A Brief “Catholic Moment” in a Protestant America

In his weekend column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat declares the “end of a distinctively Catholic moment.” First articulated by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the concept of a Catholic moment was understood as a period in which “the Catholic vision of the good society — more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American liberalism — enjoyed real influence in U.S. politics.” Douthat points out that as recently as the mid-2000s, the Catholic Church and its ideas were at least partially embraced by both sides of the aisle, as the GOP and its “compassionate conservatism” agenda could be understood as a right-wing approach to Catholic social teaching, while the Democrats were concerning themselves with how to go about winning over “value voters” and appear friendlier to the religious.

But according to Douthat, those days are over. The Church and its ideas regarding society are no longer seriously considered in American politics, a development he attributes largely to the fallout from the sex abuse scandal and the hierarchy’s fumbling of the matter:

The collapse in the church’s reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in American political debates. Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.

Indeed, between Mitt Romney’s comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House’s cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good.

And thus, Douthat observes, the end of an era in which Catholic ideas had some considerable weight in the realm of American politics.

I think there’s no reason to disagree with Douthat’s conclusion. The idea of either party advancing something even close to a comprehensively Catholic platform is laughable in this day of heightened partisanship, with both sides marked in an extreme way by their respective taste in libertarianism (economic on the right, social on the left). Certainly this “Catholic moment” is over, and has been for a number of years.

But I do think Douthat attributes far too much weight to the negative effects of the sex abuse scandal in his explanation of how we’ve reached this point. Over at First Things, Peter Lawler helps to qualify Douthat’s column. After acknowledging the partial role the sexual abuse scandal may have played, Lawler offers up what I believe is the real source of either parties’ renewed distance from Catholic ideas (the words in all caps are his own; I have no idea why they do this, but it seems to be some sort of stylistic consideration at FT’s “The Postmodern Conservative” blog):

But a bigger reason still for both parties losing interest in Catholic thought is their LIBERTARIANISM.

The Republican party embraces a too-oligarchic or “individualistic” view of human liberty. Catholic thought in America has been friendly to unions, the family wage, and indispensable social (including governmental) safety nets. And Catholics have never said the New Deal is unconstitutional. Too many Republican theorists and donors, at least, think that the Catholic idea of “social justice” is simply an oxymoron.

The Democratic party embraces a too-permissive or “individualistic” view of personal liberty on issues such as marriage, the family, abortion, children, and the place of relational virtue in general in the public square. The Democratic party, until the mid-Sixties, was, I can remember, actually the more pro-family or pro-”solidarity” party.

And the Catholics, of course, have always been seeing the connection between excessive individualism–or atomization–and the omnicompetent despotism of “totalitarian democracy.”

This is a more helpful explanation than Douthat’s account, which, although it mentions “a political class that never particularly cared for [Catholic ideas] in the first place,” simply overemphasizes the role the scandal has played in Catholicism’s waning influence in politics. Lawler’s version is also more in accordance with Neuhaus’s original articulation of “the Catholic moment.” Here’s what Neuhaus had to say in 2003, in the midst of fresh revelations concerning the sex abuse cases:

It is suggested by some that the public influence of Catholicism has been greatly weakened, not least by the scandals of the past year. The question of Catholicism in the public square, however, is not—at least not chiefly—the question of Catholic influence in social change or public policy, never mind electoral politics. Catholicism in the public square is a matter of being, fully and vibrantly, the public community that is the Catholic Church. More than by recent scandals, Catholicism in the public square is weakened by its gradual but certain sociological accommodation to a Protestant ethos—also in its secularized forms—that construes religion in terms of consumer preference and voluntary associations in support of those preferences. It is weakened also by what is aptly called the totalitarian impulse of the modern state—including democratic states—to monopolize public space and consign religion to the private sphere, thus producing what I have called the naked public square.

Neuhaus makes two, absolutely spot-on points. First of all, he recognizes that the vitality of the Catholic moment doesn’t begin with politicians and their judgments concerning the strength or lack thereof emanating  from the Vatican. It’s about the people, about good and faithful American Catholics embracing the fullness of Catholic social teaching and ordering their lives, both privately and publicly, accordingly. In this regard, Douthat is exactly right when he finishes his column by stating that future “Catholic moments” can “only be made by Americans themselves.”

