Michael Sean Winters, uno dei più noti giornalisti americani, ha scritto, sul «National Catholic Reporter», una recensione in due puntate sul mio volume “Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis” (Liturgical Press, 2021). L’autore si riconosce nella prospettiva presentata dal volume, concludendo così la sua recensione: «This book is a must-read for all serious students of Catholicism and for anyone who wants to figure out why the U.S. church is such an outlier in its refusal to embrace the magisterium of Pope Francis».
Michael Sean Winters è un giornalista e scrittore americano che si occupa di politica ed eventi nella Chiesa cattolica romana per il National Catholic Reporter, dove si trova il suo blog “Distinctly Catholic”. “Distinctly Catholic” ha ricevuto più volte il premio della Catholic Press Association come “Miglior blog individuale”. Winters è anche corrispondente dagli Stati Uniti per The Tablet, il settimanale cattolico internazionale con sede a Londra. Attualmente è Senior Fellow presso il Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life presso il Trinity College di Hartford, nel Connecticut. È autore di “Left At the Altar: How Democrats Lost The Catholics And How Catholics Can Save The Democrats” (Basic Books, 2008); “God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right” (Harper One, 2012).
Neoconservatism. The word itself hearkens back to the aughts, complete with images of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, “No Country for Old Men” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neoconservatism was crippled first by failures in Iraq, then by the economic meltdown in 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as president. The coup de grace came in 2016 when Donald Trump decided to stop acquiring golf courses and casinos and, instead, acquired the Republican Party. Today, reading about neoconservatism feels the same way it felt in the 1990s when you were sorting your library and came across books about Eurocommunism: The subject was moved from the politics shelves to the history shelves.
In the church, however, neoconservativism seems to have enjoyed a longer shelf life. You would no longer run into George Weigel, Fr. Richard Neuhaus or Michael Novak at a White House St. Patrick’s Day party, but you might at a party at the nunciature. Weigel’s columns still find their way into some diocesan newspapers. The Catholics who work at the Ethics and Public Policy Center still are obsessed with sexual morality. And the corporate political power that was central to the neocon project still prioritizes unbridled capitalism over Catholic social doctrine. Theologically, the neocons still reduce religion to ethics and thence to politics. The neocon Catholic ideal has been made more morally coarse by its association with a Republican Party dominated by Trump, but the essence of their vision of the Catholic Church remains that of an upper-middle class club for people with conservative sexual ethics.
Even though neoconservatism is so yesteryear, Massimo Borghesi’s Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis is still a must-read for anyone serious about studying the estuary where religion and politics intersect. Borghesi argues that the lingering neoconservative narrative about the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI is key to understanding the criticism — and the uniqueness — of the current pontificate.
Borghesi opens his book with an examination of articles, mostly in the Italian press between August and October 2020, in which “commentators from opposing ideological sides seemed to be in agreement that Francis’ pontificate had reached its end.” He argued that “where some see a slavery to tradition, others see only a hesitation of a progressive who is afraid of losing consensus.” The fact that the reasons are contradictory did not obscure the fact that commentators on both the left and the right looked at this pontificate as a spent force.
The premise that made such dire conclusions about Francis possible was the “unacknowledged certainty of the reelection of Donald Trump” according to Borghesi. The lavish praise heaped on Trump, both before and after the election, by disgraced former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, provides a kind of hermeneutic link. A figure like Weigel might publicly, even ostentatiously, hold his nose at the mention of the vulgar Trump, but he praised Vigano as the “best nuncio we’ve had thus far” in the pages of First Things, the journal founded by Neuhaus.
While some Catholics saw Trump as a new Constantine, the deeper bond that has outlasted his exile to Mar-a-Lago is rooted in the kind of neoconservatism spouted for so long by Weigel, Neuhaus and Novak, and exposed by the admiration for Vigano. Borghesi writes:
The attention and respect that [Vigano] has received from many American clergy and laity can be understood only within the ideological framework that permeates so much of American Catholicism, one of culture wars, end-time struggle – children of light versus children of darkness – and religious and political Manichaeism.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Borghesi cites a brilliant 2016 Commonweal article by law professor Cathleen Kaveny in which she also sketched the legacy of the Catholic neocons:
Some might say that [Neuhaus’s] functionalist conception of religious community was motivated by a good end: his passionate desire to end abortion and restore traditional sexual morality. But here’s the irony of Neuhaus’s project: in treating theological belief and commitment as mere instruments of political will, Neuhaus’s view of religion resonated more with Feuerbach, Marx and Leo Strauss than with the church fathers.
