(AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

How social conservatives won: Can progressives reverse the tide?

The current debate over abortion, welfare and more has been shaped by '90s Catholic neocons who outfoxed liberals


Peter McDonough
July 14, 2013 4:00PM (UTC)
Reprinted from "The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church"

The last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a ferocious battle over how to rectify the excesses of the sixties and the seventies. In the eyes of conservatives, the cultural revolution that burst forth in the sixties was a one-two punch for a society already burdened by the economic overreaching of government initiated during the thirties.“A smoldering sense of dispossession, cultural as well as economic,” the historian Steve Fraser wrote, “fed a conservative populism that committed an act of double counter-revolution: against the New Deal welfare state and against the racial, gender, and cultural upheavals that turned the world upside down in the 60s.” Political change would require more than a routine course correction. Permissiveness was rife, government spending was running wild. All hell, it seemed, was breaking loose. Redemption called for a renovation of ideas and values. The success of neoconservatives in casting policy discussion in these terms is a measure of their influence.

Several elements went into the mix. One was abortion. Opposition to Roe v. Wade revitalized religious conservatives. Another pair of controversies also propelled mobilization: the role imputed to family breakdown in the propagation of poverty and the reproduction of social disorder, and the responsibility of government for handling this complex of pathologies. It looked like a short step from combustible issues like these to reevaluating the role of government generally. Moral values, economic choices, and political principles seemed to complement one another. The transformation encompassed a “dramatic erosion of the New Deal liberal-regulatory order and the meteoric rise of a religiously inflected Right.”

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The centerpiece of this piece is the debate over social policy that reached its climax in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. “A Democratic president presided over the end of the welfare program,” the historian Elaine Tyler May concluded, “a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor, and mergers of giant corporations into even more gigantic conglomerates with vast power. Citizens expressed distrust toward their government and each other.” Extending over several decades, the saga incorporates almost all the cultural and social issues that burst open in the sixties. Conservatives won the fight over public policy. In the process, their Catholic brethren consolidated their leadership position within the church.

Consequentialist, cause-effect reasoning played a part in the defeat of left-of-center social Catholicism. Within the culture of American pragmatism, this way of thinking had greater intuitive plausibility than talk of “structural sin,” which sounded exotically collective and alien. Buttressed by quantitative evidence, the belief that family dynamics conditioned life chances became the new common sense. It sounded like a problem that parents, encouraged by the government’s rectification of intrusive policies, could do something about.

Unexceptionable as this accent on the family sounded, and perhaps because it became so taken-for-granted so quickly, the conviction did not stand at the top of the policy agenda espoused by the leadership of the American church. The riveting argument was about abortion, not about a mom-and-apple-pie consensus surrounding the family. The latter was a topic that could appear as flavorless as the statement that the bishops had issued years back in support of traffic safety. At the same time, for many Catholics principles of social justice drawn from papal encyclicals, criticizing market-generated disparities in wealth and income, seemed like side issues, too, non-starters in comparison with abortion. But these priorities had supporters in the upper reaches of the episcopate, especially in the offices of the national bishops’ conference.

The back-to-back pastoral letters issued in the mid-eighties on war and peace and the economy laid out the peace-and-justice agenda. Though drawing on Catholic prudential thought concerning “just war,” these lofty positions stood apart from the cost-benefit calculus that influenced debate among policy makers. What looked like prophetic radicalism was sidestepped, giving way to probabilistic estimates of cause and effect.

Conservatives could not be described as coolly scientific. A distinctive constellation of values had an even greater impact than empirical reasoning on tilting opinion in favor of their position. It was not just the pro-life commitment of Catholic neoconservatives that matched the position of evangelical Protestants. Their appreciation of personal responsibility suited an American attachment to individualism and self-help, and it reflected a growing skepticism, among a generation of Catholics for whom the New Deal was a distant memory, about government activism. The cultural revolution was a more vivid turning point than the Great Depression.“Hey, hippy! Get a haircut! Get a job!” spoke to cultural and economic demands alike. With moral and value issues in the ascendant after the turmoil of the sixties, progressive Catholics were left with an agenda—clergy-lay consultation, the ordination of women, and other questions of internal reform—that few of the faithful, much less outsiders, cared about.