Neuhaus’ second point is one I have attempted to convey repeatedly on this website over the course of its week-long existence. Namely, that Catholicism, which is distinct from Protestantism and other forms of religion in that is not a private preference and acknowledges the legitimacy of a non-governmental institution’s authority, will more often-than-not find it difficult to express itself in American politics, at least in a comprehensive way. Indeed, America has never been too friendly to Catholics, and the acceptance of Catholics over the past century is perhaps more a testament to what American Catholicism has become than of anything else.

What Neuhaus calls the “gradual but certain sociological accommodation to a Protestant ethos” is simply a fancy way of saying that Catholics are acting more like Protestants. Religion is increasingly viewed by Catholics as something that can and should be confined to their homes and churches, a process helped along by a federal government all too eager to create what Neuhaus terms “the naked public square.” As the Church and its influence are sequestered from the public sphere as an “illegitimate” and “non-consented” authority, what one’s Catholicism consists of is entirely up to the individual adherent; not only is one’s association with the Church completely voluntary, but so is his or her acceptance of particular Church teachings. The individual is free to create God and His Church in his or her own self-interested image.

Of course, this is no accident. This is a fundamental characteristic of American political philosophy, a philosophy that finds its roots in a very Protestant concept of liberty that necessarily involves the privatization of religious belief. The process of relegating religion to nothing more than a private preference is something that has been centuries in the making, but as Neuhaus claims, it’s a process that has certainly accelerated over the past half-century.

It’s difficult to determine a starting point of the “Protestantization of Catholics,” and indeed, that’s not necessarily what I’m intending to do in this particular essay. But it seems undoubtedly the case that Vatican II played an important role in polarizing American Catholics, dividing them and pushing them deeper into the blind alleys on either end of the political spectrum. And once comfortably in the clutches of America’s two political parties, one devoted to economic libertarianism, the other to social relativism, American Catholics lost sight of who they were, to the point where prominent Catholic politicians of today are seemingly no more Catholic in their politics than their Protestant counter-parts. What better testament to this sad truth than this past year’s vice presidential debate, where one participant was an unapologetic supporter of abortion rights, the other was (once[?]) an admirer of Ayn Rand, and both were practicing Catholics?

In fact, in light of our current political context, it’s a small miracle that a Catholic moment occurred at all, however briefly. Such assertions of holistic Catholic thought into the mainstream of American politics seem almost certainly to be the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, let us celebrate this most recent Catholic moment for what it was, and begin our task of bringing about the next one. For as Fr. Neuhaus reminds us, such a movement does not begin with our politicians or even our leaders in the Church, but with a public that is “fully and vibrantly” Catholic.



  1. Julia Smucker · · Reply

    I too found Lawler’s post a helpful qualification on the phenomenon that Douthat was trying to name. But I have to admit, the idea of a “Catholic moment” is challenging to the Anabaptist instinct in me that wants to run screaming from anything that smacks of state power. I wonder, can we separate morally compromising entanglements with said power from positive social influence? In other words, can we witness to a better way – a truly Catholic social vision – contra libertarianism, individualism, and a privatized and compartmentalized faith, without this witness being driven by a libido dominandi that seeks to Catholicize America in an almost theocratic sense? I sincerely hope this is possible, but as to the how, I’m still stuck.

    1. Hi Julia and thanks for the comment.

      From how Neuhaus articulated it, I don’t a “Catholic moment” properly understood involves some sort of push for theocracy or the enshrinement of religious codes as the law of the land. Instead, I think it’s period in which Catholic ideas about society and morality are viewed favorably by the public, and, as a result, the secular laws that are passed are very much derived from (or at least not contradictory to) Catholic thought.

      (And honestly, I’m not entirely sure much of a “Catholic moment” actually occurred. Douthat’s evidence for it seems kind of weak, but maybe I should read Neuhaus’ original work, published in the late 1980s)

      I am, however, not optimistic about the ability to approach with any real proximity “a truly Catholic social vision” in America, because I think to do so would necessarily involve a deep and serious reexamination of our nation’s most fundamental and cherished philosophical convictions. It is true that we can certainly make genuine progress within the system that currently exists, but the dual threats of individualism and statism, very much intrinsic features of American liberalism, will serve as impediments that mere legislation won’t be able to transcend.

      My thoughts at least.

  2. […] on what I wrote about the topic yesterday, it’s clear that I’m in Dreher’s camp. I am extremely skeptical of anything like […]

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