The ressourcement that was supposed to be the fertile soil from which grew the renewal of the church as called for by the Second Vatican Council was abandoned for political calculations and political categories. “The Catholic neoconservative movement, which since the 1980s has taken the place of the Catho-Marxist messianism of the 1970s, is a conservative political ideology, a right-wing variant of left-wing political theology,” Borghesi writes. “Like the latter, the former also conceives faith as an entirely earthly message in its means and its ends. It uses faith as a driving force for secularization.”
Borghesi argues that the heyday of Catholic neoconservatism was the presidency of George W. Bush, and that their power dissipated once he left office. Still,
[Neoconservatism] did not disappear, however. It simply transformed. The accents remained, the basic motivations that the neoconservatives had implanted in the Catholic conscience: the moral agenda in the foreground, focusing on a small set of select values; the relativist opponent; the emphasis on Christian-Western identity in an anti-Islamic key; a Manichean dualism about the forces of good and evil.
Having established the relevance of a detailed examination of Catholic neoconservatism, Borghesi proceeds to provide precisely that examination, which constitutes the body of the book. The most important point he makes is the degree to which the American Catholic neocons “hijacked” the interpretation of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, especially in the area of Catholic social doctrine, and to a lesser degree, the papacy of Benedict XVI. That is where we will pick up this review in my next column.
On Monday, I began my review of Massimo Borghesi’s vitally important book Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis. Today I shall conclude the review.
During the heyday of neoconservatism, no one challenged George Weigel’s interpretation of the pontificate of John Paul II for an American audience. He was sure to let us know how chummy he was with the Polish pontiff, and Weigel did his best to portray his massive hagiographic biography, Witness to Hope, as an official biography, which it was not. Weigel’s comrades Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus similarly inhabited the roles of Delphic oracles for the papacy of John Paul II, with Novak celebrating the few paragraphs of neoliberal economic ideas he smuggled into the text of the encyclical Centesimus Annus, and Neuhaus taking the pope’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae as a veritable declaration of war on the “culture of death,” which he more or less equated with the Democratic Party.
Borghesi rightly details the ways the neocon hermeneutic was distorting, that John Paul II was not, in the end, an American neocon. Not only was the pope’s opposition to the war in Iraq a significant departure from the neocon hymnal, but his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America and his encyclical Novo Millennio Ineunte both spoke a completely different language from that of the neocons, as Borghesi points out.
In the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the cracks in these claims to be official interpreters of Rome for the U.S. church became harder to maintain, especially after Weigel’s embarrassing dissembling of Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Weigel claimed to be able to mark out the authentic passages of the document with his gold pen, while running a red pen through the sections he attributed to the Vatican bureaucracy.
Francis’ programmatic apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, put the neocons on notice that their sun had set. After several key passages from that text, Borghesi observes, “Here Francis rejects the central point of the neoconservative economic doctrine: the idea that the market is capable of self-regulation by an internal logic. This is the economic theodicy used by Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus, to legitimize the ‘ethical’ superiority of the capitalist system.”
And, let’s be honest, it was not just Pope Francis. Borghesi does not mention it, but after the 2008 economic meltdown, no less a cheerleader for the free market than Alan Greenspan admitted his rosy view of laissez-faire economics was wrong.
Borghesi roots the opposition to Pope Francis in this prior distortion of John Paul II’s teaching and, even more, of Benedict’s:
The distance that separates Francis from the neoconservatives appears truly profound. Faced with such a severe rejection of the neocapitalist model in the era of globalization, the Catholic neoconservative attempt to hijack the papal documents, first through the distorted reading of Centesimus Annus and then through the vivisection of Caritas in Veritate, no longer appears possible. The neocon world shifted from an attempted alliance with Rome to outright opposition.
