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The Last Time Conservatives Dismissed a Major Encyclical, It Ended Terribly for Them


Despair is ranked as one of the unforgivable sins, yet right-wing Catholics deserve some mercy in their despondency. The bulwark of their political creed is being subverted by both the new direction Pope Francis is taking the church and also by changes in the broader cultural landscape.

For more than three decades neo-conservative Catholics like Michael Novak, George Weigel, and the late Richard John Neuhaus struggled mightily to demonstrate that there is a near perfect congruence between church teachings and the policies of the Republican Party. Even though these GOP apologists managed to win ears in the court of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their project always seemed inherently implausible, given longstanding traditions in Catholic social thought criticizing unfettered capitalism. But now the goals of Catholic neo-conservatives are more than just unlikely: The entire Catholic neo-con agenda lies in ruins as Pope Francis makes demands for economic justice and environmental responsibility.

The new encyclical on climate change that the Vatican is set to release on Thursday (an early draft of which has already been leaked) will only deepen the chasm between the church teachings and Republican politics. In the run-up to the encyclical, Catholic politicians like Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum have already prepared glib answers to explain why they won’t heed the Vatican’s calls to tackle climate change. As Rick Santorum told a radio interviewer, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”

Santorum and other Catholic traditionalists, who overlap with Catholic neo-cons but also have their own distinct focus on social issues, might want the church to return to “theology and morality” (ignoring the ways in which economics and environment are moral matters). But even this path leads to despair. As social liberalism continues to win the culture wars, notably on LGBT issues, many Catholic traditionalists feel besieged, sensing that they’ve lost the ability to convince the broader public to enact laws upholding traditional values.

Anticipating a rout in the cultural wars, traditionalist Catholics are toying with the idea of secession. The Eastern-Orthodox journalist Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, has popularized the term the “Benedict Option” to describe what a separatist Christianity would look like (despite Dreher’s own religious affiliation, his ideas have been gaining traction among right-wing Catholics, generating many articles discussing the feasibility of the idea. While unlikely to lead to a mass movement, discussion of the Benedict Option is already changing how conservative Catholics think about their relationship to the American polity. It would mean foreswearing attempts to influence politics, disassociating oneself from engagement with mainstream culture as much as possible, and creating intentional communities that try to abide by strict church teachings.

Both these trends—Catholic politicians who loudly proclaim their religious devotion but try to waive away Encyclicals, combined with lay Catholics fantasizing about dropping out of American society—are evidence that rightwing American Catholicism is undergoing a profound crisis.  Yet this crisis is not completely novel. To a remarkable degree, it was anticipated by the tumult of the 1960s, when Catholic conservatives associated with National Review struggled to battle both Vatican teaching and the rise of social liberalism.

The story of the shake-up of the 1960s church will offer little comfort to contemporary right-wing Catholics, since it is a tale of alienation, abandoned ideals, and powerful minds that severed their moorings from reality. Yet this story so strongly parallels contemporary concerns that it might offer clues as to how the Catholic right will deal with its current dilemmas.

The American conservative intellectual movement that coalesced after World War II had a strongly Catholic coloration, in part because the church’s deep-seated anti-communist orientation gave it new political relevancy during the Cold War. To be sure, the conservative movement had its share of Protestants, Jews, and atheists (notably Whittaker Chambers, Harry V. Jaffa, and Max Eastman) but Catholics dominated the Cold War conservative efflorescence. This was especially true of the influential circle of thinkers that William F. Buckley Jr., himself a devoted Catholic, gathered when he founded National Review in 1955.

As the historian Garry Wills, then a close friend of Buckley and frequent contributor to the fledgling magazine, noted in his 2010 memoir, Outside Looking In, “In the National Review circle, those who were not Catholics to begin with tended to enter the fold as converts.” Wills cites many examples of Catholic converts in Buckley’s circle, including the polemicist L. Brent Bozell (who was also Buckley’s brother-in-law as well as the ghost writer of Barry Goldwater’s bestselling Conscience of a Conservative), the political theorist Willmoore Kendall, and the literary critic Jeffrey Hart.

