A Breakdown of the Conservative Catholic Hermeneutic of Contiguity?

A Breakdown of the Conservative Catholic Hermeneutic of Contiguity? January 20, 2015

I did not expect that reposting “To What Degree is First Things Responsible for Iraq?” would cause a minor storm. The fact of the matter appears to be, according to Damon Linker, that First Things was giving an imprimatur to a fait accompli. The damage had already been done by the warmongering of the older NeoCon press. Not that the old guard NC’s don’t have Catholics on their boards.

An account of the price American Catholicism paid to move more than just a little to the right.  That's right.
An account of the price American Catholicism paid to move more than just a little to the right. That’s right.

The lasting damage of all of these political engagements lies in American Catholics confusing their ideological commitments with their theology. In “The Republican Party’s War with Pope Francis has Finally Started“Linker gives a rundown of severe Francis-induced butthurt from Catholics, and concludes, “Looks like the honeymoon is finally over.” Then wonders, “The question is why now — and why over the environment of all things?”

He answers:

I think, is that the environment, in itself, has very little to do with it. The problem is simply that Francis has broken from too many elements in the Republican Party platform. First there were affirming statements about homosexuality. Then harsh words for capitalism and trickle-down economics. And now climate change. That, it seems, is a bridge too far. Francis has put conservative American Catholics in the position of having to choose between the pope and the GOP. It should surprise no one that they’re siding with the Republicans.

The problem is in how the political hermeneutic of contiguity (a play on the “hermeneutic of continuity“) developed under the last two popes:

Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a number of neoconservative Catholics (or theocons) went out of their way to make the case for the deep compatibility between Catholicism and the GOP. But not just compatibility: more like symbiosis. For Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and their allies, the GOP would serve as a vehicle for injecting Catholic moral and social ideas into American political culture — while those Catholics ideas, in turn, would galvanize the Republican Party, lending theological gravity and purpose to its agenda and priorities.

In the hands of the theocons, the Republican platform became more than a parochially American mishmash of positions thrown haphazardly together for contingent historical reasons. Rather, it was a unified statement of High Moral Truth rooted in Thomas Aquinas’ medieval theology of natural law — the most highly developed outgrowth of Christian civilization.

It remains to be seen how much of this ambiguity will show through in Randy Boyagoda’s upcoming biography of Richard John Neuhaus.  The blurb for Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square suggests he might be trying to make it show:

This picture is a little to the left.
This picture is a little to the left.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was one of the most influential figures in American public life from the Civil Rights era to the War on Terror. His writing, activism, and connections to people of power in religion, politics, and culture secured a place for himself and his ideas at the center of recent American history. William F. Buckley, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith are comparable — willing controversialists and prodigious writers adept at cultivating or castigating the powerful, while advancing lively arguments for the virtues and vices of the ongoing American experiment. But unlike Buckley and Galbraith, who have always been identified with singular political positions on the right and left, respectively, Neuhaus’ life and ideas placed him at the vanguard of events and debates across the political and cultural spectrum. For instance, alongside Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan, Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, in 1965. Forty years later, Neuhaus was the subject of a New York Review of Books article by Garry Wills, which cast him as a Rasputin of the far right, exerting dangerous influence in both the Vatican and the Bush White House. This book looks to examine Neuhaus’s multi-faceted life and reveal to the public what made him tick and why.

We’ll see if he succeeds. I admit my hope is guarded after reading Boyagoda’s one-sided account of contemporary Catholic literature.

Not that it’s impossible to mostly break away from Catholic contiguities with the American left and right as my interview with Gregory Wolfe demonstrates (now available unabridged).

There are also immense, wellnigh cosmic, yet all the same comic, failures.

For example, Michael Sean Winters has documents the total collapse of Catholicism in the Democratic party. There is also the more recent cautionary tale of John Zmirak who now writes for the hard-right mouthpiece World Net Daily. He even gets mentions from Chuck Norris at the same portal. Movin’ on up!


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