Showdown Over American Catholic Political Engagement Entered New Phase in 2022

NEWS ANALYSIS: The dispute over liberalism, integralism and Catholicism’s implications for American political life was marked by a shift to institutional formation and practical politics.

Catholic social teaching scholar Russell Hittinger speaking at Heritage Hall & Dominican House of Studies to a crowded room. Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact Magazine, speaking at Franciscan University to a large audience.
Catholic social teaching scholar Russell Hittinger speaking at Heritage Hall & Dominican House of Studies to a crowded room. Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact Magazine, speaking at Franciscan University to a large audience. (photo: Coutesy photos / CUA/Ahmari)

In many ways, the intra-ecclesial dispute over how Catholics should approach political life in America continued in 2022 the same as it has since Donald Trump’s surprising ascendancy (and the growing discontent with the American status-quo that propelled him) upended the political landscape and, with it, a long-standing Catholic consensus. Thought pieces were published, academic conferences were convoked, and the acrimonious intra-Catholic Twitter feuds that have characterized this struggle continued apace.

But the ongoing Catholic showdown — which pits defenders of the established practice of working within the “liberal” paradigm of individual rights and limited government against advocates for a “post-liberal” approach that eschews government neutrality and envisions a more proactive role for civil authority in promoting the common good — also entered a decidedly new phase this past year, marked by a transition from the mere espousal of ideas to the establishment of institutions, and the shift from the presentation of political theories to the articulation of particular policy agendas.

Given the seemingly permanent influence that the approach emphasizing cooperation between Catholics and the liberal order — promoted by figures like Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, First Things founder Father John Richard Neuhaus, and John Paul II biographer George Weigel — has had over American Catholic thought and practice for decades, the fact that both sides of this dispute have moved to establish new institutions and dedicate resources to advance their position within this particular struggle is a significant development, a sign that the stakes are high and something real is in play. 

And with the future of Catholic political engagement in America — not to mention the actual alignment and identities of the two major political parties — still very much unsettled, this shift may also have a considerable impact on how the ongoing struggle plays out in the years to come.


New Institutions

This shift in dynamics was well-illustrated during the course of two events that took place back to back in early October 2022 on two different Catholic campuses: the Institute for Human Ecology’s first annual lecture on Catholic political thought at The Catholic University of America; and the “Restoring a Nation” conference at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, organized by the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life.

The event at CUA featured renowned Catholic social teaching scholar Russell Hittinger, who delivered a keynote entitled, “How to Inherit a Kingdom: Reflections on the Situation of Catholic Political Thought.” Hittinger’s central point was that Christ’s inauguration of a supernatural Kingdom “not of this world” established, for the first time in human history, a separation between the spiritual and the temporal powers. Whereas pagan society had collapsed religion and politics,  Christianity established that spiritual and temporal powers relate to each other most basically as “contraries.”

The speech was largely seen as a rebuke of integralism, a Catholic perspective held by some post-liberal proponents that maintains that civil governance has the duty to order man toward heaven, and therefore must be integrated and subordinate to — not separated from — the Catholic Church.

Hittinger’s talk received widespread attention in Catholic intellectual circles and generated a slew of responses — both in favor and against — in forums like Public Discourse, America and The Lamp magazine. But far less attention was given to a significant development that occasioned his talk: the launch of IHE’s new Program in Catholic Political Thought and the former Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences member’s role as the program’s inaugural co-director.

The program aims to bring together CUA’s offerings in theology, philosophy, law and politics to provide doctoral students — future scholars and teachers in Catholic higher education — with a grounding in the Catholic tradition of political thought, emphasizing “the centrality of conscience, the common good, subsidiarity, human dignity, human rights and limited government.”

The program’s other two co-directors are CUA’s Joseph Capizzi, a moral theologian, and Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher. Capizzi, who is also executive director of IHE, told the Register that he and Lewis have had the idea for something like the Program in Catholic Political Thought since they both arrived at CUA 25 years ago; so it’s not an instance, he said, of “circling the wagons” in the face of present-day challenges from the post-liberal side.

