The Neo & Paleo Wings of the Catholic Right
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 04, 2009 at 03:10:31 PM EST
Like many other movements, the Catholic Right is not monolithic. But within the diversity, there are nevertheless two main schools of thought: Paleo-conservative and neoconservative.  And like many other schools within movements there are areas of agreement and disagreement. The two schools (as often happens with schools of this sort) not only view the other with extreme skepticism, they also have a nasty history of infighting.
Defining The Two Schools

The Paleos are essentially the pre-World War II version of conservatism: Isolationist, anti-immigrant and at times, Confederate apologists such as Buchanan and Thomas DiLorenzo. These are the advocates of a small inward looking government, one that adheres to the old John Quincy Adams adage that "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

Paleos are often downright nativist, sometimes bordering on anti-Semitism. Even today, Patrick Buchanan still bemoans the American entry into the fight against Hitler, often doing so while insinuating that it was the result of some sort of British-Jewish cabal.

Notable Paleo conservative Catholics includes Patrick Buchanan, Terrence P. Jeffries, Keith Fournier, and recent convert Robert Novak

The Catholic Neocons are different. They are internationalist, very pro-Israel and are open to somewhat larger government, including certain - albeit limited - social programs such as affirmative action. The neos are the new kids on the block - so to speak. As I observed in Part One of this series, the neos are tied to the wider neoconservative movement:

Many of them have adopted much of neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss's philosophy of the need for benign tyrants to rule over a general population, which they believe cannot always handle the truth. They employ many of Strauss's terms of art such as "nihilism" and "moral relativism" while impugning modernity.

Notable Catholic neoconservatives include the late Richard John Neuhaus, Robert P. George, Michael Novak and George Weigel

Here is a good philosophical contrast: What Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol are for the Neocons, Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk are for the Paleos the foundational thinkers if their movement.

Where They Agree

Both camps tend to be traditionalist in nature, their members often bemoan the necessary modernizing of Vatican II. Many pine for the return of the Latin Mass.

Economically speaking, both schools advocate laissez-faire capitalism. This is perhaps epitomized by the movement's two Novaks: Michael Novak. and paleocon,  journalist Robert Novak (of Valerie Plame fame). An article about the cranky pundit written shortly after his conversion perhaps put it best: "But even Bob Novak's good friends have wondered how he reconciles his Darwinian, take-no-prisoners conservatism with the biblical injunction to help the poor and the oppressed."

Both schools also agree on biological issues: abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and stem cell research. Their views are both derived from natural law -- but with a slight difference: While Catholic Paleos draw upon Thomas Aquinas and Church teachings, the Neos will reach further back to the Classic Greek teachings of Plato and others to justify opposition to both abortion and embryonic stem cell research. For the latter groups it is a celebration of Athenian notions of natural inequality.

Where They Disagree

Up to this point, there is basic agreement with Catholic Paleos on the role of faith. However, the Neos take it one step further: For them orthodox faith is required for empire. If a nation's population is unafraid of death, then the neoconservative dream of "benign empire," one that exports democracy is attainable. This is Wilsonian foreign policy on steroids, devoid of the necessary element of acting in concert with allies. To the Paleos, anything that smacks of Woodrow Wilson is blasphemy.

Where the Neos see faith as tool for empire, the Paleos see it more as a bulwark against change: Tradition for tradition's sake and nothing more. To their credit, the Paleos often call the Neos on this cynical use of faith.

And where the Neos are Internationalist and basically not anti-immigrant, the Paleos, led by the outspoken cultural warrior Patrick Buchanan, do not share the Neos' promotion of foriegn revolutionary wars using the excuse of exporting democracy in order to expand a de facto American Empire.  Buchanan, Fournier, Robert Novak and others were quite vocal in their opposition to the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Buchanan, whose disdain for the Neos often exhibits a not-so-thinly-veiled anti-Semitism, wrote the following in the March 24, 2003 edition of The Conservative American:

Who are the neoconservatives? The first generation were ex-liberals, socialists, and Trotskyites, boat-people from the McGovern revolution who rafted over to the GOP at the end of conservatism's long march to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980.

A neoconservative, wrote Kevin Phillips back then, is more likely to be a magazine editor than a bricklayer. Today, he or she is more likely to be a resident scholar at a public policy institute such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or one of its clones like the Center for Security Policy or the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). As one wag writes, a neocon is more familiar with the inside of a think tank than an Abrams tank.

As well as:

All are interventionists who regard Stakhanovite support of Israel as a defining characteristic of their breed. Among their luminaries are Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, Michael Novak, and James Q. Wilson.

