Is the Pope a neocon?
Back in 2002, I wrote an article at VFR, “Pope John Paul II as the Philosopher of neoconservatism,” which is still linked on the main page. I recently expanded the article in the hope of getting it published at a mainstream magazine, but so far there’s been no interest in it. Since this long papacy seems to be drawing to a close, this is a good time to reconsider John Paul’s highly ambiguous legacy, and so I am publishing the article here.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast to both the liberals and the conservatives, traditionalists see the Pope as a liberal, even as a man of the left. He is not a traditionalist Christian, they say, but a product of 20th century humanism, a man who seems to speak more about the “human person” than about Christ, and a champion of the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council that the traditionalists loathe. They also decry such things as the ceaseless globetrotting and huge outdoor gatherings that made him a pop star; his failure to constrain the rampant left-liberalism in many American dioceses; and—his biggest mistake in the eyes of many—his pastoral strategy of reaching out to the modern secular world in its own terms, in the process of which, they charge, he has underplayed or even abandoned core elements of Catholic teaching.
John Paul’s pronouncements on political issues have also convinced many that he is a leftist. Most striking are his radical statements on refugee and immigration policy. For example, in a speech delivered in Rome on Oct. 9, 1998, the Pope called on all nations in the world to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants during the jubilee year 2000:
A significant gesture would certainly be one in which reconciliation, a genuine dimension of the Jubilee, is expressed in a form of amnesty for a broad group of these immigrants who suffer the tragedy of precariousness and uncertainty more than others, namely, illegal immigrants.When we recall how many illegal aliens are residing throughout the West, and how many more untold millions would pour in on any news of an amnesty (hoping to receive the same themselves), we realize that the Pope’s statement was essentially a call for global open borders, particularly in Europe and North America.
It is not only religious traditionalists and secular rightists who have objected to the liberal elements in the Pope’s political thought. Even the Catholic neoconservative George Weigel, a virtually uncritical devotee of the Pope’s, acknowledges the excess of liberal-sounding “rights talk” in his writings and pronouncements. “Papal and Holy See human-rights rhetoric continues to reinforce the UN-sanctioned pattern of describing virtually every desirable human good as a ‘human right,’ a practice that some Catholic thinkers say confuses the core rights essential to human dignity,” Weigel writes.  Furthermore, if every human good is a human right, it becomes the obligation of government to supply that good. This is a recipe for an ever-expanding welfare state which, when we combine it with the Pope’s support for open borders, would mean nothing less than a global welfare state, which of necessity would have to exercise global powers. Thus, following the Pope’s thinking to its logical end, we can see the Universal Church morphing into a vision indistinguishable from that of the Communist empire that the Pope, in his conservative incarnation, so passionately and effectively opposed.
While there is much to be said for both views of the Pope, that he is a conservative and that he is a leftist, the key to understanding this extraordinarily complex man is that he is neither a conservative nor a leftist, but an odd combination of the two. The Pope is, in short, a neoconservative. The suggestion at first seems ludicrous, and it’s easy to list some of the reasons why. Neoconservatism is an American intellectual movement, and Karol Wojtyla is profoundly a man of Europe. Neoconservatism (notwithstanding the existence of prominent neoconservative Catholics) is mainly a secular and Jewish movement, and the Pope is not a Jew. The neocons have been stalwart defenders of Israel, while the Pope strikes a carefully neutral ground, trying (not always convincingly) to seem friendly to Israel, while also making reckless statements encouraging the Palestinian cause. Most importantly, the neocons favor aggressive international crusades to spread democracy to the world, while the Pope has become a virtual pacifist, condemning President Bush’s assertive foreign policy in the strongest terms. So hostile is the Pope to the use of force that he even opposes capital punishment, a position that the Church has never taken before, and that virtually no American conservatives of any stripe agrees with.
Yet, despite such objections, I will argue that the Pope, particularly when it comes to issues of culture, can best be understood as a neoconservative, even as a philosopher of neoconservatism. To see what I mean by this, we need first of all to consider what neoconservatism really is, above and apart from its incidentals, such as an aggressive foreign policy and support for Israel.
What is neoconservatism?
We start from the insight that modern conservatism, which includes neoconservatism, is in agreement with liberalism in key respects. This similarity can perhaps be seen most clearly with regard to the policy of indiscriminate mass immigration that America has pursued for the last 40 years. Apart from illegal immigration (conservatives are much more in favor of enforcing the law and protecting the border than liberals are), the amazing fact is that the patriotic and Christian mainstream right in this country supports the same open-borders policy as the atheistic, anti-American left.
How can we explain this paradox? The answer lies in the dual nature of modern conservatism. On one hand, modern, mainstream conservatism is genuinely conservative insofar as it professes a belief in moral and national essences that go beyond the liberal values of individual rights and freedoms. On the other hand—and this is the whole secret to the puzzle—modern conservatism is liberal insofar as it defines those moral and national essences solely in terms of individual rights and freedoms.
