The Catholic Moment Revisited

By Albert de Zutter

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (great name for a skeptical journalist) recently opined that there had been a “Catholic moment” in American politics and that it had now passed. The last time the Catholic vision of the good society had any sway, he said, was in the mid-2000s. Today, neither party pays much attention to Catholic principles, he said. The Republicans are more likely to use Ayn Rand as their standard and the Democrats are ruled by “a strident social liberalism.”

The reason he cites is the collapse of the church’s reputation as a result of the sex abuse scandals.

There can be no doubt that the church’s reputation has been severely damaged by the inept and often corrupt handling of sexual abuse within its ranks. There is no doubt that many people, including Catholics, lost respect for the church’s hierarchy.

But questions remain: Was there truly a time when the Catholic view of a good society (the common good) had real influence, and if so, were both parties influenced? And is it really accurate to say that neither party embodies Catholic social justice teaching at the present time?

Douthat credits George W. Bush with taking a “right of center” approach to Catholic ideas about social justice with his verbal support of “compassionate conservatism.”

From today’s perspective, it is hard to see the compassion in an administration that used lies to lead us into an unnecessary war with unbelievable statements about weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds, a clear violation of Catholic social justice principles. Nor was there any compassion or respect for Catholic social justice principles in its catering to the rich and the corporations, not with just one tax cut, but two which, in effect, hastened the transfer of wealth from those who had less to those at the top, another clear contradiction of Catholic social justice values.

The so-called “Catholic Moment” of Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister who became a Catholic priest, was an attempt by Neuhaus and other right-wing Catholic “theoconservatives” to construct a generic religious political doctrine that would include fundamentalist Evangelicals as well as right-wing Catholics. I use the term “right-wing” rather than “conservative” because that grouping of Catholics fails to “conserve” the bulk of Catholic social justice teaching. Their claim to Catholic orthodoxy is based on absolute opposition to  legal abortion, “artificial” birth control, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, in-vitro fertilization and stem-cell research, the so-called “social issues.” Their one concession to Catholic social justice teaching concerns the “principle of subsidiarity,” which they wrongly interpret as support for their position of reducing and/or eliminating government programs for the poor.

Damon Linker authored the 2006 book, “The Theocons.” He is a former editor of the late Father John Neuhaus’s newsletter, First Things, and therefore writes with inside knowledge. Linker wrote that Neuhaus and Michael Novak, supporters of Ronald Reagan who gained influence with the election of George W. Bush in 2000, created a movement to remake the government of the United States according to their image of far-right Catholicism – “a future in which the country is thoroughly permeated by orthodox Christian piety, and secular politics are driven out in favor of an explicitly theological approach to ordering the nation’s public life.” Another member of the core group was George Weigel, who used classic just war theory to justify Reagan’s revival of the arms race with the Soviet Union, the 1991 Gulf War, George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” and the Iraq war.

The theocons’ declared goal was to “construct an interdenominational electoral coalition on the basis of shared disaffection with the secularist drift of American life since the 1960s,” Damon wrote.

Many Catholics who shared that disaffection were equally disaffected by the Second Vatican Council, which also took place in the 1960s. The council reminded lay Catholics that they are the church and that they have obligations for and to the secular world. A key Vatican II document, “The Church in the Modern World,” begins with these words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” It adds, “This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer’s entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy.

“For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor,” the document states. Furthermore, “there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.”

These key concepts of Catholic social doctrine, as well as the teachings of more than 110 years applying the principles of the Gospel to the modern world, are virtually ignored by right-wing Catholics (and Evangelicals) who claim orthodoxy on what they call the “social issues.” As Douthat points out, they are also ignored by the Republican Party, as illustrated by candidate Romney’s sneering reference to the 47 percent who are “dependent” on government and whom therefore he discounts.

Americans rejected the theocon vision. Neuhaus’s “Catholic Moment” has indeed faded into oblivion. But the real Catholic concepts of social justice are alive and well in the Democratic party. President Obama repeatedly declares that we are our brother’s keeper, we are all in this together, that the rich should be willing to contribute their fair share, that we have an obligation to provide a ladder to help the poor climb into the middle class, that we have to take care of our elderly, our children, the sick and the poor. These are statements that reflect Catholic social justice teaching better than anything that comes out of the mouths of Catholics like Speaker John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, or Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

If these principles constitute “strident social liberalism,” then Catholic social teaching is also strident social liberalism. Clearly it is viewed as far out by those who oppose making affordable health care more available, who want to cut support for education, food stamps for the hungry, meals for children and the elderly, social security and Medicare. But these are simply implementations of decent human values, of a communal spirit of “we are all one.” These are principles reflecting love of neighbor, which is the measure of our love for God. Whether these values are stated in humanistic terms or in biblical terms, they make for a civil society.

Polls show that these very Catholic values are held more widely by Catholics who adhere to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council than by those who oppose them and, ironically, more widely by those who claim no religious affiliation than by Evangelicals and other “conservative” religionists. I would say that’s a good thing.