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Ghosts of Colson & Neuhaus

A seminar at First Things explores religion and public life in a new era

I spent all day yesterday with a good group at the office of First Things magazine in New York City. It was a seminar put together by editor Rusty Reno to discuss the future of religion in the public square in what everybody agrees is a meaningfully different era from the one in which the ministries of the late Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson rose to prominence. It was hard to be in that room today and not feel the presence of those two men, if only because their passing came at the end of a hopeful era for socially conservative Christians. The overall sense I got from the conference today is that everybody is intensely concerned and pessimistic about the future, though there were significant differences of degree in the pessimism (more on which in a moment).

It was an important conference, I think, and I’m encouraged that First Things hosted it. The magazine was the flagship intellectual journal for engaged religious conservatives in Neuhaus’s day, and if it hasn’t quite had that stature in the post-Neuhaus era, it is mostly, in my view, because the disaster of the Iraq War and the failed Bush administration, in both of which the magazine was implicated, as well as the overwhelming cultural tide in favor of same-sex marriage, has left all of us on the religious and social right dazed and confused about the best way forward. I am encouraged to see First Things moving to regain its position. The challenges we face now are very different from the challenges Team Neuhaus faced, and the answers are much less clear.

I’m not going to say who all was at the conference, not because it was all secretive, but simply because no announcement was made as to whether the event would be on or off the record, and I don’t want to inadvertently quote someone who would rather not have been quoted. I won’t attribute any of the things I say below, taken from my notes — again, not because there was anything secretive said, but out of courtesy to my fellow conferees.

Well, let me go back on that a bit. There were three of us who delivered papers, which will be published in First Things, so I suppose it’s okay to say who they were. Michael Hanby of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute gave the main paper, in which he argued that our culture has moved into such a radical phase that we are redefining what it means to be human; this requires rethinking what he calls “the civic project of American Christianity.” In contrast to the Murrayite (as in John Courtney Murray) view that Catholicism is well-suited to American democracy, Hanby took a more skeptical approach, siding (with some qualifications) with Pat Deneen’s “radical Catholicism,” as expressed in his much-discussed TAC essay from February. From Deneen’s piece:

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.

George Weigel, identified by Deneen as the most prominent contemporary advocate of the Murrayite position, delivered a response to Hanby in which he acknowledged that we have entered a new era that calls for a rethinking of the Catholic, and general Christian, response to the culture’s challenges. He said that the Catholic Church’s leaders have to pick and choose their battles carefully, and that they should prepare the flock for the possibility of a season of persecution. He also said that Christians should try to come up with more compelling and understandable explanations of key metaphysical concepts. His view was somewhat pessimistic, but still an affirmation that there is still plenty of space at the American table for orthodox Christians, though we are going to have to fight harder and smarter to keep it.

I gave the third paper, siding with Hanby’s critique and arguing for the Benedict Option. My point was essentially that public culture in America has gone so far from its Christian roots, with no reasonable hope of recovery anytime soon, that orthodox Christians would do well to step back from trying to shore up a liberalism that cannot help but be antagonistic to them, and instead build up their own communities and institutions to withstand the chaos ahead.

With that, we began the discussion. There were 20 or so people in the room, most (but not all) of them academics. What follows is a chronological summary of my notes.

One participant, a layman involved in church administration, asked the group how Catholics are supposed to get excited about the Church when they have an abiding sense that the Church is losing ground steadily. Plus, he said, congregations don’t want to hear their pastors give them bad news, e.g., that there’s no money to keep all the parishes open.

The next commenter said that Catholics (and other Christians) should look back to the Desert Fathers of the Church for wisdom. If we don’t reclaim some sense of an interior life, versus the cacophony of media life in the wired age, nothing we do for the cause of reform is going to make a difference.

Someone else said that the most confounding thing about what the Church faces today is “the invisibility of the challenge” — meaning that the kind of liberalism that presses against orthodox Christianity today is so ubiquitous that people don’t readily grasp what the big deal is. “The problem is not that we don’t say what’s going on, but that we can’t see it,” he said.

There was seemingly widespread agreement that the relationship between social and religious conservatives on the one hand, and the GOP on the other, is headed for the rocks. One commenter said that 2016 is going to be the year the Republican Party stiffs Christian conservatives. Another who is involved in elite conservative political circles said that the longstanding tension between libertarians and traditionalists within the conservative movement is breaking out into open contempt by libertarians against the trads. The libertarians have all the money, and are coming to believe they can win without the anchor of social conservatives. Some in the room lamented that the Republicans may be bad, but given the Democratic Party’s increasing embrace of laïcité, they are all we’ve got. Said one man, glumly, about how the GOP can take the social conservative vote for granted, “We are the African-Americans of the Republican Party.”

