Making Sense of Pro-War Catholics

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It still frustrates me that some people who really believe themselves to be conservatives are so enthusiastic about the impending war with Iraq. Overall, the statesmanship and prudence of the conservatism of old seem to have given way to the juvenile jingoism of the twentysomethings who now fancy themselves the deep thinkers of what is still laughingly described as the "conservative movement."

Nato is wary; our traditional allies are wary; most of the world thinks we’ve completely lost our minds — but who needs ‘em! After this war we’ll have another one with Iran, with Syria, with Libya — heck, in building this Wilsonian empire, we’ll keep going long after we’ve lost even the ability to bribe ourselves any more allies.

As Pat Buchanan, a man of genuinely conservative sensibilities, recently put it, "It is the height of hubris to believe America can indefinitely defy the whole world." Indeed, no one should attempt to dignify himself with the conservative label who latches on to the neoconservative argument that wimpiness and moral perversity are the only possible explanations for wanting to head off a war whose costs and consequences can scarcely be calculated, and which will certainly make the problem of international terrorism far worse.

It is almost incredible that so many people who call themselves "conservative" have bought into such a transparent propaganda package — with the alleged Iraq-al Qaeda link the most ludicrous of all. You’d think the past twelve years would have given self-described intellectuals a healthy skepticism of a regime that appears incapable of telling the truth about foreign affairs: recall the babies supposedly thrown from their incubators by Saddam’s men in Kuwait in 1991, the alleged quarter million Iraqi troops on the Saudi border, the alleged genocide at the hands of the Serbs, the "chemical weapons factory" in Sudan — need we go on? Conservatism now apparently means assuming that every government is capable of mendacity but your own.

We’re now hearing that the reconstruction of Iraq will cost $100 billion to $200 billion, and that doesn’t count the cost of pulverizing them in the first place, which is scheduled for sometime in the middle of this month. This with projected deficits already in the $400+ billion range — and with many more wars planned.

But to my main point. Everyone knows where the Pope stands on the war. He and the curia were unmoved by recent efforts to persuade them that a preemptive strike against the "imminent threat" posed by Iraq would be justified.

Yet neoconservative Catholics have been notoriously pro-war. In a previous column for LRC, I described the phenomenon of neoconservative Catholicism, or what Chris Ferrara and I call neo-Catholicism:

Since Vatican II, so-called "conservative" Catholics, while technically orthodox, have made it their task to prevent any constructive criticism of the unprecedented and revolutionary program of innovation unleashed by the Council. We call them neo-Catholics because they have in fact conserved nothing except the post-conciliar novelties — an ecumenism that runs counter to all of Catholic practice before 1965, a posture of "dialogue" with anyone and anything that has so far gotten nowhere and produced nothing of value, and a new liturgy that could politely be described as an act of vandalism. These contingent, time-bound pastoral programs are defended by neo-Catholics, regardless of how catastrophic they have been in practice, as if they were solemnly defined dogma. Just as the neoconservatives serve a useful purpose to liberals in the secular world by attacking true conservatives and thereby undermining genuine conservatism, neo-Catholic attacks on traditionalists ensure that the only permissible alternative to aggressive innovation in every area of the Church’s life is slightly less aggressive innovation in every area of the Church’s life. Arch-liberal Richard McBrien appreciates this function of the neo-Catholics, since he finds that "criticism of the extreme right by moderate conservatives is far more effective than by moderate progressives."

This is the group that is the most vocally pro-war in the Church.

Now despite his many missteps and despite the responsibility he surely bears for the dreadful state of the Church today, Pope John Paul II has been described by many traditional Catholic priests as possessing a very acute sense of natural justice. It is this aspect of his personality — what is best about him — that accounts for his refusal to be stampeded into supporting Bush’s war hysteria. You can bribe Turkey with tens of billions; you can’t bribe the Pope.

The neo-Catholic establishment, on the other hand, which on every other issue is in lockstep with the Pope (and utterly dismissive of anyone who refuses to get in line), has been obnoxiously pro-war from the beginning. (The Wanderer has been a notable exception.) The most recent example is an "Open Letter from Lay Catholics to President Bush," signed by a group of semi-prominent Catholic laymen.