To take an example, modern conservatives are unabashedly patriotic about America, while most liberals today tend to see America as a guilty party. Yet these conservatives, notwithstanding their patriotic feelings toward America, define America not as a concrete nation and people (which is the way all Americans historically saw their country up to the mid-twentieth century), but as an ideological project to spread equal rights and democracy to the whole human race. This combination of conservative, traditional rhetoric with liberal, utopian substance is the defining feature of neoconservatism. Moreover, neoconservatism is a term that applies not just to the ideology of a well-known coterie of intellectuals and journalists, but to modern conservatism itself, and as such, has become a major force in the world. This is plainly to be seen in President Bush’s global democratism campaign, in which America has ceased being a historical nation whose primary duty is to enhance and preserve itself, and has become instead a mission to free, literally, all mankind.
As becomes clear from a reading of George Weigel’s massive biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, many of the Pope’s views fit into this broadly defined type of neoconservatism. Indeed, he emerges as one of its leading spokesmen. While it’s true that he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and seems closer to the European/UN brand of globalism than the American brand, what matters is not one’s position on specific issues, but one’s overall philosophical drift. And in philosophical terms, it is clear that the Pope has helped advance the same view of man that President Bush and the neoconservative are advancing, not only in their global democratist campaign, but in their championing of open borders.
I will illustrate the Pope’s neoconservative philosophy by looking at one of the most important speeches of his papacy, delivered to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, in Paris on June 2, 1980. In pursuing this examination, we will arrive at a better understanding of the Pope’s ideas about culture and politics, and we will also reach a better understanding of neoconservatism.
The Pope as philosopher of culture
According to Weigel, the Pope regarded his UNESCO speech on June 2, 1980 as “one of the most important addresses of his life. It was very much the product of Karol Wojtyla, philosopher of culture, and included several excursions into technical philosophical language that must have puzzled the delegates who were not simply lost. At one point, John Paul, speaking in French, described the human person as ‘the only ontic subject of culture’” … [emphasis added]
Since ontic means pertaining to being, to describe the human person as the only ontic subject of culture presumably means that the human person is the only bearer of culture that has the attribute of being. This echoes the modern American conservative view that I discussed above. American conservatives say they believe in nation, a sentiment that makes them sound traditionalist, because they are affirming something larger than the individual person. But, as it turns out, they define nation not in terms of any concrete reality larger than the individual person, but purely in terms of the individual person—his rights, his fulfillments, his claims on society to be treated decently, and so on. In the same way, the Pope emphasizes the importance of culture, which makes him sound traditionalist, believing in something larger than the individual person. But it turns out that he defines culture purely in terms of the individual person. If the larger cultural or national whole exists only in terms of the human person, then that whole has no reality of its own beyond the individuals that constitute it. The verbal allegiance to some larger whole, combined with exclusive concern for its individual members and their rights, is what I define as neoconservatism.
The Pope said, in Weigel’s paraphrase, that “Culture had a spiritual core, and could not be understood, as Marxists understood it, as a byproduct of various economic forces.” This sounds familiarly conservative, until we remember that by “spiritual core” of a culture, the Pope is referring once again to the individual person as the spiritual core of the culture, not to any intrinsic value of the culture above and apart from its individual members. (Because the Pope’s speech was written in abstruse philosophical language, and also because the complete text is not available on the Internet, I will rely on Weigel’s quotations and close paraphrases.)
The Pope said he had come to UNESCO to “proclaim my admiration before the creative riches of the human spirit, before its incessant efforts to know and strengthen the identity of man.” This sentence, making man the object of our devotion and the endless enhancement of man’s human qualities the goal of our strivings, echoes the Religion of Man announced by Pope Paul VI at the closing session of the Second Vatican Council:
The religion of God made man has come up against the religion—for there is such a one—of man who makes himself God…. A current of affection and admiration overflowed from the Council over the modern world of man … [The Catholic religion] proclaims itself to be entirely in the service of man’s well-being.Weigel’s summary of the speech continues: “The defense of human persons who must be loved, not for their utility but for the grandeur of their ‘particular dignity,’ linked the message of Christ and his Church and the modern quest for human dignity and freedom.”
While it is certainly true that Christianity raises human dignity to a higher level, the Pope, by appealing to the liberal shibboleths of human dignity and freedom, seems to be erasing any distinction between Christianity and secular liberalism, which, of course, also makes the “dignity of man” its primary value (or rather it used to do so, before liberalism turned postmodern and denied any human essence) and aims at the enhancement of human qualities. One wonders, for example, in what respect the Pope’s numerous calls for the enhancement of the human person differ from the following statement, made by the first chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action in a speech in 1948: “We believe it is the function of government to lift the level of human existence. It is the job of government to widen the chance for development of individual personalities.”
