APRIL 3, 2006
CATHOLIC MATTERS: CONFUSION, CONTROVERSY, AND THE SPLENDOR OF TRUTH
By Richard John Neuhaus
(Basic Books, 272 pp., $25)
Liberal modernity exasperates traditional religion. It fosters a pluralism that denies any one faith the power to organize the whole of social life. It teaches that public authorities must submit to the consent of those over whom they aspire to rule, thereby undermining the legitimacy of all forms of absolutism. It employs the systematic skepticism of the scientific method to settle important questions of public policy. It encourages the growth of the capitalist marketplace, which unleashes human appetites and gives individuals the freedom to choose among an ever-expanding range of ways to satisfy them.
None of this means that modernity necessarily produces "secularization": the persistence of piety in America is a massive stumbling block to anyone wishing to maintain that the modern age is just a long march toward atheism. But if modernity does not lead inexorably to godlessness, the social, political, scientific, and economic dynamism of modern life nonetheless requires that traditionalist believers make a choice. They can adapt to modernity by embracing at least some degree of liberalization--or they can set out to combat the modern dispensation in the name of theological purity. A tension between these alternatives--between liberal religion and anti-liberal religion--runs through the history of nearly every modern nation, including the United States.
A majority of the American founders were deistic Episcopalians, and since the late eighteenth century the country's political culture has been dominated by liberal Protestantism. But that is far from the whole story. From the "Great Awakenings" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the rancorous battle between "modernist" and "fundamentalist" Protestants in the 1920s to today's conflicts over teaching "intelligent design" in the nation's classrooms, the country has repeatedly experienced outbursts of populist religious fervor by those who passionately reject central features of liberal modernity, including the authority of science and the legitimacy of a secular and pluralist political order.
Whether or not the recent prominence of religiosity in the nation's public life signals that America is undergoing a new Great Awakening, it is undeniable that the rise of the Republican Party to electoral dominance in the past generation has been greatly aided by the politicization of culturally alienated traditionalist Christians. Countless press reports in recent years have noted that much of the religious right's political strength derives from the exertions of millions of anti-liberal evangelical Protestants. Much less widely understood is the more fundamental role of a small group of staunchly conservative Catholic intellectuals in providing traditionalist Christians of any and every denomination with a comprehensive ideology to justify their political ambitions. In the political economy of the religious right, Protestants supply the bulk of the bodies, but it is Catholics who supply the ideas.
Several Catholic writers have contributed to fashioning a potent governing philosophy for traditionalist Christians, but the one who has exercised the greatest influence on the ideological agenda of the religious right is Richard John Neuhaus--a Catholic convert from Lutheranism, and a priest who for the past two decades has attempted to lead an interdenominational religious insurgency against the secular drift of American politics and culture since the 1960s. In his voluminous but remarkably consistent writings, Neuhaus has sought nothing less than to reverse the fortunes of traditionalist religion in modern America--to teach conservative Christians how to place liberal modernity, once and for all, on the defensive. Any attempt to come to terms with the religious challenge to secular politics in contemporary America must confront Neuhaus's enormously ambitious and increasingly influential enterprise.
Like so many of the most successful conservative intellectuals in America today, Neuhaus began his life of public engagement elsewhere on the political spectrum--though unlike the secular Jewish intellectuals who went on to become neoconservatives, Neuhaus was no Cold War liberal out to defend dispassionate public policy-making against the excesses of the far left. As the head of a largely black parish straddling the inner-city Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, the young Reverend Neuhaus was a leftist inspired by an intense Christian piety and the writings of such radical authors as C. Wright Mills to lead angry protests against what he saw as the oppressive rule of a racist and militaristic "regime" in the United States.
In 1965, Neuhaus co-founded the most important religiously based antiwar organization of the time, Clergy Concerned About Vietnam (later renamed Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam), with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Daniel Berrigan. In subsequent years he acted as the New York liaison for Martin Luther King Jr. in King's attempt to bring the civil rights movement to the slums of the urban North. He was arrested in a march down Michigan Avenue at the explosive Democratic National Convention in 1968. Neuhaus insinuated in his sermons that the Vietnam War was divine punishment for the collective sins of the United States, and he described the Vietnamese people as "God's instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees." He even contemplated the morality of participating in armed revolution to overthrow the government of the United States.
That was in 1970. Just over a decade later, Neuhaus would gain a reputation as a defender of Ronald Reagan's re-escalation of the Cold War. The catalyst for his rapid ideological metamorphosis was his revulsion at the moral and cultural confusion that appeared to permeate the nation during the mid-1970s. Military and moral defeat in Vietnam, a criminal conspiracy in the White House leading to a presidential resignation, lingering racial unrest in the nation's cities, a crippling gasoline shortage and subsequent economic stagnation: Neuhaus was hardly alone in concluding that the United States had entered a period of profound uncertainty, even paralysis. Indeed, for a time this became the conventional wisdom among the country's leading writers and intellectuals, many of whom wrote books and articles intended to diagnose and prescribe a cure for the nation's ills. Neuhaus's contributions to this literature were unusually ambitious, seeking to explain not only why the nation suffered from such a lack of confidence and sense of purpose in the mid-1970s, but also why during the previous decade the country's leaders had perpetuated grave injustices in race relations and foreign policy, as well as why the American people had failed to rise up against these injustices once the protest movement had brought them to public attention. Neuhaus's writings in this period were also unusual in that they traced these manifold and longstanding problems to a single source--a national "crisis of meaning," by which he meant a crisis of religion.
