Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis
BY Massimo Borghesi; TRANSLATED BY Barry M. Hudock
Publication Date: 12/03/2021;
A handful of Catholic American intellectuals—notably but not exclusively Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus—selectively and often purposefully distorted magisterial teaching in the decades preceding the 2013 papal conclave. Massimo Borghesi, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia, in his new book Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis refers to the brand of Catholicism produced by these men as the “American model.” Borghesi demonstrates that these neoconservative intellectuals see the world, and most emphatically the church, in “political-religious Manichaean” terms, unable to recognize nuance. Francis, in a pastoral and theological continuation of the three previous papacies, uses a dialectic lens of polarity that sees fruitful production in opposites: “Life is opposition, and opposition is fruitful.” When Francis’s dialectic social philosophy is married with Catholic social teaching in the vein of the Second Vatican Council— including the very social teachings of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI distorted by these Novak and company—the strife in the American Church becomes entirely understandable.
Catholic Discordance is an essential read to comprehending the Catholic Church in America and a neoconservative trend within it that rejects certain magisterial teachings.
In what I think is the strongest (and most damning) section of the book, Borghesi spends about 100 pages demonstrating the American model’s disloyalty to Rome her magisterial and pastoral authority. Michael Novak, philosopher and author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, spent a career conforming Catholic thought to fit Max Weber’s Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism. Novak and his fellow neoconservatives saw in John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, in which he distinguishes between an ethical and unethical capitalism, as breaking with the entire history of Catholic economic teachings (and thereby justifying unfettered capitalism). Their reading, however, depended on a single paragraph, 42, of the encyclical. Stripping the paragraph of its context, “the neoconservatives literally appropriated the pope.” Weigel himself asserted “Centesimus Annus thus marks a decisive break with the curious materialism that has characterized aspects of modern Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII.” Novak failed to mention John Paul himself said the good model of capitalism can hardly be called capitalism. He also failed to properly recognize the pope’s dialectical posturing of communism and capitalism. For the pope, communism’s critique of capitalism’s alienating worldview was worthy of consideration; Novak, with “political-religious Manichaean” eyes, instead managed to read in Centesimus Annus something along the lines of “Communism = bad. Capitalism = good.”
To quote former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” That’s the exact approach Borghesi takes with the conservative theologian and author George Weigel. He lets Weigel’s words and actions speak for themselves:
“Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus’s attempts to play fast and loose with the papal magisterium did not stop following the death of John Paul II…Just days after [the release of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate], Weigel offered a truly striking assessment. In an article published in the National Review, he distinguished its ‘golden’ parts, those he claimed were the work of the pope, from its ‘red’ parts, supposedly the work of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.”
Not appreciating the manner in which the “anti-capitalist slant” of Caritas in Veritate deconstructs the neoconservative misreading of Centesimus Annus, Weigel decides to innovatively use a make-shift source criticism to locate the pope’s true voice—implicitly inferring the “red” sections lack the same authority. As Borghesi is quick to note, even if Weigel was correct it wouldn’t matter. The document itself bears the pope’s signature, approval, and authority. In sum, Borghesi’s evidence these neo-conservative intellectuals hijacked magisterial texts for their own political-religious Manichaean objectives is overwhelming.
The damage was already done by the time Francis first sat in Peter’s chair, contrary to many popular neo-conservative accounts of the current papacy. Previously the author of The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey, Borghesi already had his finger on the pulse of Francis’s social thought. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis identifies four principles for “the development of life in society and the building of a people where differences are harmonized within a shared pursuit.” As Borghesi summarizes, “these four principles state: time is superior to space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is superior to the part.” These principles speak to the “communion admit disagreement” at the core of Fratelli Tutti. This comes to a political philosophy too complicated for the neoconservative manipulations: he criticizes both liberalism and populist reactions to liberalism. His criticism of liberalism is theological in nature—raising the stakes from the political arguments of the neo-cons: “in its classical Enlightenment version, [Liberal capitalism] ignores the reality of what Scripture calls ‘concupiscence.’” Because he criticizes liberalism (in the European sense of the term), the neoconservatives feel compelled to place him within the political box of “populist” despite his clear criticisms of populisms.
In Francis’s speech to the U.S. members of Congress in 2015, he alludes to four exemplary Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Borghesi paraphrases, “the four ideals of ‘the spirit of the American people’—freedom, equal rights, justice and equality for all, dialogue—take shape in four ‘heroes’ who make America great… [This is] a long way …from Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.” Dorothy Day, after all, founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
The current pope, in continuity with his papal predecessors, faces a common enemy amongst the neo-conservative proponents of the American model. When an Argentine pastor that sides with the peripheries became pope the intellectuals behind the American model decided they no longer needed to conceal their contortions of Catholic teaching. With the South Americans in charge, they became upfront about what teachings they could manage and which they could not. But their narrative that Francis started this discordance in the American church is simple fiction.
Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis by Massimo Borghesi, translated by Barry M. Hudock. Published by Liturgical Press, 280 pgs. Hardcover, $29.99. Publisher Link. Amazon Link.
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Joshua Polanski studied religion and strategic communication at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. He currently attends Boston University School of Theology, where he is completing a Master of Theological Studies. He was confirmed into the Catholic Church this past Easter.