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Two Catholic Camps Worth Debating

Father John Courtney Murray once remarked that “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” In my response to Daniel Saudek’s recent essay, “Faith, Reason, and the Two Camps,” I hope, as a politically conservative Catholic, that if any disagreement is to be found I may find it, rather than confusion, with Saudek, along with greater nuance and common ground between politically conservative and non-conservative Catholics.

I understand that Saudek finds it “strange” to see “how people professing the importance of Christian values will defend a laissez-faire economic liberalism, which apparently acknowledges hardly any ethical limits to economic activity, except that private property must be respected and contracts fulfilled.” I myself find it strange since most mainstream Catholic conservatives are not laissez-faire in the sense that they believe in no rule of law beyond private property rights. Saudek’s generalization may admit of some oversimplifications. Rather, politically conservative Catholics believe that natural law theory and Catholic Social Teaching (CST) are more consistent in principle and application with a properly regulated market and limited government policy.

Saudek mentions two camps of Catholics—liberal ones who happily embrace CST for its alignment with their center-left policies while ignoring teachings on subjects like marriage and sanctity of life, and fiscal and social conservative ones who act vice versa. If there are any two Catholic camps worth discussing (and worth the name), it would be those that Patrick Deneen demarcates as the Neuhaus camp and the MacIntyre camp of culturally conservative Catholics who believe that Catholic theology is (or is not) consistent with American liberal democracy and a competitive market economy. Not assuming to speculate Saudek’s own views, I admit my own colors as someone persuaded by the Neuhaus narrative that there is deep concordance between CST and our American republic.

There does not seem to be a debate between the two camps of liberal Catholics like Nancy Pelosi and conservative Catholics like Paul Ryan. As Deneen says, “While ‘liberal’ Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a ‘project’ and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.” The real debate is between culturally conservative Catholics who apply natural law principles in different ways—since both camps find that CST and natural law support the foundations of their political worldview. When Thomas Storck criticizes George Weigel for not deferring enough to specific papal teaching, Storck’s criticism is due to the fact that each believes he is correctly applying CST and natural law. Both camps want to articulate better our philosophical and theological traditions, and our internal debate can provide that needed sharpening. Here, we can explore more this debate.

It is true that the burden is on us Catholics claiming to be orthodox to articulate how Roman Catholicism that often inspires center-left papal rhetoric allows for center-right policy applications. To put it succinctly: As conservatives we believe that it is easier to destroy good things than to create them; the way that we create institutions, customs, and traditions embodying freedom under the law and respectful of human dignity does not arise from top-down policies; and that the enlargement of the centralized power and the large welfare state can violate subsidiarity and empirically have unintended consequences, such as contributing to the breakdown of the family. In contrast, these institutions and reform through them arise from mainly bottom-up efforts analogous to Hayek’s spontaneous order. Prudential solidarity through these institutions is best achieved through local over national efforts and voluntary efforts over federal bureaucracies.

Concerning capitalism, I believe it is the prudential engine for lifting people out of poverty. But to be somewhat self-reflective, I would say that Catholic fiscal conservatives may not emphasize enough its necessary preconditions, which those in the MacIntyre camp would as well appreciate: a strong marriage culture, rule of law, religious virtue, reciprocity in contract, trust among strangers, and protection of non-market realms of value such as our shared environmental and cultural inheritances. Both camps can also embrace the Burkean vision of society that it is a partnership between the dead and the unborn made known through the invisible hand of traditions, institutions, and laws. Here we have common ground.

Greater dialogue between the two camps can unfold in further exploration of  how theology and natural law philosophy underpin our worldview applications. For us American conservatives influenced by the Roman Catholic tradition of natural law, Roger Scruton explains that conservatism “rests on theological foundations”:

God-given human capacities are exercised in the arts of government, and it is from these capacities that a free and law-governed civil order emerges. In this view, fundamental features of the Western democratic order are ordained of God: private property and its free exchange; accountability and the rights and duties that spring from it; autonomous institutions, in which the Holy Spirit works among us and from which we learn the ways of peace. The conservative emphasis on purposeless associations also has its theological underpinning: for it is through the renunciation of the individual will in the work of community that we learn humility and the love of neighbor.

