Greetings from an airport hotel. Stupid winter. It just won’t quit, will it? Journey resumes in the morning. Grrr.
Patrick Deneen has an excellent and insightful piece today on TAC saying that the media and religion observers are missing the real story within American Catholicism. It’s not between liberal and conservative versions of Catholicism. Liberal Catholicism is a dead or dying project. It is between the two camps of “conservative” Catholicism — a label that Deneen rightly says is inadequate, and misleading. A better word is “orthodox Catholicism.”
On one side of the debate are those you might call neoconservative Catholics: the late Richard John Neuhaus and his intellectual circle, and heirs. On the other side are those you might call radicals. Excerpt from Deneen:
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 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.
I can’t possible do Deneen’s link-filled article justice by cherry-picking excerpts here. Read the whole thing. He says that most people, especially media people, aren’t even aware of this intellectual debate and its contours, fixated as they are on fighting the outdated liberal vs. conservative Catholic battle, but the long-term implications for the Catholic Church in America — and, I would say, politics and religion in America — are significant. Deneen:
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.
I agree, but then, I’m biased. You might wonder what any of this has to do with the masses in the pews. And you would be right, at one level. But remember Pope Benedict XVI’s concept of “creative minorities,” which he borrowed from British historian Arnold Toynbee. It’s the idea that certain minorities punch far above their weight in a given civilization, because they offer especially creative ways for that civilization to meet its challenges. The pope said he expected Christians in rapidly secularizing Europe to play the role of creative minority. Within American Catholicism, the institutions of the Church that educate and inspire future generations of Catholic elites — religious, political, business, and otherwise — will have a disproportionately influential role on both Catholicism in America, and on the broader American community. No doubt the vast majority of Americans — even American Catholics — had no idea who Richard John Neuhaus was when he was alive, and even fewer know today. But he was one of the most influential Catholics in America, because he spoke, and spoke with unsurpassed eloquence, to the elites. And it is they who determine the direction of society, for better or for worse.