Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For over seven years, I have had a mailbox just above E.J. Dionne’s in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. E.J. and I have always shared cordial relationships, periodically getting together to discuss our shared and differing opinions on American politics. We have speculated on what might be a blood relationship, as my mother’s maiden name is Dionne and we both have family that hail from Fall River, Massachusetts, by way of French Canada. In graduate school I was impressed and influenced by E.J.’s book Why Americans Hate Politics , a book I hoped some day to emulate in sensibility if not sales. E.J. recently wrote an admiring blurb for a book of essays that I co-edited by my mentor, Wilson Carey McWilliams.

Patrick J. Deneen Thus it goes against my personal inclination to criticize E.J., but I have grown increasingly distressed by his tendency to define the Church and its activities in terms of American partisan politics. By doing so he diminishes the Church and threatens to make it merely an extension of modern politics and even the State.

Dionne has written in the past that the Church’s positions, reflecting a commitment to a “seamless garment of life,” should have the effect of “making us feel guilty” about the tendency of American Catholics to identify first as political partisans and only secondarily as Catholics. Indeed, the Catholic Church’s teachings do not map well, or at all, with the particular way in which American partisan positions have developed in the last fifty years, particularly out of the cauldron of the Cold War and its aftermath.

Dionne has been lambasting the Catholic leadership for its “conservative” positions, and praising the Church’s “moderate and liberal” elements, whether bishops, religious, or lay. He has accused the bishops of becoming too cozy with the Republican party and engaging too directly in electoral politics leading up to the 2012 election, particularly in regard to its stance against the HHS mandate and in the actions of a number of bishops and Catholic organizations filing suit against the mandate.

Yet, Dionne was a signatory on a letter signed by 90 Georgetown faculty that approvingly cited the “wisdom” of the Bishops when they responded critically to aspects of Paul Ryan’s budget. There was no alarm raised here by the “partisan” nature of such pastoral letters, nor fear expressed that the Bishop’s criticisms aligned them too closely to the Democratic party and would unduly engage them in a major issue animating the upcoming election.

He has written approvingly of the Church’s work on behalf of “social justice,” which would include (by his lights) not only the many corporal works of charity performed around the world by the Church’s many institutions, but as well the Church’s support for immigrants, its opposition to the death penalty, and its support for health-care reform that respects the inherent dignity of every human.

These activities Dionne regards worthy of support by “liberal” or “progressive” Catholics, while opposition to the HHS mandate reflects a worryingly “conservative” position. Yet, the Church’s leaders themselves do not use this language to discuss these various commitments, for the simple reason that they would not recognize this language to be an appropriate or accurate description of the work or teachings of the Church. The Church understands these commitments to be internally consistent; only a partisan would not.

In one recent column, “The Battle Among the Catholic Bishops,” Dionne divides the Bishops between “moderate and liberals” and “conservatives,” and points to the vast majority of dioceses that did not file suit against the HHS mandate as proof that there is a silent majority of liberal Catholics. He points with particular delight remarks by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, CA, who “broke the silence on his side” to express reservations about the lawsuits.

Yet, while Bishop Blaire expressed concern about tactics, he stated robust agreement with his fellow bishops who “very strongly support whatever action has to be taken to promote religious liberty.” That is, Bishop Blaire’s concerns are prudential, not categorical. Such differences do not suggest the fundamentally opposed worldviews of “liberals” or “progressives” against “conservatives.” They are properly and appropriately Catholic, in which there are properly and appropriately differences that are prudential in nature.

For American liberals and conservatives, there is a yawning divide regarding the legitimacy of abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. There is no such divide among the Bishops and, thus, they are not appropriately accorded the same label as political “liberals” and “conservatives.” By describing discussions within the Church in terms of American partisan labels, he threatens to instruct his readers that there is no difference between internal Church discussions and debates in American politics. Dionne portrays a Church whose internal discussions are simply an extension of contemporary political debates.

The labels themselves are inappropriate, particularly that of “progressive Catholic” ”a combination that is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, yet a label that Dionne uses again and again to describe his approach to the Catholic faith. The Progressives were theologically millenarian, even Arian, believing that salvation could be achieved through human effort and especially through the twin avenues of science and politics. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch were self-described critics of the past and hostile to tradition. John Dewey equated Christianity and democracy, believing that democracy had become the new means of ongoing revelation, and in which the teacher should seek to bring about the kingdom of God”progress advanced in the classroom could accelerate the coming of the millennium on earth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” Catholicism is an accumulation of tradition, including a magisterium that does not waver from the fundamental truth as divulged in the teachings and life of Jesus. It is a faith that traces itself back through apostolic succession to its point of origin with Jesus’s commission to his apostles to go forth and spread the Word. It is a faith that is populated by constant remembrance of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints, who are remembered in every Mass during the Eucharistic prayer. While Catholics look forward to the future with hope, they do not invest their hopes in perfection of the City of Man. If Catholics are anything, they are not “progressives,” and to import the political term for the description of Catholics is to collapse the Church into a political program that cannot be reconciled to the Catholic worldview.

If less pernicious, Dionne’s other preferred form of self-description”“Social Justice Catholic””appears only to endorse the Church’s charitable work on behalf of the poor, with a heavy preference for government’s role in that effort. But is the Church’s efforts on behalf of the dignity of every human life”born or unborn”any less a part of its commitment to social justice? Is not the defense and preservation of the family a central focus of social justice? Should not we understand the Bishop’s opposition to the HHS mandate, and preservation of the Church’s ministry without needless interference by the State, also to be a part of social justice? Dionne seems to define social justice to be activities that conform solely to the platform of the Democratic Party, but, here again, American partisan positions map poorly onto the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Thought. His portrayal of “Social Justice Catholics” as distinct from “conservative Catholics” is a disfigurement of the fullness of Catholic teaching.

Of course, those who too closely equate the Church to the Republican Party (though such individuals rarely seem prone to self-describe as “conservative” Catholics, as far as I can tell) should be similarly called to task. However, Dionne bears a particular responsibility for distortions and confusions, given his status as among the only few distinguishable Catholic voices and spokesman in one of the nation’s mainstream news publications, a position that burdens him with special responsibility to be careful in distinguishing the politics of the City of Man from the positions of the Church.

At his best, Dionne understands and is rightly suspicious of the temptation of American Catholics to define their faith in terms of their political allegiances. He rightly encourages American Catholics to allow their faith to correct the narrow vision imposed by partisan blinders. That best E.J. has not been in evidence of late, and too often he has displayed anything but a “guilty conscience” about his own coloring of the Church’s teachings based on partisan positions. As any Catholic knows, it is difficult to practice what is preached, and a particularly probing self-scrutiny is warranted, doubtless and especially during an election year when the cacophony arising from the City of Man threatens to drown out that clear song that orders us rightly toward the City of God.

Patrick J. Deneen was, until May 30, 2012, the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair of Hellenic Studies and Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University. In 2006 he founded the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. On July 1, 2012, he will begin an appointment as Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.


E.J. Dionne, “The Battle Among the Catholic Bishops”

Letter Criticizing Paul Ryan

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton on the HHS Suit

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles