“Love among the Ruins”: A Postmortem of Catholic Neoconservativism



“And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Matthew 16:15-16)



Having soundly demolished a cartoonish shooting gallery of neoconservative candidates in the Republican primary, including John Kasich (who may or may not really exist), the soft-spoken drug dealer Jeb Bush, and the Catholic Church’s own (you guessed it) Rick Santorum by May of 2016, Donald J. Trump appeared to be in reach the Republican nomination. Horrified by Trump’s statements on immigration, free trade, and war—he even went so far as to tell the heavily pro-Israel Republican Jewish coalition in December of 2015, “…I don’t want your money”—the neocons were increasingly nervous. Donald Trump appeared to be an even more aggressive, popular, and much better financed version of the bête noire of neoconservativism, the deplorable Pat Buchanan. Just as they had sabotaged Buchanan’s run for the presidential nomination in 1992 and 96, so too did neoconservatives hope that they could derail Trump in 2016. Shedding the mantel of social conservatism they had used to sucker Evangelicals and Catholics into voting for the Bush I and II, John McCain, and “Mittens” Romney, many neocons, including George H.W. Bush, turned to the monstrously prochoice Hillary Clinton as their candidate. In addition to voicing support for the bona fide witch Hillary Clinton and barraging Trump with insults, neocons went after one of the strongest elements of the Republican coalition: conservative Catholics.

An intellectual torpedo “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics” was sent from the sinking flagship of American neoconservativism, The National Review, on March 7 of 2016. “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics” was penned by two of the the remaining old guard figures of Catholic neoconservativism, Robert George and George Weigel (Fr. Neuhaus had died in 2009, and Michael Novak has been surprisingly soft on Trump, writing a positive article “Silver Linings for Never Trumpers” on  November 15 for the First Things Blog). The “Appeal” hoped to revive the old magic of Catholic neo-conservativism, which sought to keep Catholics away from SSPX chapels, off the pages of The Remnant, and always voting for “moderate” Republican presidents. In their “Appeal” George and Weigel suggested that the Republican Party should be admired as a “vehicle” for “promoting” the prolife cause and religious freedom and tried to show that some of the activity of the Republican Party at least appeared consonant with the teachings of John Paul II. In their “Appeal,” George and Weigel presented a hollow and unconvincing couple of paragraphs suggesting that Catholics could not support Trump even though Trump had made comments suggesting that he was prolife—in June, Trump would later make the promise that he would appoint justices “very much in the mold” of Justice Scalia. However, the charismatic Donald Trump was simply too much for tired and boring old Catholic neocons. While Catholic neocons had been successful in galvanizing support from Catholics for both Iraq Wars and, for a time, significantly altered the political positions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and innumerable “JPII Generation” priests, this time it didn’t work. Catholics continued to support Trump throughout the 2016 election cycle, and “the Don” won 52% of the Catholic vote in his defeat of Hillary in November of this year. What happened?

The 2016 election witnessed the death of rattle of Catholic neoconservativism, which had been on life support since the all too traddy pontificate of Benedict XVI and the catastrophically liberal papacy of Pope Francis. Now that Catholic neoconservatism has breathed its last, it is time for an autopsy of movement and a survey of the damage done. The grave of Catholic neoconservatism is stuffed with innumerable books, magazine articles, and blogs that have molded the minds of a large chunk of American Catholics who identify as being conservative but who are now either turning trad or are sadly leaving the Church. One of the less important but most revealing Catholic neoconservative books was George Weigel’s 2005 The Cube and the Cathedral.


The Social Reign of Christ the King? Preposterous!

