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The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism

The argument that America is at risk of theocratic domination has always been hyperbole—a rallying cry rather than an analysis of our political situation. Even as the nomination of a Supreme Court justice stirs up liberal fantasies of The Handmaid’s Tale, the threat of a genuine “theocracy” seems rather far off. But there was a time when the fear of “theocracy” resonated more broadly because it captured, at least partially, something real in American politics. At the height of the Bush administration in 2006, Damon Linker’s The Theocons: Secular America under Siege found an audience among those ready to be spooked by the thought of an impending sacred dystopia (as well as a few on the right, upset at Linker’s perceived inaccuracies). The most curious thing about the theocracy scare of 2006, though, was not that theocracy loomed on the horizon for worried liberals or for Linker himself (a former First Things editor familiar with the intellectual currents of religious conservatism). What was impressive was that—in spite of their tussling over terms—plenty of the people he had set out to criticize believed, in a certain way, that Linker was right.

For Christian conservatives and especially for Catholics, the later Bush years were a heady time. At least since the 1980s, Father Richard John Neuhaus and the rest of the First Things circle had been speaking of a “Catholic moment,” and in the late 1990s Crisis magazine began planning for it. Thanks not least to Karl Rove’s enterprising effort to capture the Catholic vote, such a moment seemed to be at hand. What the “Catholic moment” was supposed to mean, though, was a rather strange thing; and with a decade’s distance, it looks like little more than wishful thinking. But for young Catholics interested in politics, particularly those within the world of campus organizations or D.C. think tanks, the facts seemed auspicious.

Even though conservatives still complained about “judicial activism” and Roe v. Wade, for Bush-era Catholic intellectuals, the tide seemed to be turning. They were confident that “pelvic orthodoxy,” combined with market-oriented but “compassionate” economic policy, would secure a Republican future. A faith in the “ordinary” citizen prompted hope for referenda on gay marriage; opinion polls seemed to suggest a larger public rethinking of abortion; and the Bush-era “faith-based initiatives” promised a model in which church, state, and private enterprise might cooperate harmoniously for the good of all. With sectarian squabbles muted, Catholics and Evangelicals would have the ideas and the votes to effect lasting political change. Catholics told themselves, and believed, that they were no longer a reactionary rearguard, but were on the cusp of triumph. A Catholic-inspired conservative politics appeared to have momentum and, more than that, it deserved to have momentum. These trends were not just happy turns of fate; they were signs that the political philosophy cobbled together by Catholics and conservatives was correct and illuminating and destined to win. The leaders of this movement may not have been the “Theocons” of Linker’s title, but they fancied themselves essential contributors to the intellectual project of holding together the American regime in a way that might preserve Catholics and the Church from the threats of secular liberalism. And it was no downside that in the process they might come to hold crucial positions of state.

These “Theocons” were devoted conservative fusionists. Even before the “Catholic moment” arrived, fusionism had been the name given to the conservative political movement attempting to combine social conservatism and free-market capitalism (though the term was initially one of criticism). In the eyes of Catholic fusionists, their views were simply the correct application of Catholic principles to contemporary problems: the Church was to stand on the side of political and economic liberty against communism, and on the side of social and moral order against the sexual revolution. The Catholic fusionists drank so deeply of this system that eventually they forgot what the first fusionists knew well: that a traditional approach to social questions sits uneasily alongside a capitalism in which “all that is solid melts into air.” But fusionism is a fitting name since the fundamental premise of the Catholic fusionist approach—rarely articulated, but always present—was that the principles of American conservatism and those of Catholic social teaching might be seamlessly and unproblematically combined.

The Catholic fusionists in fact took this position one step further. Not merely did they assert a possible symbiosis between the traditions of American liberty and the traditions of the Church, but they came to see the midcentury American political settlement as the very embodiment of Catholic social teaching. There was only one thing lacking, they thought, in the American social and political order—modern Americans had lost the Founders’ sense of the natural law principles that could hold the Republic together, principles that the Catholic tradition was ready to supply. Implausible and unnecessary as this might seem to those looking on at Catholic intellectual developments from the outside, it is hard to overstate the power that this image exerted on the “American Church” from the nineteenth century onward. Public doubt over whether Catholics could be good American citizens somehow combined, alongside the spectacular growth of the Catholic Church in this country, to produce an intense Catholic patriotism which equated chipper American liberalism with Catholic teaching itself.