This crisis, Neuhaus claimed, had its roots in a spiritual conflict between a narrow band of elites and the vast majority of the American people. Building on and radicalizing his earlier portrait of a country ruled by a hostile and unjust "regime," Neuhaus now portrayed a nation governed by a class of decadent intellectuals who espoused a form of "secularized liberalism that has been cut off from its religious roots and robbed of its power to provide meaning." By contrast, the vast majority of Americans made their way in the world using ideas and principles derived from "explicit religion," which for all practical purposes meant "some form of Christianity or Judaism." But this religious majority had been excluded from "participating with religious seriousness in the political process" by the "religiously `emancipated,'" who held a "virtual monopoly" on "respectable public discourse." As a result, millions of Americans felt understandably alienated from the public life of the nation. It was this alienation that by the mid-1970s had dulled the nation's moral senses and sapped its spiritual strength.
Neuhaus maintained that overcoming this alienation was a matter of extreme urgency. Failure to respond to it effectively could lead to a far deeper national malaise, even to a loss of the "moral cohesion without which a nation eventually collapses." As he put it in characteristically apocalyptic terms, "Unless there is a new and widely convincing assertion of the religious meaning of liberal democracy, it will not survive the next century." And because of America's unprecedented influence on the world as a whole, such a wholesale spiritual implosion in the United States could initiate a worldwide "new dark age." Neuhaus even suggested that the stakes were so high and the challenges so great that the country required the aid of someone with extraordinary theoretical and practical vision--someone with the vision of a "Christian Marx."
Not that Neuhaus endorsed communism or any other aspect of Marxist ideology. He simply wished to highlight Marx's success at fashioning a comprehensive system of thought that inspired millions, providing them with final, authoritative answers to every human question. Only a man of such enormous gifts would be capable of giving the United States what it so manifestly craved and required: an ideological "alternative both to Marxism and secularized liberalism" that would grant the nation "a definition of reality, an ideology, based on Jewish-Christian religion, that [was] as creative, comprehensive, and compelling as was Marx's definition of reality."
Neuhaus's writings from the mid-1970s (including the now largely forgotten Time Toward Home: The American Experiment as Revelation) were his first attempts to cast himself in this exalted role--to become America's Christian Marx, and create a comprehensive religious ideology that would enable the United States to break out of its spiritual crisis. At the most basic level, this ideology would have to be more radically and consistently populist than the one that had prevailed during the 1960s. Unlike the progressive elites of the previous decade, who issued revolutionary declarations from on high and expected the American majority to follow, the intellectuals of the present and future needed to take precisely the opposite approach--to tease out, to clarify and amplify, what the majority already believed. Against such writers as Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell, who criticized the politically volatile "paranoia" associated with populist politics in America, Neuhaus pointed out (in a clumsy version of Delmore Schwartz's old joke) that "paranoiacs can be persecuted too." Indeed, "there is a kind of persecution felt by many ordinary Americans in the thinly veiled disdain with which they are viewed by many intellectuals." The genuinely populist intellectuals that America needed would have to overcome the pernicious effects of such persecution and disdain by empowering the people, politically and intellectually.
Neuhaus claimed that his proposed fusion of extreme populism and theological doctrine would lead to a "radical rethinking of the role of religion in the public realm." The point of such rethinking was not to engage in a nationwide "return to religion," but rather to become "more honest and articulate about the religious dynamics that do in fact shape our public life" without our being fully aware of it. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillich, Neuhaus asserted that whether or not it is publicly acknowledged, politics in all times and places is finally an expression of culture, and culture is finally an expression of religion. The fate of democracy in America was thus inseparable from the fate of public religiosity in America.
Over the past several generations, Neuhaus instructed, fashionable secularist theories had not so much eradicated as concealed this truth from us. But ordinary Americans, unlike the corrupt and corrupting secularist intellectuals who had come to set the terms of public debate in the country, continued to understand--at an unarticulated and intuitive level--the crucial role of religion in healthy and vibrant politics, and to sense that the "American experiment" requires a "transcendent point of reference to which we are corporately accountable." It was the duty of intellectuals to learn this lesson from the people, and then to construct arguments to justify their wisdom.
Once the new breed of religious intellectuals had succeeded in convincing the American people that it is legitimate to make "religious, specifically biblical, truth claims" in public, they could then take their national tutorial to the next level--by seeking to transform the way Americans think of their country and its role in world history. In place of the notion of a "contract" among equal citizens, which secular intellectuals and academic political theorists had done their best to spread among the American people, Neuhaus proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal "covenant" under God. Unlike the signatories to a contract, who view the world through the lens of individual self-interest, the members of a covenantal community think and act in light of a time in which "judgment is rendered, forgiveness bestowed, renewal begun, and the experiment either vindicated or repudiated." For this reason, talk of a covenant raises questions about the eschaton--the "end times" in which individuals and peoples will be judged by the Lord. Neuhaus wished his readers to believe that God is watching and judging our every action as individuals and as a nation--and that we ought to order our public life in light of his divine oversight.
