In a recent column, I posed the question of what liberal Catholics want from Pope Francis. Do they expect him to bring church doctrine into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of liberal democracy? Or has doctrine become so irrelevant to liberal Catholics that the pope's rhetorical shift on culture war issues is enough to satisfy their longing for reform in the church?
But what about conservative Catholics? What do they want from the new pope and the church? And what would that mean, in particular, for American politics?
In an important essay published last week on the website of the American Conservative, Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame suggests that the answer very much depends on which of two conservative factions you're talking about.
On one side is the group I used to belong to and that I wrote about critically in The Theocons. Often called "Catholic neocons," the writers, intellectuals, and prelates in this faction — Robert P. George, George Weigel, Hadley Arkes, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia — tend to emphasize continuity between the Catholic Church and both American democracy and the Republican Party.
From Thomistic natural law through the Declaration of Independence's defense of natural rights derived from "nature's God," from Lincoln's description of America as "one nation under God" to the contemporary's GOP's pro-life commitments, this group weaves a seamless garment of theological-political ideals.
The rhetorical emphases of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI meshed quite well with theocon concerns. The focus on doctrinal obedience, the opposition to Soviet communism, the denunciations of the Western world's creeping "culture of death" and "dictatorship of relativism," the occasional kind words for free-market capitalism, the warnings about the irrationalism of Islam — all of these elements of the previous two pontificates seemed to justify the theocon case for continuity between the Vatican and the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
The key word is "seemed." The continuity probably always appeared more complete from the standpoint of Washington than it did from Rome. John Paul and Benedict each ventured criticisms of capitalism and expressed concerns about the Bush administration's military response to the Sept. 11 attacks, for example. But it was always possible for the theocons to pass over those statements in relative silence while highlighting more politically useful pronouncements.
That's become much more difficult under Pope Francis, whose rhetoric downplays the social conservative agenda and more forthrightly highlights the injustices of capitalism — including, most problematically for the GOP, "trickle-down" economics. What the theocons want from the new pope is probably a bit more rhetorical restraint — meaning, among other things, fewer free-wheeling press conferences — along with some indications that he won't attempt to make major (doctrinal or dogmatic) changes to the church. That's all it would take to enable the theocons to continue emphasizing continuity between the Catholic Church, the United States, and the Republican Party.
What the second group of conservatives want is very different — and much more interesting. Whereas the theocons often seem like they're searching for a theological imprimatur for the Republican Party's agenda, the conservatives Deneen dubs "radicals" emphasize discontinuities between Rome and Washington. The radicals' ranks include philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and the theologians David Schindler, Michael Baxter, William T. Cavanaugh, John Medaille, and Deneen himself.
In their view, being an early 21st-century American of either party stands in deep tension with being a good Catholic. The source of this disjuncture can be traced back to the founding of the United States as a commercial republic devoted to protecting the freedom of the acquisitive individual to pursue happiness without regard for religious, moral, or communal restraints. American history, in this light, is a story of the individual's ever-increasing liberation from any and all limits — be they economic, social, or sexual. And that flies in the face of what the Catholic Church teaches about how to live.
So far at least, Pope Francis has given greater aid and comfort to the radical conservatives than the theocons, because his public pronouncements seem to place the church at odds with both American political parties — opposing the economic libertarianism of the GOP as well as the social libertarianism of the Democrats. That's precisely where the radicals — with their emphasis on communal norms and moral limits — think the church, and American Catholics, should be.
The question going forward is whether the radicals will exercise much political or cultural influence in the United States. My own view is that they won't. Instead, they will become something roughly analogous to Anabaptists (the Amish and Mennonites) or ultra-Orthodox Jews: groups whose stringent, uncompromising devotion to God leads them to withdraw from mainstream American life to cultivate their own theological and sociocultural gardens, insulating themselves as much as they can from corrosive moral, economic, and technological trends in the broader culture.
This is what blogger Rod Dreher (following MacIntyre) has dubbed "The Benedict Option," named after St. Benedict's project of developing monasticism to preserve civilization at a time when barbarism threatened to overwhelm civilization.
Deneen himself seems unwilling to settle on withdrawal, but he recognizes how unlikely it is that this radically conservative form of Catholicism could leave a mark on the wider culture of the United States. As he writes, "'Radical' Catholicism tends to view America as a deeply flawed project, and fears that the anthropological falsehood at the heart of the American founding is leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe." Righting the nation's course would require its wholesale conversion "to a fundamentally different and truer philosophy and theology."
A new American founding — one that's transformatively devoted to the evangelistic style of Catholicism preached by Pope Francis, including the imposition of stringent limits on personal choice and economic dynamism.
That, and nothing less, is what the Catholic Church's radical conservatives are looking for.
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