Although the Catholic ambition to supply America’s “missing public philosophy” was dashed upon the rocks of the 1960s, many intellectual Catholics never updated their hypotheses. Instead, they pleaded with an uninterested American public to reverse the handful of decisions that marred the otherwise still-living American capitalist dream. They doubled down on the thesis that the Church could supply the missing “public philosophy” to the otherwise well-constituted American republic. That effort is now a shambles. And in the course of it, American Catholics missed an opportunity to understand the political problems now facing everyone.

Marriage of Convenience

When the Catholic fusionists were riding high during the Bush years, it was hardly necessary that they should offer an explicit defense of themselves. But by 2012, in the wake of President Obama’s reelection, and amid a series of defeats for the Republican Party across the country, the fusionist coalition was in trouble. Christians accused conservatives of neglecting “values” in favor of a business-oriented agenda; meanwhile “mainstream conservatives” accused Christians of weighing down a common-sense economic platform with backward religious superstitions.

It was in this context that Robert George of Princeton, a foremost fusionist, felt the need to write an article for First Things “On the Union of Economic and Social Conservatism,” under the title “No Mere Marriage of Convenience.” It was the kind of title that protested too much, and the argument laid out under it was a characteristically thin one. A few broad principles with no way of adjudicating among them—“respect for the human person,” “the institution of the family,” “a fair and effective system of law and government”—and a canned explanation of how minimal economic regulations unleash “dynamism” from which the whole society benefits. One would read it in vain looking for a real political philosophy. Yet there it was: the supposed core of American Catholic political thought had cashed out in the platform of fin de siècle Republicanism. The heart of the essay was in George’s plea: both sides need to knock it off. Two collections of interest groups and, more importantly, two donor bases were coming into conflict, and George’s task was to herd everyone back into line.

It was perhaps not unreasonable that Robert George thought he could succeed. The “marriage” proposed by George was the parallel, in political thought, of a settlement that had long been stable among American Catholics. At least since the Kennedy years, most Catholics in America had come to accept their religious and national identities as seamlessly overlapping, almost synonymous. Apart from a few oddballs and immigrants and superannuated hippies, Catholics had come to find it perfectly unremarkable to see American flags displayed in their sanctuaries and American holidays commemorated in their churches; the Church had become part of the furniture of normal American life.

But by the same token, the Church’s “eccentricities” had also been smoothed out, and normalized as well. The patron saints of this American Catholicism were Ronald Reagan and John Paul II (often acclaimed as the coequal defeaters of Soviet Communism) but the vision of Catholic conservatives was more than a hangover of the Cold War. Even if the intellectual details always remained a bit fuzzy, the general sense was unmistakable: that a common humane vision should unite conservatives and Catholics, and that the American Constitution and the broad outline of American history were not only acceptable to Catholics, but flowed from many of the same sources as the Church’s political thought.

But there were elements of that political tradition that this vision had to exclude. One could hardly grasp the American Church’s long-standing skepticism of free-market economics by reading the texts of Catholic fusionists. A vast number of books, homilies, and publications of bishops and popes demonstrates the Church’s deep interest in the “social question,” strong support for labor unions, and doubts (however awkwardly or ambiguously expressed) about the capitalist system. But when the fusionists did not simply ignore these, they tended to dismiss them as magisterial obiter dicta, quite without authority for the Catholic faithful. It is, of course, no surprise that the Catholic fusionists were eager to represent their views as rooted in perennial Catholic teachings. No Catholic likes imagining that he’s adulterating the faith with an alien or opposed school of thought. But this effort required more than a little finessing. For the most part, and despite the academic credentials that they often bore and bruited about, the proponents of this fusionism frequently betrayed rather shallow roots in the tradition they claimed to represent. In many cases, the role played by the Catholic side of the “marriage of convenience” was little more than a veneer: the Acton Institute might put a Christian gloss on Hayek, and First Things might cover typical neoconservatism with a sort of evangelical fig leaf, but the core ideas and proposals were self-subsistent, external to, and usually hostile to Catholicism itself. It was a tale of unrequited love: Catholic intellectuals eagerly offered their support to the traditions of American liberalism, but for the most part they were only preaching to their own choir, and one that was far from typical even within the Church itself.