Responding to the liberal concern that such speculation about God's plans for the nation would inspire religious extremism and heighten sectarian conflict, Neuhaus claimed that it would have a much more salutary effect, curing America's spiritual malaise by generating "a unifying source of meaning" for the entire American population. By "renewing our religious understanding of the American experience," the revival of "eschatological urgency" would lead the country to unite with confidence and in common purpose like never before--or at least for the first time since a "relentless secularism in the public realm" began to "eviscerate" American society.
Indeed, Neuhaus went so far as to argue that it was in fact the exclusion of eschatological speculation from public life that was "unhealthy, unnatural, and possibly lethal to our hopes for a common purpose as a people," and perhaps even "lethal to our hopes for continued life together." Eventually religious Americans would grow weary of subverting their faith to secular pieties, and they would demand an end to the tyranny of public godlessness. And so, many years before it would become common to speak of a "culture war" in the United States, Neuhaus prophesied the disintegration of America along cultural and religious lines, with secularists and religious believers going their separate ways and, one imagines, even coming to blows.
Neuhaus's arguments in favor of a radical religious populism came to seem prescient with the rise of the new Christian right, and above all the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1979 in order to combat the spread of "secular humanism." It would take Neuhaus several years to respond at length to this development. He finally did so in his most influential (and best) book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, which appeared in 1984. Published in the run-up to the general election, when journalists were focusing increasingly anxious attention on conservative evangelicalism and its influence on Ronald Reagan's campaign, Neuhaus argued that the emergence of the Moral Majority had "kicked a tripwire" in the United States, alerting all thoughtful citizens to a fundamental, and potentially fatal, tension in modern American life. "We insist," he wrote, that "we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy considerations the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief."
The cause of this anti-democratic trend was the spread of the idea that the United States is a secular society. Drawing on the work of the conservative philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Neuhaus described the cultural elites who had promulgated the secularist thesis as "barbarians" who had emancipated themselves from the moral and religious truths that all "civilized people consider self-evident." These barbarians had exercised an enormous influence on the country, demanding that religious Americans "produce evidence for the self-evident" or else withdraw from public debate. Neuhaus described this withdrawal in several ways, but the most striking was the image that provided his title: secularists were out to create "the naked public square"--a public square that had been thoroughly stripped of religiously based moral arguments.
Neuhaus contended also that the secularists who had denuded the public square had been abetted by the decline (theological and demographic) of the mainline Protestant churches since the early 1960s. The Episcopal, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Methodist denominations had together provided the country with a unifying religious vision, but in recent years these denominations (as well as the other members of the mainline umbrella organization, the National Council of Churches) had begun to shirk their civic and religious duties by accommodating themselves to explicitly anti-religious trends in American culture, and by cutting themselves off from the deep religious convictions of the vast majority of the American people. The effect of this development had been to transform the mainline churches into liberal special interest groups lacking any distinctive theological teaching. As a result, these once culturally dominant denominations were in free fall, being rapidly overtaken by a populist insurgency of evangelicals and fundamentalists.
In Neuhaus's view, this populist religious uprising demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that, despite its public prominence, secularism could never prevail in the United States--that, in fact, Americans were and would remain "a Christian people." Yet Neuhaus also insisted that the triumph of secularism was an active possibility to be struggled against at all costs--one that might very well lead to the moral collapse of the nation. At times this tension nearly derailed his thinking. In the end, he avoided incoherence by making a series of clarifying (and explosive) assertions and predictions, arguing that the public affirmation of some kind of absolute authority was inevitable because "transcendence abhors a vacuum." The attempt to expunge traditional religious faith from public life would thus end up empowering an "ersatz religion" of the state (most likely a "distinctly American form of Communism"). The true danger of the advance of secularism was not that it would succeed in creating a society without religion, but rather that "it will lead--not next year, maybe not in twenty years, but all too soon--to totalitarianism." Unless, that is, the country first experienced a violent rebellion on the part of those traditionalist believers who refused to go along with the establishment of the substitute state religion.
America faced a cataclysmic future. The country's only hope of avoiding these nightmares was for it to embrace the re-invigoration of public religiosity--or, in the language of Neuhaus's metaphor, to re-clothe the public square. But it was far from clear how this should be accomplished. On the one hand, Neuhaus indicated that "populist resentment against the logic of the naked public square is a source of hope." On the other hand, he insisted that simply allowing each and every religious group to bring its own distinctive truth claims to bear on public questions would not yield the "voice of Christian America." It would instead produce a range of divergent and conflicting divine claims, each based on private revelation or parochial tradition.
The case of the Moral Majority demonstrated this more vividly than any other. However justified their grievances against the creeping secularism of American life, Falwell and his followers had understandably alienated their fellow citizens, even those who sympathized with their aims. The reason was obvious: the religious agenda of the evangelicals was based almost entirely on the publicly unverifiable and subjective experiences of being "born again" in Christ--experiences that were utterly incapable of persuading non-believers or people of other faiths. Even if the moral majoritarians were to become a genuine electoral majority, their faith-based policies would justly be viewed by non-evangelical Americans as an illegitimate and coercive imposition of private moral and religious views onto the nation as a whole by force. The public comportment of the evangelicals thus threatened to set back the cause of revitalizing public religion by confirming the warnings of liberal secularists about the inevitably private character of religious faith--and about how the very attempt to bring religiously based moral arguments into the public sphere produces a rancorous politics that amounts to "civil war carried on by other means."
