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.