This is an excerpt from the book A Partisan Church: American Catholicism and the Rise of Neoconservative Catholics by Todd Scribner Ph.D. Todd is the Education Outreach Coordinator at the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In his book The Restructuring of American Religion, Robert Wuthnow highlighted some of the fundamental shifts that occurred in American religion during the second half of the twentieth century. Preeminent among them was the decline of denominational affiliation as a defining marker of religious identity and, in its stead, the increasing importance of political ideology. As a consequence, adherents of traditionally antagonistic denominations began to work more closely together in the public sphere, according to their political affiliation and ideological identity. Likewise, conflict within long-standing denominational structures became more pointed and the continuity that existed within these structures began to fragment. So, for example, conservative Catholics came to have more in common with conservative Protestants than they had with liberal Catholics, who in turn had more in common with liberal Protestants than with their conservative brethren.
As political cleavages increasingly fragmented Catholic identity in the post-World War II period and even more so in the decades following Vatican II, liberal Catholics, conservative Catholics, neoconservative Catholics, traditionalist Catholics, and others began to compete with one another to define what constituted a Catholic worldview, thus making it nearly impossible to pinpoint a “Catholic position” on any given topic that would be satisfactory to everyone involved. While it would be a mistake to exaggerate the homogenous nature of the Catholic Church at any point in American history, disagreement and dissension has become more the norm than the exception in the American Catholic Church in recent years.
My recently published book, A Partisan Church: American Catholicism and the Rise of Neoconservative Catholics aims at exploring the way in which one group of intellectuals—well known neoconservative Catholics including Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel—sought to reestablish a coherent and unified Catholic identity in the period leading up to the end of the Cold War. Part of their effort entailed commenting on a range of specific policy arenas, including issues pertinent to the Cold War, the economy, and Latin America, all with the hope of shaping policy formation. Debating important political issues of the day, taking sides, and planting their flag on specific policy positions was important, but inadequate. Central to their work was the crafting of stories that traced the emergence of the American political tradition alongside that of the Christian moral tradition. They sought to construct a cohesive vision of what it meant to be both American and Catholic, and to argue that the American political thought is consistent, or at least compatible with, the Catholic social teaching tradition. This “reconciliationist” approach marked an important theme in their writings that puts them at the heart of the republican Catholic tradition.
Hardly monolithic, although sharing many key convictions, each of the neoconservative Catholics under study approached this problem in their own distinct manner. Weigel held that the seeds of liberal democracy were planted in the medieval period and particularly in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. In the centuries following Aquinas, these ideas slowly matured and finally became an important philosophical basis for the American experiment in democracy. While admittedly working out of a more general Christian framework, Neuhaus defended the idea that American political life is largely an expression of a Christian worldview. Political ideas are, in effect, the result of a shared moral and religious framework of a given people. In the case of Western society, Christianity became the primary resource out of which the ideas expressed in the Constitution emerged.
Novak differs somewhat, as he does not hold to the proposition that the American political tradition emerges out of the Catholic/Christian tradition. Instead, he argues that over the course of the twentieth century the American political tradition slowly converges with the Catholic social teaching tradition, as papal teaching begins to embrace the tenets of democracy and human rights, thus committing itself to an American style of liberal political thought. Regardless of their differences, the logic of their argument solidifies the relationship between the two traditions and in doing so, entices one to recognize that if they support one, they are required to support the other. In other words, if one is a good Catholic, she is bound to embrace the tenets of liberal democracy. Likewise, it is difficult to commit to the American experiment and not take seriously the Christian foundation that underlay it.
This approach has the benefit of providing them with a vantage point to argue that their primary intellectual adversaries, liberal Catholics—a cohort that often included many of the US Catholic bishops— hold to a worldview that is at odds with an authentic understanding of the Catholic political tradition. Their general embrace of liberationist forms of Roman Catholicism and their skepticism of long standing American values take direct aim at the American experiment in democracy and, consequently, the Catholic political and moral tradition that forms one of the important foundations for it. This is a powerful strategy, because it taps into and addresses the fundamental question of what it means to be Catholic and American.
For those who disagree with their analysis, not to mention their conclusions on specific policy questions, it is not enough to advocate on this issue or another, for this cause or that, and expect to prevail. It is imperative to create an overarching narrative that will integrate the various aspects of a person’s life—the political, the religious, and the social—and in doing so provide a comprehensive, historically based, story that can make sense of the average American Catholic’s world. To do this it is important that the intellectual efforts of the neoconservative Catholics are understood in as fair and objective manner as possible. It is my hope that, wherever one might stand with respect to their thought, this book will do that, and in the process bring a little clarity to the discussion.