The Naked Public Square contained Neuhaus's first tentative attempt to solve the problem of the evangelicals by developing an alternative way for them to talk about religion in public. Instead of referring to their personal religious experiences, they would adopt a nondenominational "public language of moral purpose," as well as learn to make more sophisticated, intellectually respectable arguments about American society and history, democracy and justice, culture and the law. Such language and arguments could be effectively deployed not just by evangelicals but by any Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish opponent of secular politics.
Exactly what this interdenominational opposition to secularism would look and sound like--and precisely what policies it would demand--was left somewhat vague in The Naked Public Square. Neuhaus would clarify the matter in 1987, in The Catholic Moment, when he confounded his fellow Lutherans by calling on the Roman Catholic Church to assume "its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty." Neuhaus was now convinced that Catholicism's tradition of natural-law theorizing could serve as a (supposedly) universal moral-religious vocabulary for the nation's public life. In the words of Neuhaus's friend and ally George Weigel, whereas evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants resorted to citing "proof-texts from Scripture," which convinced no one who was not already a believer in biblical literalism, Catholic natural law could act as a morally absolute "philosophical foundation" to which "virtually all men and women of good will" could appeal.
In future years, as Neuhaus drew ever closer to the Vatican (he converted to Catholicism in 1990 and was ordained a priest the following year), it became clear that what he meant by "natural law" was most clearly and usefully expressed in Pope John Paul II's social encyclicals. In these statements, the pope frequently referred to a "culture of death" in the Western world, in which the drive toward individual autonomy increasingly trumps the absolute, inviolable rights of persons. Legalized abortion was the worst example of the trend. For the pontiff, when a society fails to recognize that "procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing ... of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence" and as such must be outlawed and punished as a crime, it is evidence of "an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil."
Once this crisis becomes advanced in a nation, it begins to permit and even to encourage the taking or manipulation of life for any number of trivial and egoistic reasons. First euthanasia, cloning, and research on human embryos are legalized; then these practices become commonplace; and lastly the society begins to mandate death for the weakest and most vulnerable. In order to prevent this moral collapse, governments must begin to re-orient themselves toward absolutes. They must intervene to prevent the taking of innocent life--to forestall the culture of death and foster a culture of life. When they fail to do so, these states--even otherwise liberal states--begin to resemble the worst totalitarian tyrannies of the twentieth century.
In Neuhaus's view, John Paul II's uniquely sweeping attack on legalized abortion--which portrayed it as the leading edge of a much broader trend toward nihilistic despotism--could serve to galvanize conservative Christians, convincing them of the dire necessity of toiling together to redeem the nation from its dalliance with death. All Christians were called to witness the unspeakable evil taking place in their midst, in hospitals and abortion clinics, in every city, in every state, on every day of the year--with the supposed sanction of the Constitution of the United States, and thus with the tacit approval of every American citizen. Christians owed it to God, to their country, to the defenseless victims of constitutionally protected lethal violence, and to the mothers who inexplicably inflict that violence to do everything in their power to build a culture in which every human being, from conception through natural death, is "protected by law and welcomed in life." At the very least, Christians were called to vote exclusively for pro-life politicians--which meant, in practice, to vote exclusively for the Republican Party.
In reply to the charge that he was attempting to import absolutist Catholic moral doctrine into American democracy, Neuhaus drew on the writing and example of John Courtney Murray, one of American Catholicism's most important and idiosyncratic twentieth-century thinkers, who died in 1967. Murray, a Jesuit, had been notorious in Church circles in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council for arguing that the Vatican's historical opposition to democracy, toleration, and liberalism arose only in understandable reaction to the anti-clericalism of continental European politics since the French Revolution, and not from clear-eyed analysis of the political possibilities opened up by modernity as such. In Murray's view, American history showed that another political arrangement was possible under modern conditions--one that was far more accommodating to religion in general and to Catholicism in particular. The Church thus owed it to the world to moderate its stance and begin explicitly defending American-style liberal democracy.
In Catholic circles, this was a highly controversial contention at the time Murray advanced it--first in a series of academic articles in the 1950s, and then in his now-classic book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, which appeared in 1960. His argument was so divisive, in fact, that he was omitted from the American delegation to the first session of Vatican II. The intervention of a handful of American bishops produced an invitation to the second session, where his views were essentially vindicated in the Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom," known as Dignitatis Humanae, in which the Church embraced democracy and human rights for the first time in its history.
Neuhaus thoroughly endorses the Vatican's Murray-inspired thaw with regard to democracy and human rights, as do most Catholics in America and around the world. But equally important for Neuhaus's project were a different and much more contentious set of arguments that Murray made about the character of the American political system itself. In Murray's view, the reason that the United States had proven to be such an accommodating place for religion was that (in the words of the historian Patrick Allitt) it had "preserved the political-philosophical heritage of medieval Christendom better than any European nation, even the ostensibly Catholic monarchies of France and Spain." As improbable as it sounded, Murray insisted that despite its incorrigible Protestantism, the United States was the Western nation that more than any other had "faithfully carried the heritage of Catholic Christendom into the mid-twentieth century."