The Preferential Option for Americanism

To non-Catholics, fusionist conservatism is often equated with religious “traditionalism.” But “traditionalism,” among Catholics, is a loaded word. Fairly or not, it conjures up the specter of those who reject the authority of recent popes or the legitimacy of Vatican II, of impractical types for whom faith consists of an obsessive ritualism and politics, a quixotic monarchism. In this sense, the fusionists were certainly not “traditionalists.” But there is another, more damning sense in which they were intellectually out of joint with the Catholic tradition. Robert George, for instance, no doubt sincerely believes the Church’s teachings on matters such as abortion and euthanasia. Yet he does not hesitate to begin his arguments from Enlightenment first principles that St. Thomas would neither have recognized nor endorsed. The fusionists’ citations of popes and other Catholic authorities were copious and reverent, but they were carefully selected to convey an idea of Catholicism at ease with the Enlightenment’s rights of man and with the broadly liberal tradition of political thought. Now sacred kingship, suspicion of commerce, and press censorship are hardly the essence of the Catholic faith, but there was no sense that such ideas had been part of the political worldview of popes and theologians for centuries in fusionists’ writings.

More important than theological precision, more important than fidelity to the tradition, was the expediency of providing ideas for contemporary, exclusively U.S.-focused political debates. Any ideas that might be embarrassing for the fusionists’ tactical allies were quietly suppressed. Where political alliance could be assumed, religious agreement was secondary. Unlike mainstream liberals, Catholic fusionists might never admit openly that faith should be primarily an internal matter, or that belief is irrelevant compared to political action, but they shared with the liberals a latitudinarian approach to doctrine, so long as one was fighting on the right side. Yet this always made them appear strange—and rather careerist—both to liberals and to non-Catholic conservatives. Everyone knew their political views, particularly on social and moral matters, were primarily ones taken (as is reasonable for Catholics) from the catechism. But the fusionists’ scheme obliged them to defend these views by reference to “public reason” alone and the procedural norms of liberal democracy. These Catholics, it seemed, had a greater faith in the naked public square than their secular opponents. By a singular act of asceticism, they avoided saying what they were already known to believe, but lacking the craftiness of their Jesuit forebears, they were unable to persuade their opponents of their secular bona fides. No mainstream proponents of public reason (for example, Rawlsians) accepted the “secular” arguments made by the fusionist natural lawyers on questions like abortion and gay marriage. They saw what the fusionists themselves did not: the inevitable gap between their procedurally liberal arguments and substantively preliberal conclusions. But sometimes the gaps between “classical liberal” thought and Catholic teaching could not be papered over—even by the fusionists themselves. When, in 2009, Pope Benedict’s encyclical letter Caritas in veritate took an explicitly dim view of capitalism and the market society, the fusionists were caught wrong-footed. Their panic reached a comical peak in George Weigel’s essay for National Review asserting that parts of the magisterial text had been written with a “red pen,” inserted into the pope’s true teaching by curial socialists, and might safely be ignored by the (American) faithful. In retrospect, such visible seams between the Catholic and conservative parts of the alliance suggested its ultimate failure. Worse, these fault lines revealed that the Catholic parts of the alliance were all too willing to be captured by the GOP, and that they, no less than the left-wing “cafeteria Catholics” they so often criticized, were happy to jettison aspects of authoritative teaching their political allies found inconvenient.