One conferee, one of the most prominent Catholic public intellectuals in the country, said that there is a simple explanation for much of the collapse of orthodox Christian witness, insofar as the Christian voice on complex and difficult issues is relatively silent. For one, there is an implicit agreement among many Americans that if we stay silent and don’t make others feel bad about their own shortcomings from high standards, they won’t bother us by pointing out our own sins and failings. Second, Americans just generally want to be nice to others, and that means being outwardly nonjudgmental, at all costs.

There was some feeling in the room that intellectual theorizing about the problems of religion, politics, and culture is getting us nowhere, and distracting us from figuring out ways to reach people where they are. Others more or less said that we can’t figure out how to address the problem until we are more clear about their nature, so we have to theorize.

An Orthodox Jewish participant in the conversation made some of the most memorable and illuminating comments of the entire day-long session. He said that Orthodox Jews have come back from the near-extinction of the Holocaust only because of education — by which he meant not just schooling in general, but schooling embedded within a thick understanding of what it means to think and to live as a Jew. He advised Christians to take the same approach, and not to make the mistake of thinking that education in the Christian religion is something that can only be tacked on to a secular education. Plus, he pointed out that Orthodox Jews do have a stronger sense of living apart as a community from the mainstream. There can be no uncritical immersion in secularist culture for anyone of traditional religious belief who wants to hold on to it and pass it on to the next generation.

He added that Orthodox Jews have “a culture of life,” by which he meant that they think hard about what it means to live Jewishly now, but also in the generations to come. I took him to be saying that small-o orthodox Christians need to be doing a lot more thinking and acting with a long-term, multigenerational perspective. (All of that, by the way, sounded very Benedict Option to me.)

A Catholic theologian followed up with a mention of The Divine Comedy, and how reading Dante as a younger man gave him a sense that his life was not a solitary event, but that he was part of a grand narrative. He said we have to learn to see, and to help young people to see, “that the divine drama is not just about us as individuals, but about the whole human race.”

After lunch, an older Catholic theologian said the morning discussion highlighted for him a “generational divide” among our group. He said that his faction sees the basic problem as one of reforming institutions, which is the approach they inherited from the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, whose reign stretched from 1878-1903. This theologian said that Leo believed that society should try to re-harmonize the three things needed for happiness and a flourishing life: family, community, and church. In Leo’s day, these three had been thrown out of balance by revolutionary economic and political upheaval; he dedicated his pontificate to finding a workable balance.

In the classical First Things approach, said this theologian, the problem is one of bringing the three elements into proper balance in the public square. You can’t return to 1940, but you can bring them into greater alignment. But by the mid-1990s, it was beginning to become clear that the problems were not just a matter of reforming institutions, because institutions were fast becoming optional to American life.


The second, younger faction, this man said, seems to believe that the institutions can’t really be reformed, and that the problem, therefore is more radical. There seemed to be agreement around the table to this notion. One professor spoke quite eloquently throughout the day on the personal crises she sees in her students. There is, she said, an overwhelming sadness to them, an existential angst and fear. Later, in the Republican Party discussion, she flatly dismissed the idea that the Republican Party has any appeal to these kids — or that any political party does:

“You can’t imagine how my 18 year old students think about these things,” she said. “No institutions, with the possible exception of their families, mean anything to them.”

A man at the other end of the conference table said, “We are narrated out. We are working within a framework that is remarkably absolutist in its claims, so that it cannot allow for another absolute horizon. … We’re trying to build another narrative inside a larger one that refuses our own.”

Someone suggested that Christians should start thinking about how Jews retained their religious identity and vitality within the societies of Christendom that were hostile to them.

A non-academic lawyer present gave an example of how, within his firm, he had to deal with concrete examples of professional marginalization once it became known that he was a Christian who opposed same-sex marriage. He said this is the kind of thing that is going to be unstoppable, precisely because those committed to this illiberal liberalism believe they are performing acts of virtue every time they do. There was widespread agreement that the battle for marriage has been lost, and that it’s just a matter of time before the Supreme Court makes it official from coast to coast. The sentiment that Christians who hew to orthodox Biblical teaching on homosexuality are going to bear the stigma of being thought of as no better than racists.