This was an extraordinary act of historical revisionism--one in which Catholicism was portrayed not as the enemy of modern liberalism but rather as its true source and indispensable foundation. Murray maintained that, from the country's seventeenth-century origins, the American people had tacitly adhered to a Catholic-Christian consensus on moral matters. John Winthrop supposedly gave voice to this consensus when he described the Puritans as constructing a "city on a hill." Thomas Jefferson drew on it in the Declaration of Independence when he enumerated certain "self-evident truths" and God-given rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Abraham Lincoln gestured toward it in his second inaugural address when he meditated on the providential meaning of the Civil War. Updating the point, Neuhaus insinuated that Ronald Reagan translated this same consensus into twentieth-century terms when he claimed that the United States was engaged in a world-historical struggle to defend freedom against the "evil empire" of atheistic totalitarianism. Even America's embrace of religious toleration and the disestablishment of religion could be traced to the nation's underlying Catholic-Christian heritage, for (as Neuhaus put it in a highly Murrayan passage) "it is not chiefly a secular but a religious restraint that prevents biblical believers from coercing others in matters of conscience."
In Neuhaus's view, it is only in recent years that the natural-law foundation of American democracy has come under attack by a rabid secularist ideology. Earlier in American history, the responsibility for defending the country's moral and religious consensus against its secularist assailants would have fallen to the Protestant churches. But with the Protestant mainline infected with theological liberalism, the time had come for the Catholic Church to take on this daunting responsibility--to accept the task of preserving and even reconstituting America's theological identity. As Weigel wrote in 1989, nicely summarizing Neuhaus's position, the issue was not whether Catholicism was "compatible with democracy" but instead whether American democracy "could survive unless it reconstructed a public consensus around those `elementary affirmations' upon which it was founded--affirmations whose roots ... were not the original product of the Enlightenment and its American deist heirs, but of the Catholic medieval theory of man and society." Either the United States would return to its medieval Catholic roots or the very existence of its democratic order would be imperiled. Those, according to Neuhaus and his ideological allies, were America's only options.
Neuhaus teaches traditionalist Christians that they need not choose between modern America and their theological convictions, because, rightly understood, modern America has a theological--and specifically Catholic--essence. He has pushed this position for nearly twenty years now--in books, in his magazine First Things, in sympathetic Washington think tanks, and even in the White House, where George W. Bush receives counsel on social policy from the man he affectionately calls "Father Richard." This is why Neuhaus's new book is so important: it gives us a detailed and up-to-date account of the kind of Catholicism that he is peddling, which he aims to inject into the heart of American public life.
Neuhaus begins Catholic Matters by highlighting the many contemporary problems that afflict the Catholic Church in the United States: sharply declining vocations for the priesthood; widespread disregard among the laity for the Church's stringent sexual teachings; divisive and seemingly endless conflicts over the meaning and the implications of Vatican II; and above all the sexual abuse of children and teenagers by priests, and its cover-up by bishops seemingly more concerned with public relations than with protecting the most vulnerable members of their flocks. The Catholic left responds to these myriad problems by proposing that the Church embrace liberalization, permitting marriage for priests, the use of contraception, liturgical experimentation, and a much larger role for the laity in church governance in order to tame the hierarchy's self-regarding clericalism. A tiny band of reactionaries on the Catholic far right takes the opposite tack, claiming that everything would be solved by returning to the pre-Vatican II Church of the Latin Mass. Neuhaus firmly rejects both proposals in favor of a position he describes as "centrist," but which is actually quite radical.
All of these and many other problems, he claims, can be traced to an insidious culture of dissent infesting American Catholicism. The proper response, according to Neuhaus, is for Catholics to learn how to "think with the Church"--by which he means to submit absolutely to the authority of the Vatican. Readers of Neuhaus's magazine column, "The Public Square," will recall this line of argument from his response to the sex-abuse scandal. For many Catholics, the scandal raised serious questions about what it was in the institutional practices of the Church that made possible such sordid crimes. The fact that so many priests were accused of sexually molesting children and teenagers--as opposed to, say, embezzling from church coffers--seemed to point directly to a problem in the Church's teachings and practices regarding sex. But not according to Neuhaus. In a series of essays published throughout 2002 and 2003, he argued instead that the scandal should be blamed on a widespread lack of "fidelity" among clergy to the moral and sexual teachings of the Church: "If bishops and priests had been faithful to the Church's teachings and their sacred vows, there would be no crisis." This was, to say the least, an odd interpretation--one that was about as enlightening as saying that theft would never occur if people obeyed laws against stealing.
Now Neuhaus has revived the argument and expanded it into a full-blown theology of radical obedience to Church authority. He makes his case for obedience by way of an autobiographical account of how he himself came to embrace the Catholic Church. Somewhat implausibly, he claims that from the time of his youth, as the son of a staunchly conservative Lutheran pastor in the rural community of Pembroke, Ontario, he suspected that his Catholic neighbors possessed and enjoyed something "more" than he did. "More" of what? They belonged to a church that could trace its authority directly to Jesus Christ and the apostles, whereas he and his family merely belonged to a latter-day Protestant offshoot of that primordial ecclesial community--and one whose foundation, Martin Luther's break from Rome, was a monumental act of disobedience.
