The remaining two of the original four horsemen of Catholic neoconservativism, George Weigel and Professor Robert George have largely laid low as it has become clear that Americans are in no mood for foreign intervention, American jobs sent to foreign places, or foreign invasion via immigration.
However, seeing recent moves in support of neocon policy by some in the Trump White House, the neocons have decided to test the waters and see if American Catholics are ready for another round of foreign wars.
In The Public Discourse’s “Could a Preemptive Strike on North Korea or Iran be Morally Justified?”, Dr. Robert Kennedy, a Catholic Studies Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota argues it would be morally licit, according to Catholic theology, for a country to preemptively attack another country.
The two countries Professor Kennedy has in his sights are two of the few countries standing outside the global financial and economic monoculture: North Korea and Iran.
While such writings might tickle the ears of the increasingly irrelevant neocons at the helm of The Weekly Standard and The National Review, it is difficult to see anyone at the White House taking Professor Kennedy seriously.
It is further curious that a Catholic Studies professor at the University of St. Thomas would be writing in one of the few remaining redoubts of neoconservativism arguing that the United States military invade and destroy two sovereign countries.
Professor Kennedy may seem brash in his statements, but we must remember that not too long ago such arguments were made with success by theocons in support of toppling Iraq in 2003, and Professor Kennedy is part of a once proud and powerful tradition in Catholic thought: Catholic neoconservative Just War theory.
While Catholics of the left and right are well aware of the history of the neocons’ success in appropriating Catholic Just War theory for neocon foreign policy in the 2000s, many are unaware of the work that was the catalyst of Catholic neoconservative foreign policy: George Weigel’s 1987 Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
This neglected work not only provides us with a glimpse to how the neocons fashioned their vision of the just war theory which would initially successfully motivate Catholics in support of the War on Terror, but also reveals to us the ideological kernel of the “conservative” branch of the Catholic Church in America, which, to use a term popular on the internet, is a “limited hangout,” which dressed itself in the language of Catholic piety but was, in fact, just as liberal and revolutionary as left wing Catholic thought.
While George Weigel would later spend and, in fact, exhaust his cultural capital with Catholics in the 2000s by trying to sell the complete destruction of the Islamic world, Tranquillitas Ordinis is about one thing: the Cold War.
As Michael Novak had tried to sell what would be called Reaganomics with The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, so too does Weigel present himself as the proponent of Catholic Just War theory in support of the Reagan policy of defeating the Soviet Union through arms escalation. Weigel’s work is written in response to the USCCB’s 1983 “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” which was largely a temper tantrum over President Reagan’s victory.
This is not to take issue with Weigel’s goal of lending support in defeat of the Soviet Union, which Reagan rightly called “an evil empire.” Rather, the problem is that Weigel’s principles in Tranquillitas are diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Church and demonstrate that Catholic neoconservativism is just another type of Catholic liberalism.
Weigel minces no words about Tranquillitas Ordinis’s message as a divergence from the views of American Catholic leaders in the 1980s. He weirdly claims that he has a “lover’s quarrel” with the Church, explaining that he is “convinced that Catholic social theory, particularly as it developed in the United States through the Second Vatican Council and the work of John Courtney Murray, S.J., has been, and could be once again, of great importance to the world that sought both peace and freedom.”
Translated, this passage means that Weigel thinks the US Catholic bishops got the message of Vatican II wrong. Rather than calling for a worldwide Marxist and sexual revolution, Vatican II signaled the triumph of the Enlightenment and American liberalism over the old Catholic political order that had existed since antiquity.
However, Weigel has to make it seem like he is presenting the true and authentic Church teaching while at the same time scraping off any spooky reactionary ideas inherited from the premodern world. Yet his efforts largely fail, and Tranquillitas Ordinis reveals just how liberal neoconservative Catholicism is.