By joining moral-sexual and economic-social precepts, conservatives managed to outflank the comparatively liberal bishops’ conference. Instead of political and economic progressivism, “the adventure of orthodoxy would be stressed.” Catholics in the pews seemed to want direction and leadership rather than liberation from the conformity that oppressed the rebels and iconoclasts of the sixties. The historian John McGreevy summarized the ingredients of the moral and empirical cocktail that gained popularity beyond Catholic circles and changed the conversation on welfare:

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John Paul II’s conservative views on abortion and sexual ethics generally mirrored a wider withdrawal from 1960s-style liberalism in American intellectual life, certainly in its Catholic variant. At the level of ideas, philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre attacked the “Enlightenment project” and a liberalism predicated on a false sense of moral neutrality. At the level of policy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mary Ann Glendon, and James Q. Wilson cast jaundiced eyes on liberal social welfare policies and no-fault divorce. In the narrow world of Catholic polemics, neoconservatives such as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel pushed Catholic liberals to acknowledge the achievements of market capitalism, the importance of the two-parent family, and the unstable foundations of liberal church-state jurisprudence.... The neoconservatives made empirical, not just ideological, arguments and provided an important check to liberal pretensions.

* * *

Some policy makers who played lead roles in the showdown over welfare reform believed that the connection between the collapse of the nuclear family and socially damaging behavior made for a selective vision of what had gone wrong with the country. The good family as envisioned by James Q. Wilson, for example, struck some as socially disembodied. One such critic was Mary Jo Bane, professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former commissioner of the New York Department of Social Services. Just as John DiIulio would later resign from the Republican administration of George W. Busch, Bane, a fellow Catholic, quit the Clinton administration after the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 was signed into law.

In her capacity as Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton years, Bane was intimately involved in formulating family policy. She believed that a fixation on family breakdown as a precipitant of poverty got things backwards. Harmful as family dissolution was, the larger problem was worsening income inequality.

When she returned to academia, Bane was quick to point out that the gap between rich and poor, an issue that had been a liberal priority during the sixties and seventies, had dropped out of policy discussion altogether. “The 1980s and 1990s have been... a time of unprecedented economic prosperity,” she acknowledged, echoing concerns that Moynihan had expressed in the 1960s and 1970s about poverty amid plenty.

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But the prosperity has not been widely shared. Between 1970 and 1996, the mean income of the top fifth of American families increased from $131,450 to $217,355, while the mean income of the bottom fifth... decreased from $11,640 to $11,388. During the same period, the portion of America’s children under the age of 6 living in poverty grew from 16.6 to 22.7 percent; and from 1976 to 1996 the portion of Americans without health care coverage grew from 10.9 to 15.6 percent.

The thrust of Bane’s argument is not just to restore economic disparities to causal status in the impoverishment of families. She also calls attention to the politically harmful consequences of the widening gap between rich and poor. For conservatives, the dangerous outcome of misguided policy is to make social disintegration worse. Policy gets to be misguided because liberals conflate reducing poverty with narrowing the wealth and income divide when they should focus instead on lifting the absolute level of prosperity. The moral hazard inherent in welfare should be crashingly obvious: It corrupts the poor with expectations of handouts, accustoming them to dependency, laziness, and immorality. By contrast, for progressives like Bane, wrongheaded welfare cutbacks reinforce economic and political oligarchy. The concentration of wealth subverts the republic, distorting the democratic playing field. Politicians deliver the best government that money can buy; democracy morphs into plutocracy. “It is hard to see,” she wrote,“how American society, especially our sense of obligation to one another, can thrive in the face of huge and growing inequalities.”

In a “winner take all society”... how will we renew what has been an historically American commitment to building institutions such as public schools and hospitals, offering attainable health coverage and supportive work programs that provide all citizens genuine opportunity and shared prosperity?