Despite such occasional moments of dissonance, there was no reason on the right, in the late Bush or early Obama years, to fear that the fusionist settlement might not remain in place. While there were those who protested against it, the think tanks, journals, and almost all the organs of Catholic political opinion were the property of fusionists and their donors. The objections of a few marginal traditionalists or untenured assistant professors were no threat to this alliance.

A Time to Keep Silence, and a Time to Speak

What eroded the credibility of the fusionists was nothing but their own failure—and one cannot say that their efforts have been met with anything other than that. On every issue that matters, the fusionists did nothing to increase the influence of Catholic ideas among Republicans—much less the country at large—but they also failed to hold the line, even on long-established political norms. And perhaps no failure was more dramatic, more revealing of the intellectual fatuity of this movement, and more important in stimulating young Catholics to look for new ideas, than the inability of the fusionist equipage to offer any effective response to the movements of late liberalism, which became glaringly apparent after the Windsor and Obergefell decisions.

Apart from a few professionally heterodox commentators, the Catholic punditry attempted with great diligence and coordination to oppose the legalization of gay marriage—producing any number of arguments, less to explicate the perennial teaching of the Church on this matter than to appeal to Justice Kennedy’s whims. Perhaps no effort was more deliberate, or greeted with more fanfare, than the extended essay What Is Marriage?, team-written by a committee of Witherspoon Institute and First Things worthies. But even this grand project went, as it had to go—nowhere. No proponents of the change in marriage law even took it seriously as a challenge.

As a matter of political influence, the essay may as well never have existed. Yet it is preeminently useful as a window into the fusionist mind of only a few years ago. Written, promoted, and (one suspects) only ever read by Catholics, it nevertheless painfully avoided basing its argument on the Catholic sources or argumentative tropes that everyone knew actually inspired it. It discussed sex and marriage as if the centuries of Catholic meditation on these questions had not existed.

For myself, and other young Catholics like me, this was a moment of awakening: I had believed in the “Catholic moment,” and had expected the defenders of Catholic truth to march under a Catholic banner. Through the Catholic social scene, I was not too far removed from some of the authors of What Is Marriage? Any objections voiced to this approach were met with a furious remonstrance, which challenged the philosophical credentials of the dissenter, but more importantly insinuated disloyalty to the cause. The humble defenders in neutral public debate suddenly became furious enforcers of sectarian unity: did we want our enemies to win? Could we not see that certain intellectual compromises were necessary to defend just causes within our liberal-democratic society?

I was not satisfied with these rebukes, but at the time I myself had no response. Maybe theirs was indeed the way in which the libertas ecclesiae (if they could admit so anachronistic a term) was to be preserved. One had to wait and see. But after the decisions in which the fusionist strategies failed not only to persuade, but even to provoke a serious reply, the idea that “Catholic” politics provided the secret rationale for the procedural norms of liberalism and justified loose ideological alliances was no longer plausible. In exchange for their first birthright, these Catholic “thought-leaders” received not even the pottage of a temporary stay on the questions most important to them.

Worse still, and with a biting irony, fusionist Catholics have been absent without leave on an array of policy questions that actually do reside within the secular public square. While the Catholic tendency to place morality ahead of politics often leads to impressive results—Catholics stood alongside the civil rights movement from an early day—it can badly misfire as well. Following the neoliberal writer Michael Novak and his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), fusionist Catholics emphasize what they portray as the good theological assumptions of liberal capitalism and forgo close analyses of current questions in economic policy. The watchword of freedom is enough to corral them back to the Republican platform and prevent any significant attempts to rethink elements of contemporary political economy. The absence of fusionist Catholics from arguments about political economy is particularly ironic given that this was the area in which the Church of an earlier period, particularly the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, thought it could offer comment on liberalism, capitalism, and socialism that would be of interest to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet the very Catholics who today proclaim their official neutrality have little or nothing to say about the problems of political economy that have weakened the fabric of Western liberal democracy.

