For most casual observers, whether Catholic or not, the main battle lines within American Catholicism today seem self-evident. The cleavage overlaps perfectly the divide between the political parties, leading to the frequently-used labels “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. We have Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo representing the Left, and Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback aligned with the Right. Mainstream opinion has classified Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as honorary Republicans, and Pope Francis as a Democrat (hence, why he is appearing on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines).
This division does indeed capture real battle lines, but more than anything, the divide is merely an extension of our politics, and—while manned by real actors—does not capture where the real action is to be found today in American Catholic circles.
The real action does not involve liberal “Catholics” at all. Liberal Catholicism, while well-represented in elite circles of the Democratic Party, qua Catholicism is finished. Liberal Catholicism has no future—like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation. The children of liberal Catholics will either want their liberalism unvarnished by incense and holy water, or they will rebel and ask if there’s something more challenging, disobeying their parents by “reverting” to Catholicism. While “liberal” Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a “project” and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.
The real battle is taking place beyond the purview of the pages of Time Magazine and the New York Times. The battle pits two camps of “conservative” Catholicism (let’s dispense with that label immediately and permanently—as my argument suggests, and others have said better, our political labels are inadequate to the task).
On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert George, Hadley Arkes, and Robert Royal.
Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin—its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism—it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence. Murray went so far as to argue that America is in fact more Catholic than even its Protestant founders realized—that they availed themselves unknowingly of a longer and deeper tradition of natural law that undergirded the thinner liberal commitments of the American founding. The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project.
Proponents of this position argue that America was well-founded and took a wrong turn in the late-19th century with the embrace of Progressivism (this intellectual position, closely associated with intellectuals at Claremont McKenna College and Hillsdale College, was briefly popularized by Glenn Beck. It has been developed not especially by Catholics, but by students of Leo Strauss, but has been widely embraced by Catholics of this school). The task, then, is restore the basic principles of the American founding—limited government in which the social and moral mores largely arising from the familial and social sphere orient people toward well-ordered and moral lives. This position especially stresses a commitment to the pro-life position and a defense of marriage, and is generally accepting of a more laissez-faire economic position. It supports a vigorous foreign policy and embraces a close alignment between Catholicism and Americanism. It has become closely aligned with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.
On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism. Its main intellectual heroes are the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian David L. Schindler (brilliantly profiled in the pages of TAC by Jeremy Beer). These two figures write in arcane and sometimes impenetrable prose, and their position lacks comparably visible popularizers such as Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel. Its intellectual home—not surprisingly—is the less-accessible journal Communio. An occasional popularizer (though not always in strictly theological terms) has been TAC author Rod Dreher. A number of its sympathizers—less well-known—are theologians, some of whom have published in more popular outlets or accessible books, such as Michael Baxter, William T. Cavanaugh, and John Medaille. Among its rising stars include the theologian C.C. Pecknold of Catholic University and Andrew Haines, who founded its online home, Ethika Politika. From time to time I have been counted among its number.
The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism, among which (Catholics hold) are the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
Because of these positions, the “radical” position—while similarly committed to the pro-life, pro-marriage teachings of the Church—is deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, is deeply suspicious of America’s imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal government. It is comfortable with neither party, and holds that the basic political division in America merely represents two iterations of liberalism—the pursuit of individual autonomy in either the social/personal sphere (liberalism) or the economic realm (“conservatism”—better designated as market liberalism). Because America was founded as a liberal nation, “radical” Catholicism tends to view America as a deeply flawed project, and fears that the anthropological falsehood at the heart of the American founding is leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe. It wavers between a defensive posture, encouraging the creation of small moral communities that exist apart from society—what Rod Dreher, following Alasdair MacIntyre, has dubbed “the Benedict Option”—and, occasionally, a more proactive posture that hopes for the conversion of the nation to a fundamentally different and truer philosophy and theology.
While the New York Times (and Fox News) focuses on the theater pitting “liberal” vs. “conservative” Catholics, it has been altogether ignorant of the significant and, arguably, increasingly vociferous dust-ups that have been taking place between these two schools of thought. Recently, for example, Michael Baxter wrote a searing critique of John Courtney Murray, which provoked a vigorous response from George Weigel. Not too long ago, I was asked to write an essay about liberalism for the “other team’s” journal, First Things—entitled “Unsustainable Liberalism“—which provoked not just the two critical responses in the same issue, but a critique by Villanova Law professor Robert Miller and another more recently by Andrew Latham. The article was also criticized by my colleague Phillip Munoz and by Nathan Schleuter, with responses by me, going several more rounds, in the online journal “Public Discourse,” a publication closely associated with Robert George and the Witherspoon Institute. More recently still, a shrill salvo was launched by John Zmirak entitled “Illiberal Catholicism,” accusing the “rad trads” of pining for the reestablishment of Inquisition and hoping for an auto-da-fe of a few Protestants at the stake. His broadside provoked numerous responses, and signalled a considerable ratcheting-up of the battles over the fate of Catholicism in America. Just yesterday, Ethika Politika posted a critique of George Weigel by Thomas Storck, arguing that Weigel has been just as likely to act as a “cafeteria Catholic” as those he criticizes on the Left. One can expect the debate will only intensify as the stakes increase.
If one paid attention only to canned accounts of things Catholic in the mainstream media, you would think that there’s something called “conservative” Catholicism that spends all of its time fretting about liberal “Catholicism.” That debate, such as it is, is merely our well-rutted political division with a Latin accent; the real intellectual action that will likely influence the future of Catholicism in America is being fought in trenches largely out of sight of much of the American public, even those who are well-informed. As this debate develops—and, I believe, bursts into public view, and begins to engage the Catholic remnant—major implications for the relationship of Catholics to America, and America to Catholics, hang in the balance.
It is already evident for anyone with eyes to see that elites in America are returning to their customary hostility toward Catholicism, albeit now eschewing crude prejudice in favor of Mandates and legal filings (though there’s plenty of crude prejudice, too). For those in the Murray/Neuhaus/Weigel school, it’s simply a matter of returning us to the better days, and reviving the sound basis on which the nation was founded. For those in the MacIntyre/Schindler school, America was never well-founded, so either needs to be differently re-founded or at least endured, even survived. The relationship of Catholicism to America, and America to Catholicism, began with rancor and hostility, but became a comfortable partnership forged in the cauldron of World War II and the Cold War. Was that period one of “ordinary time,” or an aberration which is now passing, returning us to the inescapably hostile relationship? A growing body of evidence suggests that the latter possibility can’t simply be dismissed out of hand: liberalism appears to be daily more hostile to Catholicism, not merely disagreeing with its stances, but demanding that they be changed in conformity to liberal views on self-sovereignty (especially relating to human sexuality and marriage) or, failing that, that the Church be defined out of the bounds of decent liberal society, an institution no more respectable than the Ku Klux Klan. Whether the marriage between the (Catholic) Church and the (American) State can be rescued, or whether a divorce is in the offing, depends in large part on the outcome of this burgeoning debate about which most Americans are wholly unaware, but to which those with interests in the fate of the imperial Republic should to be paying attention.