In the midst of this condemnation Bane takes note of a puzzle. Disparities in income do not bother Americans very much. “Despite these precipitous trends,” she observes, “most Americans do not seem to see economic disparity as a problem. They appear not to begrudge the wealthy their riches, perhaps because popular culture suggests that the rich have earned their rewards, perhaps because aspiring to riches seems such a part of human nature.”

Though she does not spell it out, Bane all but admits two cognate facts. By cross-national standards the American public remains extraordinarily tolerant of income differentials. Socialism sounds incurably foreign. And it is conservatives who for a long time have had the backing of what looked like most of the citizenry on the issue. Pundits regularly remind Americans that the United States is a center-right country.

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The legacy of individualism is slow to change. Cultural inertia is compounded by the difficulty of grasping remote, relatively impersonal systemic forces. On the other hand, patterns of personal behavior that lend themselves to graphic parables—to exposés of welfare queens, for example—are ready-made illustrations of government gone wrong. In facing the bias in favor of self-reliance and the individualistic creed, Bane ran up against a set of beliefs analogous to the sway of cultural breakdown and personal failings over material circumstance that neoconservatives take as the root of social deviance. Individuals are to be blamed for their economic failures. By the same token, they should not be admonished for personal initiative, even when the rewards for it are astronomic. Pluck and luck rule. Unless traumatized by horrendous shocks such as the financial meltdown that hit toward the end of the first decade of the millennium, citizens have a way of clinging to dream-like convictions over real-world conditions.

Though shaken by cascading bad news toward the end of the first decade of the new century, Americans hold to a kind of economic innocence. Even then, after the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, William Galston observed that “the vast majority of the public... just don’t care that much about income inequality.” “In short,” Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs conclude, “compared to other Western nations, Americans are willing to put up with more economic inequality.” But if we set aside this persistent cross-national contrast and instead compare citizens over time, drawing on opinions they held several years ago, Americans seem less willing to tolerate a blatant skewing of the income profile: “an overwhelming majority of us believe income differences are too large.”

Attitudes like these may seem as flighty as the changes in events they supposedly reflect rather than deep-seated values. They begin to make sense, however, if a threefold distinction is kept in mind. First, in the years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans can be credited with near-consensual accord about equality of opportunity. This is the social baseline of democracy, the communal equivalent of political liberty. It is the economic, merit-based side of the American creed. Opportunity corresponds to grace in the American civil religion, and material expansion is its collective consort. The track is supposed to be level. There are to be no discriminatory handicaps at the starting line, even if in practice some classes of competitors—women, for example—are new to the race.

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Second, there is substantial though weaker backing for a stronger form of equity: a safety net below which citizens are not supposed to fall. “Americans are historically decided on the importance of protecting individual liberties,” Margie DeWeese-Boyd observes,“and less decided on the importance of promoting public goods.” Here we are in the realm of social insurance and publicly subsidized health care. These are distributive policies designed to shelter people from the hazards of fortune or, like affirmative action, to provide a hand in evening out points of departure. Though controversial, collective protections like these enjoy a measure of legitimacy and popular support.

Third, imagine amounts of income and wealth above which citizens might not be permitted to rise out of a fear that their distance from the less well-off would endanger the democratic commonweal. A structural distortion that skews economic rewards in one direction and democratic ideals in another is the problem. Concentrated wealth might give the rich too much power. At this point, consensus falls apart. At issue are redistributive policies and the possibility not of squelching mobility from below (“equality of opportunity”) but of squashing the top of the pyramid along which upward mobility moves. Capping rewards or the appearance of entertaining such an idea smacks of leveling. “Redistribution” strikes the ear as “revenge” or “class warfare.” It blurs into egalitarianism as equality of result, and that is thought to be unproductive, unjust, and un-American. The mythic sky is still the limit. Belief in the contrary is inadmissible.

