I’ve always regarded First Things as less a Catholic journal than a journal in the right-wing American liberal tradition. When it comes to a choice between the teachings of the Church and support for American foreign and economic policy, it seems to always choose the latter.
I want to talk about a couple of incidences.
I recently commented on an article by David Goldman, who criticized Obama’s Cairo speech on the grounds that it reached out too much to Islam, and did not do enough to bolster America’s traditional alliance with Israel. I pointed out that a Catholic outfit should pay more heed to Church teaching, and especially listen to the words of Pope Benedict, who noted that terrorism can only be defeated by tackling the underlying injustices that facilitate terrorism in the first place. I pointed out the war crimes in Gaza, the and daily indignities and inequities that must be suffered by the Palestinians. Mr. Goldman responded that First Things was not a Catholic outfit, and that as a Jew, he disagreed with the pope on the matter. Well, there are many many Jews who want justice in Palestine, who want a two-state solution, who want the offensive settlements removed, and who would agree with the pope on this matter. It is better to say that Mr. Goldman represents an opinion characteristic of the American neoconservative — that, under Neuhaus, always seemed to find a home at First Things. Of course, unless you twisted the just war conditions beyond recognition (as did George Weigel), it is not really possible to align the Catholic position with this approach, which emphasizes preemptive war, the denigration of the human rights of large groups of people, and the transformative power of violence. In short, everything the gospel is not.
Perhaps then it is best to simply treat First Things as just another National Review or Weekly Standard. Perhaps we should take Mr. Goldman at his word. Is there anything to it that makes it more Catholic than these secular journals? On matters of public policy, I find it hard to see. It now has a wide array of bloggers and these bloggers adhere closely to the right-wing American liberal line — Deal Hudson offers far more diversity of opinion on Inside Catholic. Doing a quick perusal over the past few days, I found entries criticizing plans for universal health care, praising the economics of Ronald Reagan (or what they suppose his economics to be, that’s another story), lauding the virtues of the unrestrained free market, plus plenty of discussion of “conservatism” (they still don’t know what that means). It actually seems worse after Neuhaus — certainly it feels less intellectual and more inclined to adopt the tone and manner of the American pseudo-conservative movement.
But the post one that really stuck with me was a criticism of movies that promote environmentalism, including WALL-E, a charming animated fable that warned about the dangers of excess materialism and consumerism. Surely that would be a message that would resonate with a Catholic, or even a true conservative? Not at all. Wesley J. Smith complains that these movies are somehow anti-person. Here are his words:
“Whether they knew it or not, they furthered the ongoing coup de culture (utilitarianism, hedonism, radical environmentalism), which promotes the anti human view as it elevates environmentalism as the new faith. But destroying our adherence to and belief in human exceptionalism won’t “save the planet.” However, it could denigrate our self perception to the point that we willingly undermine our own thriving as we surrender our freedom.”
This is a bizarre anthropology, and is confused about the meaning of authentic human freedom. It might find some support within Calvinist circles, but it is certainly opposed to what the Catholic Church teaches about ecology and the environment. I will leave it to Pope John Paul II (who knew a thing or two about personalism) to do the heavy lifting (though Pope Benedict has spoken on this topic too). From Centesimus Annus:
“Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.
In all this, one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. In this regard, humanity today must be conscious of its duties and obligations towards future generations.”