Can I register a complaint here about the increasing use of “theocon” to describe all politically conservative religious people? Andrew Sullivan has been pushing the word for some while now: Richard John Neuhaus is officially the ” theocon-in-chief ,” which I reckon trumps the title Sullivan once bestowed on me as an ” über-theocon .” Of course, it’s weird to be beat up by the left as people who insanely want to undo liberal democracy, and beat up at the same time by the right as people who absurdly want to maintain liberal democracy. But at least the old logo of “Catholic neoconservative” (or maybe just plain “neocon”) captured something of the balancing act. If F IRST T HINGS is the home of theoconservatives, then what are the Christian Reconstructionists and followers of R.J. Rushdoony? Über-theocons, maybe? Oh, wait . . .


“The decline of American Catholicism after l965 closely paralleled the decline of the American city,” the deeply conservative (not to say theoconservative) historian James Hitchcock once declared . It’s certainly a proposition—one that could easily be ridden out into the minefields of paranoia, as E. Michael Jones did in The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing , a 2004 book in which the prolific author claimed that the nation’s WASP elite cynically used the charge of racial prejudice to demolish the white Catholic ethnic neighborhoods they had always hated.

Still, something happened to American Catholicism as it crossed the crabgrass frontier to suburbia, and I’m not sure I understand yet all that it has meant. “Assimilation” was the buzzword of those days, and it was used to signal something like the end of Catholics’ distinctiveness. Of course, the growth of the suburbs and the decline of the city—which is the chicken and which is the egg?—had multiple causes. So much worked together in that time to break the old ethnic divisions, and not the least of it was a high liberal consensus about Protestant-Catholic-Jew in America: If we are all Americans together, then once we no longer have neighborhoods that speak German, Polish, and Yiddish, Catholicism becomes a denomination like any other, and there is essentially no more difference between a suburban Catholic church and a suburban Lutheran church than there is between the Presbyterian and the Congregational churches a few blocks away.

You can ride this hobbyhorse a long way, as well—deep into the territory that Garry Wills, for instance, marked out in his 1972 volume Bare Ruined Choirs . In a certain sense, Vatican II arrived at the worst possible time for the American church, and it’s possible to conclude that Vatican II was thus a mistake from which the Church in the United States still hasn’t recovered. Though Garry Wills is, in general, a liberal of the “spirit-of-Vatican-II” type, he felt the loss of the ethnic urban Catholic experience as strongly as a pre-Vatican-II conservative like James Hitchcock. I sometimes get the sense while reading them that we who are younger will never know the sweetness that a unified religious culture can hold.

But did the decay of white ethnic urban Catholicism actually mean “the decline of American Catholicism”? There’s a standard Catholic neocon line that kicks in here, all about the almost-providential joining of democracy in politics, capitalism in economics, and Christianity in culture—a sort of three-legged stool, in which each leg corrects for the imbalances of the other. And I think it’s a true account, as far as it goes in explaining the resurgence of American Catholicism, particularly intellectual Catholicism, during the pontificate of John Paul II. (But then, a neocon like me would think that, wouldn’t he?)

Still the American Catholic Church that spun down into bare ruined choirs—the 1970s choirs that in certain serious ways produced the priest scandals that weren’t exposed till 2002—shouldn’t have been able to generate anything like a resurgence. Leaving aside the immigrant Hispanics, the vast majority of American Catholics today are suburban Catholics: They grew up on guitar masses said by Father Phil, who generally treated the rubrics as an occasion for improv theater, and their Catholic schooling was typically thin compared to the scholastic training given those brought up in the 1940s and 1950s.

But ” The Tide Is Turning Towards Catholicism ” argues Dave Hartline in an interesting recent report. It’s a thin piece in some ways: Hartline, like such long-time Fighting Irish fans Michael Novak and Ken Woodward, may take the success of Notre Dame’s football team this year as a sign of God’s grace returning to America, but I tend to want stronger signs and wonders.

Still, it’s an interesting feeling Hartline reports on, and I’ve heard something similar mentioned again and again by young Catholics. They really do seem to feel as though things are moving their way—not so much in culture and politics, perhaps, but certainly in the intellectual underpinnings of culture and politics. Philosophically, Catholicism seems to be the only serious game in town. At the very least, that means the old assimilation thesis needs massive rethinking.


In addition to which :

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Articles by Joseph Bottum

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