One of the most curious aspects of Tranquillitas Ordinis is that Weigel rejects the idea that the scriptures should serve as a guide to Just War theory, an idea that Weigel derides as “moralism.” Weigel argues that “it would be unfair, and in fact mistaken, to look to the New Testament for a systematic explication of Christian moral teaching on the ethics of war and peace.” It is not as though Weigel is entirely incorrect here: the New Testament is not actually a guide on how to wage war. However, the Church has always taught that the Just War teaching is a fulfillment of the true meaning of scripture, that is, one can still follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount while legitimately defending his or her country.
Weigel, on the other hand, rejects the New Testament teaching because it is irrational. Citing Fr. John Courtney Murray, Weigel rejects the scriptures as a guide because such an injunction as “turn the other cheek,” “violated the canons of the tradition of reason.” Taking his cue from the Enlightenment, Weigel here is leveraging rationalism against revelation and demonstrates that for the neocons liberalism trumps traditional Catholic teaching.
Eschewing the New Testament as a guide, Weigel turns to St. Augustine of Hippo, who, according to Weigel, develops the notion that the “restoration of ...order constitutes a sufficient justification for resort to violence.” There is some validity to this reading. However, Weigel errs in arguing that St. Augustine lays the foundation for the tradition of “moderate realism,” or a sort of Machiavellian pragmatism in which, although there might be “pie in the sky” moralistic teachings of Jesus Christ, they must be shelved for the realpolitik intrigues of American military and intelligence agencies that know how to get the job done for the sake of the emerging liberal global world order.
Weigel, however, knows that St. Augustine would not support neocon schemes to invade and or destabilize foreign countries for the interest of powerful sects in America and Israel. Weigel thus must use a variety of qualifying terms drawn from the word hoard of post Vatican II theological gibberish. For Weigel, “the Augustinian conception of peace as tranquillitas ordinis” must be “located in a more incarnational, less dialectical, theological context and completed by a political ethics that gives considerably more weight to human freedom than Augustine was prepared to entertain…” What Weigel seems to mean here is that St. Augustine’s thought was too mired in classical and early medieval Christian political and theological notions and must be updated by later liberal theologians in 20th century.
Weigel explains that in “the last twenty-five years, the Church’s magisterium has taught that tranquillitas Ordinis must be shaped by the freedom, as well as by truth, justice, and charity.” Weigel here is arguing that true peace comes only from liberal democracies and thus violence can be, and in fact, must be used by powerful liberal democracies such as the United States to destroy illiberal regimes—whether they be of the right or the left.
Weigel’s thinking here is completely out of sync with Catholic thought, so he heavily robes his argument with the language of historicism and relativism. According to Weigel, the “new historical circumstances” of modernity allowed for “the possibility of a development of Catholic doctrine on war and peace.” Rather than the teachings of the Church being immutable and constant, they change and develop, nay even “evolve,” a word that Weigel uses frequently throughout Tranquillitas Ordinis. It is curious that any of Weigel’s changes to Augustine’s thought via Fr. John Courtney Murray can be chalked up as “development of doctrine,” which provides an easy excuse to change Catholic teaching that does not jive with liberal modernity, and only those documents that support Weigel’s neoconservative vision “represent a genuine evolution of the Catholic heritage…”
Weigel does, however, try to corral St. Thomas Aquinas into his argument, suggesting there is a “Thomistic constitutionalist tradition” or what Michael Novak, drawing from the 19th century liberal English Catholic Lord Acton, will later call a Whig Thomism in which some of St. Thomas’s teaching can be bent to sound liberal if taken out of context and airbrushed of any nasty medieval authoritarianism.
There is, according to Weigel, a very long slumber after this period of “Thomistic constitutionalist tradition,” which is resurrected with the 19th century heresy of Americanism. For Weigel, the liberal statements of the bishops at the 1884 Third Plenary Council of Baltimore were, in fact, the first breathings of the New Pentecost that would arrive at Vatican II. Unfortunately, in Weigel’s reading, Pope Leo XIII was too stuck in his reactionary ways to realize this and retorted to the US bishops in 1895 with Longinqua Oceani, condemning the Americanist heresy.