* * *

By the time the consequences of the welfare reform of the mid-nineties were becoming visible, Mary Jo Bane had begun to mellow. The most controversial feature of that reform was the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants, imposing work requirements and a five-year limit to cash assistance. TANF replaced the Depression-era program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which included neither stipulation. The reform was a political success, among other reasons because it saved money by cutting caseloads. As for reducing poverty, the results were uneven. Greater numbers of poor women took jobs but many were unable to retain them, in part because of inadequate child care. And TANF made no dent on reducing income inequality or on driving down nonmarital unions. In fact, income inequality got worse.

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Bane conceded the partial efficacy of the work requirement, and she endorsed a modified food stamps program which, though it did not require work, set benefits at a low level. She continued to decry a stinginess that failed to provide “a basic level of food, shelter, and medical care for everyone,” even to those “who fail to live up to the expectations of [worthiness] that we rightly build into government programs.”

Bane expressed these judgments in a conversation with Lawrence Mead, a political scientist and one of the chief architects of the 1996 reform. An Episcopalian, Mead is curious about the role of religion in public policy. But his skepticism does not sit well with two conservative nostrums. In prizing results over good intentions, Mead relegates faith-based initiatives of the proselytizing variety to the margins of service provision, and he is impatient with philosophical insistence on the small government ideal. The title of Government Matters, his study of welfare reform in Wisconsin, headlines the lesson that “solutions to poverty must finally look... to the capacities of government itself.... Social solutions finally depend on statecraft.”

The pragmatism that Mead favors regarding poverty reduction puts him closer than many neoconservatives to the Moynihan legacy of thinking about welfare, and his agnosticism about the applicability of religious guidelines to public policy distances him from most evangelicals. Mead’s skepticism extends still further. He questions the notion, cherished by conservatives, that single motherhood is a direct cause of poverty. His assessment of the controversy sounds very much like one issued by Bane herself a decade before:

Long-term poor families tend to become poor because of the behaviors that make poverty controversial: Women have children out of wedlock, and then they or their spouses do not work regularly to support their children. Of the two causes, unwed pregnancy appears to be the less important, contrary to common opinion. Families become poor or go on welfare mainly because they lack earnings, not because they are headed by a woman, and that is especially true for the black poor. Employment problems also help to produce female-headed families, in that failure to provide for their families causes many low-income men to abandon them—or to be driven out by their spouses.

The effect of all this is to make the colloquy between Mead and Bane sound like a cruise toward conciliation. At the technical level, in the details of shaping policies around worthy goals, “[we] differ rather little in our poverty and welfare policy prescriptions.” (Bane and Mead call one another “radical incrementalists.”) One inference that Bane, a practicing Catholic, draws is that theological differences might not matter very much when it comes to economic and social policy.

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Religious traditions can have an impact, Bane argues, in “our tendency to err on different sides in conditions of uncertainty.” This is a possibly important effect. It suggests, as DiIulio does, that values become decisive when hard information is ambiguous or unavailable. Falling back on core values can make a difference when priorities have to be rank-ordered on a policy agenda crowded with more or less attractive, or equally unattractive, choices. Both situations are more familiar to politicians than fine-grained data analysis. You go with your gut, or your biases. Moral predispositions come into play.

Bane emphasizes her attachment to a Catholic ethos that recommends “a preferential option for the poor.” For his part, while he devotes several pages to an examination of scriptural admonitions about wealth, poverty, and a variety of other issues, Mead states that “the essentials of my viewpoint are, so far as I have read, entirely my own.” Then he adds, half in consternation, as if he had expected something less equivocal from his biblical excursion,“I find this quite surprising.”

It is possible to make out a softer, tender-hearted tone in Bane and a stricter, tough-minded one in Mead, and the contrast might be attributed to a Catholic-Protestant divide over indulgence versus discipline. But there is at least as much variance within the two perspectives as there is between them, and it is hard to distinguish temperament from tradition. When Rebecca Blank and William McGurn engaged in a similar dialogue, the roles were reversed. Blank, a Protestant, took a liberal line when quoting from scripture, while McGurn, a Catholic, cited papal encyclicals copiously to remind his audience of the dangers of government intrusion in the economy.

