Review: A Partisan Church

by Michael Sean Winters

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Todd Scribner has written an important book introducing a new generation of Catholic thinkers to the emergence of a Catholic neo-conservative worldview in the 1970s and 1980s. A Partisan Church: American Catholicism & the Rise of Neo-Conservative Catholics is thoroughly fair-minded in its treatment of its subject, as Scribner confines himself to letting Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel tell their own stories, with only occasional interjections of judicious criticism and commentary. The text is well written and thorough and I suspect even its subjects must be pleased with the treatment they are afforded.

The very first sentence of the very first chapter, however, points to the central concern of the neo-cons, and what would, in my estimation, become the petard upon which they would eventually hoist themselves. Scribner writes, “One of the central features of neoconservative Catholic thought consists in the conviction that the American political tradition is compatible with, if not an outgrowth of, the Christian political tradition: support for one reinforces one’s support for the other.” No one would argue that the Christian faith should not engage the cultures with which it comes into contact, including that culture’s political life. But engagement is not the same thing as complicity, and the tale Scribner tells is, in the final analysis, how these three Catholic neo-cons slipped from the former to the latter.

For anyone unfamiliar with the writings of Novak, Neuhaus and Weigel, Scribner carefully details the ways that their individual evolution led them to many shared commitments even while all three had different angles of approach. “In short, Michael Novak focused on developing the idea of democratic capitalism, Richard Neuhaus began a thorough examination of the relationship between religion and public life, and George Weigel took up the cause of the ‘John Courtney Murray project,’” he writes. These three angles did not necessarily mean the three would end up as a kind of neo-con troika, but that is what happened. For example, Scribner writes that “One of the shared fundamentals that the neoconservative Catholics affirmed was the importance of institutional pluralism, which is itself rooted in the distinction between state and society.”

Another shared characteristic of the three is their suspicion of government power, a thoroughly American suspicion to be sure, of ancient lineage and medieval pedigree. They were keen to demonstrate that lineage and pedigree, because one of the uniting elements of the neo-con approach, especially in the work of Weigel, was to show that American political traditions were not created out of thin air in the late eighteenth century but rooted in prior, largely Catholic, political tradition. In considering the influence that Robert Nisbet exercised on the neo-cons, Scribner writes, “The most obvious example of the absolute state in the modern world are the Soviet Union and Germany under Hitler’s fascist rule. But even where the absolute state has not yet become a reality, as in Western Europe or the United States, there are tendencies in that direction.” Scribner goes on to show how this insight of Nisbet would work as a kind of charm on the intellectual development of the neo-cons. Scribner does not register the objection, but I shall. Is this analogy a good one or a bad one? Is every additional exercise of state power a step towards serfdom or totalitarianism? Is it not the case that, for example, the New Deal, a clear expansion of state power, nonetheless helped save capitalism from itself? Here, and subsequently, we discern another shared characteristic of the neo-cons: For men who claim to be grounded in a long philosophic tradition, they sure spook easy. Around every corner there is some state actor trying to rob people of their liberty or sideline religious sensibilities. Their careers were dominated by a kind of reverse-Cassandra syndrome in which real fears were not dismissed but were always enlarged. It was never very convincing and over time, it became tiresome.

While the three neo-cons Scribner surveys developed their different intellectual projects and foci, the self-imposed limits of their worldview, and their tendency to complicity, become evident even very early in the text. On page 16, Scribner notes that “As early as the mid-sixties Novak argued in favor of the separation of civil society and the state and emphasized the importance of maintaining clear boundaries between the two entities as a way to limit the state, which is always seeking further expansion of its power.” Where is subsidiary, one of the most venerable principles in Catholic Social Thought, in this construction? Novak, following the Founders, sees only antagonism between the spheres and the need for “clear boundaries” but subsidiarity, and Catholic understandings of the role of government more generally, suggest that the different spheres of communal life should help each other, subsidiarity rooted in the Latin word for “help.” This is typical of the troika: The start with American premises and then go off in search of some Catholic water to perform a baptism, forgetting, apparently, that the waters of baptism first cleanse from sin as the also incorporate one into the elect.

As Scribner sets forth the early careers of the three neo-cons, it becomes clear that Novak was the most slavish in complicity, Neuhaus the most interesting, and Weigel the least innovative. When Novak compares the modern business corporation to the suffering servant in Isaiah, the complicity is complete and makes one nauseated.

Neuhaus, as Scribner writes, believed that “in any given society religion is the most fundamental expression of how a people organize their life together,” and that in American history, the religion that did the organizing was mainstream Protestantism. He quotes one of Neuhaus’ most thoughtful observations, that “when the value-bearing institutions of religion and culture are excluded [from the public square], the value-laden concerns of human life flow back into the square under the banner of politics.” And, as Neuhaus noted, politics is not transcendent and a culture that looks only to politics to determine societal norms is a society no longer capable of relativizing government authority. These are important considerations, although one wishes Neuhaus had lived long enough to consider Brad Gregory’s work on the long history of secularization and its roots in the Reformation, which confound some of the more simplistic conclusions Neuhaus and others drew from their otherwise important insights.

Weigel’s early work focused on the Murray project. Scribner does a fine job summarizing some of the conflicting thoughts in the usefulness of a public philosophy in the post-war era, when some writers like Sidney Hook and Arthur Schlesinger were hostile to the idea of a public philosophy itself, but others, like Walter Lippmann, were already convinced that such a foundation for public life was essential. Wiegel followed Murray in believing that “It is an error to assume…that the American experiment is the product of Enlightenment rationalism. Rather, it has its deepest taproots in Catholic medieval thought.” Actually, it is an error to assume that either Catholic medieval taproots or Enlightenment ideology were uniquely determinative in the shaping of the American experiment. Both played their part, but so did country whig political philosophy, and classical Republican literature, and Covenant theology.

Tomorrow, I shall conclude my review of this interesting and important book.  


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