At the same time, Capizzi said the program’s launch is in response to a time of great “rancor” and “political illiteracy” among Catholics, in which many “have become captive to think of politics as ultimate rather than as sub-ultimate.” Capizzi said the program wasn’t necessarily committed to a “singular version of Christian politics,” but rather to a set of general principles, Hittinger’s principle of separation among them, and a general disposition “to be a builder of things, rather than a destroyer.”

Intriguingly, one of the program’s stated goals is to serve as a “clearing house” for students regarding “information about the study of political ideas at Catholic University.” This is especially noteworthy, given the presence on CUA’s campus of another significant figure in Catholic disputes over political engagement who deviates significantly from some of IHE’s commitments: the theologian Chad Pecknold, one of the leading proponents of post-liberal Catholic thought. In fact, in the weeks following IHE’s launch of the Program in Catholic Political Thought, Pecknold announced that he would be teaching his own course on the “Foundations and Principles of Catholic Political Thought,” offered online via the Institute of Catholic Culture.

This interplay of rival versions of “Catholic Political Thought” in institutionalized forms, not merely in an exchange of articles in a Catholic publication, is characteristic of recent shifts in this ongoing dispute. And as the situation at CUA evinces, it’s especially predominant on the campuses of Catholic colleges and even seminaries, which have become places of serious intellectual struggle between the vying factions, with the hearts and minds of the next generation of Catholic scholars, leaders and citizens on the line. 

Another possible indication of the significance of what’s in play, considerable financial resources have been devoted to shaping these conversations on Catholic campuses. IHE’s launch of the Program in Catholic Political Thought comes in the wake of a 13 million dollar gift partially dedicated to the institute from an anonymous donor in 2019, facilitated by the influential legal activist and political strategist Leonard Leo. Similarly, the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government was launched in May 2021 after receiving grants from, among other entities, the Napa Institute and Charles Koch Foundation. The new center’s offerings this past year included a discussion of Adrian Vermeule’s “Common Good Constitutionalism,” featuring two critics of the Harvard legal scholar and post-liberal Catholic’s views on constitutional interpretation and administrative law. 


Dedicated Platforms

The “Restoring a Nation” conference at Franciscan University was also a testament to the significance of Catholic college campuses in this dispute, as its primary organizer was Catholic journalist, Sohrab Ahmari, who has maintained an institutional presence at the Catholic university since being appointed a visiting fellow to Franciscan’s Veritas Center in late 2021. 

But beyond the establishment of new centers and fellowships at Catholic universities, the past year also saw the emergence or substantiation of several platforms dedicated to promoting particular positions in the intra-Catholic political struggle. 

In March 2022, Ahmari joined former First Things editor Matthew Schmitz (as well as leftist journalist Edwin Aponte) to launch Compact magazine, a “horseshoe” publication that challenges the liberal status quo from the Catholic integralist right and the Marxist left. 

Meanwhile, Ahmari’s closest collaborators — Pecknold, Vermeule, Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen, and University of Dallas political scholar Gladden Pappin — completed their first full year of publishing the “Postliberal Order” newsletter, which included their own responses to Hittinger’s IHE talk. The group also launched a podcast under the same banner. All five have also established something called the Bonum Commune Foundation, which served as a co-sponsor of the Franciscan University conference and also presented a May 2022 discussion of Vermeule’s recently published book, Common Good Constitutionalism, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C..

On the other side, IHE added Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal analyst (and Register contributor), as its strategy consultant. Picciotti-Bayer has actively promoted IHE Voices, a group of Catholic scholars and media figures who share the institute’s vision, as go-to media sources for Catholic viewpoints on relevant issues. Among names like University of South Carolina    philosopher Jennifer Frey and National Review editor Jack Butler, IHE Voices include Ave Maria University political scholar James Patterson, who has been a willing public critic of post-liberal and integralist Catholic thought.

In her IHE capacity, Picciotti-Bayer also wrote an October 2022 Wall Street Journal op-ed that accused Catholic post-liberals of “taking advantage of widespread economic anxiety” to advance a statist approach that usurps individual self-governance, a “clumsy counterfeit of a dazzling Catholic intellectual tradition.” The Stanford law alumna has also shown a willingness to directly challenge integralists on a platform on which they’ve been particularly effective: Twitter. 


A Practical Focus 

In addition to the establishment of new institutions and platforms to advance the positions of the respective sides, there has also been a noticeable shift in messaging — at least among the post-liberals, many of whom have moved away from a discussion of theoretical principles to a description of what the practical application of those principles could look like in contemporary American politics.