National Review conservatives tended to conflate conservativism with Catholicism. As Hart declared in 1969, “in its paradigmatic essence, Conservatism is Christian and Catholic.” But to outside observers the linkage Buckley and Hart were making between the church and their politics was not a successful fusion but an incoherent confusion. On economic matters, for instance, Buckley and the National Review styled themselves as “individualists” who in the name of liberty wanted to roll back the New Deal and the welfare state. The problem with this position was that it put the purported Catholic intellectuals of National Review well outside the mainstream of Catholic social thought, which had long been critical of capitalism.

Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Buckley and his band engaged in a nasty debate with the liberal Catholics who wrote for the Jesuit journal America and the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal. (During the late 1950s, Buckley cooked up a scheme to buy Commonweal, quite possibly to co-opt and silence a major venue that was critical of his mixture of religion and politics.) Neither side pulled any punches. Buckley accused liberal Catholics of being soft on communism, while they accused conservatives of disrespecting the church’s moral authority. At one point, Buckley described the doctrines of Dorothy Day, the beloved leader of the Catholic Worker movement, as “slovenly, reckless, intellectually chaotic, anti-Catholic”—a shocking description, as Day was widely regarded as a saint even in her lifetime (even Buckley acknowledged she was “good-hearted,” and after her death in 1980 she was quickly put on the path toward canonization).

Buckley’s feud with the Catholic left came to a boil when Pope John XXIII released the encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) in 1961, which reaffirmed the church’s support for government welfare programs and coupled them with calls to fight poverty in the Third World and end colonialism. The anti-imperialism of Mater et Magistra was particularly repellent to National Review conservatives, who thought that European domination of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia was essential for fending off communism.

In an angry editorial, National Review described Mater et Magistra as a “venture in triviality.” The magazine also published a joking note saying “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles, ‘Mater Si, Magistra no.’” (The joke was first made by Garry Wills, who was playing off a slogan of the Cuban Revolution: “Cuba si, Yanqui no.”)

Catholic liberals responded in kind. America described the National Review editorial as “slanderous” and the Reverend William J. Smith characterized Buckley as a “hypercritical pigmy.”

Although he outwardly maintained his jaunty air of nonchalance, Buckley was rattled by these attacks, which challenged his core identity as a Catholic. He responded by arguing that liberal Catholics were so concerned by side issues like poverty and racism that they were ignoring the overriding threat Communism posed to civilization. Civil rights for African Americans or anti-poverty programs for the poor did nothing to address the Red Menace, which by Buckley’s account was an absolute evil unaffected by social reality.

“If every white Southerner were to miscegenate tomorrow, the Communist Party would not be set back by five minutes,” Buckley wrote in a rejoinder to his liberal Catholic critics, who found this particular rhetorical flourish to be particularly baffling.

Buckley turned to his learned friend Garry Wills to work out a more theoretically satisfying response to liberal Catholics. A former seminarian, Wills tried to resolve the argument by writing a pioneering scholarly treatise on the nature of encyclicals, titled Politics and Catholic Freedom (1964). In this book, Wills argued that encyclicals are merely advisory, and not binding on specific policies.

The Mater et Magistra dispute led to many ironic consequences. In defending National Review’s capitalist Catholicism, Buckley and Wills had provided a rationale for social liberals to ignore church teachings on sexual matters, which was especially pertinent after the Vatican released the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), reiterating opposition to birth control and abortion. Wills himself moved to the left in the late 1960s, breaking with Buckley over the Vietnam War and civil rights. About the core issue of the Mater et Magistra debate, Wills argued in his 1979 book Confessions of a Conservative that “[t]here is something about laissez-faire individualism that is historically at odds with Catholic tradition—but this is a matter not reachable by papal fiat or by those who challenge the sincerity of their fellow believer’s religion.”

By the late 1960s, as Wills also noted, the two sides had flipped, with “‘liberals’ now denouncing encyclicals rather than using encyclicals to denounce others, ‘conservatives’ sticking with the Pope even when he had issued his disastrous encyclical on contraceptives.” One lesson from the Mater et Magistra contretemps is that almost all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics.

For National Review, the sophisticated arguments they used to wiggle out from having to grapple with church teaching in Mater et Magistra came at a heavy price. The magazine became disengaged from Catholicism as a living intellectual tradition and lost much of its Catholic ambience. It’s no accident that after the Mater et Magistra dust-up, the major religious energy of American conservatism would no longer derive from Catholicism but would come from evangelical Protestants. Buckley was able to prove that he was under no obligation to listen to the Vatican’s calls for social welfare, but only at the cost of cutting himself off from the Catholic conversation. Buckley and his fellow editors would remain Catholics, but their place in Catholic debates would greatly diminish.