As Neuhaus tells the story, these vague intimations of inadequacy multiplied after he followed in his father's footsteps to become a Lutheran minister. He claims he grew troubled that Lutheranism seemed to be a mere "voluntary association" that parishioners felt free to join and leave at will. He longed for religion to be a "communal and sacramental given," not a mere "choice" or "personal preference." Comparing his own humble parish to the "magisterial" teaching authority that the Catholic Church claims for itself in matters of faith and morals, Neuhaus began to think of himself as a "priest, bishop, and pope, accountable to no Magisterium but my own." And this autonomy was intolerable. Soon he started to sense that his loyalty to Lutheranism was merely loyalty to himself, which was really "no loyalty at all," and to crave "submission to an other, and finally to the Other."
But unlike evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals, who readily submit themselves directly to God by way of what they believe to be the personal intervention of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, Neuhaus pined for instantiated divinity. He longed to join a community, a tradition, an institution--in short, a church. Or rather, the Church. As far as he was concerned, the only alternative to obedience was for him to contribute to the "cacophony of Christians making it up as they go along," which was indistinguishable from giving in to the "rebellious spirit of John Milton's Satan." Becoming a Catholic, he concluded, would enable him to dissolve himself into what he describes as the "sheer isness" of Catholicism--to leave behind the ideology of the "autonomous self" who seeks the "gloriously independent actualization of me." It was in this spirit of self-erasure that he joyfully became a Catholic.
Much of Neuhaus's book is devoted to responding to imagined critics of his blatantly authoritarian understanding of Catholicism. To those who would accuse him of having a "felt need for authority," Neuhaus proudly declares that "of course" he does, "as should we all." We must submit to an authority that will provide us with criteria and standards for deciding between rival claims to truth, he believes, because relying on ourselves alone (on our own "private judgment") inevitably produces confusion and indecision. But how can we know, by what authority can we determine, which authority is the right authority? This is a significant problem for anyone who combines a longing to obey with a refusal to recognize as authoritative the traditions into which he happens to have been born.
Carl Schmitt, the political theorist who devoted a great deal of thought to this dilemma, determined that such men have no choice but to make an arbitrary yet resolute decision to obey some authority, any authority. Taking account of the options in Germany in 1933, Schmitt swore obedience to Hitler. Neuhaus, of course, makes an infinitely more respectable decision in favor of the Vatican. He does so because, in his words, "the promise of Jesus that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples" is a "promise made to the Church." But why does Neuhaus--and why should we--trust this promise? He claims that he can know that the Church's authority is worthy of his obedience in the same way that a bride can "know" that her "bridegroom will be faithful." Though Neuhaus does not employ the term, what he is describing is merely another leap of faith, a melodramatic form of cosmic confidence that derives its psychological strength from its aversion to philosophical thinking.
The key to making this foundational leap of faith a successful one (especially for a skeptical intellectual) is the exorcism of doubt. In this Neuhaus follows John Henry Newman, the acclaimed Catholic apologist who converted to the Church in 1845 in large part to escape the corrosive "liberalism" he believed had infected nineteenth-century Anglicanism. Like Newman, Neuhaus went to Rome in search of certitude. He appeals to Newman again and again in his book, most memorably in twice quoting Newman's assertion that having "ten thousand difficulties" with the Church's teachings on faith, morals, or doctrine ought not to "add up to a [single] doubt" about their truth. A Catholic can have trouble affirming something taught by Rome, but in the end he must conclude that the difficulty arises from his own resistance to obedience or a misunderstanding and not from any error in the teaching itself. The pope, Neuhaus implies, is always right. (When politics intrudes, however, Neuhaus honors this idea in the breach: over the years he has shown himself to be perfectly willing to break from a suddenly fallible Vatican when it endorses economic and foreign policies that diverge from those preferred by the Republican Party.)
Neuhaus strenuously denies that Newmanian obedience to ecclesiastical authority requires "standing at attention, clicking one's heels, and saluting at the appearance of every document from Rome," but it is hard to imagine how else Church edicts would be greeted by a Catholic who had so thoroughly submitted his mind to the governance of the Vatican hierarchy. "I think for myself not to come up with my own teaching," he writes, "but to make the Church's teaching my own." Apparently thinking is permitted in this cramped theological world only to the extent that it contributes to keeping the intellect in line with the "splendor of truth" proclaimed by the Church.
Catholic Matters contains several illustrative examples of such anti-thinking in action. Consider the way that Neuhaus handles the question of doctrinal evolution in the Church. Modern scholarship tells us that doctrines currently accepted as timelessly true by the Vatican actually emerged through a contingent process of contentious debate at early Church councils. Certain theological doctrines once widespread among devout Christians (such as Arianism, which denied the full divinity of Christ) became heresies, while others (such as the doctrine of the Trinity) became touchstones of orthodoxy. But what if it had turned out otherwise? What if the Arians had prevailed at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.? Neuhaus waives away such speculation with an astonishingly crude version of historical triumphalism. Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church in all important matters, he asserts, so the very fact that a given doctrine prevailed over others in the distant past is sufficient to demonstrate "the rightness of it, the necessity of it."
Neuhaus employs the same form of self-validating argumentation in response to more recent shifts in Church teaching. Change, after all, implies a past error. But of course we know from Christ's promise that the Church cannot err. Therefore, all seeming discontinuities--from Rome's assault on democracy and toleration in the nineteenth century to its embrace of human rights after Vatican II--must somehow be treated as continuities, regardless of how historically implausible it is to believe so. In making this remarkable proposal, Neuhaus once again follows Newman, for whom the appeal of Catholicism derived in large part from its claim to changelessness. In Newman's view, the Church never truly alters its teaching on anything of substance. It merely engages in a "development of doctrine"--that is, a relatively superficial modification that actually reinforces continuity at a deeper level. And if the continuity is not immediately apparent, it is the job of faithful Catholics to conjure it up.
