On a fairly regular basis, both I and CRISIS are described as “neoconservative”—a branding that manages to be both puzzling and expected. Frankly, I’ve never thought of myself or the magazine primarily in terms of a political movement; indeed, the only isms I espouse without exception are Catholicism and Thomism (my intellectual mentor being Jacques Maritain).
Nevertheless, the label isn’t a surprising one. One of the cofounders of CRISIS, Michael Novak, is a leading neoconservative. (Novak is also greatly indebted to Maritain as well as a neo-Thomist of a different breed, Bernard Lonergan.) The other cofounder, Ralph Mclnerny, is the leading Thomist of our generation, though his political views are hardly known, much less categorizable.
For years, the argument between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives has been largely confined to the political arena. Now, however, it’s beginning to appear in a Catholic context—instigated by those who fear a compromise of the Faith with political ideology. Frankly, I disagree with those who think Catholic neoconservatives have in any way strayed from Catholic social teaching. Catholic leaders such as Novak are taking policy positions that are reasonably derived from the Church’s social teaching in order to seek the common good.
Those who deride neocons for their political views simply don’t understand the Catholic obligation to political prudence and involvement. Not only that, they tend to exempt their own political judgments from the charge of ideological complicity and assume that any use of prudential judgment regarding contingent matters leads to a compromise with principle.
The most recent example was the Iraq war. Some Catholic critics of the neocons who supported the war based their opinion on the personal, non-binding judgment of Vatican officials. In doing so, the critics allowed these Vatican opinions to become the official “Vatican position.” Some went even further, trying to smuggle pacifism into the Catechism‘s just-war theory. Others acted to eliminate the role of President Bush by baptizing the collective will of the United Nations.
It’s certainly fair to debate neoconservatives, as our friend Pat Buchanan does, for their view on Israel or specific issues regarding immigration and the economy. But it’s another thing entirely to indict the whole movement as compromising the moral principles of the Catholic Faith. Politics requires that judgments be made and risks be taken.
The all-too-common conservative Catholic fear of political prudence is an unfortunate, if understandable, legacy of the fight against abortion. For decades we’ve heard pro-abortion politicians mangle Catholic teaching with talk about their “conscience” and the difference between their private commitment and their public role.
Though I sympathize with this suspicion, I wonder when the Catholic laity will realize that there are moral principles that require prudential judgment (just war) and those that do not (abortion). A politician who makes a judgment about just war is doing what the Catechism requires of him. Similarly, policies regarding the status of Israel, the Palestinians, immigration, and the treatment of the poor are all issues for which there is more than one legitimate approach from a Catholic perspective. And we err when we forget this.
Neoconservatives have created a coherent and realistic philosophy that draws unapologetically on the wisdom of great religious traditions. Furthermore, neocon leaders—Kristol, Podorhetz, Decter, Novak, Neuhaus, Weigel—are responsible in part for exposing the false promises of liberalism.
In December 2002, Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal wrote “What the Heck Is a Neocon?” Like Boot, I’ve come to see that to be a neoconservative is no longer a question of influence—whether or not you belong to the party of liberals who got “mugged by reality” and crossed over to the conservative camp. Rather, it’s now a question of whether your positions on key issues are consonant with those of neoconservatism. Regardless of how you come to those ideas, if you hold them, you’re a neoconservative.
If so, that’s fine with me. But let it be known that my path to those positions wound through Scripture and the works of Aquinas, Maritain, Pope John Paul II, and Whittaker Chambers.