In fact, Ahmari told the Register that he organized the Franciscan conference with an intentional “heavy emphasis” on political economy, driving home what he maintains is a causal connection between libertarian economic policies and the current cultural decay in America to which many Catholics object. 

Subtitled “The Common Good in the American Tradition,” the conference featured several presentations of status-quo defying economic approaches that have previously been practiced in U.S. history and were arguably more consonant with, and in some cases directly inspired by, the Church’s social teaching.

For instance, in his own keynote, Ahmari spoke about “political exchange capitalism,” a model ushered in during the wake of the Great Depression that sought to “raise up defenses against the private power of a few over the many on the part the many” through promoting collective bargaining. He also highlighted a presentation by the political economist Michael Lind, taking Deneen’s suggestion from the previous day that the U.S. government needed “a new Marshall Plan” for domestic communities that had been left behind by globalized free trade. Lind pointed to the concrete policies of the Nixon administration, which included tariffs and the distribution of tariff revenues to communities based on need, as a way forward.

In fact, when the “right-liberal” journalist Jonah Goldberg described Ahmari and company as “pro-life New Dealers” on the basis of the conference’s proceedings, Ahmari embraced the intended slight as an accurate encapsulation of the Catholic post-liberal vision.

The flip side of a greater focus on practical applications is less discussion about integralism and its theoretical underpinnings. Although Newsweek editor Josh Hammer, who is Jewish, spoke of an “ecumenical integralism” at the Franciscan conference, and Belmont Abbey academic Mary Imparato imaginatively reflected upon putting Our Lady’s likeness atop the U.S. Capitol dome, Ahmari said “abstract integralism” wasn’t the focus at Franciscan because he believes the basic case for a post-liberal approach to political life has already been successfully made.

“We are living under a state that enshrines a certain account of the good that happens to be very perverse and destructive,” he told the Register. “Who can possibly still believe that the state can be neutral?”

Ahmari said his movement is now working from “that premise toward solutions” suitable to America’s actual status. He cited restoring American Sabbatarian laws, enforcing obscenity laws to curtail pornography, and public assurances of adequate family wages and health insurance in order to help workers achieve stability of life conducive to prayer and the practice of Christianity.

“Integralism for me today means the aspiration for a political order that makes it easier for ordinary people to live lives of ordinary virtue and faith,” Ahmari said. “In other words, to terraform natural conditions to make it easier for the supernatural institution, namely the Church, to dispense its graces.”

Another indication of the post-liberal movement’s shift in a more practical — and potentially politically viable — direction: the inclusion of then-candidate J.D. Vance as the Franciscan conference’s final keynote, just a month before the Catholic convert and author of Hillbilly Elegy’s eventual election to serve as a U.S. senator from Ohio. 

A candidate for major public office associating with a Catholic “post-liberal” crowd only weeks before Election Day would have been unheard of only 10 years ago, but Ahmari took it as an indication that there’s a broad sense that “the old formula has stopped working.” He added that it was “heartening” that Vance would “look to a conference like this as potentially a source of ideas and a source of intellectual communion.”


Forming Coalitions

Originally billed as a talk on the socioeconomic factors effecting Steubenville, Ohio, Vance instead spoke plainly about what would be needed to make the political vision of those at the conference viable in today’s electoral dynamics.

“If we want to be serious in the world of politics, we have to build things,” Vance told the crowd. “And some of the things we have to build are apparatuses and institutions that can advocate for the ideas in this room.”

Part of that means building-up coalitions — something both sides of the intra-ecclesial dispute over Catholic political engagement have attempted to do, in different ways.

For instance, IHE has partnered with the Thomistic Institute in its work related to Catholic political thought. The institute, part of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., was a co-sponsor of Hittinger’s Catholic political thought lecture, and East Coast Dominican Father Aquinas Guilbeau was a featured presenter at a closed-door symposium of scholars the following morning, which also included responses to Hittinger’s talk from Thomistic philosopher Thomas Hibbs and the French academic Èmilie Tardivel-Schick, who has argued that Christianity does not entail theocracy, but rather “an alternative kind of citizenship.”