The practical consequences of such fanciful and willfully uncritical thinking can be seen most vividly in Neuhaus's discussion of the Church's sexual teachings, especially on contraception. Pope Paul VI re-affirmed the absolute ban on all artificial birth control, over the strenuous objections of theologians whom he had convened to discuss the possibility of liberalization, in the notorious encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. More than thirty-five years later, the ban is ignored by a vast majority of the Catholic laity in the United States. So few Catholics in their twenties and thirties accept the Church's teaching on the subject, in fact, that the percentage who do falls within the margin of error (less than 3 percent).
Many have concluded from these trends that the ban on birth control lacks a basis in natural law and instead reflects the Vatican's desire to uphold an antiquarian and sexist ideal of order in the family that clashes violently with the way most modern Catholics think and live. But not Neuhaus. As far as he is concerned, the widespread disregard for Church teaching on contraception can be traced entirely to the failure of the American clergy to defend Pope Paul's encyclical. If only parish priests had obeyed the pope's edict--if only they had railed from the altar for the past three decades against the use of condoms and the culture of "disordered sexual desire" that pervades modern America--then American Catholics today would enthusiastically embrace the ban on contraception. Needless to say, this position makes a rather extreme assumption about the power of Church authorities to mold the minds of the laity. Neuhaus's Catholicism is supremely a religion of credulity.
Following Pope Benedict XVI, Neuhaus maintains that, far from restricting or abolishing freedom, the surrender of the mind to the absolute authority of the Church is the "foundation of freedom." But this is sophistry. Matthew Arnold, who was himself deeply exercised by the cultural consequences of the crisis of traditional religion, beautifully and accurately defined free thinking as "the free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches." Neuhaus appears to want no part of such serious play, such open-ended inquiry. Denouncing it as pointless "complexification" and yearning for what Paul Ricouer called a "second naivete" on the far side of reflection, he gives every sign of preferring a comprehensive and hermetically sealed religious ideology that will definitively insulate him from doubt. Those less inclined to recoil from the joys and the trials, the frustrations and the rewards, of critical thinking will look on such longings with a mixture of perplexity and alarm.
And then there is politics. In his insistent emphasis on the need for order, authority, and tradition, as well as in his warnings about the psychological and social ravages of modern skepticism, Neuhaus echoes such luminaries of the European (and Catholic) right as Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortes, and (once again) Carl Schmitt, all of whom were staunch opponents of liberalism and modernity. Yet Neuhaus would have us believe that his own anti-liberal and anti-modern views are perfectly compatible with--no, synonymous with--the principles underlying modern American democracy.
We have considerable reason to doubt this. Take the crucially important issue of authority. Setting aside the question of whether an authoritarian outlook is harmful in religion, and there is a considerable religious and philosophical literature on the subject, an authoritarian outlook can certainly be destructive in politics. A nation in which such an outlook is explicitly encouraged and esteemed will be tempted to support political leaders who promise to shield us from the inherent complexity and difficulty of truth itself. This temptation is especially dangerous in liberal democratic nations, which depend on citizens informing themselves about exceedingly complicated issues, making use of alternative sources of information, doubting the assertions of public authorities, and thrashing out an inevitably tentative truth in open-ended argument and debate. This is the unavoidable price of citizenship in a free society. It is our citizenly duty to be suspicious, and to cultivate suspicion, of any and all who would rescue us from the rigors of our own freedom.
The offense that Neuhaus's political theology gives to American pluralism and civility is no less great. Since 1984, he has maintained that "only a transcendent, a religious, vision can turn this society from disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny" as a "sacred enterprise." Since 1987, he has further stipulated that this vision must be supplied by the Roman Catholic Church. The legitimacy of this ideological project--its potential to unify rather than to polarize the nation--stands or falls on its ability to avoid the social dynamic that Neuhaus himself once identified with Protestant evangelicalism. The Moral Majority was incapable of providing the nation with a unifying religious ideology, he argued in The Naked Public Square, because non-evangelical Americans would inevitably view the attempt as one group's illegitimate effort to impose its private theological convictions on the nation as a whole. Conservative Protestants thus negated their claim to speak for the whole of society in the very act of presuming to do so.
Over the years, Neuhaus has gone out of his way to show that unlike evangelicalism, with which he has often made common cause, Catholicism is capable of speaking with moral force to all Americans, regardless of their religious attachments (or lack of attachments). In the Church's natural-law tradition and its social encyclicals can be found the rudiments of a spiritual and moral outlook that is perfectly compatible with pluralism and democracy in the United States. Whether or not individual American citizens are conservative Catholics--or even liberal Catholics, or even Judeo-Christians, or even believers in a personal God, or even believers in any spiritual reality at all--they can and should accept the universal validity of traditionalist Catholic moral arguments and employ them as an ideological framework through which to understand the nation and its role in the world.
