Some remarks on Kaveny and Neuhaus

A sharp young Catholic of our acquaintance has pointed us to an interesting exchange over the past couple of weeks. At Commonweal, Cathleen Kaveny argued that the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus sowed division in the Church by articulating a vision of conservative Catholics collaborating with evangelicals and Jews on points of agreement for political reasons. In Kaveny’s opinion, Neuhaus led conservative Catholics away from progressive Catholics for political reasons, and this fundamental rift has become more obvious since the Holy Father marked out a course in his reign not wholly consonant with the political views of these conservative Catholics. In other words, political expediency drew Neuhaus and his circle away from Catholics and toward protestants and Jews, laying the groundwork for the debates we see in the Church today.

This argument was, well, received as well as one would expect. At First Things, R.R. Reno responded with a thorough rebuttal, making the essential point that, in some respects, conservative Catholics do, in fact, have more in common with conservative protestants and Jews than they do with their progressive Catholic brethren. Robert George responded, a little haughtily, and suggested that Caveny was running at Neuhaus only because she could do so without fear of hearing back from Neuhaus. And, at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters has responded a couple of times, first by sort of coming to the point that there’s division in the Church because the conservatives are no longer in good odor in Rome, and later by suggesting that progressive Catholics also made political deals that weren’t good for the unity of the Church. (Although how Neuhaus could have sown dissent is unclear, since the conservative faction of the Church was itself in good odor in Rome from October 1978 to March 2013. But we’ll pass over the anachronism.)

Read through the posts when you get a free minute. It’s practically a who’s-who of Catholic thought leaders.

For our part, it is really unclear what Kaveny thinks her argument is, since it seems to us that she has argued, more or less, that Neuhaus agreed with people he didn’t really agree with because they took similar political positions, and he turned his back on people he really agreed with because they took different political positions. But—and this is the problem—she compares apples and oranges to get there. As for her points of commonality between conservative and progressive Catholics, she looks toward the broadest possible points of agreement:

Does honoring Jesus as the Son of God count as a commonality? Like their conservative counterparts, progressive Roman Catholics acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ, and find the interpretive key to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. Orthodox Jews do not—indeed, must not—treat Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Book of Isaiah. It would be blasphemous for them to do so.

Does living in the grace imparted by the sacraments count as a commonality? Both progressive and conservative Roman Catholics believe that God’s grace is channeled through the seven sacraments. Many Evangelical Protestants do not have the same view of grace or the sacraments; they often view the Eucharist as a memorial of a past event, not a way of being present with Christ here and now.

(Some of these things are exceptionally weird ways of expressing these commonalities, but we will pass over that quickly and assume that she means essentially what an orthodox Catholic would mean by these expressions.) But as for the points of agreement between conservative Catholics and conservative protestants and Jews, she looks to some very specific issues to find hidden disagreements.

Neuhaus’s defenders might say that he was concerned with commonalities among conservative Christians and Jews on hot-button issues: the ordination of women, contraception, same-sex marriage, and abortion.  But how deep are those commonalities? Many Evangelical Protestants, for example, believe that women should never exercise authority over men, especially but not exclusively in an ecclesiastical context. But the Catholic Church officially and vehemently denies that its exclusion of women from the priesthood is based on their inferiority to men—and points to the centuries old tradition of powerful, independent women religious as evidence. Orthodox Jews may oppose abortion—but not because they believe the fetus is an equally protectable human being. Under Jewish law, full protection for a new human person is triggered at birth. But in Catholic circles debates about abortion are usually about when a human life comes into being biologically.

In other words, Kaveny’s argument is that conservative and progressive Catholics agree on the broadest possible issues about Christ and his Church, but conservative Catholics reach the same conclusions as conservative protestants and Jews for different reasons. (So what?) She does not contend—and could not contend—that all progressive Catholics are on the same page as conservative Catholics about women’s ordination, contraception, marriage, and abortion. They are manifestly not in many instances. That they might agree about broad issues does not change those disagreements. (However, those disagreements cast real doubt on whether the broad areas of consensus are as they appear, even though we said we’d pass over that issue briefly.) So, Neuhaus collaborated, according to Kaveny, with people he agreed with on specific issues instead of people he agreed with on the broadest issues.

Apples and oranges. (Like we said.) And, accordingly, R.R. Reno has the better argument when he notes that a doctrinally conservative Catholic may, in fact, have more in common, especially in terms of outlook and approach, with a doctrinally conservative protestant or Jew, notwithstanding some serious differences, than he does with a progressive Catholic, who, often as not, holds Modernist and indifferentist views.

But the reason why Kaveny has to compare apples and oranges is because she won’t make the (easier) argument that the traditional social teaching of the Church is actually more consistent with some things that progressives are fond of. For example, both Leo XIII in Rerum novarum and Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno express real reservations about economic liberalism and unrestrained capitalism. And Pius XII affirmed in the strongest language—particularly in La solennità della Pentecoste, his 1941 radio address commemorating Rerum novarum, and Exsul Familia Nazarethana, his lengthy apostolic constitution on migrants—the right of individuals to migrate between countries and the positive effects of such migration. Certainly economic justice and immigration have consistently been traditional concerns of the Church and progressives in the Church tend to be more in tune with the Church’s traditional teaching on these points.

In fact, this point has come up a few times in the context of the Holy Father’s contemporary social teaching. Rorate Caeli ran a piece, almost two years ago, noting that the Holy Father was not far from the traditional social teaching of the Church. (Whether “New Catholic” would make the same argument after Laudato si’ is not clear to us.) And Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., has argued that Laudato si’ contains echoes of Pius IX’s monumental Quanta cura and its annexed Syllabus errorum in the Holy Father’s devastating critique of the individualist-technocratic rot at the heart of modernity. (He later pointed out that other authors made the same connection between Laudato si’ and Syllabus, though they didn’t understand what praise they were heaping on the encyclical and may even have thought that comparisons to Syllabus were negative.) But we digress.

In other words, Kaveny could have argued that Neuhaus ought to have cooperated with socially progressive Catholics because their views (generally) are actually fairly close to what the Church has traditionally taught about income inequality, poorly restrained markets, and the social obligations of capital. (But even this argument is essentially the seamless-garment argument articulated by John Cardinal Dearden, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, and other progressive Catholics, which has not met with uniform success. Or any success.) But she didn’t. Instead, she argued that, because conservative and progressive Catholics have some broad things in common, Neuhaus and the First Things set shouldn’t have cooperated with protestants and Jews on specific points that they have common with conservative Catholics (even if they have different reasons for having them in common).

And that sounds political.