some cannot be discovered by reason, and we know them by faith (for example: the truth of the Trinity is from divine revelation, and natural reason can’t arrive at this truth independently of its being revealed by God) but all can be and should be, nay, must be reconcilable with reason. The Trinity, though it cannot be deduced purely from logic and reason, is not in opposition to reason -and the same holds for every single doctrine of the Church.

    These doctrines cannot change: what was true in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died, 1198 (accession of Pope Innocent III, arguably the height of the Middle Ages) 1565 (Council of Trent) and 1962 (first year of Vatican II) is still just as true today.

    The Church’s teaching on slavery is that it is not intrinsically evil, but nevertheless is almost never conducive to the salvation of souls -for slave-owners or for those held as slaves. Therefore, the Church’s leavening of society succeeded in extirpating this practice, until it was reintroduced in the European colonies by men of less than exemplary moral character, who bought slaves from those who had no compunction in selling them (Jews, Muslims, and African tribesmen.) The morality of slavery has not changed a whit from Roman times until now —something which could be tolerated in the fairly benign and customary form it took in ancient Rome would be sinful to introduce in a society where it does not exist.

    Usury is still sinful, too, despite the fact that its practice is virtually universal today. We may thank the Protestant ‘reformation’ for that, as many men used it to liberate themselves from the ‘oppressive’ yoke of Catholic morality, (which has been acknowledged by many rationalists and unbelievers to be the most perfect system of morals ever devised —von Harnack, for instance.)

    Likewise, democracy, while not, strictly speaking, evil in itself, is an inferior form of government, as natural philosophy can show, and seldom endures in any society larger than a city-state. In its modern form, it is very dangerous for the faith, because this modern form is avowedly secular, and even if it is not, ‘truth’ is at the whim of popular sovereignty -an atrocious notion. Power on earth comes from God to the government, not ‘below’ from the people. Pope Pius VI well stated, during the French Revolution, that “monarchy is the best of all governments.” St. Thomas Aquinas, the best theologian the Church has ever known (and perhaps the most brilliant man that ever lived) bears him out.

    We always have the duty to think for ourselves -to know what we believe, and why, and to follow our conscience. However, with this duty comes another: to inform our conscience well. We may legitimately disobey and resist our pastors, but only if we ground our disobedience (true obedience, as St. Thomas calls it) in the teachings of the Church, and not in our own novel opinions or fancies.

    Vatican II can be demonstrably shown to be at variance with prior Catholic teaching on several points -as the original article gleefully pointed out in regard to Dignitatis Humanae and the question of religious liberty, for example. Therefore, either the constant teaching of the Church was wrong (impossible, as such a notion is at variance with the equally timeless understanding of the Church as the infallible keeper and expounder of God’s truth) or Vatican II was wrong. I humbly submit that it was the latter, because it was in itself a novelty, being explicitly and avowedly pastoral in nature, and omitting to define and pronounce dogmatic definitions, condemn current errors, etc. Furthermore, this is clear when we consider the very notion of something “pastoral” -it is “appropriate for the times, subject to change, a matter of practice” rather than a matter of faith and morals. Therefore, as grand a production as Vatican II may have been, it falls only under the ordinary magisterium -meaning, it’s only “infallible” insofar as it reiterates the constant teaching of the Church. This, it failed to do in several places, and so those places are, quite simply, “fallible” and wrong.

    Religious liberty, considered in its core principles, is entirely at variance with the very essence of the Catholic religion, which presupposes one objective truth, and a divine mandate from God to preach that truth.

    • Eric, thank you for a clear and full exposition of your thinking. After I placed my initial response, I began to wonder if I had misunderstood you, but it seems not. I have to say that I disagree with both your assumptions and your reasoning. However, I am not going to engage in this in a comments thread. Many of these points will be dealt with repeatedly as this site develops.

      I will respond to your full reply a little later, in an independent post.

    • Some comments on your comments.

      You say:

      Likewise, democracy, while not, strictly speaking, evil in itself, is an inferior form of government, as natural philosophy can show, and seldom endures in any society larger than a city-state. In its modern form, it is very dangerous for the faith, because this modern form is avowedly secular, and even if it is not, ‘truth’ is at the whim of popular sovereignty -an atrocious notion. Power on earth comes from God to the government, not ‘below’ from the people. Pope Pius VI well stated, during the French Revolution, that “monarchy is the best of all governments.” St. Thomas Aquinas, the best theologian the Church has ever known (and perhaps the most brilliant man that ever lived) bears him out.

      Monarchy, the best form of government? Are we channeling de Maistre and his long discredited ideas?

      Thankfully we had a revolution in this country about 230 years ago that settled that issue. One of the reasons for that revolution was that King George was trying to foist upon the colonies the Church of England as its established church. Thankfully the Founders did not take too kindly r that idea. Monarchy is a good thing only if your beliefs are the same as the monarch’s.

      You also say:

      Religious liberty, considered in its core principles, is entirely at variance with the very essence of the Catholic religion, which presupposes one objective truth, and a divine mandate from God to preach that truth.

      “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

  3. It is interesting to find here a marvelous congruence between progressives and traditionalists, that is, in their rejection of Vatican II.

    Though progressives oftenpraise Vatican II to the skies, they tend to ignore its express teaching regarding Church authority, the theological truths propounded by the church, and on such hot button issues as the nature of marriage and abortion.

    Conservatives such as Mr. Jones expressly reject the teaching of an ecumentical council, and treat as “merely pastoral” statements which the pope and bishops embodied in documents called as “dogmatic constitutions.”

    A strange circumstance, when you think about it.

    • To equate traditionalists and mainstream Catholics who offer dissent in the name of pluralism and religious freedom is absurd.

      The traditionalists more often than not adhere to dogma out of a disdain for change. Those of us who you refer to as “progressives” do so in order to bring the the Church closer to the logical conclusion of Vatican II: a more open and transparent Church where Magisterium is not just a top-down but also bottom to top.

      • “To equate traditionalists and mainstream Catholics who offer dissent in the name of pluralism and religious freedom is absurd.”

        I don’t see what’s absurd about it. There is no “dissent” in general. I am talking about dissent from the teaching of Vatican II. The fact that progressives and traditionalists dissent “from different directions” doesn’t change the fact that both dissent from it. Traditionalists want to go back to Vatican I; progressive want to move on to the messianic Vatican III.

        It’s as if a Nestorian were to think it absurd that he were lumped in with Monophysites, though both equally dissent from Chalcedon.

        “The traditionalists more often than not adhere to dogma out of a disdain for change.”

        I would hesitate to say why anyone does anything. But traditionalists are not the only people who adhere to dogmas. Everyone does. Just different dogmas. Again, that’s why Lumen Gentium was called a “dogmatic constitution.”

        “the logical conclusion of Vatican II”

        By what logic does one go from affirmation to negation? (OK, Hegelian logic works that way, if one wants to adhere to that particular metaphysic. I’m not particularly enamored of Hegelianism, and Newman’s notion of Development works quite differently, moving toward a deeper affirmance and consistency with the “undevloped” doctrine).

  4. Didn’t Jesus specifically reject Satan’s offer of world domination. Am I missing something?

    Didn’t Jesus spend a lot of time answering questions and dialoguing with everyone? Or am I missing something else?

    Didn’t Jesus tell us God was love and that that definition superceded the one about power and authority? Or have I missed the whole boat?

  5. Yikes! The Carlsits and Opus Dei are indeed a great danger to American ‘democracy’. Thanks for waking me up to the imminent reign of Traditonal Catholicism over our 24/7 baby-killing porn factory!
    (sarcasm off)

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