* * *

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Political horse-trading powerfully affected the outcome of welfare reform in 1996. After his party lost the midterm elections of 1994, Bill Clinton chose to sacrifice “welfare as we knew it”—in effect, sustenance without time limits for families with children in poverty—for the sake of preserving Medicaid and Medicare, which Republican budget-cutters also had their eyes on. Entitlements like Medicare affected many more voters than welfare programs. None of these decisions flowed axiomatically from religious beliefs.

For all this, regardless of their religious provenance, the values that policy makers brought to deliberations on welfare were tangled up in the battle over reform during the 1990s. In addition, it is important to consider the restrictions that mass political culture—values and framing assumptions widely held in public opinion over long periods of time—place on advocates and opponents of welfare reform. These views run deeper than fleeting attitudes.

The innovation that Mead and others succeeded in building into PRWORA in 1996 was the imperative of “reciprocity”—the requirement, not just the expectation, that adult recipients work in return for aid. Citizenship entails a social contract, contingent on work, not a guaranteed income. The general public knows next to nothing of the details of the welfare reforms about which Bane and Mead find themselves in rough agreement. But giving priority to the work ethic resonates unassailably, like family values, in the American milieu. Together, they conveyed a powerful political message. This is the sentiment enshrined in the passage of the welfare reform of 1996. PRWORA put traditional standards regarding work obligations, worthiness for public assistance, and family structures back into place.

Voters were predisposed to the packaging of welfare reform as a spur to individual initiative and a reaffirmation of the American way. Catholics were little different from the rest of the electorate in this regard. Alarm about the fate of family values went hand-in-hand with a stern economic sobriety. The broader message of the church about social justice, pressed by the bishops, was taken as optional. It did not make a significant dent on the Catholic electorate.

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Finally, philanthropic decision-makers and service providers, including those in charge of managing large operations like Catholic Charities, did not come away empty-handed from the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. While the office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the reform on the grounds that it constituted a flat-out repeal of welfare, the bishops themselves did not uphold this position as forcefully as their opposition to abortion. Section 104 of the welfare act contained a “charitable choice” section that regularized the funding eligibility of faith-based service providers. The trend toward contracting out the provision of welfare that took hold with the War on Poverty in the 1960s now encompassed even more religiously affiliated agencies.

* * *

From the outset Catholic conservatives have placed a premium on ideas, at the core of which was loyalty to the wisdom of the church. A rock-like orthodoxy—“fidelity, fidelity, fidelity!” as Richard John Neuhaus insisted—was to be proclaimed with neoscholastic precision. The strategy complemented the restorationist project launched by John Paul II. Family values and right-to-life issues were essential ingredients of the campaign.

Catholic neoconservatives began to hook up with audiences in evangelical and policy-making quarters outside the church. While conservatives continue to feel harassed by what they take to be a secular, progressive animus in academic and media circles, the appeal of the Catholic left to a mass constituency has not been overwhelming. Issues toward the top of the liberal agenda in the church have emphasized in-house power struggles over questions of authority that arouse the curiosity more than the commitment of sympathizers on the outside.

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As collaboration with non-Catholics evolved, social scientists and legal scholars extended the conversation about beliefs and culture from presumably intrinsic rights and wrongs toward possibly good and bad effects, that is, toward empirical questions about behavioral pathologies and collective dysfunction. The switch looks like a redirection of moral discourse toward social engineering. In fact, there was a modest change in emphasis that was more applicable to a subset of issues involving family structures—specifically, two-parent families—than to truly divisive controversies like abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research.

The conceptual shift was vital nonetheless. Scientific language buttressed the traditional wisdom that personal foul-ups were not just individual pathologies but a collective problem that contaminated the body politic. Moral failings produced social fallout. They polluted the cultural environment as surely as industrial waste endangered the water supply. Fixing the negative by-products of undisciplined self-indulgence cost taxpayers money. Even then, expensive remedial programs might not work. The call went out for “a fusion of social and moral well-being,” for “a conservatism that recognizes stable families as the foundation of economic growth.”

