What was Cathleen Kaveny smoking? Her recent column in Commonweal attacks First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus for “sowing division” among Catholics and reducing theological commitments to “mere instruments of political will.”
I’m not interested in defending Neuhaus against the charge that he was, at root, a political, not a religious, man. That’s a tired claim. Anyone who knew or read Neuhaus grasped that he was a passionately religious man who had strong views about matters of public importance—views he was able express in sharp, polemical, and effective ways that made him politically influential.
I’m more interested in defending him against the charge that he was eager to “sow division.” It is in this context that Kaveny says that First Things is based on a mistake. That mistake is “the view that conservative Roman Catholics have more in common with orthodox Jews and Evangelical Protestants than they do with progressive members of their own religious communities.” She goes on to say that Neuhaus’s efforts to discern and build upon a “conservative” unity shared across religious divides undermine the true unity of the Catholic Church. Moreover, the whole First Things enterprise is a mistake, because “the approach is based on a thoroughly distorted view of religious realities and commitments.”
Thoroughly distorted? That’s quite a charge. But not a remotely sound one. Everything turns on Kaveny’s phrase “more in common.” It’s a slippery notion. More of what in common? Kaveny never says, and she exploits the ambiguity to draw her false conclusions.
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.
Many of the First Things founding editors and writers were former liberals who had come to some conservative conclusions about social and cultural trends, conclusions that were labeled “neo-conservative.” One involved rejecting the presumption, then widespread, especially among serious Christians, that socialism is the most moral way to organize economic life. Another was a growing awareness that the sexual revolution did a great deal of harm to vulnerable people, not the least unborn children. Still another was that American military power is a good thing, deterring aggression and providing indispensible stability to the international order.
I came to many of these neo-conservative conclusions myself in the late 1980s. In the Episcopal Church, where I worshipped, and at Yale, where I was studying, these views were usually greeted with hostility, sometimes intense hostility. When First Things began in 1990, the magazine was a lifeline. It allowed me to see that there were others with whom I shared heterodox (in our academic and ecclesiastical worlds) moral and political judgments.
I never imagined these judgments more important than faith in Christ. But I thought then (and still do) that, as a Christian, I have a duty to come to considered conclusions about matters of public importance. It was a boon to have a forum like First Things where others—some Jews, some Catholics, some Protestants—could debate, discuss, and refine what they share in common when it comes to public life.
There’s a deeper dimension as well. The decidedly post-liberal theological tone of First Things was more important to me as a young reader than neo-conservative political ideas. It was more important to Richard John Neuhaus.
Liberalism in theology does not mean liberalism in politics. Instead, it denotes a fundamental judgment about the modern era and the Christian’s relation to it. A theological liberal regards our times as unique, providing decisive new possibilities for the life of faith. For example, many generations of Protestant theologians have thought that historical-critical methods allow us to recover, for the first time in nearly two thousand years, accurate knowledge of the person and teaching of Jesus. This means we must undertake a fearless critique of inherited rituals and dogmas so as to return the church to the original purity of the Gospel.
Theological liberalism takes other forms. Some fix on democracy and freedom as ushering in a new understanding of the human condition. Others focus on modern science. In each case, something new becomes the focal point of theological reflection, and it becomes the basis for a critique, reform, and reimagining of the inherited tradition.
Here again, many of the founding figures who played such a prominent role in First Things, as well as early readers like me, came to some shared conclusions. We became less and less impressed with the modern conceit that ours is a time of the unprecedented. We became more and more convinced that our traditions contained an inherited wisdom—a divine revelation—that provides greater insight into the human condition than any modern method, mentality, or revolution. Again, in the magazine’s early years, it was an exciting and invigorating to find others who were coming to the same post-liberal conclusions, whether they were Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant.
There’s no “distorted view of religious realities and commitments” behind a magazine for those who share this post-liberal theological outlook. I share more in common with Rabbi David Novak’s theological mentality than with approaches taken by liberal theologians like Roger Haight. That I do so in no way betrays the truth that all Catholics are united in Christ. Nor am I introducing division into the Catholic Church when I write an essay critical of feminist theology, as I once did, much to Neuhaus’s enjoyment.
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.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.