Neuhaus Annoys Again

Oops, he did it again. Fresh from criticizing the US bishops for having the gall to respond to an initiative to discuss the Iraq war from a group of Democrats, the don of First Things restates his case after some criticism from Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida.

First things first. Before getting to the core of his argument, Neuhaus lets slip a few snide comments about the bishops. He sarcastically questions whether we should trust them in areas where they have little competence when they so completely botched up in the area where they are supposed to have some competence, namely the sex abuse scandal. Basically, Neuhaus is engaging in the kind of attacks most common on the left: why should should we trust the bishops on any topic (abortion, gay marriage etc.) when they are simply a bunch of pedophiles and pedophile enablers? Given his role as a priest, one expects better from Neuhaus. One at least expects him to understand the hierarachical nature of the Church founded by Christ, and the specific role of the bishops in their teaching capacity. But, no, Neahaus is trying to score a few points. An anti-clerical cleric. Somewhere, the postmodernists and deconstructionists are smiling.

Let me address the main point made by Neuhaus, which (despite his tone) is an important one. In his words:

“Faithful Catholics listen attentively when bishops speak on faith and morals. My original point about competence is that Bishop Wenski and his committee are overreaching. Episcopal competence is related to faith and morals, not to faith, morals, and public policy—except when, as, for example, in the instance of abortion, specific public policies are entailed in the solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals. That is decidedly not the case in this instance.”

Neuhaus seems to be arguing that the Church should only speak out on matters of faith and morals in instances where the act is defined to be intrinsically evil, evil irrespective of cirumstance. He would no doubt argue that since war is not intrinsically evil, as its licitness depends on circumstances, then the bishops should respectfully stay quiet. Again, to Neuhaus:

“Differences over American policy in Iraq are in the realm of prudential judgment. There are indeed moral questions involved in any policy of consequence. But when the bishops speak of “the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Iraq” and declare that the answer is to “end U.S. military engagement in Iraq,” they are making prudential judgments about eminently debatable circumstances.”

He is now entering dangerous waters, and I wonder if he even recognizes the currents that threaten to sabotage his boat. If I understand him correctly, the Church should stay out of matters of prudential judgment, or matters pertaining to the application of Catholic teaching to specific facts and circumstances. I do not deny that characterizations like the need to end the Iraq war are prudential judgments. But to deny the legitimacy of Church intervention in these areas would be gravely wrong.

Let me explain why, and I will use the abortion example. The” solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals” (to use Neuhaus’s term) in this area is that abortion is always and everywhere wrong, never a right, and never licit. Hence no Catholic can support it in the public sphere. But what happens when we want to go beyond that general and generic statement? Any discussion of how to address the issue of abortion today quickly descends to the domain of prudential judgment. Is the best strategy to elect presidents that will choose judges that will vote to overturn Roe? Quite possibly, but this train of thought is a probabilistic one, imbued with uncertainty. In other words, to use Neuhaus’s phrase again, it is a “prudential judgment about eminently debatable circumstances” (I do not wish to argue the merits of this argument in this current context, merely to recognize it for what it is).

Of course, when we think about it, the Church simply cannot ignore prudential judgments, as otherwise it would be reduced to muttering vague platitudes, and saying nothing about 95 percent of the key issues affecting the lives of the faithful. It would be toothless, but perhaps that is what some want.

And just because something is not intrinsically evil does not mean that it is not extrinsically evil, dependent on circumstances. Pretty much any war can be defended by appealing to the just war principles, if you stretch and twist them far enough. Is this always an out-of-bounds prudential judgment? Or should the Church not take a step back and guide the debate? In other words, it is gravely mistaken (as so many do) to use the term “prudential judgment” as a get-out-of-jail-free card, to avoid any moral reckoning whatsoever. I fear that many who make the “prudential judgment” do so not because of the particular facts and circumstances, but because they questioning the underlying principles governing circumstances themselves. For example, in the particular case in hand, many will argue that the nature of terrorism calls for a different approach to war. Even if they do not say so explcitly, this judgment features in their ultimate assessment of circumstances. It’s a fine line. But we need the role of the Church to guide us on specific circumstances. You may disagree, but you may not deny the teaching role of the Church in particular circumstances.