It was not just empirically informed bargaining, then, or rough-and-ready pragmatism that brought Catholic neoconservatives and their sympathizers together in helping pass a welfare reform that undid what they saw as the havoc wrought by the sixties and seventies. The alignment between Catholic veneration of traditional family structures and American reverence for individual responsibility and a small role for government also helped. And, even if they were not widely known, Catholic ideas about the benefits of subsidiarity could furnish a backup for the virtues of small government.

The alliance was disjointed. The work requirement of PRWORA was difficult to square with the primacy given by the Vatican to the domestic role of women. Nor did the stress on individualism sit well with the communitarian leanings of otherwise conservative critics like Mary Ann Glendon. But as a melding of Catholic and American values, especially as these values were understood by the public rather than by the staff of the bishops’ conference and those of the faithful who actually read encyclicals, the coalition worked. It played well not only among decision makers but in mass opinion, especially in that part of public opinion prevalent among regular churchgoers. The collective effects of family breakdown, emphasized by conservatives, were easier to understand than the structural causes, like poverty, that liberals argued underlay the problem. The program of welfare reform hit a sweet spot in American culture that joined moral concern and righteous self-interest. In a national discourse dominated by the language of nineteenth-century individualism, it is hard for progressives to weave values, ideas, and policy justifications together with comparable cogency.

* * *

Though impressive, neoconservative accomplishments have been circumscribed. The liberalization of sexual behavior and the erosion of family structures that accelerated in the 1960s were followed, starting in the eighties, by economic deregulation. Conservatives have yet to come to terms with the effect of these dynamics on poverty and worsening income inequality. It is conceivable that the sky-high remuneration accorded to corporate executives in the name of return on investment may add as much to disparities in wealth and income as the meager skills that single mothers, their woefully prepared offspring, and assorted entitled spendthrifts and parasites among the 47 percent bring to the job market. All this, together with stubbornly high unemployment and the deflation of credit cushions, eats away at the credibility of advanced capitalism. Even if full-blown progressive solutions to the crisis have not filled the vacuum, programs to raise tax rates on top earners were gaining popularity by the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Enthusiasm for fashioning an across-the-board worldview that could consolidate a grand consensus has dwindled. The triad of social tradition, economic conservatism, and foreign policy realism is unwieldy, and the goal of uniting micro (moral) and macro (geopolitical) conservatisms in the form of a full-service Weltanschauung has made little headway. Another blow was the turn of political fortune. The reversals suffered by American policy in the Middle East constituted a reality check for deductive styles of political strategizing; so did Vatican disapproval of the Iraq War. And the financial collapse of 2008 revived concerns about inequalities in wealth and income—even if, again, setting the progressive or conservative direction of the reaction to these developments remains a close thing.

What does remain within the fold of Catholic neoconservatism is a shared commitment to nonnegotiable precepts surrounding pro-life issues. Beyond this, there is more or less cordial disagreement about the specifics of the responsibility of government and the means of implementing social policies and a broad, rather Olympian preference for democratic capitalism. These seem almost tangential compared to the virtual consensus around the core sexual-moral issues, on the norm of the two-parent, male-female family, and on preserving hieratic authority in Catholicism. Once past the essentials, Catholic neoconservative positions are only loosely bound to one another or to a common nucleus. The building blocks of modular Catholicism can fit together in a variety of ways.

* * *

Looking back over decades of social activism and political controversy, Richard John Neuhaus conveyed a been-there-done-that bemusement with the ups-and-downs of public life. He expressed “some satisfaction with the way the debate on abortion has been shaped,” and he noted that among the rewarding aspects of the quarrels won and lost was “the gathering and support of close friends.”

These are no small achievements. Several of the ideas set forth by neoconservatives have been contested and some have been found wanting on evidentiary grounds. But there is no question that neoconservatives reframed the debate over welfare and chipped away at the privacy rationale underlying the legalization of abortion. And they created a formidable network of intellectuals, propagandists, and benefactors to bankroll the spread of their ideas. Yet, a bit disconcertingly for someone who made his name decrying the naked public square, Neuhaus declared that “the church is my country.”

