First Things: a case study in the strengths and weaknesses of Catholic optimism

Is it just me, or nowadays is every other writer at First Things a self-professed “gay Christian”?  Not that I object to people who are fighting different temptations than mine, but it does warp the magazine’s perspective on the great battle of our age.  One would think that all this fighting over same-sex “marriage” was motivated by concern one way or another about how sodomites organize their lives–about making them happy, regularizing their dalliances, or saving them from mortal sin.  No, this is a battle over the meaning of all the existing heterosexual marriages, a fight to defend the patriarchal family and with it the sex roles that give our lives grace and nobility.  What is most missing from our spokesmen is not a vision of how celibate homosexuals can avoid loneliness, but an honest statement of what marriage should be:  of indissolvability, of masculine and feminine roles properly embraced, of male headship.  Get that straight, and it will be obvious to anyone that such an institution is necessarily heterosexual.  Of course, we won’t hear this from any conservative publication or even from Rome itself, even though all of it is clearly and definitively laid out in sacred Scripture.  They begin the argument already fatally compromised.

That’s not the subject of this post, but as you’ll see, it’s related.

When I discovered First Things a decade ago, it was a tremendous consolation to me.  It was the first intellectually serious, unapologetically orthodox and conservative Christian publication I had found.  To this day, when I imagine what an ideal conservative magazine would be, I think of First Things as it seemed to me when I first encountered it.  Here were historians, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists taking the Church’s side against the world, rather than scolding the Church and apologizing to the world for Her inexcusable failure to get with the program.

At the center of it all was Richard John Neuhaus, who brought something indispensable to the whole endeavor.

Those who didn’t follow the magazine through those years–when it was a real lifeline to Christians living in hostile environments like academia–could easily miss what was so special about Neuhaus.  It wasn’t any particular set of ideas or arguments.  Nor was it his prose style, which was admittedly always a pleasure to read.  What Father Neuhaus brought was a certain attitude, the attitude of bemused confidence.  Christianity (Catholicism in particular) and American-style classical liberalism are just obviously superior to the alternatives and are destined for victory.  If only the liberals could realize how utterly ridiculous they are making themselves look!  For decades, they made perfect fools of themselves buying the snake oil of communism, and now they’re embarrassing themselves further by pushing abortion and sodomy.  Of course, Neuhaus and his associates genuinely abhorred communism and abortion, but it wasn’t the prophetic denunciations but the clever put-downs that made First Things the success it was.  Above all things, intellectuals wish to be sure that they are part of a clever set and that they are not making themselves look silly.  In a thousand ways, Father Neuhaus gave them that assurance–Neuhaus’ role was like Voltaire’s in the Satanic Enlightenment, but the New York priest was a servant of good rather than evil–and so he was able to gather up the most talented set of conservative Christian intellectuals of his day, at least from among those who were willing to accept classical liberalism and the Civil Rights movement.

To most onlookers in the early 21st century, the Catholic Church was in a ruinous state.  The priests were disappearing, the laity were embracing heresy, and we were having our pants sued off over past decades of clerical buggery.  Reading The Public Square reassured me that things were not really so bleak.  The Church had turned a corner with John Paul the Great, and she still had great reserves of piety and strength.  The reporters at the New York Times are living in atheist bubbles; what they report isn’t the larger truth.  The larger truth is seen in all the faithful gathered every Sunday to receive the body and blood of Christ.

Historians can debate whose understanding of social reality circa 2000 was really more accurate.  It was a time of transition, so no doubt much evidence could be brought forth for both sides.  However, ten years later, the attitude of First Things from those years has become obviously untenable.  Sodomy advocates and heretics within the Church are kooks in an ultimate sense, but they have nearly vanquished all opposition.  Far from having turned a corner or even bottomed out, the collapse of the Catholic Church continues at a breathtaking rate with no end in sight.  If possible, our situation is even worse than that of what Neuhaus called the “sideline” Protestant churches.

Like many Catholic First Things readers, I held onto my illusions for quite a while.  I think it has only been in this past year that I have shed them completely, and probably my bitterness is now worse than if I had never been comforted by false assurances.  That is one danger of always putting a positive spin on things.  One may wonder, though, if it nevertheless did more good than harm.  I understand the need to keep up the spirits of Christians down in the trenches.  Since the Accursed Council, those who love the Catholic Church have been given no end of reasons for despair.  One sees this still in the Catholic blogosphere today:  reasons why the Church really is finally going to start bouncing back, assurances that any day now the “New Evangelization” is going to become a reality and not just a catchphrase, reasons to think that Pope Francis’ often-expressed contempt for traditional Catholicism is really a clever ploy to bring unbelievers back into the fold.  I suppose if this keeps Catholics from jumping off bridges, it’s doing some good.  Man is too weak to have faith in God alone, it seems.