And the Neos aren't shy about firing back as Ramesh Ponnuru did in his column for the October 2, 2007 edition of the National Review Online:

Paleos make highly charged attacks on their enemies on the Right and then expect to be treated like wounded puppies whenever anyone else responds in kind. Pat Buchanan has spent much of the last two decades accusing various conservatives of "treason" for supporting free trade, the war in Iraq, etc. He publishes a magazine that suggested that David Frum was an Israeli agent of influence inside the White House. Frum wrote an essay for NR calling the paleos "anti-American," and you would think, from the paleos' reaction-they still bring up (and distort) that essay-that harsher words had never been spoken. I don't see any good reason to have sympathy for their complaints.

The Big Rupture

There was a time, however, when the two movements once worked together - albeit, somewhat uneasily. The alliance eventually ruptured over Neuhaus and Weigel's complaints about Rockford's not-so-indiscrete anti-Semitism.

Back in the 1980s the Paleo Rockford Institute provided Neuhaus, George Weigel and other Catholic neocons a base of operation at its offices in Manhattan.  But the arrangement did not last long.

As the May 16, 1989 edition of The New York Times described the incident:

A feud between normally like-minded intellectuals took a jarring turn this month when five conservatives from Illinois seized the Manhattan office of a leading conservative theologian and former colleague, carted away office equipment and dismissed the office's five-member staff.

The lockout of the theologian, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, on lower Madison Avenue was only the most extreme episode in a long-simmering argument among conservatives. It is particularly bitter because it involves accusations of xenophobia and insensitivity to anti-Semitism.

The May 5 episode also reflected deep divisions between two major strains of the large and multi-faceted network of conservative organizations: the mostly urban, free-market-oriented ''neo-conservative'' intellectuals on the one hand and the more traditional small-town conservatives on the other.

The break-up was quick and brutal. Again, as the Times put it:

''By 10:45 all of us were on the curb of Madison Avenue,'' Pastor Neuhaus recalls. ''We were surrounded by a few boxes and some garbage bags full of personal stuff. We were looking for a taxi and finding it hard to believe that such a thing had happened.''

And except for generally supporting GOP candidates for office, the breach has not healed.

Conclusion

Why is it important to distinguish between the two schools - especially when their aims both seem contrary to pluralistic liberal thought? Simple: To know the other side is better know how to match them.

As a liberal (and for me, as a liberal Catholic) to know where our opposition is coming from makes gives us the opportunity to be more effective in refuting their arguments. It is silly to try and argue with a Paleo as if he were a Neo. Chances are that on some points (the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, for instance) he is already with you.

And when those of us who realize this fact, we will be better advocates for religious freedom, pluralism and constitutional democracy itself.




Display:
I remember a time when conservatism was not about stopping progress but instead about being deliberative about progress. Sadly, in both politics and faith, things have changed.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon May 04, 2009 at 03:16:57 PM EST
I would place the late Paul Weyrich within the paleoconservative wing of Catholicism, as I would Father Paul Marx (formerly of Human Life International.) The sad part about it is that both the paleocons and neocons seem to be in the ascendant in the Church, and those of us who welcomed Vatican II and who want to keep its spirit alive are faced with a not-so-subtle retreat from its hopes. James Carroll discusses this in his recent memoir, "Practicing Catholic."

I believe the recent protests against Obama speaking at Notre Dame are, like the tea parties, an unsubtle attempt at refighting the 2008 election, in which the GOP quite definitely lost. Mark Massa, a Jesuit priest and professor, noted in a recent AP article on bishops' objections to Obama appearing at Notre Dame that the bishops have lost their moral authority with their mishandling of sexual abuse. I've found that some people will defend the bishops no matter what, while others are skeptical of what the bishops say as a group. Either way, the American episcopate seems to be overstocked with "yes men" who seem to be rather distant from the lay members of the church.

by khughes1963 on Mon May 04, 2009 at 03:44:23 PM EST
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Mr Cocozzelli, that was really well said!

by deaconse on Mon May 04, 2009 at 07:00:43 PM EST
Parent

...for the shout out to all of us real conservatives. yes, we're still out here and we still vote. I always say that the difference between a Progressive and a Conservative is that the Progressive says we ought to do this and the Conservative says why? The ultimate in Conservative thought is the phrase "If it works then it doesn't need fixing." This includes the Constitution and most definitely the separation of Church and State. The Christian Reich seems to have a hard time with this concept so they've gone and rebranded their authoritarian fascist ideas with the NeoConservative/PaleoConsevative label. I am glad there are sites like this which offer information and insight into these fascist shenanigans.

by Frank Frey on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:35:23 PM EST
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I'm not crazy about extremists -- right or left.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue May 05, 2009 at 07:29:57 PM EST
Parent




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