The Neo-Conservative Imagination: An Interview with Patrick Deneen

By Artur Rosman
July 25, 2014

Patrick Deneen holds a Ph.D from from Rutgers University. He is professor of political science at Notre Dame University. His published writings include The Odyssey of Political Theory and Democratic Faith. He has also previously published in Ethika Politika, and is a member of the editorial board. (See: "Contemplative Fatherhood" and "Loss of Vocation and the Demise of the University”).

This interview grows out questions I developed after reading his much circulated piece "A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching” where he linked my notorious piece "Contra Zmirak: In Praise of the Inquisition.

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Rosman: What in your estimates drives the Neo-Conservative reading of Catholic Social Teaching? Why do they cling so fast to capitalism as the great white hope?

Deneen: Many of the estimable figures whom we might identify as Catholic neo-conservatives, who tend to stress morality in the realm of sexual ethics while taking a more laissez-faire view of economics, came of age intellectually and otherwise during the Cold War, and much of their worldview, in my view, is shaped by that great contest.  Catholics rightly and necessarily opposed the basic premises of Communism, but as a resultforged in that particular historical cauldronmany came to conclude that the only economic alternative was more or less laissez-faire capitalism.  They have tended, then, to read the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics to be inviolable, but Catholic social teachings regarding economics to be a set of broad and even vague guidelineseven, in one instance, warning that one must read only some sentences of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, not others.

Beyond the discrete historical situation that contributes to the biographies of some individuals, something else should be noted.  I don’t doubt at all the genuineness, seriousness, and in many cases persuasiveness of some of the views of Catholic neo-conservatives.  But we should not discount that part of the reason for their prominence in contemporary conservative circles is that they fill a very important political niche in the American political marketplace, and in particular, a niche within American conservatism.  Since the effort to forge a conservative “fusion” going back to the 1950sone that sought to combine anti-communists, social conservatives and libertarians, and saw dawning political promise with Barry Goldwater and fruition with the election of Ronald Reaganthere needed to be a way to bring various social conservatives into a “political bedfellowship” with libertarians, especially economic libertarians.  One needed a marriage of Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek.  What was needed were spokesmen among various social conservative constituencies who could represent and galvanize the socially conservative part of the electorate without frightening economic libertarians.  While this niche was relatively easy to fill when it came to Protestant social conservatives, it was always going to be tougher with Catholics.  The “niche” that beckoned was for a Catholic social conservatism that would stress especially sexual morality and would be willing to de-link those concerns from economic considerations.  One could be conservative on sexual morality until one was blue in the face without ever threatening the libertine claims of market capitalism.  This “niche” was going to exist regardless of anyone in particular who filled it, and for those who did end up filling it, there was funding, positions in prominent think-tanks, influence and prominence as an incentive and reward.  These voices play an important role in modern American conservatism, and we need to consider the particular set of political imperatives and networks that ensured that this form of Catholic neo-conservatism would become the dominant political voice among more traditional Catholic voices.

One last point: I think we might reasonably conclude that advancing Catholic teachings about sexual ethics, divorced of the broader teaching that addresses (for instance) economics, proves to be a weak reed.  If we think about the last thirty years, during which there has been some amount of Republican electoral success and even at times ascendancy, we might ask what has been more successfully advanceda society governed by sexual ethics or free-market economics?  We can point to some successes of the former, particularly the growing disapproval of abortion among young people (though coupled with their overwhelming approval of same-sex marriage, we might wonder whether the uptick in disapproval of abortion is actually a kind of logical Lockeanismdon't deprive people of rights, if you're crazy enough to get pregnant).  But, I think it's obvious that it's an economy that runs on short-term profits, assisted by deregulation of Wall Street, and the process of economic globalization and deracination that has clearly been the "winner" (and, arguably, has been the environment that has been so supportive of a more broadly libertine culture).  So, I would say that this "niche" has been highly useful for economic libertarians, while actually fostering the conditions that have contributed to the ineffectualness of the sexual arguments of the Catholic neo-conservatives.

Rosman: Would it be fair to say that the post-communist narrative you've outlined has something in common with much older altar and throne arrangements that proved so disastrous for the Church? What I mean is: It seems, for the most part, that capitalism is triumphant (puts food on tables, brings medical advances, and so on), so there's a hurry to throw some holy water on it in order to bask in its success. What are the live-options (if any) available to the Church besides grabbing the hems (and power) of a triumphant capitalism?

Deneen: That’s an interesting formulation, but in fact I think the sprinkling of holy water on The Market, as you put it, is in fact born of opposite tendencies to some of the motivations that informed “Altar and Throne” arrangements, whichfor all their pathologieswere informed by the Augustinian recognition that the Cities of Man and God, while distinct, were “mixed” in complicated ways in the Saeculum.

What is more striking to me is the way that many Catholics of the stripe we are discussing are strenuous in their insistence that, on the one hand, the public square should not be stripped of religion and morality, but that the Market should have a wardrobe like that of Lady Godiva.  This view lies behind the crude but revealing criticisms on the Right of Pope Francis’s occasional but pointed criticisms of an amoral Market, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Larry Kudlow and Judge Andrew Napolitano insisting that the Pontiff stick to doctrine and cease discussing economicsas if the Catholic Church has had nothing to say about economics for, say, the last century if not longer.

I’m not an economist, so I don’t have an extensive list of recommendations for "live-option" alternatives, but a good place to start is for Catholics to re-engage with the economic tradition known as “Distributism” that was developed in the earlier part of the 20th-century by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. This approach insists that an economy must be understood to be subordinate to the human telos, and so ought to be organized with a view of supporting ends the family, stability of communities, self-direction and widespread ownership, subsidiarity and solidarity.  In all these areas, our economy today ends up fostering their opposite. Our economy supports and encourages an increasingly childless workforce and fungible bonds, tenuous relationships to place and community, a dessicated "culture," centralization and monopoly and crony capitalism, and a debased utilitarian calculation of value and success.

For starters, then, it would be refreshing to see the same energy and devotion exhibited by so many conservative Catholics on issues related to life, religious liberty and gay marriage, to issues related to a proper ordering of the economy.  The first thing that one will be told in response is that these latter issues involve a great deal of prudence, and so don’t demand the same kind of energy and exertions as the former, which (in the case of abortion) is intrinsically evil.  But I would rejoin that Catholics don’t properly think and act as Catholics if we treat these spheres as if they were autonomous and unrelated; indeed, it seems to me that basic economic arrangements that privilege individual autonomy, materialism, mobility at the expense of community, and an “amoral” market significantly and inescapably contribute to our comprehensively “disposable society” (using Pope Francis’s description of, among other things, our abortion regime).  Only when we see similar energy demanding reforms of our economic system in the name not of equalization of outcome, but the telos of human flourishing, will we likely see lots of different and interesting policy ideas of how to foster a more humane economy.  But at the moment we are told that the only two options that exist are largely unregulated markets and Statism, both of which Pope Leo XIII denounced in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum and which have been rejected as false alternatives by every subsequent Pope, including Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

We live in a curious time in which most people on the Leftliberal Catholics included (starting with Mario Cuomo) – argue that politics should not be in the business of “legislating morality”; while those on the Rightmany conservative Catholics includedargue that markets run best purely on motivation of individual self-interest. That is, Catholics follow the American political division that treat one sphere as morally autonomous.  Both of these positions are rightly rejected by the comprehensive Catholic understanding that all dimensions and spheres of life ought rightly to be governed by an Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the Good.