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A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching

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 [1], 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 [2], and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel [3], who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus [4] and Michael Novak [5]. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things [6]. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert George [7]Hadley Arkes [8], and Robert Royal [9].

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 [10] and the theologian David L. Schindler [11] (brilliantly profiled [12] 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 [13]. 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 [14], and John Medaille [15]. Among its rising stars include the theologian C.C. Pecknold [16] of Catholic University and Andrew Haines, who founded its online home, Ethika Politika [17]. From time to time I have been counted among its number.

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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 [18] of John Courtney Murray, which provoked a vigorous response [19] 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 [20]“—which provoked not just the two critical [21] responses [22] in the same issue, but a critique  [23]by Villanova Law professor Robert Miller and another more recently by Andrew Latham. The article was also criticized by my colleague Phillip Munoz [24] and by Nathan Schleuter [25], with responses by [26] me [27], going several [28] more [29] rounds [30], 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 [31],” 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 [32] numerous [33] responses [34], and signalled a considerable ratcheting-up of the battles over the fate of Catholicism in America. Just yesterday, Ethika Politika posted a critique [35] 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 [36], 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 [37] (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.

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#1 Comment By John On February 11, 2014 @ 9:10 pm

I was an atheist for 25 years before conversion. I became “Catholic,” not a conservative or liberal catholic…but a member of Christ’s Church. I love Catholicism more than I dislike brethren with whom I disagree with politically.

#2 Comment By Mike On February 12, 2014 @ 11:25 am

Thanks for this introduction to the new battle lines that are being drawn in the Catholic body politic. I wasn’t aware of them because i was stuck in the lib/con dichotomy pushed by big media.

#3 Comment By buz On February 12, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

Interesting. Although I think it pertains to the Catholic experience globally, and not just in the United States. Look to the recent blabberings of the United Nations regarding the Vatican.

#4 Comment By vdorta On February 12, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

tim: So… if you think the American project is “deeply flawed …”

Deneen is talking about the “radical Catholic” critique of modernity by thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Eric Voegelin. America enters the picture only because it is the leading modern, liberal country.

#5 Comment By Thaddeus Kozinski On February 13, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

For all you Zmirakian Americanist Catholics out there: Consider which countries are legislatively against usury and anti-hetereosexual propaganda. Not America, but Iran and Russia. Iran, and Islam in general, is the last holdout against usurious banking. Hungary, but the way, has an official recognition of Christ in their constitution (recently amended), and bans abortion and same-sex marriage using explicitly theological reasons. (Speaking of Putin: His pro-heterosexual legislation against homosexual propaganda is a good thing, but any unjust violence it may have occasioned is bad. I am, of course, against unjust violence of any kind, including both physical violence stemming from hatred of persons and metaphysical and spiritual violence stemming from hatred of the natural and divine law. Putin’s legislation against homosexual propaganda defends the natural law on sexuality. I hope he also defend the rights of persons not to be harmed by fellow citizens).

The battle lines have changed. Russia, Iran, and the Vatican are cultural allies, and we can learn a thing or two from their foreign policy. Whose protecting the world from American neoconservative insanity and World War III?

Americanism is now the milieu of the brainwashed, the delusional, and/or the social climbers/regime lackeys among Catholics.

It’s the New World Order Luciferianism that is our main enemy, using radical Islam and Zionist/Americanist “Christianity” as patsies/fronts for their anti-logos initiatives. If you don’t know what false-flag terrorism is yet, do a study of it now. It’s no wacky “conspiracy theory.”

#6 Comment By indyconservative On February 15, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

I think this is a microcosm of a larger conflict playing across American society. One only need look at the broad diversity of candidates and the path of the primaries in the Republican party to sense the intensity. And the inability to reconcile the contradictory perspectives and values of market capitalism and social conservatism intellectually has led to all sorts of interesting narratives and distortions which seem important intended to convince people that what is not compatible really is.

#7 Comment By Russell On February 16, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

Metatheses non fingo.

#8 Comment By ROB On February 18, 2014 @ 11:12 am

Philosophical discourse is a nice enough pastime but what exactly will the divorce look like in political terms? Mass emigration, to where? Large scale civil disobedience, to what end? An underground church? Much more likely is an accomodationist hierarchy compromising at every turn.

#9 Comment By EJTV On February 19, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

What both “liberal” (First Things) and “radical” (Communio) Catholic scholars don’t know or forget is that the basic theoretical elements of a market economy and classical liberalism were not invented by Calvinists or Protestants, nor by Hobbes, Adam Smith or John Locke, but by Thomists! Yes, Thomists: the late scholastics of the School of Salamanca during the Spanish “Siglo de Oro,'” mostly Jesuit clerics, people like Diego de Cavorrubias y Leyva, Luis Saravia de la Calle, Jeronimo Castillo de Bovadilla, Juan de Lugo, Juan de Salas, Francisco de Victoria, Francisco Suarez, Juan de Mariana, etc. This late scholastic Spanish tradition penetrated all of Europe, and while it virtually disappeared in Catholic Europe, it experienced a distortion and a regression in the hands of Protestant scholastics (like Grotius and Punfendorf), economists like Adam Smith and, of course, the lineage leading up to and including both the “liberal” and the “radical” Catholic wings alluded in the article above.

The Thomist and Spanish late scholastic liberal and free market tradition is alive and well today in the Austrian School of Economics, scholars like Menger, Mises,Hayek, de Roover, Kauder, Chafuen, Rothbard, Huerta de Soto, etc.

In the end, while interesting, I find the characterization of a split between “liberal” vs “radical” Catholics contrived. Instead, I find that both sides are, to a greater or lesser degree, apologists for the state and its interventionism and central planning, both sides are ignorant of scholastic tradition of classical economic liberalism, and both sides are ultimately, perhaps unwittingly, enemies of freedom.

#10 Comment By Doven Hooker On February 19, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

How do you get from John Courtney Murray to this:

“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.”

The American founding was based on “defense of marriage” and “a more laissez-faire economic position”? Really?

What lazy, self-serving tripe the author has served us. I’m a Catholic, but this kind of faulty “reasoning” or, more appropriately, empty assertion leads me to believe that it is the author’s clouded view of Catholicism that will fade into oblivion.

#11 Comment By Nancy On March 3, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

There is no such thing as a liberal or conservative Catholic; being Catholic is not a matter of degree. (Catholic Canon 750)

There is no division in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We are Catholic Americans; nothing in our Catholic Faith precludes us from being good citizens.

#12 Comment By David On March 16, 2014 @ 5:53 am

My above link does not seem to be working so here is Jeremy Beer’s earlier must-read article on this topic.

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