People sometimes ask me if there are any avowedly liberal writers I enjoy reading and learn from. Just now, I stumbled across a recent blog posting by the liberal Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters, and was reminded of how much I get out of his stuff. Here he is addressing a punchy column by Nicholas Hahn calling him out on using the term “neocon” as an epithet when he, Winters, actually supports many of the policies advocated by neocons. Winters replies, in part:

Needless to say, I stand by all the charges Hahn cites that I have, over the years, laid at the feet of the Catholic neo-cons.

But, not all opponents of neo-conservatism are like all other opponents of neo-conservatism. Growing up in Connecticut, as a young man I was an Ella Grasso Democrat: pro-labor, pro-Israel, pro-life. I am still an Ella Grasso Democrat. My ideas have changed, to be sure, on a range of issues. Certainly, the more I have learned about the rich intellectual traditions of the Catholic Church, I have found myself less persuaded by anything that even has a whiff of faddishness. Alas, those who think they need not be bothered with intellectual history are not liberals, they are merely ignorant. And, I have learned too, the truth of an observation once made by Maritain to the effect that we are born into the world with a liberal heart or a conservative heart and, in any event, there is nothing we can do about that, but that the surest means to intellectual integrity is to pay special attention to the wisdom yielded by those who heart is different from my own. There is much a liberal can learn from reading Burke, just as there is much a conservative can learn from reading Schlesinger. I regularly dine, or at least share martinis, with a friend who is a verifiable, self-identified neo-con, and I always come away smarter from our conversations. Nonetheless, I was then and am now a man of the left in my politics to be sure and, more complicatedly, in my religious sensibilities.

Mr. Hahn seems to think that I am intellectually inconsistent because, on certain foreign policy issues, I end up recommending the same policy ideas as the neo-cons, Catholic and otherwise. I do not know Mr. Hahn, but from his picture he looks like a young man, so perhaps he does not recall the proud history of what was once known as liberal internationalism.

I take his point, but in all honesty, I believe that Hahn made a better argument than Winters gives him credit for. Nevertheless, there’s something about the way Winters writes that I find inviting, even when I disagree with him (as I often do). I am not a regular reader of his, so if you post a MSW column or blog posting that’s crackpot, well, it may come as news to me. Still, I find that whenever I encounter something thoughtful and challenging from someone on the Catholic left, it’s almost always written either by Damon Linker or Michael Sean Winters.

For me, the virtues of Michael Sean Winters are fully present in this 1999 New Republic review of the orthodox Catholic theologian David Schindler‘s book, Heart Of The World, Center Of The Church. I had never read the review, but Winters posted it to his National Catholic Reporter blog this summer, saying that the book had a profound influence on his worldview as a Catholic confronting modernity. The review is quite long; here are some characteristic excerpts:

To the extent that the Catholic Church presents an intellectual face to American culture, it usually wears a neo-conservative smirk. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel are probably the three best-known Catholic intellectuals in America. All three were singed by the revolutionary temperament of the 1960s, and all three have since sought to “restore” the values that they believe made America great. They are morally serious figures; and few would argue that the moral condition of a democracy is an insignificant matter. The writings of the Catholic neo-conservatives have aimed at posing the question whether a people can be self-governing if the citizens themselves (to say nothing of their political leaders) have no sense of moral self-governance. At a time when parts of urban America often appear as a photographic negative of what we mean by civilization, and the airwaves are dripping with quasi-pornographic accounts of the President’s adventures, this is an especially urgent question.

It is also not a new question. The Founders were deeply concerned with preventing liberty from descending into license. But they were writing at a time when most people were deeply moralistic, in a society in which there were fewer competing moralities. In twentieth-century America, there is a free market in moralities; but this is not the sort of free market that conservatives and neo-conservatives admire most. And so the neo-conservatives have tried to lay the groundwork for a shared moral discourse, an ethical vocabulary inspired by religious values but one which is fundamentally non-sectarian, appealing to human reason. Their candidate for this shared moral discourse is the natural law, defined by Weigel as “the claim that…there is a moral logic built into the world and into us: a logic that reasonable men and women can grasp by disciplined reflection on the dynamics of human action.” This natural law, Weigel asserts, respects the pluralism of modern society, while providing sufficient rigor to define deviancy and to promote the common good.