Father Guilbeau told the Register that the Thomistic Institute’s collaborative relationship with IHE and the Catholic University community goes back several years, a relationship that was “inevitable,” given the DHS’ close proximity to campus and the friendships that have formed. In fact, one of the first collaborations between the entities was the formation of the Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship — which, ironically, included figures like Pecknold and Vermeule as instructors in its earlier years.

Father Guilbeau said that his own contribution to the Program in Catholic Political Thought is simply to reflect on what the Thomistic tradition has to say about first principles relevant to how we understand the secondary goods of politics. He hopes that the project “leads to a deep dive into the tradition” to not only understand the current state of politics in the U.S., which he described as “harmful,” but also to “develop proposals for moving forward.”

For the post-liberal contingent, a notable inclusion among their conference presenters was the widely popular biblical scholar Scott Hahn, who already co-authored a book critical of liberalism in 2020. In his remarks at the conference, Hahn made the case that “sacramental grace is essential to the sustainability of a social and political order,” a truth therefore requiring giving a social status to the Catholic Church “that is simply impossible under the rubrics of liberalism.” 

In comments to the Register after his talk, Hahn suggested that Catholics have traded in a rich biblical and sacramental vision of politics and society for a false and unhelpful liberal account, which artificially separates Church from state. He sees his involvement as part of a long-term project to help restore a properly Catholic view to questions of political life.

“If we don’t sanctify the temporal order, if we don’t Christianize the cultural institutions, which are not reducible to political power,” Hahn told the Register, “I think we’ll discover that they will convert us and that they already have.”


Growing Pains?

But while adding a name like Hahn’s might help the post-liberal vision reach a wider Catholic audience, it may not necessarily translate into greater political viability. On that front, post-liberal Catholics experienced a potential setback, in the form of a growing rift with the wider national conservative movement, which tends to be more Protestant, Jewish and even nonreligious, and harbors suspicion of Catholic integralists. While Catholic integralists were well-represented at the previous two iterations of the annual “NatCon” conference, they were largely absent from the event this past September, as noted by Imparato in a guest post at the “Postliberal Order.

Furthermore, the recent escalation of the dispute over Catholic political engagement and its shift toward practical politics has led to fractures within already existing Catholic networks. In particular, the past year saw clear divisions emerge between the “Postliberal Order” contingent and other Catholic thinkers and groups who are broadly critical of liberalism, particularly those associated with the New Polity project and the English-language version of the theological journal Communio. 

For instance, days before the “Restoring a Nation” conference launched at Franciscan, John Paul II Institute philosopher Michael Hanby published a piece in New Polity critical of Ahmari and his allies for reducing integralist theory and foundational critiques of liberalism to merely “the new Catholic ‘brand’ of conservative power politics.” When asked about this at the conference, Deneen, who has previously identified himself as aligned with the Communio vision of Catholic political engagement, said Hanby and those who share his critiques suffer from a kind of “Christian dhimmitude,” which prohibited them from ever doing anything practical to push back against the liberal order. 

Regarding the proceedings of the conference itself, a notable absence among the invited speakers was Andrew Willard Jones, an important political theologian who teaches at Franciscan and is an editor of New Polity. Given that speakers like Pecknold and Pappin have been invited to present at New Polity’s recent conferences, Jones exclusion was viewed as a slight by some. In a conversation with the Register, Jones noted that his disagreement with the conference organizers’ emphasis on using the power of the modern administrative state to advance a post-liberal style of politics, particularly at a time when the Postliberal Order group seems to be positioning itself for political viability, as a possible explanation. 

“You can imagine how, if you are trying to build a political party, having people around who are telling everyone that you’re wrong is something that you don’t want,” he told the Register.

The fact that the post-liberal movement may be experiencing these kinds of challenges in coalition-building, however, may itself be yet another indication that alternatives to the longstanding norm of Catholic political engagement in America are in the midst of an unprecedented window of relevance. But it also suggests that there is no guarantee that a coherent and effective “post-liberalism” will emerge as the consensus approach in the next chapter of American Catholicism. And it’s that mix of heightened potentiality, but enduring uncertainty, that suggests the ongoing struggle between rival visions of Catholic political life may be entering its most intense year yet.

Editor's note: This story was updated Jan. 2, 2023.

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