While Buckley and Wills worked out arguments to diminish the impact of encyclicals, Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell went off in a different direction, seceding from mainstream American society. Like Buckley, Bozell had little use for encyclicals like Mater et Magistra or the general drift of Catholic liberals, whom he accused of denying “the mysterious ravages of original sin, the relevance of divine redemption, the subordination of matter to spirit.”

But for Bozell, the alternative to this weak-tea Catholicism had to be found by leaving America and going to a genuinely Christian country, Spain, then ruled by the fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Bozell moved to Spain in 1961 with his wife Trish and their kids. As Trish would recall, “It was in Spain that [Brent’s] hunger for a Christian society took seed. In Spain he was swept away … by the concept of Christendom. Where before he was a dedicated Catholic, he [now] became a Catholic who believed that all thinking, all action, no matter where and when, should be rooted in Catholicism.”

Although the Bozells would return to the United States, their experience in an immersively Catholic society left an indelible impression, one that deepened after he started the Christian Commonwealth Institute in 1970, a summer school that in its early years met annually in Spain. The powerful hold that Spain had on Bozell’s imagination disconnected from the American reality. He started a magazine called Triumph which became a hotbed of harsh critiques of society. In the manner of the New Left, Triumph would sometimes spell America with a “k,” suggesting that the country was inherently fascist. In a 1968 essay called “The Death of the Constitution” Bozell argued the founding document of the republic was inherently flawed because it didn’t mention God.

“The constitution has not only failed,” Bozell contended, “it was bound to fail. The architects of our constitutional order built a house in which secular liberalism could live, and given the dominant urges of the age, would live. The time has come to leave that house and head for home.”

In a 1970 article, Bozell argued that the church “must renounce the pluralist system; she must forthrightly acknowledge that a state of war exists between herself and the American political order.” In another article the same year, he offered his alternative to existing America by drawing up plans for a utopian Catholic America. As biographer Daniel Kelly noted in his 2014 book Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell, this alternative state would be a theocracy where “the manufacture and distribution of contraceptives would be banned, and severe punishment be visited upon abortionists…. A Catholic foreign policy would [pursue] the conversion of all countries to Catholicism.”

Bozell’s unhinged schemes occasionally became dangerous because he had followers. He set up a student militia group called the Sons of Thunder, who wore martial outfits modelled after the Spanish monarchist faction known as the Carlists (who supported a pretender to the throne). In his biography of Bozell, Daniel Kelly wrote that the Sons of Thunder wore “red beret and khaki shirt, a rosary worn around the neck, and on the shirt a patch bearing the image of the Sacred Heart.” The Sons of Thunder carried out violent attacks on a Planned Parenthood center in Dallas and the George Washington University Hospital clinic that performed abortion, while shouting the slogan “Viva Cristo Rey.” (“Long Live Christ the King”—a chant that puzzled cops, one of whom told The Washington Post, “I don’t know what it was but it didn’t sound good.”) No one was seriously hurt in these attacks, but the hospital property was destroyed.

For Bozell, violence was the appropriate response to abortion. “Sometimes the use of the sword may be necessary,” he told the Washington Daily News in 1970. “Yes, I think Christ would want that in some cases.” Bozell was the theoretical founder of anti-choice terrorism in America.

Bozell’s path to violence started with his original secessionist impulse. By disengaging from the America around him, by indulging in a fantasy that America could be turned into the supposedly ideal Christian kingdom he found in fascist Spain, Bozell abandoned real politics for a make believe role-playing game, one that was all the more dangerous because it involved the possibility of shedding actual blood.

Neither Buckley nor Bozell offer edifying models for how Catholic intellectuals should engage with church teachings. Buckley was a glib debater, willing to casually wave aside any church teaching that interfered with his political preferences. Bozell, many believe, took his faith more seriously. But like Buckley, Bozell refused to engage with the nuanced arguments made by his liberal Catholic critics. Instead, he became increasingly shrill and fanatical, a political fantasist who created dream Christian kingdoms in his mind. Today's conservative Catholics would do well to choose a different path.