While natural law theory has been the dominant source of all Catholic social ethics, its secular American pedigree is equally unimpeachable. The Declaration of Independence makes its appeal to “the law of nature and of nature’s God.” In his farewell address, George Washington famously said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who would labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”

It is a fair question whether Jesus of Nazareth intended his teachings to be reduced to an ideology of Americanism, but religion must take a stance toward the world. This stance must be theologically informed and, whatever its character, it will have political consequences. The great experiment of liberalism overturned the alliance of Throne and Altar, yet the disposition to unite them anew burns with Metternich-like ferocity in the neo-conservative breast. The throne of their desire happens to be a democratic polity and a capitalist economy; but theologically speaking, a state is a state, a throne is a throne, worldly power is worldly power. The neo-conservative Catholics seem not to understand the distinction between engagement with the world and complicity with the world. For this reason, they have lost the great advantage that faith confers upon the faithful in any society: a genuinely critical standpoint.


David Schindler’s book is the most important Catholic text to be published in the United States for some time, because he attempts to apply the idea of [theologian Hans Urs von] Balthasar to the social and political situation in America.

The usual view of contemporary Catholic theology sees two camps” the liberals who succeeded in opening the Church to the world at Vatican II and who have been in decline in the era of John Paul II, and the conservatives who think the Church went too far in the 1960s to accommodate the world, and support what they see as John Paul’s restorationist program. Schindler argues for (if you’ll pardon the expression) a third way. In his analysis, the liberals want more accommodation with the world and conservatives want less accommodation with the world, but they are still arguing about the rules of engagement. And both fail to appreciate the radicalness of the scriptural claim that “in [Jesus] everything in heaven and on earth was created.”

For Schindler, the Christian must always consider the claims of faith first, and those claims extend to the entirety of his or her life. Classical liberalism claims that in the realms of the ontological and the sectarian, the polity has no preference: a Christian is free to pursue his faith and any citizen can make whatever truth claims about the universe that he wishes. To use Murray’s distinction, the Bill of Rights are not “articles of faith” but “articles of peace.” But, Schindler asks, are there not truth claims, religious truth claims, already implicit in this putatively “neutral” state?

Specifically, Schindler argues that Thomistic dualism is the sine qua non of liberal political regimes and, therefore, the neutrality of the liberal state is a sham. Murray’s “articles of peace” formulation assumes a logical priority for freedom before truth, and inevitably issues in a “privatization” of religion. Since the Church is prevented from approaching the world “as Church” (welcome, but please leave your dogma at the door!) it is reduced to the role of an ethical authority. This role, in turn, shapes the Church’s self-understanding so that what results is not only the secularization of society that the neo-conservatives decry, but also the secularization of religion itself. Being “Christian” is reduced to being kind.

On Schindler’s reading, Novak and Weigel and the party of Murray start with the world and like what they see and argue backwards. They are trying to baptize liberalism. But liberalism already possesses a philosophy of man, and it is proudly at odds with the radically Christ-centered view of man propounded by Balthasar. Schindler denies the formal priority for liberty before truth that is at the heart of liberalism: he is writing as a Catholic. Weigel has described the role of Christians in the world as “resident aliens”; but for Schindler, liberalism is alienating for the Christian, not the world. He does not elide the difference between Christianity and the liberalism of the modern world; he cherishes it for its clarifying effect.

Read the entire review — which is not entirely favorable, mind you, but sees the enormous value, and challenge, in Schindler’s teaching. I just re-read the essay for the first time since I initially saw it this summer, and MSW’s discussion of Balthasar and Schindler makes me wonder if I’ve understood the Pope Francis of the Interview fully.

