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.