Here, more philosophical work could be carried out in moving beyond just the debates over the influence of John Locke on the Declaration of Independence. We can more deeply argue about what theological principles lend themselves more easily to conservatism or liberalism.

Even as a follower of the Neuhaus camp, I admit that (as Douthat writes) “a certain style of Catholic neo-conservatism reached a point of exhaustion in the last decade.” Like Saudek, I find that conservatives can have much to learn from Pope Francis. Members of the MacIntyre camp as well as economically liberal and faithful Catholics can provide a check on possible ideological excesses for the Neuhaus camp. Likewise, the Neuhaus camp has been a strong engine for civic engagement with fellow Protestant Christians, and some MacIntyreans (who may be skeptical of civic engagement) can learn from the Catholics and Evangelicals Together project. Each can make sure the Catholic Christian difference is found in both camps.

As to practical concerns of common ground: I have often read the debates on the so-called Benedictine and Dominican options. Both camps have obvious middle ground that is neither seclusion from the wider culture nor giving in too much to the political spirit of the times, whether rightwing or leftwing. We Catholics Christians who believe in Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the sacraments, scripture, natural law, and sacred tradition cannot surrender our witness to the widespread American culture. We are needed in the heart of the secular city because Christ must be seen there, independent of historically contextual political disputes. Both camps can continue to preserve the moral life and the fight against our countercultural Judeo-Christian morality becoming more excluded and our institutions less autonomous.

Paraphrasing Chesterton, we may all be sea sick with secular liberalism, but whether Neuhaus and MacIntyre, we are all in the same Catholic boat. That I think can be honest agreement.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • lyle

    First the United States is not under a capitalistic economic senerio today when the government is borrowing to exist to the reality of a 17 trillion dollar debt. This is NOT capitalism, nor should it be suggested to be Capitalism.. The teaching of the Catholic Church and the wisdom of the Church prior to Reformation denounced the borrowing of money, and the borrowing of money is as the Protestant work ethic mind is not an Catholic minded acceptance, but a product of reformation that Catholic blindly and ignorantly accept for themselves today. Socialism as today Obama care is defiant to Catholic wisdom and teachings, for Socialism is the stripping away of the freedom of people to chose for themselves. At one time the Church stood against the Kings, Leaders or government taking away the freedom of the people, and that was the real fight of reformation for the people to stop looking to God, and look to a king, leader, or government to save them and ultimately save them.. If you are comtemplating this, which we hope you are, then ask yourself this. Why does the council of Bishops in the US set in Washington DC? Are they setting an example of looking to God to lead us, save us, guide us, OR, are they themselves looking to a government to save the People?
    The United States can no longer call itself a Christian nation, for its now a nation of acceptance to wars of Revenge, hate and misery to others. its a nation of borrowing of money to sustain its evil it spreads to the world in free trade of using lslave labors to keep us feed, clothed and sheltered. Its a nation that ignores Haiti and its plight, while its own military people have stolen 50 billion dollars, the greatest theft in US history, but the government is not searching for the culperts that commited treason.
    The US is of a people of the most corrupt government in the world, but the people don’t stand against todays corruption of government. The United STates is composed of a nation started on a people fleeing from Europe and Russia from the horrors of economic enslavement to the US, from an Aristocratic society people fleed to the US over the past 400 years. Yet what our fore fathers fleed from, the United States is made today, and brings a reality this isnot a Christian Nation,but a heathen nation defiant to the wisdom of what Christianity was based on..
    All the points the Roman empire fell on, is exactly what the US accepts today for demise.
    a. Marriage a civil contract.
    b.devalue of humanlife, the war of revenge today.
    c. infacide, we call it abortion
    e. suicide children on drugs to kill themselves. escape or denial of world.
    debt slavery to the workers.
    Again, this is NOT a capitalistic economics, stop putting out ignorance. Unbrildeld capitalism must be in front of capitalism if you want to use the word.