The Cube and the Cathedral is a curious book; on one level, it is more of the same: laments about European demographics, inspiring quotes from John Paul II, attacks on liberals and reactionaries. But the book is important because it reveals, succinctly, just how duplicitous and fundamentally un-Catholic the Catholic neoconservative movement was. In the book, Weigel weighs the contrasting image of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and François Mitterrand’s 1989 monstrous and nihilistic Arche de la Défense, arguing that the former is the manifestation of a hopeful culture and the latter an artefact of a culture that is set on dying. So far, so good. But the key to understanding the work is found at the beginning when Weigel makes the case to his readers—both Catholic and non-Catholic—that Christianity should play a fundamentally ancillary role to liberal democracy in general and American hegemony in particular. Weigel tells a quaint story of the questions that popped in his head while he was walking down the streets of Paris. Allegedly reflecting on the cultures of the middle ages, represented by the cathedral, and postmodernity, represented by the cube, Weigel asked, “Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy?” (2). Whether or not such thoughts actually went through Weigel’s mind as he walked through Paris rrelevant. What is critical is that Weigel sees Catholicism as subsidiary to the project of liberal democracy. This has been the entire life and work of Weigel, the late Fr. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, Robert George and a legion of lesser luminaries. The focus of Weigel’s book then is “the question of the cube and the cathedral, and their relationship to both the meaning of freedom and the future of democracy” (6). Later in The Cube, Weigel explains to his reader specifically how that Catholic Church can serve as a moral corral that will stabilize liberal democracies: “Absent a secure and publicly assertive moral culture, the machines of democracy and the free economy cannot run well over the long haul; a moral culture capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous energies set loose by free politics and free economics is an essential third component of the architecture of a free society” (123). This is the rub: the goal is not to convert nonbelievers but to make sure Catholics and non-Catholics accept liberalism and the next project coming out of neoconservative think tanks.

Robert Kagan.jpg

Professor Kagan clearly is not going hungry

In fact, Weigel tells the reader that is what he is doing in the book. Weigel immediately references neocon Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, which was published shortly before The Cube and the Cathedral. Robert Kagan is the cofounder with William Kristol of the now defunct Project for a New American Century, a current member of Council on Foreign Relations, and member of Brookings Institute among a variety of other New World Order organizations. Kagan is also the husband of Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State, who has played a critical role in the destabilization of the Ukraine in a bid for World War III with Russia. Dedicating five chapters to praising Kagan’s book, Weigel presents Of Paradise and Power as a “widely discussed American analysis of America’s Europe problem and Europe’s America problem…” (7). While Weigel’s book is his own, there is a strong feeling in The Cube and The Cathedral that Weigel’s work was written to midwife not only support for the Iraq War but support for Kagan, PNAC, and the neoconservative worldview, which Weigel attempts to sell as the truly Catholic world view on which the survival of Western Civilization depends. This is the first key revelation of the role Catholic neoconservative’s played in affecting the American Catholic mind. As Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1983) attempted to inject the ideas contained in Irving Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978) into the Catholic mind and draw Catholics away from the Democratic Party and into the Republican fold, replacing Catholic social teaching with Reaganomics, so too would Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral sell neocon foreign policy to Catholics.


This may not fit in my paper shredder

While Weigel argues that The Cube and the Cathedral is not a book about “the sharp division between much of Europe and the United States over the Iraq War” (157), The Cube and the Cathedral is about the Iraq War. This is one of the primary goals of the book. Weigel implies throughout the book that one of the key signs that Europe is dying is that it will not support American foreign policy: “Iraq may have brought to a head, for many Americans, the questions of what Europe has become, and what the future of the transatlantic relationship will be” (157). Weigel is thus implying that a healthy, Christian Europe would have supported the Iraq War, and thus all good Christians in America should also support the Iraq War. Weigel later ties the Iraq War to other aspects of the European “crisis of civilizational morale”, including the “unprecedented phenomenon of European depopulation, coupled with what acute European observers like Pierre Manent describe as Europe’s flight from politics” (157-158). Weigel is correct to identify a European crisis, but the European “flight from politics” is not just found in Manent but in Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, which sought to diagnose the reason for Europe’s refusal to support American intervention in Iraq. Thus, according to Weigel, Europe’s demographical decline, hostility to Christianity, and opposition to the invasion of Iraq are all part of the same sickness.

In the Cube and the Cathedral, Weigel interweaves arguments for a cultural and spiritual revival of Europe with arguments for the promotion of liberal democracy and American hegemony worldwide, so that his reader will think that they are one and the same. Weigel seems to be suggesting that a truly healthy Christian Europe will necessarily be democratic and friends with the United States. Weigel further conflates European cowardice in the face of terrorism with European refusal to support the Iraq war:

As for terrorism and its impact on the evolving European Union, it seems unlikely that appeasement strategies will work indefinitely. Perhaps Europeans are right in suggesting that 9/11 and the Madrid bombings were the result of inept American policy in the Middle East, and that a Europe increasingly distancing itself from the United States will be able to maintain its distance from Islamist wrath. On the other hand, if 9/11, Madrid and the bombings in Istanbul in 2003 represent, form the Islamist point of view, moments in a larger struggle against the West and is culture—a struggle that has gone on for centuries and in which there are Islamic defeats to be avenged (as in Spain in 1492, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in 1683)—it is not easy to see how Europe can, in effect, drop out of twenty-first century history and pursue Robert Kagan’s Kantian paradise of perpetual peace on its own (143).