Borghesi offers this conclusion after pages of detailed examination of the distortions perpetrated on John Paul II’s social magisterium. Those pages alone are worth the price of the book. They should be read by every editor who still chooses to publish Weigel’s column.
And he draws the analogous conclusion for the neocon ecclesiology. “Having presented themselves as apologists for the papacy, the neocons had become, at least in part, its critics. Catholic Americanism had manifested itself for what it was: a form of accommodation and legitimation of the economic and political power that a generation of Catholic intellectuals, veterans of the left, had been granted during the Reagan era.” Bingo.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Borghesi’s discussion of how the American neocons influenced conservatives in Italy, especially Cardinal Camillo Ruini who served as president of the Italian Episcopal Conference from 1991 until 2007. That section detailed much information I did not know, and it, too, is worth the price of the book.
Just as political neoconservatism has given way to Trumpian populism, Borghesi sees disgraced former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and his followers, as the inheritors of the neocon project, even while they have introduced new elements and even a bit of divergence. Citing the work of Italian journalist Aldo Maria Valli, Borghesi writes:
The position of Valli, a supporter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, highlights the singular combination of religious neotraditionalism and capitalism. Unlike the old traditionalists, who were medievalists and radically antimodern, the new ones are antiliberal in ethics and liberal in economics. With this, they differentiate themselves form the American and even Italian Catholic neoconservatives, who are firm supporters of the value of modern freedoms and the Second Vatican Council. The common elements that remain are the celebration of the capitalist model and the total aversion to Pope Francis.
This is mostly right, but Borghesi is wrong to think the Viganò followers are not also antimodern in certain regards. You can see it in the antisemitism that manifests itself at their media outlets at times and their celebration of the reactionary pontificates of Pius IX and Pius X. Earlier in the book, Borghesi noted that the great philosopher Jacques Maritain had denounced “identification of faith with Western civilization” and that “elevating the Middle Ages as a model of ‘Christian civilization’ lent support to a pro-fascist antimodernism.” That was 1936. Plus ca change.
The latter third of the book considers Pope Francis’ “field hospital” ecclesiology. Borghesi rightly notes the many times Pope Francis explicitly references the work of Pope Paul VI, especially his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. “Paul VI’s perspective, with its tension between the universality of the church and the particular inculturation of the faith, with its antinomy, gave rise to the ‘tensioning thought’ that, for Bergoglio, constitutes the distinct mark of authentic Catholic thought,” Borghesi writes.
Then, in a very astute assessment of the post-conciliar theological landscape, he adds:
In the climate of the 1970s and 1980s, this polarity [between the particular and the universal], theorized and experienced, clashed with the rejection of antimony in favor of dialectics. The polarity between faith and commitment to justice, between evangelization and human development, was resolved by many with the choice of one pole over the other. Social commitment, which had become all-encompassing, dominated the theological moment. The result was a political theology, a theology called upon to bless the politics of the moment.
That indictment, sadly, is still true of large swaths of American Catholic opinion, on both the left and the right. The desire for a political theology, despite the absence of any such theology in the New Testament, is especially acute in the United States where Catholicism lost much of its cultural influence when Catholics abandoned their urban neighborhoods for the nondenominational suburbs.
This is an excellent book, but it is not flawless. In the last section, Borghesi, or the translator, repeatedly refers to “Christianity” when I think he intends “Christendom.” That is an important difference. He repeats some simplistic understandings of American politics. But, by and large, these few challenges are dwarfed by the monumental achievement Borghesi has offered us.
He has exposed, definitively, the distortions to which the neocons put the ideas and reputation of their hero Pope John Paul II. He has shown how those distortions paved the way for the hostility to Francis we witness today. And he has pointed the way towards reclaiming Catholic social doctrine in all its vigor and profundity.
This book is a must-read for all serious students of Catholicism and for anyone who wants to figure out why the U.S. church is such an outlier in its refusal to embrace the magisterium of Pope Francis.