Unfortunately, the complete reversal from their influential position during the late Bush years does not appear to have dealt much of a blow to the network of broadly “conservative” Catholic think tanks, conferences, and periodicals. Nor does it seem to have done much to dry up the donor monies that keep this network on life support. But in the alliance of conservatives and Catholics, the Catholics no longer hold the reins. The thought leaders have apparently still been thinking, and are certainly still writing, but as the conservative political world came under the influence of the Tea Party, and eventually of the Trump movement, these Catholic energies and activities became ever more extraneous to it. Apart from occasional, marginal, and largely unserious spectacles like Paul Ryan’s invocation of Thomas Aquinas in defense of his fiscal proposals, the dream of a “Catholic moment,” in which the faith might be a major political influence, has quite evaporated. And yet all through Obama’s presidency, these wheels continued to turn—the Catholic network of donors, pundits, and minor political philosophers had become almost self-sustaining, and carried on.

Slouching toward Irrelevance

It is tempting, and perhaps also somewhat satisfying, to blame Catholic parties to the fusionist alliance for their failure to shape American politics. Nor would it be unfair. But if they have lost credibility among those younger Catholics who are attempting to puzzle through political questions, the main cause is a cultural shift that the elder pundits barely foresaw, and could not have prevented. The hoped-for “Catholic moment” at least presumed a culture in which the Church and ordinary American life might be easily combined, and in which the Church’s greatest moments of tension with American life could be understood as a kind of “loyal opposition.” At least for a couple of generations in the middle of the twentieth century, this is the role the Church played. And although becoming part of the establishment incurs certain costs, there is no doubt that this gave the Church a degree of cultural prestige and influence that nudged politics in a more Catholic direction.

The Church has now completely lost this role. Although it continues to do charitable works on an immense scale and its bishops are never reticent on political questions, Catholics today, and especially young Catholics, live in a heightened tension with the world around them. In media, at law, in HR trainings, in advertisements, Catholic distance from mainstream culture is growing in a way that makes fusionist attempts merely to supplement American culture unrealistic. Young Catholics now live in a context in which their deepest ideals and aspirations are no longer merely unusual, but oppositional. These signs were there to be seen well before the Obama years, and opponents of the fusionist synthesis pointed them out from the 1960s onward. But events have made them unmistakably clear in a way the younger generation of Catholics is unlikely to forget. Though one periodically hears talk of a “rediscovery of the sacred” parallel to the new nationalisms, the dream of an Americanist “Catholic moment” is not coming back.

The most common response to the patent incongruity of Catholicism and the modern world is for Catholics to leave the Church. “Ex-Catholic” is the second-largest Christian denomination in the United States; Catholic institutions everywhere are losing momentum and support, even as they water down their Catholic character; and it is clear the vestigial obedience and participation of “cultural” or “ethnic” Catholics is not being transmitted to their children. Catholics may welcome certain legal victories defending the Church, or may appreciate expressions of Christian identity from the Trump administration, but as a demographic matter the decline of the Church appears unstoppable. Catholics who remain in the Church certainly cannot blame fusionists themselves for this situation. But they also cannot follow the thought leaders who spent the last thirty years planning for a fusion that neither side actually desires. More and more, fusion looks like a one-sided accommodation to liberal norms that few other than fusionists still embrace.

Toward Postliberal Political Theology

Among young Catholics especially there is a growing desire for a religion that is assertive and distinctive: a religion, perhaps, that is not afraid to be extreme. One sees this in the resurgent popularity of classical forms of music and ritual, in the return to the writings of premodern and medieval theologians and of antimodern popes, and in a growing sense that the late twentieth-century trend of “aggiornamento” in the Church may have been ill-conceived, or at least badly executed.

In this environment, the fusionists’ insistence on the compatibility of Catholicism and the American political tradition not only rings false, but also describes an ideal that few desire. Among Catholics who think seriously about politics, particularly those who do not depend on conservative organizations for a paycheck, the failure of fusionists to secure political victories, and the tenuous link between their positions and traditional Catholic thought, have created an appetite for a new approach. If the effort to synthesize Catholicism and “classical liberalism” has failed, why dismiss the nonliberal elements within the Catholic tradition? If the “Catholic moment,” in which to be American and to be Catholic might seem to be a single identity, was an anomalous and now-concluded period, a Catholic has no reason to take it as a norm.