It is difficult to see the Iraq War as being in the continuum of the great struggle between Christianity and Islam—certainly, Professor Kagan would not want to return to the Spain of 1492. Rather, Weigel sees the conflict not between the Christendom of Isabella la Catholica or the Habsburgs and the diabolical religion of Muhammed, but of “the West”—whether it is secular or Christian or somewhere in between—and reactionary, undemocratic Islam. Weigel’s concern, therefore, is not the conversion of the world, but rather “promoting” and “defending” “democratic values” or “the democratic project”, which is an “urgent question” for both Europeans and Americans (177).

To support Weigel’s thesis that the true meaning of Christianity was not unveiled until The Declaration of Independence, in The Cube and the Cathedral, we are treated to the Catholic neocon version of history in which Christian antiquity and the Catholic Middle Ages were mired in reactionary thinking and needed to be improved and enlightened by 18th century American and British thinkers. Weigel writes, “It took a long time for the people who built the cathedral to articulate, from within their own religious convictions, a persuasive, compelling case for democracy. But they have done that” (176). Weigel blames not liberalism, but the Catholic Church’s conservativism for Europe’s descendent into atheism in the 20th century:

“Why European Christianity was particularly vulnerable to the siren song of atheistic humanism raises another, deeper set of questions that are beyond our scope here and that deserve extensive and serious study. Answers to those questions will certainly require carefully probing the Catholic Church’s identification with the political forces most resistant to the democratic project in late-eighteen- and nineteenth-century Europe, as well as a more thorough understanding of what democracy meant to those forces that identified the free society with the ‘laisicism’ (laïcité) that was the precursor to ‘exclusive humanism’” (52).

Weigel later turns to the burning of heretics and the Spanish Inquisition as examples of the old reactionary Church: “That the Church did not always behave according to these convictions is obvious from history, especially European history, Church-sanctioned state persecution of heretics, or the coerced conversion of Spanish Jews…are facts of history—even if the black legend that surrounds these and similar events in the European settlement of the Americas is frequently exaggerated” (113). Thus, if the Church were to adopt her traditional, conservative position, we would have public burning of heretics and Jews, but, not to worry, things have changed.

Having shed 1900 years of reactionary lunacy, the Catholic Church after Vatican II and under the rule of John Paul II was free to fulfill her destiny as a vehicle for liberalism and a servant to the interests of the American military industrial complex: “Thus the Catholic Church, tutored by the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II, can give an account of its commitment to tolerance, because the Catholic Church believes it to be the will of God that Christians be tolerant of those who have a different view of God’s will, or no view of God’s will; the Church only asks that it be permitted to enter the conversation with those Others” (111). The modern Church does not ask the unbeliever to convert; rather, according to Weigel, it “respects the Other as an Other who is also a seeker of truth and goodness; the Church asks that the believer and the Other enter into a conservation, a dialogue that leads to mutual enrichment rather than to a deeper skepticism about the very possibility of grasping the truth of things” (111). Citing John Paul II’s “Day of Pardon” on March 12, 2000, Weigel reassures his readers that “the Church recognizes publically that these acts of coercion were offenses against its own true doctrine” (113).  Weigel further reassures his readers that the Catholic Church no longer wishes to proclaim the Social Reign of Christ the King: “It is not the Church’s business to run Europe or European states; the days of altar and throne are long since past, and John Paul’s Ecclesia in Europa betrayed not the slightest nostalgia for the world of the ancien régime” (122).  This is a central Catholic neocon tenant: John Paul II’s liberalism is the absolute measure of anything Catholic. Just as Vatican II trumps any other Catholic document, so too does, for NeoCatholics, John Paul II’s every thought and deed trump the work of any other Catholic figure in the Church’s 2000 year history.

Weigel rightly takes issue with the ridiculous effort of the European Union to omit positive references to Christianity from its constitution, asking why so many European intellectuals thought “any reference to the Christian sources of contemporary Europe’s commitments to human rights and democracy a profound threat to human rights and democracy…” (4-5). However, Weigel’s argument is not to defend the Church’s tradition but to prove to his secular that the Catholic Church will never go back to the bad old days of Constantine, Philip II, Vendee uprising, altar and throne Catholicism just as he needs to assure his Catholic reader that the goals of not only Enlightenment liberalism but the immediate policies of the Bush administration are literally identical to the spirit of Christianity, which has finally born fruit in the twentieth century. But not allowing himself to be too Catholic, Weigel emphasizes Christianity’s contribution to a “tolerant Europe” (73); as a result, secular Europeans have no reason to fear from this new Catholicism.