However, optimism based on denying evils will prevent one from effectively fighting them, and a good part of First Things‘ optimism came from the fact that its writers didn’t acknowledge how perverse American society truly is, including their own creed of free markets, democracy, and integration (i.e. the obliteration of white ethnic communities).  It was First Things‘ embrace of classical liberalism that ultimately led to its confrontations with Front Porch Republic on the issues of localism and monarchy.  In both cases, writers at Front Porch Republic criticized liberal dogma in favor of more traditional arrangements, just the sort of thing an intellectual conservative magazine should be doing.  The response by First Things writers hardly rose above the level of name-calling and Leftist slogan-shouting.  (See here, here, and here for my previous posts on the great FT/FPR dust-up.)  It was a sad sight, but even those of us who loved the magazine in its glory days could see that the poison goes back to the beginning.

The writers at First Things seem to realize they are adrift, and so they’ve just had a symposium on the future of their movement.  This is, I suppose, a positive sign, but the thing got off to a very bad start when R. R. Reno, in a fit of optimistic Catholic delusion, announced that theological liberalism has been decisively beaten.  George Weigel, of all people, ended up being the voice of reason when he pointed out that Neuhaus’ “Catholic moment” never came, and Church and society have now deteriorated to the point that it certainly isn’t going to come.  Despite this moment of clarity, no one (including Weigel) seems willing to drop this idea of Catholic/right-liberal fusionism on which they have based their public lives.

27 thoughts on “First Things: a case study in the strengths and weaknesses of Catholic optimism

  1. Yes First Things has followed a similar trajectory downward as that other great “conservative” publication- National Review. At its inception, NR had a pretty diverse collection of true intellectuals including some European nobility. It may surprise some here to know that quite a few of these thinkers were guided more by De Maistre and Pius X than Jefferson. Brent Bozell comes to mind as the best representative of this mindset though there were others. This was probably the high water mark for Continental – type reactionary thought in America and thus in my opinion the only real glimmer of hope American conservatism ever had. In the end the fusionists under Meyer won out and conservatism lost the culture. Reactionaries like Bozell founded their own publications which ultimately failed after some years of success for lack of readership and financing. The money interest has always won out over traditionalism- another recurring theme. Just imagine that at one time you could open National Review the (leading and standard conservative publication for the day) and read Erik-von-Kuehnelt Leddihn, Otto Von Hapsburg, Christopher Dawson or Brent Bozell. Contrast this to what we have now- Jonah Goldberg? Need I say more?

    It should also be noted that one of the major reasons why Bozell’s own periodical failed was that he was deemed too “Anti-American” in his critiques of liberalism. This brings us full circle. Recall what former editor of First Things Joseph Bottum stated a few weeks ago that Catholics should get behind SSM because after-all “we’re Americans.”

    • Speaking of National Review, search YouTube for the clip where Gore Vidal calls William F. Buckley Jr. a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responds by calling Vidal a “queer” (on public television!) in his pronounced Boston Brahmin accent. Classic.

    • I knew that National Review used to have much more intelligent writers, but I hadn’t realized that they were more willing to question liberalism itself in the early days. My impression was that they had gone from being a smart right-liberal magazine to a stupid one. They’ve fallen even farther than I’d realized.

      With First Things, on the other hand, I don’t think there has been a large ideological drift. The liberal element was always there, but it seemed somehow less prominent, more an ideological quirk of the editors that one could ignore without losing their main purpose. Back in those days, a person could rail against communism, abortion, and family collapse for a long time before you figured out whether they were right-liberal or conservative. Nowadays, we must bare our premises more quickly. Or maybe I’ve just gotten better at noticing them.

      • Even within recent memory, NR had Russell Kirk, Peter Brimelow, Steve Sailer, Joseph Sobran, Samuel Francis, who were all on the paleocon side.

  2. Bonald, I usually think your posts are outstanding, but I take your pessimism with a grain of salt. This is the same Bonald who contemplated not having children because he thought the liberal order was too corrosive to raise a holy soul, after all.

    Have you read Fr. Neuhaus’ final book, published posthumously, American Babylon? He appears to have come to terms with the infertile union of Catholicism with right liberalism.

    • Hello Andrew,

      I haven’t read it, but that’s very interesting given the story I’ve told here. Neuhaus had for a long time seemed to me much wiser than the “Catholic neocons” George Weigel and Michael Novak with whom he is often grouped. No doubt he was a liberal (until, perhaps, the end), but he sometimes dropped hints that he realized how problematic his position is. And he had the good sense not to stake his reputation on the Iraq War.