It is a beautiful story, but it is a fairy tale--at least when viewed in the light of the narrow and sectarian form of Catholicism that Neuhaus defends in Catholic Matters. Consider his delight in repeatedly claiming that the Catholic Church provides "the true story of the world," of which all the other stories are merely a part, "including the story of America." Neuhaus helpfully elaborated on the point in a recent issue of First Things, where he likewise asserted that "it is time to think again--to think deeply, to think theologically--about the story of America and its place in the story of the world." The Catholic story of the world, that is. These statements make it quite clear that Neuhaus longs for an omnivorous Catholic Church to devour and to absorb American culture and public life. Short of universal conversion to traditionalist Catholicism on the part of the American people, this effort to Catholicize the nation and its public philosophy would surely generate much more division and do far more to heighten sectarian tensions than the rise of the Moral Majority ever did. (One wonders, for example, how even Neuhaus's traditionalist Protestant allies will respond to his ecclesiological boast that the Catholic Church is "the gravitational center of the Christian reality, the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.")
And what would the Catholicizing of the United States portend for the country's millions of non-traditionalist Christians and Jews, let alone its many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics? To judge from a troubling essay that Neuhaus wrote in 1991, they would likely have to be excluded from the category of good citizenship. Focusing on unbelievers, he declared that while "an atheist can be a citizen" of the United States, it is on principle impossible for an atheist to be "a good citizen." The godless, he maintained, are simply incapable of giving a "morally convincing account" of the nation--a necessary condition for fruitful participation in its experiment in "ordered liberty." To be morally convincing, such an account must make reference to "reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than the self, from that which is external to the self, from that to which the self is ultimately obligated." No wonder, then, that it is "those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus [who] turn out to be the best citizens."
To his credit, Neuhaus fully acknowledged the blatant circularity of his argument--the way it excluded atheists from the category of good citizenship by appealing exclusively to the assumptions of those religious traditionalists who believe that good citizenship requires the affirmation of divine authority. Yet in his effort to defend this circularity, Neuhaus made a startling admission. Establishing standards of good citizenship on the basis of exclusionary theistic assumptions is thoroughly justified, he claimed, not because such assumptions can plausibly be found in the Constitution or in its supporting documents or in established American practice or tradition, but because such assumptions are supposedly made by "a majority" in contemporary American society.
This is an appeal to raw majoritarian power, and its implications are plain. Neuhaus has often portrayed himself as a defender of a "civil public square." He has frequently insisted, against evangelicals and others, that public debate should take place using reason and that it should employ categories and concepts that are equally accessible to all citizens. But in his remarks on atheism Neuhaus made it very clear that the country's moral and religious consensus is actually the imposition of the beliefs of one part of a highly diverse community onto its other parts. In Catholic-Christian America, dominated by a traditionalist Christian majority, might would by definition be synonymous with right.
Neuhaus would no doubt insist that this exclusionary logic applies only to atheists (as if that weren't bad enough!), though it is hard to see why we should believe him. In the Catholic-Christian story of America and the world, non-traditionalist Christians and Jews, as well as adherents of other faiths, are at best peripheral players--and at worst antagonists. The most vivid and ominous example of what politics might be like in an America marked by such theologically motivated antagonisms can be found in the November 1996 issue of First Things, in which Neuhaus and his closest ideological compatriots, repulsed by a series of Supreme Court decisions on abortion, euthanasia, and gay rights, let out a cry of religiously inspired fury, and suggested (in terms identical to those Neuhaus employed during his period of leftist radicalism) that a morally corrupt "regime" was usurping democracy in America--and that a justified insurrection on the part of the country's most religious citizens might very well be in order.
All of the participants in the First Things symposium--it was called "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics"--permitted themselves radical rhetoric. Robert H. Bork denounced the nation's "judicial oligarchy" for spreading "moral chaos" throughout the land. The Catholic theologian Russell Hittinger asserted that the country now lived "under an altered constitutional regime" whose laws were "unworthy of loyalty." Charles W. Colson maintained that America may have reached the point where "the only political action believers can take is some kind of direct, extra-political confrontation" with the "judicially controlled regime." And in a contribution titled "The Tyrant State," Robert P. George asserted that "the courts ... have imposed upon the nation immoral policies that pro-life Americans cannot, in conscience, accept."
But it was Neuhaus himself who did more than anyone else to push the tone of the symposium beyond the limits of responsible discourse. In the unsigned editorial with which he introduced the special issue of the magazine, Neuhaus adopted the revolutionary language of the Declaration of Independence to lament the judiciary's "long train of abuses and usurpations" and to warn darkly about "the prospect--some might say the present reality--of despotism" in America. In Neuhaus's view, what was happening in the United States could only be described as "the displacement of a constitutional order by a regime that does not have, will not obtain, and cannot command the consent of the people." Hence the stark and radical options confronting the country, ranging "from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."
That is the America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us--an America in which eschatological panic is deliberately channeled into public life, in which moral and theological absolutists demonize the country's political institutions and make nonnegotiable public demands under the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence, in which citizens flee from the inner obligations of freedom and long to subordinate themselves to ecclesiastical authority, and in which traditionalist Christianity thoroughly dominates the nation's public life. All of which should serve as a potent reminder--as if, in an age marked by the bloody rise of theologically inspired politics in the Islamic world, we needed a reminder--that the strict separation of politics and religion is a rare, precious, and fragile achievement, one of America's most sublime achievements, and we should do everything in our power to preserve it. It is a large part of what makes America worth living in.