Kaveny v. First Things

by Michael Sean Winters

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Monday, in the links post, I called attention to an article by Cathy Kaveny at Commonweal in which she made the unexceptional point that those conservative Catholics who chastise Pope Francis for sowing division within the Church might also want to indict one of their heroes, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

Kaveny pointed out that Neuhaus commenced the effort to forge a political alliance with conservative evangelicals and Jews, and overlooked the commonalities that bind Catholics of both left and right. This, she argued, sowed division within the Catholic faith. There was nothing nasty about her article. She was not mean or dismissive towards Neuhaus. She did not say anything that had not been said before, including by people like Damon Linker, who once worked at First Things, and Todd Scribner, who recently wrote an authoritative, critical, yet largely sympathetic book about Neuhaus and his pals George Weigel and Michael Novak.

Apparently, however, Kaveny struck a nerve. Robert P. George, at Mirror of Justice, wrote a particularly churlish attack, failing even to show the courtesy of mentioning Kaveny by name, and also failing to engage any of her arguments. He referred readers to a quote by Boswell, implying that Kaveny is an ass, and Neuhaus was a lion, which is unfortunate in every regard, not least because Kaveny is one of the smartest academics in the Catholic firmament and because lions are man-eating beasts. And, Professor George knows better: This post by Kaveny, in response to a post by George and also at Mirror of Justice demonstrates the kind of even-handed, non-partisan, even generous approach we expect from her. George’s post warrants a mention, and deserves derision. Any fitting response would require a sandbox.

First Things’ editor Rusty Reno also went ballistic, defending not only Neuhaus but the First Things worldview more generally. I was surprised by Reno’s approach. He might have argued that certain liberal Catholics forged similar alliances with liberal non-Catholics, and that such alliances also took too little regard of the obligation incumbent upon all Catholics to be mindful of their baptismal obligation to build up the unity of the Church. He might have mustered evidence to disprove Kaveny’s thesis. He might have expanded the range of the discussion. But, he didn’t do any of this.

Instead, Reno asserted that religious affinities are one thing, and the issues with which First Things is concerned, are another. He concludes his piece with this paragraph:

When it comes to many things that are important to me, I have more in common with friends than with my brother. But my brother’s still my brother. It in no way compromises the truth of our fraternal bond for me to link arms with those with whom I have more in common politically, intellectually, or even theologically. The same goes for the sacramental bond that units us in Christ.

I was reminded on an observation Leon Wieseltier made in his essay “Against Identity.” After citing the old adage “you can change your religion, but you can’t change your grandfather,” Weiseltier observed, rightly, that it should be easier to change one’s grandfather than one’s religion. Indeed.

Reno writes:

As a Catholic, I believe that Christ’s presence on the altar is a supernatural gift. To share in that gift, as Catholics do when the gather for the Mass, is to enter into a profound spiritual unity that transcends all others. I never quizzed him on the topic, but I have every reason to think Neuhaus believed the same thing. Before I entered the Catholic Church, he consistently expressed regret that I was wayward (even though I was very much in accord with his theological, moral, and political views). We did not have “in common” what matters most. When I entered he welcomed me warmly.

But there are other dimensions to life, including religious life, and it is in these dimensions that First Things operates.

There may be “other dimensions” as Reno notes, but surely, for the Christian, those other dimensions need to be related to “what matters most.” It was this dualism between the Catholic faith and Catholic morality that stalked Neuhaus’s writings and continues to afflict the journal he founded. This dualism not only colored Neuhaus’ judgment, but it kept much of his otherwise enjoyable controversial writings at a fairly superficial level. It also led him to overlook the failings of his own team, both in politics and in religion: His defense of the Iraq War and of Fr. Maciel were stains on Neuhaus’ intellectual project that deserve attention and explanation by those who champion him.

When Neuhaus died, I wrote two columns mourning his loss, one at America and the other at Slate. I did mourn him: I liked reading Neuhaus. His essays were always lively, sometimes incisive, often wrong-headed by my lights, but ably argued and argued with vim and vigor. In both articles, I commended him for his prolific writings and for their provocation. I suspect he would have enjoyed Kaveny’s article and penned a searing reply. But, in the Slate article I wrote these words which can now be applied to Reno:

After his conversion to Catholicism in 1990, Neuhaus tried to forge an alliance with evangelicals to address shared areas of moral concern. The effort caught the attention of, among others, Karl Rove, and the GOP improved its share of the Catholic vote in both 2000 and 2004. That effort was misguided from the start, and Neuhaus should have known better. He once wrote, "Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed." But to Catholics, evangelicals are not orthodox and vice-versa, and the differences are not small. Catholic social doctrine, including opposition to abortion, is rooted in a dogmatic belief in human dignity. Evangelical political theology is rooted in Calvin's belief in human depravity. Both groups may oppose abortion, but their approaches to the role of religion in society are vastly different.

When religion is reduced to ethics, the church is permitted to enter the public square under the guise of a moral authority. But once you sever the link between the central animating dogmas of faith and the moral teachings that flow from there, you invite a cheap moralism, a religion of external conformity to prescribed norms rather than an internal assent of faith. You are a Christian if you believe certain things about events on a hillside in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is that belief that has inspired believers and generated culture. Just last September, Pope Benedict XVI said that Christianity "is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ." Neuhaus knew this, but he never found a way to translate it politically.

Reno, too, puts his sacramental beliefs in one silo, and his moralizing in another, and never the two need challenge each other. That is not how Catholics think when we are thinking at our best.

I suspect that something other than argumentation accounts for both George’s and Reno’s excessive umbrage. They had, for three or more decades, felt that they ruled the Catholic roost, that they had the “in” with the prelates and the politicians that mattered, and could use their influence to achieve their ends. Now, not so much. I do not know how Neuhaus would have reacted to the challenges Pope Francis is setting forth to the Catholic neo-con project. When he began his magazine, the Catholic intellectual milieu needed a conservative journal and it still does, just as it needs more liberal journalistic venues like Commonweal. Sadly, Neuhaus’ followers have grown exceedingly shrill and pretty pathetic in thie Francis era, as this latest controversy demonstrates. The argument Kaveny made does nothing more than invite the editors at First Things to examine some first things. Neuhaus would have engaged but his heirs seem not up to the task. Pity.

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