What happens in the church matters most to me, not the peripheral stuff of politics. I am very concerned that a clear distinction be made. The very logic of Catholicism is sharply different from the way a polity works. I’m a minimalist when it comes to pulling out all the stops in politics.

While some of the disavowal of politics can be attributed to discretion, perhaps even to a dash of modesty, the statement also suggests that aspects of Catholic neoconservatism have been more successful among bunkered sectors of the hierarchy and outside the church, among evangelical Protestants, than among Catholics who pay off-again/on-again attention to elements of the magisterium they dislike or to leaders they distrust.

The world according to Christian conservatism continues to be one in which religion, impeded from fully entering the public arena, has felt obliged to challenge the exclusionary rule and move into politics, lowering the wall between church and state. In the face of increasing oversight of church affairs, the conservative priority is to prevent politics from entering the church. Offense has become the best defense. It is hard to shake the impression that there is something self-serving in the effort to keep politics out of religion while putting religion back into politics.

The vigorously intellectual bent among Catholic neoconservative leaders encouraged long-term projects over short-term programs, and this may account both for some of the coyness about the hurly-burly of politics and for the perseverance underlying the neoc`onservative cause. It also accounts for a certain snootiness regarding the cognitive skills of those who do not share their convictions. “Like shooting fish in a barrel” is how Neuhaus described attacking liberal Catholic intellectuals, who evidently form a perfect trifecta of the loserish, the delusional, and the oxymoronic.

The strategy has meant concentrating conservative firepower on the unswerving truths of sexuality and authority. Such principles are presumed to stand apart from the secular reckoning that has infected segments of the clergy and laity. But the project has proved to be a hard sell among Catholics who acquiesce, on their own terms, for an assortment of reasons, or sit on their hands, or drift away. It has proved easier to find common ground between the ideologically compatible, regardless of denomination, than among Catholics themselves.

* * *

One of Neuhaus’s heroes was the eighteenth-century man of letters Samuel Johnson, who described himself as an “excessive” character, always “in extremes.” Dedicated neoconservatives like Neuhaus give the impression of feeling comfortable dealing with issues they can frame in no-two-ways-about-it categories—in the case of abortion, in terms of life-or-death choices. Tradition and first principles are crucial; so is incisive conceptualization. So is the cutting phrase. They are less at home discussing issues in economics and foreign affairs, where the terms of debate seem more cluttered and empirical. There is a tremulous détente between ideological-philosophical conservatives, almost all of them trained in theology or jurisprudence, and their theoretically less turbocharged colleagues, who are not so squeamish about evidence.

Catholic neoconservatism represents a form of modular Catholicism, concentrating on the basics. It has been most successful when it has stayed on message about the sexual magisterium while managing to hook up with the ascendancy of family values and rugged individualism among Americans generally. The social magisterium is a lesser priority. Even then, within the American church, neoconservatism is a passionate minority among other minority currents. This is tied to the fact that the sexual teaching of the church is difficult to separate from its hierarchical governance. Non-Catholic conservatives are free to accept the former and ignore the latter. They can go their congregational way, admiring the church’s moral teachings without having to accept the hierarchical trappings.

Catholics on the other hand are conflicted or inclined to compartmentalize doctrinal issues, good works, and questions of governance. The pro-life stance of neoconservatives attracts Catholics and non-Catholics in a way that school prayer, a predominantly Protestant issue, and access to contraception, mainly a Catholic (and less burning) priority, have never done. Once the range of issues stretches to economic policy and foreign affairs, Catholic neoconservatism becomes diluted, certainly with regard to programmatic specifics if not in polemical virulence.

Plasticity contributes to the durability of the neoconservative cause beyond a Catholic setting. Issues concerning sexuality, the family, and welfare economics developed synergy across denominational boundaries. Even if the logical connections were hard to pin down, conservatives bundled the issues with an aura of moral concern, of doing the right—even countercultural—thing, and that package struck a popular chord.