Weigel then lays all his cards on the table: the crown and fulfillment of the Augustinian and Thomistic political traditions was not the reign of Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, St. Louis IX, King of France, or the Hapsburgs; it is to be found in the “American experiment,” which is, in Weigel’s tortured view, “an experiment in tranquillitas ordinis, as Catholic theory had come to understand the full meaning of that mean.” According to George Weigel, America, a democratic liberal republic, is “the most appropriate modern expression of the Augustinian/Thomistic tradition on what constitutes a rightly ordered society...”
However, Weigel is not celebrating what Patrick Buchanan has called “A Republic, Not An Empire.” Weigel sees America as being charged with the task of bringing liberalism to the entire world—via military force, if necessary. Weigel argues that John XXIII was right to call for a new global community and order in Pacem in Terris, which “marked a further evolution of Catholic thought on the meaning of peace with freedom in the modern world”; the Holy Father was wrong, however, to argue that the UN should lead a multipolar world order. In Weigel’s view, it should be a unipolar, American-dominated, liberal world order.
According to Weigel, it was only at Vatican II that this unique providential role for America was vindicated.
With some justification, Weigel reads Vatican II not as the victory of the principles of 1789 or what Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens called “the French Revolution in the Church.” Rather, for Weigel, Vatican II, “the transformative event for twentieth century Catholicism” and a period of “world historical importance” was the victory of the American Revolution in the Church. According to George Weigel, “Dignitatis Humanae Personae..., so greatly influenced by the work of John Courtney Murray is widely and accurately remembered as the American Church’s particular gift to Vatican II.” Weigel further explains that the “declaration not only vindicated Murray’s formulation of Catholic church/state theory; it also vindicated the American experience of Catholicism, and the Catholic experience of America.”
Those Irish-American bishops in the 19th century who attempted to feed liberalism into the Church and who were condemned as heretical Americanists by Pope Leo XIII, were, in fact, according to Weigel, ahead of the game in opening the Church’s teaching to “democratic constitutionalism.” The Church had only to catch up to the Americans with the help of John Courtney Murray who crafted Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II.
Vatican II, however, was just the beginning, and Weigel even attempts to appropriate John Paul II’s bizarre notion that the period after World War II and the Second Vatican II leading up to the year 2000 was a “New Advent” or, in Weigel’s own words a “new age” in which there is “the prospect of a long, and hopefully, bountiful future” and in which there will be a “continuing maturation of humanity…”
Weigel curiously discusses this idea of humanity as in a state of spiritual evolution throughout Tranquillitas Ordinis, arguing that “the main line of Catholic teaching affirmed” that “human nature was changing.” Even more oddly, Weigel argues that this point is “congruent with the teaching of Aquinas.” Weigel also approvingly describes Pope John XXIII’s view that the “Human community…. was on the eve of a new evolution of the spirit, out of which might emerge--indeed, had to emerge--new forms of political organization.” Therefore, Good Pope John’s 1963 Pacem in Terris “affirmed and endorsed the evolution of political freedoms on the Western model.”
Consequently, an enlightened humanity, shedding its medieval and primitive self, had reached a point of spiritual maturation and thus was now ready for the new liberal world order.
The role of the Church in this age would, according to Weigel, be as a servant of American liberalism.
While Weigel wanted the Church to serve as the intellectual catalyst for not just Catholic but Protestant thinking on war, he absolutely did not want to support the idea of Catholic integralism or traditional Catholic teaching on Church and state. Rather, for Weigel, echoing Jacques Maritain and anticipating a later similar statement by Joseph Ratzinger, the Church would serve as a “leaven” in society and would be sure to follow the lead of the secular would by being open “to evolution and growth through a dialectical encounter with the signs of the times.” The Church, according to Weigel, must keep her head bowed to the secular world and remain a “discreet...diplomatic activist” in world affairs. As he admits, George Weigel derives his notion of a weakened Church from Pope John XXIII”s notion of the Church as an “ecclesia docens” or a “learning Church.” However, Weigel’s goal is have to the Church in America placed “at the service of peace” and “human rights.” Thus, the Church, in the words of one of the most prominent “conservative” Catholic commentators, should act as a sort of NGO promoting US military adventurism in the service of human rights.