But this would all be ruled out by Neuhaus. The Church would not be able to distinguish among judgments based on reason and those not. He would not have Pope Benedict XV issue his peace note calling for an end to hostilities during the first world war, because, after all, there were “eminently debatable circumstances” surrounding this conflict. What after all, did a sheltered academic Italian churchman understand about foreign policy at the time? And what can Catholic bishops say with competency about Iraq today? The answer to that is: quite a lot. After all, the judgment of the Vatican has been far better in this area than those to whom George Weigel endowed with the “charism of political discernment”.

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  • Policraticus

    This is a very charitable and well-reasoned post. Bravo, MM. Neuhaus–even I admit–has put together very good arguments on a number of other issues. But in the case of the U.S. bishops working with politicians, the latter of whom initiating the meetings, Neuhaus doesn’t have a branch on which to perch. Lately, Neuhaus’ reasoning and argument has been deteriorating on matters pertaining to the war and to immigration. Is he out of touch with the real issues? Is it age? I don’t know.

  • Timothy Mulligan

    Policraticus: follow the money.

  • 100% Catholic

    “questions whether we should trust them in areas where they have little competence when they so completely botched up in the area where they are supposed to have some competence”

    ^^^Sounds like what most Americans think of the Bush-Cheney administration and its dwindling band of neocon loyalists. Neuhaus and that fool Weigel should nail their list of gripes to the church door and leave, taking “the Pope’s Biographer” with them. It would be Good Riddance to these egomaniacs. Since they obviously believe themselves far wiser than the Bishops and even the Pope, maybe it’s time for them to stage a latter day Reformation. Obviously their first allegiance is not to the Roman Catholic Church. No doubt they could find temporary quarters at the AEI or Federalist Society while they hammer out the details of the Orthodox Church of Charismatic Political Discernment.

  • Donald R. McClarey

    Bravo Father Neuhaus! I especially enjoyed this statement: “I gently suggested that those familiar with the track record of the bishops in governing the Church, which is the sphere in which they unquestionably do have competence (at least in the sense of authority), might be forgiven for a measure of skepticism about episcopal competence in forging foreign policy. “

  • Timothy Mulligan

    Donald, we worship a crucified God.

  • adamv

    Honestly, I don’t see much problem with Neuhaus per se. At least no more than I do with other liberals. This just goes to show that the left and right are in the same boat when it comes to marginalizing real religious authority.

  • Brendan

    One might reasonably expect a an ordained priest and/or laypersons who publicly flaunt their Catholic righteousness to refrain from marginalizing the religious authorities within their own church. That would seem rather basic.

  • Blackadder

    Reading the New Testament, one does not find too many statements by Jesus or the Apostles about what the proper foreign or economic policy should be for the Roman Empire. Yet I do not think that the New Testament consists merely of vague platitudes. Obviously the situation of the Church now is different than it was in the 1st century, and different times call for different measures. But given the poor knowledge of even basic Catholic teaching that exists in the U.S. today, I would think that the Bishops would be better off advocating on behalf of the Sacraments rather than advocating on behalf of the Iraq Study Group Report.

  • Steven

    I’ve been struggling to really understand this debate, because I think it’s of great significance.

    Is there a chance, MM, that you could send your argument to Neuhaus? (not that he would necessarily respond but on the off chance) I would like to read his response, because I think this issue is a bit more complicated than we are allowing for at present.

    I understand your point that the Church must make prudential judgments. Taken to an extreme, a Church that cannot make prudential judgments is a Church rendered impotent. However, I don’t think Neuhaus is arguing that the Church should never make prudential judgments; I think you’ve set yourself up a straw man.

    There is a significant difference between the Bishops’ working with Congress to end the Iraq war and the office of the Magisterium announcing abortion to be always and everywhere illicit. Both pronouncements require of us different things. I just don’t know how to articulate this difference.


  • Kyle R. Cupp

    How we work to end abortion is a matter of prudential judgment. That we should strive for zero abortions is non-negotiable, but how we get there is a question of prudential judgment. So when a bishop makes the claim that we should outlaw abortion, he is making a prudential judgment (based on morals) and giving a position on political policy. And he is right to do so!