  • lyle

    A harsh reality is, the United States Catholic, as its Europian fore bears, is the most ignorant uneducated souls on earth, for they have came to assume that since they are, then they do KNOW. which proves that saying, of knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous animal. People have came to Assume, that since they know facts, they are all it. but they fail to know wisdom.. wisdom we are not born with, and humility teachs wisdom. If the US
    people had been of a people of wisdom, after nine eleven they would have said, for them, NOT vindicate and revenge them!
    The people would have asked, what have we done to them, that they do this act to US???
    But being of a Non Christian minded nation of virtue,the people called for revenge, hate, and a hard heart of sending our children off to revenge a people, that had NOTHING to do with 911.
    The fact that, acting president Ronald Reagan gave sadaoogon hussian 50 billion dollars for arms and another 5 billion for chemical and nuclear weapons, is a fact of reality as well the US people are ignorant of as well.. an act of treason by our own president and leader.

    • You are correct– not a single American was displaced by 9-11… then we spent a trillion bucks and either killed or displaced hundreds of thousands to take over Iraq, and in return have received the reaction of ISIS and rebellions throughout Arab world. But of course our industrialists are not stupid, they expected all of that. Upheaval and death, means only more business to them.

      We are in an Orwellian world, my friend.

  • lyle

    what really stands out, is the Catholic leadership harps on abortion in the US, yes that is bad. but ignores the fact the Church calls for a morality of paying workers a fair wage that one family member can support a family, is a moral obligation. Yet today the US workers work in poverty slave wages, and unfair wages levels, that translate into profits for the stockmarkets, the over heated uncapitalistic fictional economy.. the US workers are working in poverty to a tremendous part in a reality in many regions in the US…but the leadership in both government and religious ignore this fact, an atrocity, for one of the greatest sins is to Ignore the Poor and their crying out.
    again, why is the US council of bishops located in DC??? hiding from the people seems to be the answer.
    the poor will cry out to God, and he will answer them..especially the poor in Haiti, and in the middle east, and central America and Mexico, that endure the US demand for slave labors to feed them, supply their drug addictions and oil

  • One issue that rises in my mind is the essential Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life. If we accept Weigel as an exponent of the Neuhaus wing, well, it’s clear that that wing doesn’t really believe that all human life, from the moment of conception, to the time of natural death, should be protected. Weigel was quick to abandon the right to life of the people of Iraq in favor of the political expediencies of the Republican Ascendency of the 1st decade of the 21st century.

    The Neuhaus wing for all of its devotion to capitalism has been very quiet about the economic rights of poor people to participation in the economy. For a long and tedious exposition of that theme, see my “Letter to Paul Ryan” which details the many ways that conservatives conspire with liberals to economically oppress the poor and to keep them poor. Our economy benefits from a large pool of under and un employed low income people who are desperate for work, and God forbid that any regulations be reduced that would make it possible for low income people to become micro entrepreneurs and thus less dependent upon big corporations for cheap jobs.

    • Mary

      I read your letter and find many of your points quite valid, although most of the barriers to micro-entrepreneurship that you cite are local or state regulations that national politicians such as Paul Ryan have no power to change. And I think the housing restrictions you cite are driven far more by the preferences of individual local citizens than by any government or business entity. I will supply just one anecdote to illustrate this. I live in a nice, middle class neighborhood in a mid-sized college town in Kansas. There is a local regulation limiting the number of unrelated people who can live in rental housing, due most likely to the large student population. During the recent recession the house across the street from us went up for sale, but did not sell so the owner turned it into a rental. The renters were an extended immigrant family, consisting of 2 male and 3 female adults and three young children. At least two of the adults were graduate students at the university, and one of the female adults began running a daycare/homeschooling operation out of the basement of the house (in violation of another ordinance.) The family owned six vehicles, but the two car garage was converted to living space without any remodeling to insulate the walls or heat the area (another violation.) 4 vehicles sat on the driveway, 2 were parked on the street. One rather rusty and dented truck was never moved all winter, and sat covered with snow until spring. The home maintenance was not attended to (I don’t know what agreement the renters had with the landlord) but the yard was frequently un-mowed and filled with weeds. It was unsightly, and the added traffic made getting in and out in the mornings difficult. Definitely not what we thought we were getting when we purchased our home. Still, we could see their struggle and said nothing, but the neighbors on either side complained several times. I’m not sure what transpired between the city and the landlord, but the family finally moved out and the property was fixed up and sold. That episode was just a microcosm of what occurs in neighborhoods when there are no housing regulations, and people vote with their feet, moving out and leaving the neighborhoods to blight. It’s not all about the politicians.

