Damon Linker overstates the case
Cultured readers will remember Sylvester the cat in one of his reformed periods, when he was trying not to eat Tweety bird, until, inevitably, because he’s a cat, and a hungry one, he launches himself at Tweety’s cage. Some observers of the Catholic Church think of politically conservative Catholics in relation to Pope Francis as if they were Sylvester just before he breaks.
These Catholics, they think, have so far been restrained by their respect for the papacy but are inwardly so upset by Francis’ alleged liberal politics that at some point they will turn on him. It’s not an unreasonable prediction. Traditionalists started sniping at Francis within a minute or two of his election. Some of the Catholic writers at places like National Review and NRO have written with obvious annoyance at the pope.
I see email strings from respectable conservative Catholics of some worldly status, which is to say who are not cranks, in which almost everything Francis says is read with the prejudice of an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney. Conservative Protestants hostile to the Church are welcomed into these discussions as long as they trash Francis.
Some of this reflects reactions to internal Church debates and not public politics. Still, a good many politically conservative Catholics are Sylvester before he breaks — and a few Sylvester after he breaks. This is the point of an article by Damon Linker in The Week titled “The Republican Party’s War With Francis Has Finally Started,” which is not really about the Republican party at all but about Catholic conservatives he believes uncritically support the party. They “have held their tongues, working to put a positive spin on papal pronouncements that many of them find increasingly alarming.”
Salon recently ran a similar article, with the title “The Pope Francis revolution: Inside the catastrophic collapse of the Catholic right.” It was what you’d expect from Salon: heightened language with facts that are more or less true but selectively arranged to drive a thesis the author and site very much hope to be true, with the explanation of what it really means coming from a pro-choice Catholic partisan. And (surprise!) it’s somehow Benedict’s fault.
There are others, I suspect because many people really want it to be true. Linker, a Catholic himself and author of a book called The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, sees the matter more clearly than Salon’s writer but not all that clearly. Francis, he writes, “has broken from too many elements in the Republican Party platform” for these conservative Catholics to continue supporting him. With his upcoming encyclical on the environment, “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.”
This is unfair, I think, and Linker doesn’t do a good job of proving it. His evidence is one blog item on the First Things site, written by a culture and art critic, Maureen Mullarkey (a good friend, I should say), an item put down sharply by the magazine’s editor R. R. Reno; one web article in Forbes by a writer I suspect no one in America would have previously identified as Catholic; and another blog item from the First Things site in which Princeton professor Robert P. George explains the nature and limits of the authority of papal statements. The slight evidence, one element of which (Reno’s rebuttal of Mullarkey) argues for the opposite position, is supported by his history of the “theocons” of the eighties and nineties, who he claims set the pattern for adapting Catholicism to Republican politics.
This is a world I know and I think he’s misread it, whether or not he is right about the “theocons” of old. I write, I should make clear, as a great fan of Francis’s, as I am of Benedict’s. I don’t understand the dyspepsia and ire into which the pope throws people I like and admire.
Some of the Catholics Linker talks about are indeed (and alas) Republican partisans. More are conservative partisans who support the Republican party because it’s the only party that comes close to advancing their positions. As many if not more are cultural and moral conservatives who could easily support the Democratic party if it were not so ardently libertine. Political passions and institutional ties will make the last two groups look like Republican partisans, but they are not. (As happens with pro-life but economically liberal Catholics who find themselves enmeshed with the Democrats.)
The situation is complicated by the kind of prudential judgments politics requires. Like almost everyone else in the West, Catholics have come to accept the market economy as the best way of organizing the economy and have noticed the considerable and negative unintended consequences of the welfare and regulatory state. They have long been concerned with the survival of the mediating institutions, especially the family, whose place the state tends to take. They develop the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity while driving it deeper than do their liberal peers. They are often as critical of corporate capitalism as any leftist, but they tend not to say so often or loud enough.
Most would be happy New Dealers and some comfortable with the Great Society, but even if they favor extensive government intervention in the economy, the Obama administration has proved how hostile to Catholic interests the government can be. You support health care reform, you get the contraceptive mandate. Their supporting the one party that can free them from this injustice does not make them Republican partisans.
They will generally vote Republican and cheer when that party retakes the Senate and expands its majority in the House. They will wind up supporting the Republican candidate for president even if he is not everything they would wish, because the Democratic candidate will be even less what they wish the president to be.
But they are not the simple shills for the Republican party that Linker claims they are. The problem with his analysis comes clear in his misreading of Robert George’s blog item, with which he closes the column. George, he writes, “remains committed to the old theocon strategy of explaining away the difficulties — of telling Catholic Republicans that there’s no need to choose, because GOP ideology and Catholic social teaching go together just as easily and happily as ever.” This is not a fair reading of what George wrote, but it is, I think, the treatment to which Linker’s thesis forces him.
I know George and I suspect he wrote out of concern for Catholics of the sort Linker describes, whose political passions can overwhelm their Catholic commitments — not to convince them to be good Republicans but to convince them to remain faithful Catholics. In any case, he offers a short and lucid description of what the Catholic Church teaches about the Catholic’s responsibility in reading papal statements. It’s the statement of a faithful Catholic thinking seriously about what being a Catholic submitted to the Holy Father means for public life. Nothing in it suggests a partisan motive. I don’t think there is anything in it with which Damon Linker would disagree.