A Protestant theologian, quoting Jesus, said that the spiritual blindness that has overtaken our culture could be of the sort that could only be cast out “with prayer and fasting,” which I took in part to mean through ascesis, a word with which Orthodox Christians are quite familiar. Later, I reflected on how in the Commedia, ascesis (on Mount Purgatory) is precisely how the repentant sinners bring order back to their own souls. Dante taught that disorder within each individual’s heart in turn becomes disorder in the family, disorder in the city, disorder in the church, and disorder in the country. In the Commedia, the chaos that reigns in Tuscany, Dante makes clear, comes from too many people there (once including himself) loving themselves and their own desires more than God, and living only for the day, as if eternity did not exist. It is not a pious platitude to say that restoring peace and order to the commons begins with getting our own hearts in right order.

The conversation came back to the spiritual and emotional blankness of young people in college today. That professor said that half of her students are on medicine for depression. You are not going to be able to reason these kids into a belief in Christianity, she seemed to be saying, and so talk about making a better argument is in vain. “What we [Christians] have to offer is joy,” she said. “That’s what my students cannot turn away from.”

Another professor chimed in to say that his students despair over a lack of meaning and direction in their lives. He said that the Divine Comedy, as a story of an exile’s pilgrimage from despair and confusion to restoration and wholeness, has a highly relevant message for young people today. If my notes are correct, this Catholic theologian claimed that the Commedia meets the young where they are, and speaks to them in their own experience, showing them how through it, they can find their own story. He said, “The wanderlust that so many of the young have today is part of a larger story that allows them to be part of a greater good.”

Listening to him speak, I thought back to what the Protestant theologian had said about ascesis. In Dante, ascesis is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, which is the life of grace and love and joy that comes by enjoying unity with God. Someone had said earlier that kids look at orthodox Christians and think that to be one of us requires them to be miserable. Another person characterized our challenge as having to help people understand that nobody can gain true spiritual goods without suffering for it, without dying to themselves in a real way.

Said another man, “What these sad students are governed by is fear. It’s the kind of fear that grows out of a world where desire for greatness no longer exists.”

The conference wound down shortly after this. I left thinking about Dante (of course), and how in writing this book I’m about to start, I need to show my readers that they are part of a larger story, if only they will recognize it. That they are made for greatness, but first, they have to walk out of hell and up a mountain — but this pilgrimage, this quest, is worth it for the sheer joy that awaits at the end.

Patrick Deneen had characterized the clash between the neocon Catholics (Weigel et al) and the radical Catholics as “a showdown worth watching.” There wasn’t a showdown at this conference, but there did seem, in fact, to be agreement that the old ways of doing things and seeing the role of Christians in the public square, and the prospects thereof, can’t work anymore. Where to go? The discussion is urgent, because the times are changing fast.

One thing in particular lingers in my mind this morning. One of the younger men at the table complained vigorously about the way we were all talking about these issues, seemingly without much awareness of how we would be heard in the public square. That is, the discussion, in his view, seemed to be lofty and theoretical, carried out in the dimension of ideas, with insufficient concern for how these ideas are communicated to the wider world. Maybe this is a particular problem for scholars, whose professional world doesn’t necessarily reward popular communication. But it is a problem. One theologian at the table praised Pope Francis’s approach, saying, “Maybe he realizes that after two very talkative papacies, people are worn out listening to the Church talk. It’s time for something else.”

I think this man is on to something. We will always need the Church (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) to talk. But you have to speak with the expectation of being heard, and if the world is not capable of hearing you, you need to try some other way of reaching them with your vision. That, I think, is something all of us orthodox Christians must keep front to mind. The generational divide that the professor picked up on has important implications for the way Christian public intellectuals think about and communicate this.

And with that, I am off to the airport, going to Florence. I’ll check in with you as soon as I arrive. I will be blogging from the Dante trail for the next couple of weeks. Please be patient with comments approval. Ciao!

(UPDATE: I’m filing this from my flat in Florence. I just walked past Beatrice’s childhood home. Man! I’m here with a dear old friend, who shall go by the nom de blog “Casella” in my accounts of our explorations here. The owner of the flat we’ve rented left us a bottle of cold prosecco to welcome us. Viva Italia! Viva Toscana! Viva Firenze! )


UPDATE.2: Patrick Deneen said on Facebook:

Rod Dreher did not report what was for me one quite memorable moment. A Dominican stressed that if we abandon the public sphere into some “Benedict Option,” there are numerous voices that will speak in the name of Catholicism, in support of a very different conception of the Church in the world today than the one that was widely shared at that table. So, while there was in general a sense that the Church was endangered by the world, there was a needed reminder that the Church is endangered within, particularly by the temptation to conform to the world.”