Was Vox Nova Ahead of its Time?

Was Vox Nova Ahead of its Time? August 7, 2014

I was reading a post by Sam Rocha over at Patheos, which talked a bit about Vox Nova. Sam was once a contributor, and an excellent one at that. In this new piece, he notes that the thorny of right-wing cafeteria Catholicism has developed a new twist – the very people who once held themselves as paragons of fidelity and orthodoxy suddenly feel free to lash out against Pope Francis and his teachings.

In his post, Sam talks a little bit about the history of Vox Nova in this context. Vox Nova came into being in the Spring of 2007, founded by a small-but-dedicated group of Catholics who sought to create a “new voice”, to change the dialogue and challenge the increasing-dominant equation of (true) theological orthodoxy with (false) political orthodoxy.  As Sam put it, we were “sick and tired of Weigel, Novak, and other culture warriors dominating the Catholic conversation in the public square.. We were trying to force American conservatism to admit its political (neo)liberalism”.

In that sense, I think that it is fair to say that Vox Nova was ahead of its time. We channeled Pope Francis long before Pope Francis. The pope, through his words and actions, is undermining the right-liberal edifice of straw that we sought to constantly challenge. These people are forced to make a choice: between the harmonious and consistent body of authentic Catholic teaching, or the Frankenstein’s monster they have clumsily constructed for themselves – orthodox but exaggerated positions on life, marriage, and sexuality; combined with an ugly hodge-podge of heterodox free market zealotry, crass materialism, and America-first nationalism.

Yet here’s the irony: Pope Francis didn’t change “the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter” of Catholic social teaching. The pope at the time of Vox Nova’s founding, Benedict XVI, said exactly the same things about the economy. Yet he was safely ignored on these issues. The likes of George Weigel peddled a false gospel – that John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus abrogated much of the previous corpus of Catholic social teaching and instead baptized the current state of advanced capitalism. In a sense, Weigel was advancing a hermeneutic of rupture, not of continuity – which in itself highlights the enormous internal contradictions in his position. These contradictions were ripped wide open by Pope Francis, for two reasons. First, he speaks in much plainer language than Pope Benedict. While I believe Caritas in Veritate is one of strongest documents in the entire corpus of Catholic social teaching, its punch is all too easily absorbed by its dense theological language. Second, Francis is re-emphasizing the seamless garment, how all strands of Catholic moral teaching have the same anthropological root – and that root is in the person of Christ, not the liberal Enlightenment. For Francis, what ties it all together is the “throwaway culture”. For Francis, we should not be over-emphasizing teachings on abortion and marriage to the detriment of teachings on economic justice and environmental stewardship.

With the risk of sounding smug, I think it’s fair to say that Vox Nova made these kinds of arguments back when the American Catholic blogosphere was overwhelmingly dominated by the right-liberal Weigelian consensus. We argued constantly that the cafeteria on the right is no better than the cafeteria on the left, and that the idea of prudential judgment was not some sort of “get out of jail free” card. We argued that too many American Catholics sought to drive a hard wedge between teachings of life, marriage, and sexuality on one hand; and economic teachings of justice on the other. We tried hard to point to some of the glaring inconsistencies: they vigorously opposed the self-ownership behind the libertarian tendencies on the left while endorsing the self-ownership behind the libertarian tendencies on the right; they prioritized the good over the right in some spheres and the right over the good in others; their starting point was the negative freedom of Locke rather than the positive freedom of Christianity; they connected rights to duties in certain areas and disconnected them in others; they insisted on the importance of faith in the public square but at the same time prioritized private virtue and the reduction of religion to private ethics; and they downplayed the universal salvific message of Christ to accommodate some forms of American exceptionalism, an act of willing accommodation to the American Calvinist legacy.

For all of this, Vox Nova was not popular. In fact, it was viciously attacked by some – in part for sounding like Pope Francis! Part of it is straightforward – when you constantly call out peoples’ inconsistencies, you don’t make too many friends! But there is a deeper reason for the discomfort, I believe. What Vox Nova did was undermine a key narrative of our friends on the liberal Catholic right: the argument that, as Brett Salkeld put it, there are two types of Catholics – “orthodox” (good) and “liberal” (bad). For the liberal Catholic right, theological orthodoxy was twinned with political orthodoxy to the Republican party. A leading exponent of this position was Thomas Peters. Catholics who claimed to be orthodox across the entire spectrum made people like Peters highly uncomfortable. As Peters himself once said, somewhat defensively: “for any liberal Catholic who claims orthodox Catholics are being ‘cafeteria Catholics’ on questions of economics, they should pledge publicly that they fully, 100% support the Church’s teaching on life, marriage and contraception right now. Then we’ll talk. If not, we simply don’t share the same basic commitments to being fully Catholic.” To which Brett responded: “Does Thomas Peters know that I exist?”. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that for people like Peters, “being fully Catholic” has a rather crimped and blinkered meaning.

Let’s be honest, though – I’m not proud of everything we did at Vox Nova. We were too often haughty and arrogant, myself included. We got far too personal at times, resorting to un-Christian insults and petty putdowns. I myself opted too readily for clever rhetorical quips over genuine opportunities for charitable encounter and engagement. If we prefigured some of Pope Francis’ teachings and emphasis, we were light years away from him in tone. He would not have approved. And in an effort to distance ourselves from the pathologies of Catholic Republicans and force some sense of balance and proportion, some of us  – especially me  – were too eager to jump on the partisan bandwagon on the other side. For while I still believe that the current Democrats offer a more compelling vision of the common good than current Republicans, I also realize that the Democrats are sinking deeper and deeper into the putrid mire of left libertarianism – caring more about abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization than the traditional Catholic concerns for the poor and the wage earner.

So in a real sense, Vox Nova failed. The original vision failed. Part of its legacy is a legacy of acrimony – with other Catholic bloggers and commentators, and among the contributors ourselves. I am probably the last of the original contributors standing.

But here’s the good news: today, Vox Nova is no longer a lone voice. The positions we espoused are becoming increasingly mainstream, and is being given a huge boost by Pope Francis. We have some great new blogs, such as Millennial and Catholic Moral Theology, bringing a new generation of top-notch Catholic voices to the debate, with the perfect balance of erudition, consistency, and charity. Consistent Catholics like Michael Sean Winters have earned huge respect and a huge reach. So what’s the future for Vox Nova in all of this? To be honest, I’m not really sure. But I will say one thing: as long as people like George Weigel continue making indefensible and inconsistent arguments, somebody needs to keep countering them!

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