Among traditional Catholics, the preponderance of opinion appears to be opposed to the war. Pat Buchanan and Joe Sobran have made their positions clear. The Remnant and Catholic Family News also clearly oppose the war, and while we are divided on the issue at The Latin Mass magazine, antiwar sentiment is well represented there also. In addition, the bishops of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X have come out strongly against the war. (If you’re going to try to claim that only "liberalism" can account for antiwar sentiment, you obviously know very little about the Society’s bishops.)

There are exceptions to this pattern, to be sure — regrettably, I see a couple of traditional names attached to the "Open Letter," for instance — but by and large it appears to hold.

I’ve been wondering lately why this should be — specifically, why the neo-Catholics are so uniformly in favor of the war. Some of these figures — and they know who they are — are simply bought and paid for by neoconservative foundation money. But that can’t account for more than a few. From what I can tell based on personal experience, it seems to be a question of personality and temperament. They simply cannot position themselves wholly outside the establishment, whether of Church or state. They feel uncomfortable. They feel like cranks. They crave the respectability that comes with being sort of anti-establishment (as in, "we favor school vouchers, and you crazy liberals don’t!"), but of course not like those loony people on the "far right," whom they are happy to demonize over cocktails at Ted Koppel’s house.

It is not necessarily a conscious decision on their part; it is more of an instinct. They have to trust and support the Leader, since the alternative — that they live under a regime that is hostile to what they believe in — is simply unthinkable to them. Catholic neoconservatives appear constitutionally incapable of conceiving of the possibility that in either case, whether the Church or the US government, we are dealing with a regime that is rotten. (As a traditional Catholic, I of course believe the institution of the Church to be divine, but I also believe that an entrenched "regime of novelty," as Chris Ferrara and I call it, has been responsible for untold destruction since Vatican II.)

One of the signers of this most recent letter — a personal friend, in fact — actually went on national television last year to argue that the Pope was absolutely right not to dismiss any of the bishops involved in the recent scandals. The allegedly conservative National Catholic Register followed suit. These people will defend anything, no matter how ludicrous and despicable, to keep their fantasy world going (the one in which our friends and allies are in power and trying their best to run things).

When it comes to both Church and state, the conclusion of the neoconservative Catholic is that things might be bad but they’re not really that bad. We’ve sure got some crazy lefties in the Church, but thankfully we’ve got John Paul II who will stop them. (Some people still manage to kid themselves into believing this despite the fact that liberalism in the Church is as alive and well as ever.) And we’ve sure got some crazy lefties in this country, but thankfully we’ve got David Frum’s "right man" in office!

I wish I could share this strange optimism about fundamentals. Chris Ferrara and I explain in The Great Façade what has happened to the Church (and what can be done to repair the damage), and any genuine conservative can see what has happened to our country. As Paul Gottfried points out in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, even the alleged "right wing" in America essentially accepts leftist premises on everything from civil rights to "equality of opportunity" to immigration to the wickedness of the South, to say nothing of the special victim status of certain designated groups, and the generally penitential tone that white people ought to assume — the Trent Lott fiasco alone is evidence enough of this. Meanwhile, establishment left and right agree on all but the details of America’s imperial mission abroad.

In other words, we are witnessing the final stages of the dismantling of our republic and our civilization; and the institutions that we now need more than ever, namely the Church and a healthy infrastructure of conservative thinkers and personalities, are watching this spectacle either in silence or with their active approval or connivance. This is what is truly terrifying about this moment in history — and why I wish I could live in the world of the neoconservative Catholic, where we can rest assured that the good guys are out there fighting for us.

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds an AB from Harvard and a PhD from Columbia. He teaches history, is associate editor of The Latin Mass Magazine, and is co-author (with Christopher A. Ferrara) of The Great Faade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church (2002). The book (as well as a sample chapter) is available at greatfacade.com.

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