A Partisan Church: American Catholicism and the Rise of Neoconservative Catholics
by todd scribner
cua, 155 pages, $40.00

In this insightful, well-researched and thought-provoking book, Todd Scribner presents a compelling story of the development of neoconservative Catholic thought in the 1970s and 1980s. The story covers a wide spectrum of subjects, including church structure, secular political history, Catholic social thought, and public policy. Despite the challenges of such wide-ranging topics, Scribner ties them together to produce insights highly relevant to contemporary Catholicism and American politics.

A Partisan Church begins with the tumultuous disruptions occurring in both the Catholic Church and American political life during the 1960s. For the Catholic Church, these disruptions resulted in a fracturing of Catholic identity following Vatican II and the wave of secularism sweeping across the Western world. At the same time, American political identity was under siege by the cultural and sexual revolutions of the time. These disruptions prompted the emergence of a new religious and political outlook known as neoconservatism.

The neoconservative response by three noted Catholic intellectuals—Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak—forms the focal point of A Partisan Church. Scribner skillfully uses these three individuals as representatives of a neoconservative public philosophy that interwove the Catholic and secular political world-views of the thinkers, and his discussion of these thinkers instructively reveals the depth and complexity of neoconservative Catholic thought.

Scribner chooses these individuals not only because of their influential body of work, but also because each, over the course of their intellectual development, abandoned a liberal political worldview and increasingly embraced a conservative one.

Neoconservatives sought to construct a narrative that connected their religious and political identities, as well as to revitalize the American political tradition at a time when that tradition was being threatened. Neuhaus, Weigel, and Novak all tried to combat the 1970s-era erosion of long-held moral, religious and political identities. This erosion, according to neoconservatives, undermined American democracy by removing the moral and cultural foundations of that democracy. While progressives thought a Rousseau-ist removal of traditional cultural and moral values would usher in a flowering of individual freedom, neoconservatives saw instead a resulting moral chaos and social breakdown, along with the vast expansion of a bureaucratic government that in fact stifled liberty.

Neuhaus concentrated on the historic relationship between politics and religion, arguing against attempts to strip religion from the public sphere. Following John Paul II, Neuhaus called for the Catholic Church to resist becoming a follower of secular culture; instead, the church should focus on reviving culture by imbuing it with a Catholic sensibility that includes:

  • A philosophical foundation for the republican virtues the Framers believed were vital to the survival of democracy;
  • a genuine advocacy of a moral duty to assist the poor;
  • a recognition of the religious roots of American constitutional democracy;
  • and a strong belief in individual dignity and freedom.

Weigel believed the Catholic Church could play an important role in reaffirming the American political tradition and addressing the moral chaos in American society. He saw, as did John Courtney Murray, that the “roots for American republicanism rest in the intellectual resources that were nurtured and developed in medieval Catholic political thought.” Abandoning these Catholic roots would result in “a spiritual vacuum that would open the door for an array of political abuses.” Sadly, Weigel feared that deep fissures within the church prevented it from playing such a reaffirming role.

Novak argued that over the course of the twentieth century the American political tradition had slowly converged with the Catholic social teaching tradition. To Novak, democratic capitalism was not only the most effective mechanism to help the poor; it was also grounded in modern Catholic social thought. Consequently, to Novak, the church leadership’s rejection of democratic capitalist values contradicted established church teaching. Indeed, Novak’s model of democratic capitalism embraced a Catholic “moral vision” of society that saw the maintenance of such values as honesty, fidelity, hard work, and self-restraint as essential for the economic system “to work properly.” In casting “tyranny as its primary enemy,” democratic capitalism, with its system of checks and balances and dispersals of power, not only provided a vital constraint on state authoritarianism, but also protected the free social space needed for religion to survive and prosper.

As Scribner points out, neoconservatives believed the American political tradition was compatible with, if not an outgrowth of, the Christian political tradition. Both these traditions advocated the distinction between state and society, especially the maintenance of social spaces free of government intrusion. Neoconservatives objected to modern political thought that focused only on the state, allowing an expanding bureaucracy to co-opt responsibilities that once belonged to all the non-public mediating institutions standing between the individual and the state. And as a primary mediating institution, religion played an important role in the well-being of society.

Neoconservatives also addressed the role of the church in public affairs. Realizing that the post-Vatican II church leadership had largely aligned with a progressive secular worldview, causing the church to abandon traditional Catholic social teaching, neoconservatives sought to depoliticize the church. They decried, in particular, the way in which the church had become politicized during heady cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. And not only had it become politicized; it had become politicized in a distinctly leftward manner, permitting the leftist secularized world to shape the mission of the church.

This leftward politicization revealed itself in a myriad of ways:

  • The American Bishops’ economic policies that chose socialistic over capitalistic structures;
  • the church hierarchy’s support of a foreign policy that tilted toward communist nations and against democracies;
  • an accommodation with the cultural elite’s social values;
  • and a post-Vietnam embrace of a liberation theology in Latin America that legitimized the Soviet Union’s intervention in the region.

According to neoconservatives, the politicization of the church undermined its ministerial and sacramental role, resulting in the weakening of a distinctive Catholic identity. The problem was not so much that the church was involved in secular politics, but that the church leadership too often did so according to the agenda and standards of secular society. According to Neuhaus, the politicization of the church resulted in religious identity being “based more on one’s politics than on one’s Christianity.” With Catholics “increasingly divided by political differences, there emerged a tendency for the laity and leadership alike to align themselves with institutional structures that would more effectively realize their political objectives.” Instead of becoming absorbed in the partisan battles of policy formation, the church hierarchy, according to the neoconservatives, should have focused on the broader task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy and shaping the culture in which such partisan debate occurs.

In this engaging and illuminating book, Scribner demonstrates the value of religion in directing American civil society, which in turn influences political identity. Indeed, the danger of an ever expanding government is that it tends to erode the civil society foundations needed for its very effectiveness and legitimacy. These lessons are even more relevant today than they were in the 1980s.

Patrick Garry is Professor of Law, University of South Dakota, and author of Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged.

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