A case could be made that this climate of opinion culminated in a Supreme Court with a majority of center-right to right-wing Catholics whose actions have helped consolidate economic retrenchment and strengthen the political power of corporations, in addition to whatever comfort they offer to upholders of traditional sexual practice. The outcome might also be understood as an instance of fortuitous timing, reflecting a moment favorable to socially cautious Catholic and evangelical tastes rather than the result of a concerted effort. A world of purposeful behavior where intentions anticipate outcomes need not be the sole standard for a realistic causal chain. The alliance between conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and economic power holders did not just happen, even if its ramifications for public policy were uncertain and hard to envision beforehand. The cultural context for such an eventuality had been building for some time.

* * *

The limits of the conservative project are not necessarily good news for Catholic progressives, whose constituency is more latent than active. On matters like contraception and divorce, as well as same-sex marriage and to some extent abortion, Catholics can follow their conscience without having to mount a campaign to change doctrine. Secession is the ultimate “Protestant” strategy along a spectrum that includes quieter forms of accommodation that require less time and effort. Silent resistance mirrors the option that Protestant sympathizers enjoy, supporting facets of Catholic doctrine without paying obeisance to the hierarchy. Socially, culturally, and politically, the sexual ideology of the church is less enforceable than it used to be. The irony is that this leeway lowers the incentives for collective action by Catholics who might otherwise feel put upon by the demands of the magisterium. Many of the church’s edicts are simply ignored.

So, while the restorationist agenda sponsored by the Vatican has inflicted damage on theologians and has put a lid on doctrinal discussion generally, the air of repression and potential ostracism that hung over ghetto Catholicism has lifted for most of the laity. The social monitoring of sexual morals has lost its small-town, neighborhood base. The potential for organized dissent and participation has suffered. It is easier to tune out. As the following chapters argue, this calculus contributes to the Catholic deficit in church participation among people in the pews. The deficit appears to be asymmetrical, more prominent among liberal Catholics, who tend to participate less in church affairs than their relatively conservative peers.

Another offshoot of conservative dominance has been to narrow, though not confine, the progressive script to dissent on questions of authority and communal identity: priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, and so on. Disputes about symbolic matters upset determined minorities, but their resolution one way or the other appears to have only peripheral effects on the behavior of ordinary Catholics and even less on observers outside the church.

Parish closings bring a priest-poor future closer to home. Many Catholics nonetheless look upon the trend as bad weather that happens somewhere else. In technical terms, the institution of the priesthood is a public good. While opening it to women has the approval of the majority of American Catholics, the incentive to fight for such a change is weak because free-riders would have as much access as activists to an expanded clergy, and few women want to be priests themselves. The result is a low-level equilibrium in which Catholics put up with what feels like a tolerably annoying status quo. Thinking about it would only be more distressing. Restrictive though it is, conservative Catholicism developed a culture and a strategy that resonated beyond an inner circle of adepts. Catholic progressives have yet to reach out so effectively from their cocoon.

The handicap of Catholic progressives can be viewed from a slightly different perspective as well. Neoconservatives tied pro-life thinking to American values about the family and to personal as compared to government responsibility for well-being. The position of Catholic progressives (and of the usually conservative Mary Ann Glendon) is closer than that of neoconservatives to the faith-and-justice rhetoric of the church. The intellectual standing of the progressive agenda inside the church, for social action and the like, looks strong.

But the perception of the communitarian program as an echo of a bygone New Deal era has dampened its appeal to a broad swath of American thinking centered on individualism and self-advancement.61 Liberal Catholics find themselves in a double bind. Their dissent on matters of authority and sexuality puts them at odds with Rome, and the priority they give to social justice issues sets them at some distance from many of their fellow Americans, at least from many of the more devout among them. If they can nourish hope, it may lie in the fact that actuarial realities do not favor hardcore moral reactionaries. While American Catholic conservatism has not shot its demographic bolt, the movement shows signs of having reached a point of diminishing returns as the twenty-first century unfolds.

Reprinted from "The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church" by Peter McDonough with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © Oxford University Press 2013.


Peter McDonough

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