      • May, I know that many of these issues are local not federal, but a federal politician like Ryan has a major bully pulpit. None of the national conservative leaders are encouraging their local governments to go for economic empowerment of low income communities. Their silence about this kind of economic oppression is their complicity.

        Regarding the people across the street, if you had taken out the “extended immigrant family” phrase, I would have thought, “Oh, sounds like red necks moved in across the street.” Even hearing your experience, I remain dubious about the justice of ordinances like this limiting the number of people who could live together. I think its fine to be middle class, but I am less “fine” about enforcing middle classness with the force of local government. I think there were other ways this could be handled. Did people in the neighborhood get to know these people? Or were they treated with disdain because of their immigrant status? Not being from there, they might not have been aware of how things are done in your neighborhood.

        The true solution to problems such as this are neighborliness, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. I doubt that your neighborhood did that with these people.

        Legalized injustice driven by lifestyle choices is as much a problem for low income people as legalized injustice driven by economic oppression.

        • Mary

          Actually Paul Ryan has been very vocal about the application of the principle of subsidiarity to the needs of the poor, which in this context is to allow issues to be addressed at the lowest possible level of government. At least part of the problem we experience in our town is that several years ago, local proponents of the “slow food” locavore movement pushed through regulations regarding development of the vast farmland which surrounds the city. Their belief was that we should be planning for a time when all our food is sourced locally, and for that we will need farmland free from development. Never mind that the only thing grown on the farms nearby are corn, wheat, soybeans and livestock – no fruit, vegetable or dairy concerns large enough to support a city of this size. That restriction on development has driven up the cost of housing, especially because they are not keen to see high-rise apartment buildings springing up – it would “compromise our small town character.” These same people now lament the fact that there is very little decent, affordable housing in town. They don’t seem to see the connection. As for the immigrant family, the neighbors did speak to them, often, although their command of English was limited. I don’t think they knew they couldn’t run a business out of the basement, or that they would need the means to maintain the house, before they moved in. I think the owner/landlord was just desperate to cover his mortgage on a house he couldn’t sell, so was not as honest as he should have been with the tenants. A bad situation all around.

    • You got that right… Shinkel is unfortunately drawn to the Weigel team, the team that spends unconscionable resources on the state’s instruments of death and oppression e.g. defense, police, and prisons, all the while speaking of freedom from government control, all paid for on backs of the common man (who the instruments are turned against), and who would add to the total costs of their imperatives, intergalactic travel projects, yet who also daily whine about the meager cost of food stamps.

      Further regarding life as it pertains to our Lambs of God, this is the team who believes the poor are genetically inferior as justified by IQ testing and that government needs to decrease their birth rates by whatever means… a la The Bell Curve of 1994 and the subsequent legislation of 1996 designed specifically to curtail lower class birthing. Meanwhile there was never any “problem”… 15 percent of people live below poverty line and 20 percent of children do, so there is not any huge gap in birthing, as they want people to believe.

    • Gus

      In your letter to Mr. Ryan you state, “The Church’s social
      teachings are clearly and without any ambiguity infallible and authentic teachings of Church’s magisterium throughout history.”

      Please point out for me specifically which are “the infallible social teachings of the Catholic Church.” The Church’s / Pope’s / Magisterium’s infallibility only applies to dogmatic teaching on faith and morality. As such, only certain aspects of social doctrine, those elements of the teachings that are specific to faith and morality, are infallible. The problem we have today is that the every word of Catholic Social Teaching is being treated as dogma. Social teaching will change from time to time as society changes, but dogma will not.