    By the way, anti-clerical clerics do not make me smile, and I consider myself a postmodern deconstructionist, who is also a faithful-to-the-magisterium Catholic. How do I mix those identities? Well, that’s a bit of a mystery, even to me.

  • Donald R. McClarey

    “Donald, we worship a crucified God”

    Indeed, and thank God not His bishops!

  • Jimmy Mac

    “Given his role as a priest, one expects better from Neuhaus.”

    Oh, I don’t think so. Ordination does not ensure a lack of venality or stupidity. If one looks at the entire background of Neuhaus and his road to ordination as a Catholic priest, one can simply aver that he has “priesthood lite.” I would not attribute any sense of Christian sensibility to his thoughts after following the theocon, neocon Republican drum beating over these past few years.

    Did he ever criticise the bishops a few years back when the salivated at every opportunity to be photographed with, and used by, the despicable political activities of the party that has had complete legislative and executive (and now judicial) power in this country? I cannot find where he did.

  • digbydolben

    Neuhaus’s day is done: for political purposes, he made alliances with theological ENEMIES of Roman Catholicism.

    Even in politics, theological “correctness” trumps EVERY SINGLE OTHER consideration, because it is the most essential motivating factor in human decision-making.

    The political element in America that Neuhaus favours is essentially Protestant-pessimistic about “building the Kingdom” and heedless of the consequences of catastrophes such as modern war, environmental disturbances or severe economic dislocations because they posit that human nature is profoundly “evil,” saved ONLY by faith, and that attempts to ameliorate the human condition by doing such things as regulating health care or compensating for centuries of racial hatred and persecution are “utopian” (i.e. “blasphemous”) schemes.

    This Augustinian theological bent is the great instigator of Protestant heresy and it has been historically rejected through the triumph of the more optimistic Thomism and neo-Thomism of Catholic orthodoxy. This pre-Enlightenment European optimism regarding the world and the Church’s mission in it is too strong not to ultimately prevail against the intellectual tendencies of a neo-Lutharan pope and a lot of Calvinist-tinged, neo-Catholic politicians in clerical garb.

  • Observer

    The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

  • Timothy Mulligan

    Two points for meditation:

    (1) our Lord chose both a tax collector and a Zealot party member as apostles; and

    (2) the collective teaching of the U.S. bishops may require religious assent “when, as often happens, they teach something which on other grounds requires religious assent, or when what is said or endorsed by the and/or one’s own bishop and meets the other conditions under which religious assent is required.” Germain Grisez & Russell Shaw, _Fulfillment in Christ: A Summary of Christian Moral Principles_ (Notre Dame, Indiana: 1991).

  • Timothy Mulligan

    Erratum: after “endorsed by the” add “pope.”

    The quote can be found on page 417 of the book.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    Most conservatives today can point to a significant period of their adolescence in which they adored Ayn Rand.

    And they spend the rest of their days adjusting their religious visions to that of selfishness (and she pioneers family-values: she views the family as the “selfish unit”).

    Brilliant. Yet atheistic. Yet so Catholic conservative.

  • Observer

    Republicans are not complex
    Their interests are quite simple: Sex
    Take Newt and Rudy, they have drives
    For sex with those who aren’t their wives.
    For them, adultry’s just dandy.
    Republicans are always randy.
    Those Foley e-mails he enjoys
    Some pinch and tickle with young boys.
    There’s Vitter keeping girls on call
    And Craig tap-tapping in a stall.
    They like it smooth, they like it rough.
    Conservatives can’t get enough.

  • Henry Karlson

    I would like to question many people’s attacks on “conservatives” in here. Catholics should not be geared towards “conservative” nor “liberal” yet there are people in both sides, and many of them are there not for “selfishness” or “sex” but because they truly believe the principles they adhere to. More than that, these principles are often good ones — but, because they are unbalanced, there lies the problem: not the principle but the lack of true Catholic center. Yet the best way to respond is not via ad hominen, not via guilt by association, but by way of showing how their positive values and virtues lead to conclusions they have not yet accepted.

  • Matthew Kennel

    Amen to what Harry said!

  • Matthew Kennel

    And by Harry, I meant Henry :-) I shouldn’t be making comments on blogs so soon after rising from sleep.

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  • Jay Anderson


    Mark this occasion down. I agree with you.

