Patrick Allitt’s study of Catholic intellectuals and their relationship to postwar conservatism is clearly presented and full of stimulating perceptions. Basic to this book is the contrast between two generations of American Catholic thinkers with some connection to the right: the generation of the 50’s as typified by the Catholic anticommunists grouped around National Review and the generation of the 70’s and 80’s as represented by Michael Novak, Garry Wills, and—at least by intention—Thomas Molnar and John Lukacs. Though the reader may occasionally lose sight of the main theme through the superabundance of biographical sketches, the author’s argument holds together all the same. Allitt demonstrates to what extent anticommunism provided the ideological entry point into American national culture for devout Catholics in the postwar years. He correctly points out that what separated conservative and liberal Catholic intellectuals of the 50’s was the intensity of their anticommunism, not the question of who was or was not anticommunist. Allitt also suggests that the pro-capitalist stance of many Catholic conservatives was derivative of their hatred of “godless communism” as the enemy of the West: since the anti-Christian communists were socialists as well. Catholic anticommunists became freemarketeers, exaggerating the openings to a market economy that they claimed to find in antisocialist papal encyclicals like Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno and reading papal defenses of private property and local political authority and attacks upon atheist socialism as endorsements of laissez-faire economics or as critiques of the New Deal.
Allitt shows that such efforts at integrating Catholic social teachings into the programs of the American right were generationally situated; they represented attempts by first-generation educated American Catholics to ease the tensions between their essentially medieval religious culture and their recently discovered American identity. Anticommunism became the means toward that end, particularly in the McCarthy era. It then seemed possible to affirm one’s Catholic and American loyalties as a single commitment to protecting the West against the communist Antichrist. The more passionate their anticommunist statements, as Allitt shows in the case of the repentant communist-turned-Catholic Louis Budenz, the greater the applause American Catholics could expect from their coreligionists and patriotic groups. The success of Senator McCarthy was obviously instructive here.
This Catholic anticommunist American identity eventually wore thin, as Allitt makes clear. The National Review circle turned critical of papal authority after the death of the fiercely anticommunist Pius Xll, and highly literate Catholics, some on the right, began to ridicule the “apocalyptic anticommunism” associated with National Review and the McCarthy movement. Not only contributors to Commonwealth and America, but even nonliberal émigré Catholic contributors to NR, Thomas Molnar and John Lukacs, expressed distaste for what they saw as the crudely American rather than truly Catholic crusade against a communist absolute enemy. Meanwhile, nonbelieving anticommunists like Max Eastman and Ayn Rand rebelled against the “pontificating and ecclesiastical” character of the Catholic anticommunist right. By the mid-60’s, the Catholic-capitalist-anticommunist synthesis incarnated by National Review was at risk. The withdrawal from that front of the triumphalist Catholics, led by Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, who opposed the “liberal foundations” of the American Republic, was an assault from the right on the American Catholic conservatism that arose in the late 40’s and whose attempt to marry Catholic faith and American patriotism through crusading anticommunism turned out to be unmistakably time-bound.
Allitt focuses next on a second generation of American Catholic intellectuals exemplified by Carry Wills and Michael Novak. The pairing is not haphazard. Despite the political differences between these two men that became apparent by the 80’s, the Catholic Marxist Wills and the Catholic neoconservative Novak had shared experiences: both opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War and expressed revulsion for the Protestant America that Catholic conservatives had once hoped to embrace in a patriotic alliance. The relationship of these intellectuals to their Catholic heritage was in any case more ambivalent than that of American Catholic conservatives of the 50’s. Novak and Wills were more openly critical of the Catholic hierarchy, just as they minced no words in assailing the moral habits of the WASP majority. Allitt observes a sense of cultural alienation in these figures, which placed them at a painful distance from both their Catholic roots and their American identity. Bv evoking a pair of Central European Catholics, Molnar and Lukacs, he identifies two unexpected precursors of this second generation. Allitt is remarkably perceptive in pointing up the connections between particular Catholic intellectuals as critics of the American Catholic and American Protestant heritages, finding experiential similarities between people who would gag at the association. Repugnance for Puritanism and Yankee materialism is a persistent trait in all of the second-generation Catholics associated with the American right whom Allitt examines. Though Michael Novak has become a self-described defender of “democratic capitalism” and seems to have distanced himself from the rest of the group, Allitt shows that even this exception proves the rule, since Novak has denounced the Manchestrian liberalism that he attributes to Protestant society while praising the welfare-state capitalism he identifies with Catholic ethnics and Jews.
Allitt also observes the attempts by Novak and Wills to define themselves as “conservatives,” regardless of their differences with McCarthyite Catholics and their own changing political allegiances, and he shows how the mystique of the Catholic right of the 50’s cast a spell even on some of its Catholic critics. For Lukacs, Wills, and Novak, Allitt makes clear, the designation “conservative” remains a positive one linked to their Catholic faith: they are quarreling only with its application to those of whom they disapprove. One might note the dissimilarity between these Catholic intellectuals and the Jewish neoconservatives who were and are their contemporaries. Though the latter might have chosen by the late 70’s to define themselves as “conservative,” they accepted that label only reluctantly from others. Unlike the Catholic ethnics who embraced “the c-word” enthusiastically, these Jewish former radicals for at least a decade could find no social or cultural advantages in claiming to be on the
Despite its many insights and well-edited prose, Allitt’s study has some defects, among them a taxonomic problem. What exactly does Allitt mean by a Catholic conservative? About half of his study deals with the Catholic anticommunism of the postwar era, particularly with the National Review circle and its liberal Catholic critics. It provides engaging vignettes of Molnar, Lukacs, and other Catholic intellectuals who are conservative in some sense. Yet it offers no explicit criteria for its choice of subjects. Why does the Catholic Burkean Ross Hoffman rate detailed treatment, while Russell Kirk, Francis Canavan, S.J., and Peter Stanlis—all more prolific Catholic Burkeans—receive only brief or passing mention? Why do some Catholic conservative movement activists merit discussions, but not such Thomists of conservative political views as Jude Doherty, Russell Hittinger, and Robert George? Why is no discussion allotted to the present-day Catholic paleoconservatives, who fit neither of the generational categories offered by Allitt? The total absence of this tertium quid from his study, even as a limiting ease, is a noteworthy defect. Finally, why does Flannery O’Connor, a postwar conservative orthodox Catholic and a literary genius, receive no mention at all? Some of Allitt’s biographical choices and omissions may be defensible in terms of his theme, but the thematic basis for selection should have been stated at the beginning and subsequently adhered to.
There is also the related question of whether Allitt distinguishes significantly between Catholics who are politically conservative and those who are theological traditionalists. Though some of his subjects fall into both categories, others do not. In the dispute waged between National Review and “Catholic liberals” over John XXIII’s conciliatory overtures to Soviet leaders in the encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), it is unclear whether the embattled Catholic anticommunists were positioning themselves to the religious right of their pro-papal opponents. Even from Allitt’s account, it seems that the Jesuit and Thomist scholar Norris Clarke, writing in America, may have been speaking as an indignant orthodox Catholic, and not as a liberal of any kind, when he attacked the inconsistent Catholicism of some editors of National Review. When it suited their purpose, William Buckley and his friends demanded allegiance to papal encyclicals denouncing communism and socialism. But, as Clarke argued, they did not hesitate to dismiss papal teachings that were inconsistent with their own militant anticommunism. On the other hand, the value of Allitt’s scholarship is that its presentation of such debates is even more graphic than my memories of them. Allitt brings back the near past in a creative, plausible way.
[Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985, by Patrick Allitt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 328 pp., $29.95]