      There is ‘disagreement,’ despite Mr. Shinkel’s hope that it
      may only be ‘confusion,’ regarding Catholic Social Teaching. In academic circles (the Neuhaus camp and the MacIntyre camp) the disagreement is mostly in regard to how best to ensure morality in economics, the market, government, etc. The disagreement is primarily about which systems are more moral and which best serve mankind, the common good, and the poor. Such discussion is healthy.

      Unlike you, I do not have a problem with Congressman Ryan’s
      proposed budget. It is very much based on the principle of subsidiarity. Here is a good review of his approach vs. Joe Kennedy III’s (i.e., the Republican approach vs. the Democrat approach).

      I am an Independent, but I do believe the GOP platform is more in keeping with the Catholic Faith today than is the Democratic Party platform. Neither party has a lock on what’s best for this country, and both are guilty of “cronyism,” but the Democratic Party is way out in left field on issues like abortion, homosexuality, immigration, and welfare. I don’t see how any Catholic can vote for a Democrat today.

  • djpeters48

    When Fr Murray wrote the U.S. was still a Judeo-Christian culture.
    As that culture receded a secular left and secular right emerged. In most
    respects, the secular Democrats are post-Christian and the national Republicans (neoliberals) are pseudo-Christians. In reality, both parties currently work in tandem to facilitate the culture of death. Ryan’s article has some merit but there is serious confusion about the neoliberal Catholic outlook in ‘practice’ which is tied closely to the U. S. GOP. Neoliberals, like Michael Novak, badly distort Catholic teaching by embracing a number of materialist dogmas of free-trade liberalism. Their analysis simply ignores the profound teaching of the encyclicals in favor of Enlightenment based economic and social theories put forward by materialists and anti-Christian Positivists. Hayek’s Austrian dogma explicitly rejects the core tenets Christianity regarding morality and charity. In the Mirage of Social Justice, he writes that social justice is an insidious myth which is “the greatest threat to a free society.” (This is why several prominent Catholic neoliberals say the popes are all ignorant in economics!) Hayek also explicitly rejects the Catholic tenets of a moral order (in society) and a government coordinated safety net.

    • You’ve got it, it is shocking to watch our people worship a purist ideology of material distribution, above the Catechism of the Church. Long after the capital system has been dissolved, our Church will remain as the beacon of God in this world.

      • djpeters48

        Thank you Thomas, I would recommend reading “Masters of the Universe, the Birth of Neoliberal Policies” by D. Stedman Jones. He gives a very fine overview of the origins and outcomes of what Catholic neoliberals are promoting.

        • Thanks, that looks very good… this week a few other brave souls and myself were surrounded by overwhelming forces over at First Things, on the subject of Pope Francis. Finally I was forced to explain, “Pope Francis is handling his agenda just fine, which is to save as many souls as he can. Stroking the psychic discomforts of American conservatives overcome by the liberal genie they let loose a generation ago, is very far down on his list.”

  • Mr. Shinkel had mischaracterized the complaint of those he labels as liberals, who are the true conservatives e.g. those such as myself who respect the entire Catechism of the Church not simply the issues they personally are able to live by. He hurriedly describes “… the liberal ones who happily embrace CST for its alignment with their center-left policies while ignoring teachings on subjects like marriage and sanctity of life”. Obviously he subscribes to the tired Cafeteria Catholicism of this country, namely the rejection of CST due to convenience.

    Those who take to heart the full Word of our Lord, are equally concerned for the hot button moral issues of the day, but are not distracted thereby, from the ever greater injustices we observe in our economic system. Why is it so difficult to accept the Truth of our Catechism itself namely, that we have a system fueled by the labors of the common man yet constructed in favor of those few who hold substantial capital already? Do we worship God, or do we worship perfect distributions of maximum materials? The latter is something that Marx did….

    All Catholics should seek a better system, because we are already in the true Church!