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Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America: 1950-1985.

In recent years historians have become increasingly more interested in American conservatism. A sure sign of this was a forum on the writing of the history of American conservatism featured in a recent issue of the American Historical Review. In the lead essay Alan Brinkley sought to explain why "twentieth-century American conservatism has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship." Brinkley attributed the neglect principally to the liberal, progressive analyses that the majority of historians use to interpret recent U.S. history.(1) Another way of putting this is to acknowledge that historians, who are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics, "are reluctant to sympathize with people whose political opinions they detest."(2) For this reason the majority of historians have avoided studying American conservatism. The rise of a new political and religious Right in the 1980s has changed the situation and a new generation of historians is beginning to reexamine the place of conservatism in twentieth-century U.S. history. For many of the same reasons a similar scenario of prolonged neglect followed by increased interest has prevailed in the writing of American religious history.

Historians have traditionally interpreted the history of American Protestantism according to a liberal, progressive paradigm. In this interpretation the Great Awakening was a key catalyst in the development of the democratic revolution of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century evangelical Protestantism shaped the culture of the nation and, according to William McLoughlin, spurred the people on "to those heights of social reform, missionary endeavor, and imperialistic expansionism which constitute the moving forces of our history in that century."(3) The decline of the social gospel in the post-World War I period signaled the demise of liberal Protestantism and much of the writing about the history of religion in the twentieth century has been an effort to explain this decline. This interpretation identified conservative Protestantism with the commercialism and ballyhoo of big city revivals and the rural hayseeds who opposed the modernist challenge to the old-time religion. Neither one was very likable. The demise of fundamentalism after the Scopes trial served to confirm the irrelevancy of the conservative wing of American Protestantism. The rise of the religious Right in the 1980s and the sustained growth of Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism challenged this point of view. At the same time, George Marsden and other historians of Protestant evangelicism were recovering the history of the conservative wing of American Protestantism.(4) Their work has revealed that Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism were not the declining rural phenomena that historians had assumed. Their writings have also challenged the validity of the liberal progressive view and have offered in its place an evangelical paradigm to interpret the history of American Christianity.(5)

Patrick Allitt's study of the role of Catholic intellectuals in the American conservative movement suggests that American Catholic historiography may be following the same trajectory as that of its Protestant counterpart.(6) For much of the past fifty years historians of American Catholicism followed a progressive, Americanist view of the Catholic past in the United States. Becoming American was the grand theme in this story and this meant acquiring American, or more precisely modern, values compatible with the Catholic tradition. This viewpoint reached a high point in the 1950s and 1950s, just when the conservative movement in the U.S. was taking shape, and it has dominated the interpretive landscape ever since.(7) The conservative milieu that has developed in the last fifteen years in the U.S. has found strong support in the Catholic church, whose clerical leadership from the Pope down to the youngest priest has become intellectually and politically more conservative than their predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s. Given the conservative milieu in the nation and the church, it is not surprising that some of the new generation of historians are reexamining the history of American Catholicism, seeking to find the historical roots of contemporary Catholic conservatism. It is a history that has been neglected for too long and Allitt's study is a good beginning in what may become a new chapter in the historiography of American Catholicism.

"This book," writes Allitt, "explores one of the major strands in the development of the conservative intellectual movement, the fundamental role of Catholics. It implicitly challenges the view that evangelical Protestantism and libertarian economic theories were the chief components of the movement" (p. ix). Most studies of conservative thought in the post-World War II era do acknowledge the leadership role of Catholic intellectuals in this movement, but no historian has explored this in the depth that Allitt has. He achieves this by examining the thought of a sizable number of individuals, most notably William F. Buckley, Jr., L. Brent Bozell, John Lukacs, Thomas Molnar, John T. Noonan, Jr., Michael Novak, and Garry Wills. He wants to show how these individuals "learned a pattern of attitudes and ideas from the Catholic church and carried them into their analysis of the wider American society" (p. 14). For me, the sections on Buckley, Noonan, and Wills were the most enlightening. Clearly Buckley was the major figure in the 1950s and 1960s and the journal he founded in 1955, National Review, published much work by Catholic conservative intellectuals.

Allitt integrates his intellectual biographies with the social and cultural history of the 1950s and 1960s and shows how such larger issues as the Cold War and the sexual revolution affected conservative thought. In the 1950s Catholic conservatives were in the forefront of the anticommunist crusade. They "took a militant anti-Soviet and anti-Communist position" (p. 81) that often had an apocalyptic tone. It was in these years that the alliance between capitalism, conservatism, and Catholicism began to solidify and this ideology still remains very strong among conservative Catholics. William F. Buckley, Jr., a key architect of this position, created an uproar among American Catholics when in an editorial in National Review he expressed his extreme displeasure at the 1961 social encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). With tongue in cheek he coined the unforgettable phrase, "Mater Si, Magistra No," and it remained a bone in the throat for liberal Catholics for some time.