  3. There are some good points about First Things and National Review, that tends to happen I fear with right wing writings, what has happened to the Canadian newspaper the National Post is a particularly poignant example.

    I think the Salisbury Review still maintains itself as a fairly good magazine, although it is of course rather Anglican religiously. Are there any other traditionalist magazines people would recommend?

  4. And what has the Continental-style reactionary thought wrecked in past 200 years?
    What did the thought of De Maistre yield?
    The FPR people are economically and politically muddled, and I must say so is the generality of reactionary thought everywhere

    • I not sure what you are on about here. I don’t know anything about FPR, so you would have to flesh out some ideas, preferably ones that engage the substance of Bonald’s article. Otherwise, this just reads like a gassy skim-until-offended tu quouque.

      • The reaction has been tried–Franco, Mussolini, Pinochet-and has failed. So the First Things style Catholic liberalism is still the best hope and certainly the reaction has got nothing intellectually comparable.
        Where is the reaction’s analysis of the failure of reactionary regimes–Franco et al?
        Where is reaction’s analysis of capitalism?

      • Well, Mussolini and Pinochet don’t really count, at least for this blog’s purposes. They were secular, though I get that “Continental Reaction” includes both integralists and more secular flavors of the right.

        I’m currently interested in learning more about Franco and specifically about why he was not lastingly successful, so if you have some suggestions, I would be grateful.

      • RIght. I don’t have any reason to cheerlead for Franco, Mussolini, etc. I take Tolkien’s view that we are in a long defeat as modernity, the factory of Damnation as proph put it, consumes everything. Reactionary thought is merely a tool to discern the hydra-headed monster and helps me avoid worshiping any of the heads.

      • Well, as a Spaniard guy, I have one idea or two about the failure of reaction after Franco. I was 5 when Franco died ( I stll remember the Tv broadcasting images of the coffin) and I have been reading and reflecting for decades.

        When Franco lived, the support of the Spanish population to the regime was overwhelming. But the young politicians that ruled during that period were convinced that the regime was not going to survive Franco. In Spain, there is an inferiority complex toward Europe, which has lasted for centuries. Everything that comes from Europe is better, accepted and imitated. Once of the arguments that close a debate is “In Europe, it is done that way”

        This is why we enthusiastically entered the euro and this is why the young generation of Franquist politicians decided the Spain was going to be a democracy. They made a pact with the tiny opposition and with the external powers, which also supported the process. The support of the population was ensured by a massive campaign in the media.

        It’s not only Franco’s regime that was dismantled from the top. Catholicism, family and traditional sex customs ran very deep in the Spanish population. But 30 years of propaganda in the media, the arts, the songs, the movie made its mark. The elite was convinced about hedonism, liberalism and secularism. No voice in the media was against that. So the country that has been the most Catholic in Europe for centuries is one of the firsts to approve gay marriage. Spanish people are reluctant to go against the herd. For centuries, the herd was Catholic and now it is hedonistic

  5. I’m convinced that the Catholic Church is about to enter its most difficult phase. It was first abandoned by the Liberals and now will be abandoned by the Conservatives.

  6. Despite this moment of clarity, no one (including Weigel) seems willing to drop this idea of Catholic/right-liberal fusionism on which they have based their public lives.

    For a long time I was pretty sure that this was because they really believed in it. But I am beginning to wonder if at least some of them don’t really believe it, maybe never really believed it, but just consider it some kind of duty to keep a pro-forma seat at the table. I doubt many have quite realized that they are the problem: that purified leftism self-destructs rather quickly, and therefore needs (for sustainability) the ‘impurities’ supplied by right-liberal doping.

  7. First Things also features the work of Reformed theologian Peter Leithart, whom I commend to you all, and while he is perhaps not 100% free of right liberalism is definitely far far gone into reaction. You might want to check out his books Against Christianity and Defending Constantine.

  8. My inference from Bonald’s commentary on Catholic optimism is that he believes the gates of Hell are prevailing and will prevail unless………. what??

    The Pope has recently warned that the Catholic Church could “fall like a house of cards” if…………again, I don’t quite know what.

  9. I can’t honestly say that I’ve noticed any particular left-deviationism or anything of that kind in the post-Neuhaus First Things. It’s just not nearly as good a read. It’s a mistake to explain everything through the lens of ideology.

  10. This non reactionary but ridiculously traditional wife believes distributism is the answer to the capitalism conundrum, but that it cannot be a purely agrarian distributism. That was their mistake, forgetting that technology has many forms.


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