The key problem in Tranquillitas Ordinis is that the current pontiff at the time, John Paul II, was not yet primed as vehicle for American liberalism.
While John Paul was largely known in 1987 as a politically-liberal but theologically-conservative pontiff, Weigel tries his hand at pulling in the Polish pontiff as cultural capital for Weigel’s experiment in Tranquillitas Ordinis. Weigel argues that “Karol Wojtyla is a living embodiment of the will to resist” the forces of Communism. Weigel further tries to graft John Paul’s efforts in “the task of reclaiming and renewing the council’s optimism” into Weigel’s own political project or what Weigel calls the “a reclamation and development of the Catholic heritage of moderate realism, or ‘temperate optimism.’” As he will do in Witness to Hope twelve years later, Weigel argues that John Paul II’s theological positions are identical with Weigel’s geopolitical ideas, and John Paul can serve as a vessel for liberal democracy or democratic capitalism, but he would have to wait until the late 90s to craft an image of John Paul as the first American pope.
For the time being, Weigel had to content himself with preparing American Catholics to become neocon Republican voters.
Weigel makes no bones about his goal in Tranquillitas Ordinis to form a new political coalition of Catholics and Evangelicals who would support neocon interventionist foreign policy. As Pastor and later Fr. Richard Neuhaus had attempted to do with his concept of “new religious right” formulated in 1984’s The Naked Public Square, Weigel hopes for an “ecumenical axis” that will emerge in the 1990s “between American Catholics and nonfundamentalist Protestant evangelicals,” which had been initially forged in the early 80s by the prolife “ad hoc coalition of Catholics and evangelical Protestants.” Weigel further explains that he is hoping to create a “wide-ranging Catholic-Evangelical consultation on the great questions of war and peace, security and freedom…”
With the triumvirate of Weigel, Fr. Neuhaus, and Novak, the Catholic neocons were primed to form a coalition of conservative Catholics, Protestants and Jews that was sealed with the 1994 document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which would support neocon candidates and neocon policies that advocated for foreign interventionism, free trade (at the expense of American workers), and social conservatism. This formula initially proved to be a success in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s as innumerable state and national congressman were elected by conservative Christians on this very platform.
However, it was through their success that the neocons failed, for convincing Americans to support a successful 1990 Persian Gulf War led to the theocon’s hubristic attempt to garner support for the 2003 Iraq Invasion, which has proven to be a catastrophic disaster.
In charity and respect toward Professor Kennedy, we can only hope and that no one is listening to calls from Catholic professors in The Public Discourse to attack Iran or North Korea.
There is much, much more to be said about the Catholic neocons and their manipulation of the American Catholics into support of foreign policy by hijacking the Catholic Just War tradition.
The neocons may not be finished after all, and the recent appointment of the luxuriously-mustached John Bolton as National Security Advisor by president Trump is perhaps a warning sign that the neocon story is not over yet.
On the other hand, we should not misinterpret President Trump’s appointment of Bolton, for Trump is, in the end, his own man.
For the first time in 40 years, we have a roguishly independent president in the White House who is master poker player. He is also the most vocally prolife American president since the legalization of abortion.
Donald Trump knows that Americans do not want more foreign wars, and he knows that prolife, patriotic, Americans got him elected, and he wants to pay us back.
It would certainly be blessedly ironic if the same president who destroyed the neocon grip on the Republican Party and has ushered in an era of sane and temperate foreign policy would be the president to finally take down the reign of the culture of death in America.
Dr. Jesse Russell is a regular contributor to The Remnant Newspaper. Don't miss his next column, subscribe today!