The men who shaped the Catholic right
The Catholic church has no shortage of intellectuals. Randy Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus focuses on the life of one such intellectual, and A Partisan Church reflects on the writings of Neuhaus and two others, Michael Nova k and George Weigel. All three start life as one thing and, unlike most other human beings in history, emerge years later as something else. Joking aside, their journeys from anti-war activists to militant neoconservatives is a regularly visited topic of discussion among the many commentators in this field. Catholic philosopher Novak, who in the not-too-distant past described himself as a lifelong Democrat, has long worked for conservative think tanks and advocated strongly on behalf of their policy proposals. Neuhaus started off as a Lutheran, was a vehement anti-war critic in the 1960s and ended up an outspoken supporter of President George W. Bush’s wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Weigel is younger, so he didn’t fit so easily into that journey.He transitioned from being a scholar in residence at the World Without War Council of Greater Seattle to becoming an ardent supporter of a world very much at war during the Bush years.
However, the three underwent less of a transformation from their earlier personas to their latter-day personages than many acknowledge. Take their outspoken anticommunism for a start, which in the years leading up to Reagan’s election and beyond became a raison d’être—ironically, at a time when the Stalinist system had begun to crumble from within.
Despite outward appearances, neoconservatives don’t trust the hierarchy to always do the right thing. As Scribner notes, they regularly expressed concern that too much hierarchical involvement in politics will sully the good reputation of the church hierarchy. However, these three men do not appear to have the same concern about lay involvement in politics.
The relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the laity has long been complicated, understandably misunderstood and, sometimes, deliberately mischaracterized for political gain. It’s somewhat simplistic to assert that when the laity agrees with the bishops, the latter are loved, and when the hierarchy takes positions that the laity disagrees with, the bishops become the enemy. But simplicity has its merits—even when the ways to understand the laity may be as numerous as the number of lay Catholics.
The three are also very happy to explain what the pope and other church leaders “meant” to say, something that Neuhaus did regularly. Neuhaus and Weigel also coined the assertion that the US Catholic hierarchy was the “Democratic Party at prayer.” However, they probably borrowed it from the United Kingdom, where the Church of England had been characterized as the Conservative Party at prayer in the UK since the 17th century.
The influence these three figures have on modern Republicanism is wide-ranging. Each played a role, though perhaps not one as strong as they and others might like us to think, in the elect ion of George W. Bush, who appeared to take Catholic social justice on board in his self-described compassionate conservatism approach to politics.
As Patti Miller described this approach in a 2001 Conscience article,
As Franklin Foer has noted, the roots of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” can be traced from Texas academic Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, back to the work of Catholic neoconservatives Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus, who worked to reconcile Catholicism and capitalism by asserting that local groups and governments could better serve the needs of the poor than big government—thereby absolving the federal government of responsibility for the poor while paying lip service to Catholic social justice teaching. Bush reportedly was tutored in Catholic social teaching by Neuhaus, a convert from the Lutheran church, and John DiIulio, a conservative Catholic criminologist who would become the head of Bush’s faith-based effort, and Deal Hudson.
Hudson, later to be disgraced by a sex scandal, was credited with identifying churchgoing Catholics as a key constituency to Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff and key adviser during the Bush years.
Missing from this narrative is a series of poor Democratic candidates, supported, if that is the right word, by even less capable advisers and enforcers. There were few liberal political operatives like Rove, who never met an adversary he couldn’t eat for breakfast.
Neuhaus is arguably the most influential and certainly the most complicated of the trio, which may have blinded him to flaws in others.
He refused, for example, to accept any criticism of the serial abuser Rev. Marcial Maciel. In 2002, he noted, “A cardinal in whom I have unbounded confidence and who has been involved in the case tells me that the charges are ‘pure invention, without the slightest foundation.’… I can only say … after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counterclaims, I have arrived at moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious … and should be given no credence whatsoever.”
Just four years later, on May 19, 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, condemned Maciel to lead “a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry” after finding him guilty of sexual and physical abuse. The announcement came decades after charges were leveled at him by nine seminarians of the order he founded, the Legionaries of Christ.
On abortion, Neuhaus was similarly stymied. His column in First Things was always entertaining, reflecting a wide swath of reading materials and experiences. In one snippet, titled “Skewed Polls?” he railed against the views expressed by Americans on abortion. “Harris says it telephoned 1,012 adults, of whom 442 identified as pro-life and 512 as pro-choice” he wrote, asking, “Might not that skew the findings seven percent in the pro-choice direction?” As noted on the pages of this magazine, the results may have been skewed, but a more likely cause was that the answer might reflect that there is a pro-choice majority in the US. “Why not exclude all people who say they are pro-choice? Then he might get the answers he craves but can never find in ‘skewed’ polls.”
Boyagoda’s biography tells a great story, warts and all. The beer runs and raids Neuhaus led to capture Methodist girls’ undergarments in boarding school suggest a healthy approach to life. The panty raids were apparently an epidemic in the 1950s (though to be fair, there was an epidemic of urban legends in those days as well, numerically rivaled only by their counterparts, rural myths). One transformative event stands out, the 1989 “Rockford Raid.” At the time, Neuhaus was head of the Rockford Institute’s New York Center on Religion and Society. Allan Carlson, the president of the Rockford Institute, arrived at the Manhattan offices and tossed the staff out on the street because of a dispute, in Boyagoda’s telling, between Manhattan conservatism and midwestern conservatism. Neuhaus had viscerally objected to the xenophobia, nativism, antisemitism and sectarianism in the latter. He immediately began plotting to found the Institute of Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things.
Boyagoda depicts a life well lived; joviality and hard-edged determination mixed in with a real sense of purpose and loyalty to his friends.
A refreshing theme throughout these and other writings about Catholic intellectuals is their belief in the importance of ideas—and of winning the battle of ideas. In mainstream American politics, it sadly is often a battle between different strands on the right, if we may still speak of such an ideology.
A Partisan Church: American Catholicism & the Rise of Neo-Conservative Catholics
(Catholic University of America Press, 2015. 264 pp)
Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
(Image Books, 2015. 460 pp)