The developments that took place in the 1960s caused a great deal of stress for conservative Catholics. Their reaction to the Second Vatican Council was extremely negative. One conservative wrote that "at the Second Vatican Council . . . the American bishops chose to follow the Protestants in defeat. . . . Like the Protestants before them they sought to embrace the surrounding secular-liberal culture, itself a degenerate vision of Christian culture" (p. 149). The reforms of the council horrified most conservatives; for some the council's decision to abandon Latin in the church's liturgy symbolized the abandonment of Christian civilization itself. Such postmortems continued through the 1970s and 1980s and can still be heard today.

Catholic conservatives were especially active in responding to issues raised by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Allitt devotes an entire chapter to this complex subject and shows how divided conservative Catholics were on the issue of birth control. His analysis of the thought of John T. Noonan, Jr., on these issues is especially helpful. Noonan's book, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (1965), became "the most important single book on the subject of Catholics and contraception" (p. 168). It provided the ammunition needed to show that the church's teaching on contraception had been involved in constant change and further development in this teaching would not violate the tradition. Many conservatives welcomed this study and hoped for some change in the church's position on artificial birth control. In 1968 they became as disillusioned as liberals when Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical that upheld the traditional teaching of the church that prohibited any artificial means of birth control. There was less division of opinion over the issue of abortion. After the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, most conservative intellectuals became polemicists for the antiabortion cause. This chapter offers a valuable historical perspective to the current debate on abortion among Catholics and other Americans.

The division of opinion among Catholic conservatives on issues of sexual morality reflected the hybrid nature of Catholic conservative thought. Just as there is no satisfactory definition of conservatism in general so there is not a single definition that encompasses the phenomenon of Catholic conservative thought. It included intellectuals who feared the expanding role of the state over the rights of the individual; others championed tradition and the role of religious and ethical absolutes and rejected relativism which they claimed was eroding Christian and Catholic values; another group centered on the threat of communism and adopted a militant anticommunist position. Some conservatives believed the United States was the last best hope of the world; others had given up on their country and looked to Spain as the savior of western civilization. Allitt's study examines all of these different voices and the book reflects the hybrid quality of the phenomenon. Catholic conservatism, like conservatism in general, is neither an ideology nor a movement, and the book reflects this lack of cohesiveness. It is more a collection of individual portraits than a panoramic study of the Catholic conservative landscape.

My major criticism of the book is the author's reluctance to place his study in the context of the larger American conservative movement and compare the thought of conservative Catholics with conservatives of other religious persuasions. Most significant studies of American conservative thought acknowledge the prominent presence of Catholics but they offer little analysis of how Catholicism shaped their thinking.(8) Allitt does a fine job of showing how Catholic thought influenced the thinking of conservative Catholics, but he does not do enough comparison with the thought of other conservatives who were not Catholic. He never really addresses the question of whether or not Catholic thought had a distinctive influence on the development of American conservatism. His study also points up the liability inherent in doing recent history. Allitt ends his study in 1985 and concludes that "the centrality of Catholicism to the conservative movement diminished just as the movement itself was coming to power" (p. x). Developments since 1985 would suggest that Catholics still play a very important role in the conservative movement and it could be argued that their importance has indeed increased rather than diminished in the last decade. Given this development, Allitt's book becomes all the more important as a valuable contribution to the history of American conservatism.

1. Alan Brinkley, "The Problem of American Conservatism," The American Historical Review 99 (April 1994): 409.

2. Michael Kazin, "The Grass-Roots Right: New Histories of U.S. Conservatism in the Twentieth Century," The American Historical Review 97 (Feb. 1992): 136; this is a review article which underscores the recent scholarly interest in American conservatism.

3. William G. McLoughlin, ed., The American Evangelicals, 1800-1900 (1968), p. 1.

4. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (1980).

5. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992), is a fine example of this evangelical interpretive synthesis.

6. Another indication of this trend is the forthcoming study, Being Right: Conservative American Catholics, a collection of essays edited by R. Scott Appleby and Mary Jo Weaver (forthcoming in 1995 by Indiana University Press).

7. Two examples of this point of view would be John Tracy Ellis's American Catholicism (1956) and my own The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (1985).

8. See George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976), pp. 80-81, as one example of such acknowledgment.

Jay P. Dolan, Department of History, University of Notre Dame, is the general editor of a three-volume study, The Notre Dame History of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. (1994).
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Author:Dolan, Jay P.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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