I’m afraid I do not have the theological chops to read Schindler Winters’s essay led me, in the way these herky-jerky Internet things do, to a terrific essay about Balthasar and “theological emotivism” by Adrian Walker, and Jeremy Beer’s admiring piece about Schindler and his own theology. From the Beer essay:

Now, the first thing to note is that Schindler believes that limited government, the separation of church and state, human rights, and religious freedom are legitimate achievements that ought to be preserved. But he simply does not believe (1) that liberalism, or any other conception of order, can successfully prescind from metaphysics (he quotes philosopher Etienne Gilson: “metaphysics always buries its undertakers”), or (2) that these achievements can be preserved if they are grounded in the unwitting metaphysics of liberalism rather than in the metaphysics of love.

Schindler’s argument is multifaceted, but as his son David C. Schindler draws it out in Being Holy in the World, on one level it goes like this: by asking Christians to “bracket” their metaphysical commitments for purposes of public order, liberalism essentially asks them to accept a different metaphysics—indeed, a different theology. Christianity does not present itself as just one pre-critical commitment among others, but as the matrix or “paradigm” of rationality itself. One either rejects that claim, and is therefore not a Christian, or one accepts it as a Christian as the basis for reflection and understanding. There can be no middle, “bracketing” way.

For the Christian, the only adequate notion of reality is one that grows out of a Trinitarian understanding of the logos. The Trinitarian life of God means that love, as we have seen, is at the heart of the structure and meaning of being. But we do not really receive that logos as a logosunless we see that it grounds and transforms our understanding of everything. It is the furthest thing possible from a truth claim that might safely be bracketed from public discussion. Thus, “bracketing” one’s Christian commitments from one’s thinking at any time, as liberalism demands, is to be not only false to Christianity, but to be false to reality.

In this way, all of our political, economic, legal, and religious institutions are necessarily grounded in some conception of order—in a metaphysics—even if they reject or ignore the Christian claim. From the Christian view, liberal institutions foster a problematic “mode of being”—a distorting matrix for the formation of our intentions, attitudes, and ideas. Thus, the idea that just putting “good people,” or at least those with the “right ideas,” into political office will make a decisive cultural difference is insufficiently attentive to the shaping power of this matrix in a liberal regime.

According to the Schindler, “the failure to take seriously the implications of Christianity as a logos” is the supreme characteristic of liberal modernity, even for Christians, and leads to a practical atheism. Perhaps the very reason, he speculates, that church attendance remains so high in the United States is that one can claim a Christian commitment without letting it interfere with the real business of life. Because American Christianity has been privatized, it is also highly secularized.

And … boom, I find myself as a cultural and political conservative, an Orthodox Christian (that is to say, not a Catholic), inspired by a liberal Catholic writer to  read more about Balthasar and Schindler, and to read Balthasar and Schindler themselves, and to re-think Pope Francis’s interview in Schindlerian-Balthasarian terms. This is why I value reading Michael Sean Winters: not because he’s right all of the time, or even most of the time, and not because his is a consistently irenic and kindly voice, but because he is one of those uncommon writers on either the left or the right whose idea of thinking is, well, thinking. You want a pointed example? Here he is, writing from the Catholic Left, in robust opposition to the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate, because it violates the religious freedom of Catholic institutions.

This quote from Winters’s blog today:

And, I have learned too, the truth of an observation once made by Maritain to the effect that we are born into the world with a liberal heart or a conservative heart and, in any event, there is nothing we can do about that, but that the surest means to intellectual integrity is to pay special attention to the wisdom yielded by those who heart is different from my own.

Yes. This.

UPDATE: Well, I knew there was something he had written in recent years that just pissed me off. Here it is: his bitchy review of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, a book that I read and loved. From Douthat’s published response:

I am equally baffled by Winters’s suggestion that I am rewriting history from “the corner office view at AEI.” In reality, Bad Religion specifically and repeatedly criticizes the Bush administration’s foreign policy, bemoans the uncritical support that conservative Catholics lent to the war in Iraq, and criticizes religious conservatives (Protestant and Catholic alike) for lending Christian support to waterboarding. Again, none of these points are minor or inconsequential or easily missed. Nor is my broader critique of conservatism’s post-1970s trajectory, which encompasses everything from the heretical tendencies of Ronald Reagan to the apocalyptic enthusiasms of Glenn Beck. But apparently all of this, too, taxed Winters’s reading comprehension.

The rest of Winters’s review is snide, tendentious, and frequently unfair.

Yes, this is true.