    While I think Fr. Neuhaus raises some valid concerns regarding partisanship (concerns that I’ve raised myself on my own blog), he shouldn’t be questioning the Bishops’ “competency”, and he certainly doesn’t need to engage in my personal pet peeve – resorting to the scandal ad hominem.

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  • http://n/a Anonymous

    Sorry, this latest tosh from Neuhaus is yet another example of the right wing definition of “morals”: from the waist down only. Everything above the waist is only prudential judgement. This is so blatantly obvious to everyone except those who choose not to see it. But if we broaden out what “morals” means beyond sex and abortion then where does it stop? From Anagni onwards the emergent state has struggled manfully to carve out a sphere for itself over which the Church has not merely no control, but not even a right to have an opinion on. God is One, the world is one, and the only dualism we should ever be prepared to contemplate is that of the eschatological tension. The saeculum is a period in time, not a sphere of space. (See Milbank, passim). And while a profoundly Augustinian approach to the world, that sees its deep woundedness, can in the hands of vulgarisiers can lead to inaction, passivity, and quasi-gnosticism (salvation as escape), it is nonetheless the only antidote to superficial Pelagian Whiggery with its gospel of “hard work” and self-righteous voluntarist moralising. The world is wounded deeply, but God does not show us an escape route out of it, but offers the Church, always one, holy, and “tota pulchra es et non macula est in te”, ravishingly beautiful in the fire of Pentecost no matter how sinful her members, as the sacrament of the kingdom that the wounded might once more be healed. The solidarity of all in sin is the first ground for the solidarity of all in redemption, and the compassion that flows from the heart that is wounded to the depths both by the fallenness of the world and the depths of the divine love for it (the depth measured by what the divine love wishes restore that world to), is the ground for all authentic action, for all authentic praxis, all authentic works. Theory and praxis, faith and works: their dialectical union is unbreakable. for the bond of that union is nothing less than the very bond of charity beyond measure, the Holy Spirit shed abroad in our hearts, who has spoken through the prophets, past and present.

  • Katerina Ivanovna



    But if we broaden out what “morals” means beyond sex and abortion then where does it stop?

    This was exactly my point with my question regarding where morality starts and ends on one of the other posts.

    God is One, the world is one, and the only dualism we should ever be prepared to contemplate is that of the eschatological tension


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  • scriblerus

    The distinction that Neuhaus wants to make between “matters of faith and morals” on which the Church can speak and matters in which secular experts decide is simply untenable. There are many soi disant experts who would like to revise Catholic teaching on sexual matters, but the Church rightly refuses to budge.

    In any case, his rather petulant use of the abuse scandals to tar and feather the bishops can easily be turned back to question the Bush administration’s handling of foreign policy.

    One final point, prudence is a virtue and should not be confused with expertise.

  • Patricia Sharp

    A good discussion, but for the author to suggest in his first paragraph ” Basically, Neuhaus is engaging in the kind of attacks most common on the left: why should should we trust the bishops on any topic (abortion, gay marriage etc.) when they are simply a bunch of pedophiles and pedophile enablers?”

    That is blatantly unfair, and makes the author’s argument worthless. Besides, though Father Neuhaus can fairly be called a neo-con, he is not a man of the left, unlike perhaps the author?

  • Jay Anderson

    Actually, Patricia, I think the author’s (Tony A / Morning’s Minion) point is valid. He’s not calling Fr. Neuhaus a “lefty”, but rather pointing out that Fr. Neuhaus engages in a form of ad hominem that has been reserved for those who want the Church to “mind its own business” and “clean up its own house” whenever the Church speaks out against issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, etc.

    What Tony A has exposed is that there are those on the right, as well, who are perfectly willing to engage in this ad hominem when it suits their own purpose.

  • Jay Anderson

    Who’da ever thought I’d type these words:

    “I think … Tony A / Morning’s Minion[‘s] point is valid.”?


  • Katerina Ivanovna


    I’m writing this date down so it can go down in history! :)

  • Henry Karlson


    Actually I would have thought it. I disagree with you on many things, but I also find you reasonable.

    Just remember, Balthasar wrote words of praise about Rahner.

  • Jay Anderson

    Thank you, Henry.

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