In The Cube and Cathedral, Weigel presents a litany of officially approved “new movements of Christian renewal” that he thinks will guide Europe to a safely liberal Catholic future, including “the world-renowned ecumenical community at Taizé in France”, Focolare, the Emmanuel Community, Regnum Christi, and, of course, Opus Dei, “which played an important role in Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy)” (147). All of these groups are fully imbued with Vatican II, Novus Ordo Catholicism and are generally dedicated to ecumenism, religious dialogue, and the forging of a global democratic, religious diverse New World Order—recently, Focolare’s president Maria Voce gave a talk at UNESCO, emphasizing the importance of “international organizations.” In his political vision, Weigel sees an integral, ancillary role for the “new evangelization”, which has the potential “to ignite a renewal of European interest in the adventure of democracy” (154). For Weigel, these religious movements are essentially political movements, for they represent Vatican II’s views of religious liberty and ecumenism, which for Weigel, serve distinctly political ends.

While in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency and in the waning years of the neocon’s very own “World Historical” pope, John Paul II, Weigel’s hope of a securely neoconservative future for both the world and the Church seemed very promising. However, in 2017 under the emergent presidency of Donald J. Trump and the current nightmarish rule of Pope Francis, it has become clear that the reign of the neocons has ended in both the Church and the world. For almost three decades, patriotic and devout American Catholics searching for an authentic, “conservative” Catholicism that was amenable to their love of America turned to neoconservative writings for spiritual and intellectual nourishment. However, under the direction of neoconservative Catholics such as George Weigel, they were led a wild goose chase of modernism, liberalism, and Americanism and ended up voting for Republican political leaders who played lip service to Christian ideals but did little but stand by as whatever passed for Christian America was completely decimated.

2 thoughts on ““Love among the Ruins”: A Postmortem of Catholic Neoconservativism

  1. 1. From around 2002-05, Weigel, Novak and some of the other Neocon Catholics put up a website with a URL something like “IraqJustWar.com.” It made really bad arguments for the war based on Catholic Just War Theory. When the war went bad, they took the site down; although some of Weigel’s articles on other sites defending the Iraq War in Catholic Just War terms remain up, if you do a search. These Neocon Catholics should have left the website up as proof of their folly – while retiring to spend the rest of their lives in repentance in a monastery.
    2. Weigel: “Iraq may have brought to a head, for many Americans, the questions of what Europe has become, and what the future of the transatlantic relationship will be.” It turned out that even decadent, post-Christian Europeans had more sense than Neocon Catholics. The Iraq War, inevitably followed by wars against Libya and Syria, led to the ongoing “refugee” invasion that is hastening the Islamization of Europe, irreversible barring a miracle. Thus, the Neocon Catholics helped destroy our civilization.
    3. The Neocon Wars also destroyed ancient Christian communities that dated back to the time of the Apostles. Even 1,400 years of Islam hadn’t done that.
    4. If Weigel and the other Neocons want so much to bring “democracy” to the Middle East, why haven’t they called for invading and liberating Saudi Arabia, which bans all religions but Islam and is a major state sponsor of terror?
    5. Opus Dei, “which played an important role in Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy” – and, shortly, a transition back to being a province of the Caliphate.
    6. At the end of his reign, Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the Iraq War and became disillusioned with Weigel and other Neocon Catholics for their bloodthirstiness and subservience to the Neocon ideology of perpetual war. Benedict XVI followed suit. That Weigel tried to convince John Paul II to support the war, as Weigel recounts in one of his books, today brings a sardonic chuckle.
    7. The Catholic (and other) Neocons obviously only opposed Trump because he called them out on the Iraq War and other military disasters they supported. The Catholic Neocons have NOT repented their sin of supporting a war monumentally unjust from its start.
    8. Weigel, Novak, George and almost all Neocons (Catholic or otherwise) are chickenhawks – obsessed with war, but never serving themselves. They’re Chairborne Rangers and Laptop Bombardiers. RC Gentleman Scholar is right: They have been utterly discredited.

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