What is more, Catholics and the politically active young of other faiths have every reason to explore the “nonliberal” elements of their religious traditions—the elements that presumed and emphasized the common goods that everyone now senses are so thoroughly lacking. It is not only Catholics who in these latter days are eager to look beyond the historical horizons offered by liberalism. Liberalism today is beset from all sides by competing ideologies. Faced with new or resurgent nationalisms in the United States and in Europe, an increasingly assertive socialism, and the grand and antipolitical visions brewed in Silicon Valley, Catholics and non-Catholics alike can more confidently conclude that American constitutionalism or “classical liberalism” will have to look outside itself for answers. No doubt a satisfying contrarianism is part of the appeal of rejecting the last generation’s consensus, but the depth and sophistication of the Catholic political tradition provides the material for much more than “hot takes.”

When the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision supporting the right of employers to withhold contraception from their employee’s health plans was being celebrated by the fusionists as a triumph for religious freedom, the Catholic political philosopher Patrick Deneen drew much criticism for objecting to an order in which such a question of morals depended on the whim of a Christian CEO. Views such as Deneen’s, already gaining momentum at that time, are ever more common among Catholic thinkers. The practical failures of the fusionists have created an opening for a rising tide of books and publications challenging the Catholic conservative consensus. Those who would have looked to National Review or First Things to learn how to think about politics are now devouring Catholic criticisms of market ideology, accounts of preliberal ways of conceptualizing the common good, or the provocative essays on modern liberalism at The Josias. Perhaps more surprisingly, they are eager to look at criticism of contemporary political economy originating from well outside the usual sources of Catholic thinking.

A new political vocabulary is emerging, too, with new watchwords—“integralism,” “dyarchy,” and other ways of specifying the common good—of which one can find no precedent, or even in many cases awareness, in the fusionist writings of a decade ago. Thus the decline of fusionist Catholicism has cleared space for the revival of ideas the fusionists sought actively to suppress. Instead of William F. Buckley and Richard John Neuhaus, young Catholics are reading Brent Bozell, William Marshner, and others who propose a discourse explaining why liberalism cannot resolve the crisis of politics that it engineered. When these and other critics of Catholic fusionism leveled their charges in the 1960s and ’70s, conservative pundits and publishers at best neglected to dignify these critics with answers. And donors have had little interest in providing a platform for their radical and often market-skeptical theories. Yet they remain as a model to a new generation of Catholic thinkers—never refuted, and offering the possibility of a road not taken.

On its own terms, a Catholicism more critical of the mainstream of American thought would have little to recommend it to outsiders. Neither Republicans nor Democrats nor libertarians have any real appetite for neoscholastic treatises on political order; there is no base of donors or network of think tanks eager to promote the careers of young “integralist” scholars or assure them of an audience for their writings. But in the wake of the practical failure of the Catholic fusionists, of the closure of the “Catholic moment,” of the arrival in many places of a secular right-wing politics not beholden to Christian sources, now is the time for Catholics to avail themselves of all the sources needed to understand the current crisis—and even, if the possibility emerges, to make a positive contribution to rebuilding from political liberalism’s steady decline.

Across the political spectrum, electoral dislocations and popular discontent have persuaded many that the liberal intellectual consensus of the last century is crumbling and unhelpful; what will succeed it is nowhere yet clear. But the resurgent discourse of identity suggests that the era of the naked public square is over, and political arguments made with baggage attached—representing a particular tradition, nation, or tribe—may now be admitted to the bar. For Catholics, this is an invitation to boldness, to parrhesia: there is no point in watering down traditional teachings to comply with the norms of a decaying liberal discourse. And for non-Catholics, it offers the possibility of new political alignments, based not on a false equation of Catholicism with any other school of thought, but on the identification of genuinely shared goals. As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

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