How Irving Kristol influenced the Catholic thought

by Flavio Felice

President Tocqueville-Acton Centre-Studies

Adjunct Fellow American Enterprise Institute – Washington D.C.

This article was published on September 23 2009 in

"What, exactly, is neoconservatism anyway? I would say it is more a descriptive term than a prescriptive one."

With these words, Irving Kirstol explained what kind of thing neoconservatism would be in the preface that he had the kindness to add to my Prospettiva Neocon (The "Neocon" Perspective) in 2005. On that occasion he confirmed that, in substance, the neoconservative phenomenon could not be reduced to a movement, to a school, or even less to a current of thought within one political party.

Much has already been written about Kristol and I hope that much will yet be written in memory of one of the most important American intellectuals of the last 50 years. In this article I intend to show the way his analysis appreciably influenced a group of Catholic intellectuals that can be identified by the term "the Catholic Whigs." (Many in Italy, as elsewhere, have reduced this to "theocons," provoking not a little justified resentment from those so charactererized.) I refer to such personalities as the late, truly lamented Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, theologian and political analyst of "the Naked Public Square," Michael Novak, who developed the theoretical underpinnings for a theological understanding of "democratic capitalism," and George Weigel, political analyst and biographer of John Paul II.

A conceptual element developed by Kristol that influenced the thought of the Catholic Whigs was the defense of so-called "middle class institutions." Kristol maintained that, to be consistent with their mandates, political institutions that defend and promote democracy and economic institutions that ensure that a free market economy can operate peacefully must be founded on "middle class values:" hard work, humility, a sense of responsibility, prudence, and temperance. Apart from these values, individuals would be incapable of giving life to a political and economic system as efficient and respectful of individual rights.

The Catholic Whigs found in Kristol's analysis an important starting point and thought it necessary to place emphasis on the notion of public virtue as an essential component of the development of Western civilization, whose foundation can be traced to Judeo-Christian religious values.

Here resides an important point of conjunction between Kristol's analysis and that elaborated by the Christian Whigs. From the elaboration of this nexus, it is possible to trace the features of a political philosophy that assumes from the classical liberal tradition the themes of constitutionalism, of the government of laws, of limited sovereignty; of the idea, that is, of government as the dominion of law. These theoretical tools the Whigs have attempted to place in relation to the classical concepts of the Catholic tradition, such as human dignity, integral and indivisible liberty, the consequent responsibility of the person and the unavoidable limitations of his physical and moral make-up, the whole set of ideas being understood in a Christian manner within the framework of the doctrine of natural rights. The political philosophy so presented was a brand new critical theory of society, universally recognizable as typically American—in these sense "classically liberal and Anglo-Saxon"—and, at the same time, in an entirely original way, directed toward an ever closer relationship with the history of Catholic thought and its modern social doctrine.

In keeping with Kristol's analysis, which viewed with reasonable optimism the processes of social transformation, the Catholic Whigs saluted with enthusiasm the publication of the encyclical Centesimus Annus by John Paul II in 1991. Regarding the encyclical, Weigel wrote that the courageous proposal advanced by the Pope--to restore life to a society free in every aspect (in tutte le sue parte) and the emphasis that he himself placed on the moral and cultural sphere as the decisive field of battle both in the established democracies and in those just then being formed--seemed entirely correct. The Catholic Whigs were, Weigel continued, also enthusiastic about the empirical sensibility demonstrated in the encyclical with regard to the data concerning economic development, which had the consequence of renouncing the search for the old "Catholic Third Way," neither capitalist nor socialist.

To be complete, the recognition of the moral value of a free economy and of economic enterprise expressed by john Paul II must be placed alongside the emphasis placed by the Pontiff on democratic political systems and cultural systems based on religious liberty. [These multiple dimensions were taken up again and gone into more deeply by Benedict XVI in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)]. The three spheres of society balance each other, so as to avoid having one, taking a larger role than the other three, excessively ensnare the social system within its particular complex.

The Catholic Whigs have made their own the lesson of Kristol, that the American experiment could not survive in a situation where its cultural elites flaunt what Kristol himself defined as a "carnivalistic nihilism," a sort of calculated moral indifference, mixed with a profound political cynicism, that marries itself to a deliberate hedonism that subsumes all of human existence to earthly experience. Kristol and the Catholic Whigs maintained that there was nothing less at stake than the moral legitimacy of the American constitutional order. In an unquiet mood, Kristol, in a 1995 article, even worried about the inevitability of a reaction to such carnivalistic nihilism and cynical hedonism that would culminate in some form of "aggressive religious revival."

I will forever remain grateful for the friendship that Mr. Kristol extended to me, and for the teaching that I received from him. He always resisted the word "intellectual," but of course we all continue to apply it to him. His famous ironic wit no doubt would put it into perspective, and forgive our effrontery.