A Silence That Speaks Volumes

While I cannot (by which I do not mean “will not,” but truly cannot) endorse the opening paragraph of Kevin Michael Derby’s “The Silence of Father Neuhaus,” the rest of the piece is excellent, and even the fulsome praise in Mr. Derby’s first paragraph serves a rhetorical purpose, heightening the effect of the criticism throughout the rest of the piece.  Mr. Derby demolished almost everything that Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his rhetorically clever but intellectually dishonest blog post, so I’ll confine my remarks to one rather curious comment that Father Neuhaus made.  He writes:

“And all of this, of course, in defense of ‘authentic’ Catholic social doctrine before it was muddled by the likes of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II.”

Let’s take a moment to unpack these words, because there are a number of possible ways to interpret them.  Let’s start by reading them sequentially.  Since Father Neuhaus is writing in praise of James Hitchcock’s article in Human Life Review, and Hitchcock’s discussion of social doctrine focused primarily on things that Paul Likoudis wrote, it’s reasonable to assume that the unstated object of this attack is Mr. Likoudis.  Father Neuhaus and I can agree that Mr. Likoudis is defending . . . something.  Here’s where things get a little more interesting.  I believe, as does Mr. Likoudis, that Mr. Likoudis is defending Catholic social doctrine.  Does Father Neuhaus?  Well, probably not: The scare quotes he places around “authentic” echo those that Hitchcock placed around the words “Catholic Right” in the title of his essay.

Father Neuhaus, of course, makes no attempt—not even the feeble, guilt-by-association one made by Hitchcock—to prove that Mr. Likoudis misunderstands or misrepresents Catholic social doctrine.  That may have something to do with the fact that (based on my familiarity with the writings of both men) Mr. Likoudis has, over the years, quoted the social encyclicals (including Centesimus annus, a point that will prove important in a moment) more often and at greater length than has Father Neuhaus.  Father Neuhaus, like his friend and ideological soulmate Michael Novak, is fond of the quick, out-of-context, heavily ellipsed quotation from Centesimus annus, designed to show that John Paul II was, despite his own words to the contrary, an unabashed supporter of capitalism.

Continuing on with Father Neuhaus’s words, we come to a puzzle.  Father Neuhaus writes “before it was muddled.”  These words could mean at least two things.  First, Father Neuhaus could be claiming that Mr. Likoudis believes that Catholic social doctrine was changed (“muddled”) by Vatican II and John Paul II.  If so, he is either unfamiliar with Mr. Likoudis’s writing, in which case he probably should refrain from commenting, or he is lying.  At the heart of Mr. Likoudis’s many discussions of Catholic social doctrine lies the firm conviction that it hasn’t changed.  Centesimus annus does not contradict Rerum novarum, any more than Quadragesimo anno did, or any more than Rerum novarum contradicted, say, St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on Lazarus and Dives.  That probably has something to do with the fact that Mr. Likoudis believes that the Holy Spirit does guide the Church and that the Church is a divine, as well as human, institution, unlike the series of all-too-human political organizations that Mr. and Pastor and Father Neuhaus has been involved in over the years, which release documents that are sufficient to the needs of the day, and discarded as soon as they no longer serve their desired purpose.

Which brings us to a second possible meaning of Father Neuhaus’s words: namely, that he believes that Vatican II and John Paul II changed Catholic social doctrine.  This interpretation has the advantage of allowing us to believe that Father Neuhaus isn’t lying; he simply assumes that it is obvious that the Church no longer believes in that old, outmoded social doctrine, passed down by popes who hadn’t lived through the collapse of communism and the triumph of democratic capitalism.  Therefore, since Mr. Likoudis continues to refer to Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno and St. John Chrysostom and all of those pre-1962 types instead of referring exclusively to the one document—Centesimus annus, as glossed by Novak and Neuhaus and Weigel—that superseded them all, Father Neuhaus reasonably assumes that Mr. Likoudis must regard John Paul II’s contribution as “muddling.”  It’s an honest mistake for an old-line progressive such as Father Neuhaus to make.  Progressivism is not simply a doctrine but a way of thought, and even many who today call themselves “conservatives” find that way of thought awfully hard to shake.

We come now to the final part of Father Neuhaus’s statement: “by the likes of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II.”  Again, Father Neuhaus has put the reader who knows something about Mr. Likoudis’s writing in the very uncomfortable position of having to assume that Father Neuhaus is either lying or blustering on about things he simply doesn’t understand.  After all, neither Mr. Likoudis nor The Wanderer has rejected Vatican II or bashed John Paul II.  That fact lies at the heart of the break within the Matt family, between The Wanderer, which has defended Vatican II, the new Mass (as well as the old), and John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and The Remnant, which, to put it kindly, has unstintingly criticized all of the above.  Unfortunately, the fact that Father Neuhaus alludes to the break between the publications would seem to indicate that he knows something about it, which suggests that he’s deliberately imputing the views of the latter to the former in order to score rhetorical points.

I have to wonder why Father Neuhaus went out of his way to heap praise on Hitchock’s attack on Mr. Likoudis and The Wanderer, and to do it in such an odd way, when (as far as I can tell) he’s failed to criticize a much more prominent dissenter from the neocon trinity’s interpretation of Centesimus annus: Pope Benedict XVI.  After all, First Things editor Jodie Bottum has made it pretty clear, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, that the current Holy Father brings some baggage to the throne of Peter, particularly on “economic issues,” that places him “to the left of his predecessor” and therefore outside “authentic” Catholic social doctrine, at least as Father Neuhaus would understand it:

“If the 1991 encyclical from John Paul I, Centesimus annus, might be described as three cheers for democracy, two cheers for capitalism. Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, would have gave only one cheer . . . “

We’ll cut Mr. Bottum a break on his atrocious grammar; I’m sure the lights on the Meet the Press set are so bright that even the best-trained editor might occasionally forget the past participle of give.  But Mr. Bottum and his colleague Robert Miller and Father Neuhaus seem to have forgotten something much more important: “Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI,” is indeed the Holy Father, and if our own interpretations of Catholic social doctrine or just-war theory don’t coincide with his, we should be questioning ourselves, not those who do agree with him.



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