The Pope continues, in Weigel’s rendering:
The evidence that the religious impulse was of the essence of the “whole man” was right before their eyes.… The truth about the “whole man” demanded to be expressed.This is not a bad argument. Modern society claims to be devoted to the ideal of human fulfillment; so the Pope is telling the illustrious representatives of modernity, gathered together in Paris, that real human fulfillment lies in Christ. In other words (as the Pope’s defenders often put it), the Pope is cleverly adopting the language of secular modernity, in order to lead modern people away from secularism and toward the deeper sense of dignity found in Christ. Yet, since culture and not Christianity per se is the subject of the speech, the question arises whether it’s possible to be a whole man without a real culture—and it is precisely the possibility of such a culture that the Pope denies by making the individual person the focus of all values.
Note also that when John Paul needs to convey a sense of concrete wholeness and dignity, he gives up that sterile, humanistic expression to which he’s addicted, “the human person,” and uses the traditional and more uplifting word, “man.”
The account of the speech continues:
The same was true of national cultures. Try as oppressors might, the “sovereignty of society which is manifested in the culture of a nation” could not be completely suppressed, because it was through that cultural sovereignty that the human person “is supremely sovereign.”Throughout the speech, as I’ve said, John Paul II keeps evoking the larger wholes of culture and nation, but only in light of their subordinate function in fulfilling the spiritual strivings and psychological needs of the individual person. The larger whole has no existence or transcendent value in itself.
In fact, the only context in which the Pope does value a culture in itself is when it is threatened by Communist or colonialist domination. This explains why he passionately defended the Polish national culture in its resistance to Communist tyranny, but has shown no concern about the self-undoing of America’s national culture through its attack on its own particularity. In this regard, and especially in light of his advocacy of open immigration, he’s behaving just like a multiculturalist. When a culture (and thus its individual members) is being oppressed, the Pope insists that it be defended and strengthened, in order to liberate its individual members from spiritual slavery. But when a culture is not being oppressed, but rather is voluntarily destroying itself through the same cult of individual rights and open borders that the Pope himself supports, he treats that culture as irrelevant. This shows how making the “human person” the criterion of all cultural values leads to the radical devaluing of actual cultures.
Yet at times the Pope seems to glimpse where his ideology is leading. In 2004 this open-borders advocate plaintively called on the European Union make some acknowledgment of Europe’s Christian heritage in the EU constitution. How typical of a liberal (and a neocon is, after all, a type of liberal) to spend years promoting an ideology that must lead to the elimination of his civilization’s historic character, and then, noticing that his civilization’s historic character is in fact disappearing, be seized by a momentary regret and say, “But I didn’t think it would go this far.”
Similarly, in a new book published February 22, 2005, the Pope attacks the demand for the legalization of homosexual marriages: “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.” Is the Pope really such a naïve liberal or neocon that he only realizes now for the first time that individual rights, promoted as an absolute unqualified good in themselves—as he himself has done through his whole career—are antithetical to the family and to human nature? Once again, as his Papacy and his life are drawing to a close, the Pope seems to be whining, “But I didn’t think my relentless apotheosis of human rights would go this far.”
But “this far” is precisely where the Pope’s view of man has led. Through his portrayal of the human person as the sole focus and meaning of culture, he has undermined the basis for the survival of any culture, any nation, any higher morality, and, ultimately, any religion, including Christianity itself. In so doing, he has revealed himself as less a philosopher than an ideologue, a person who treats a single aspect of the totality of things as though it were the totality, and promotes that one aspect at the expense of all others, until everything other than the ideology has been destroyed. If he’s a moderate ideologue, like the Pope, he will be disturbed at the consequences of his own ideas, but, by then it will be too late.
We see a similar ideological pattern at work in President Bush’s reduction of all political and cultural values to “freedom.” At the core of our individuality, says the president, we are all the same, with the same basic human feelings and needs. Therefore our civilizational and religious differences don’t ultimately matter. Moslem societies can be made into functioning democracies, because all individuals have the same desire and capacity for individual freedom. Similarly, peoples from every culture on earth should be permitted to enter America en masse, because all people long for freedom. With regard to both global democratism and open borders, real cultural and religious distinctions—the things that actually make us what we are—are ignored, as though they didn’t exist. Furthermore, warns President Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, for anyone to say that these differences exist and that they matter is “condescending” (or, as Vice President Cheney put it on the Rush Limbaugh program recently, it is “racist”). Thus Bush effectively forbids rational criticism of his global democratist and open-borders policies—another sign that we are dealing here not with conservatism, as once understood, but with an ideology bent on world transformation. Ideology, as I said, reduces the multi-layered totality of human existence to a single idea, a single, simplistic slogan, and then seeks to reconstruct the world on that basis. In the name of freeing us, it strips us of everything that makes us human.
Traditionalists are not ideologues. When I criticize the Pope’s or the president’s one-sided emphasis on the individual person at the expense of the larger wholes of nation and culture, I am not running to the opposite extreme of saying that the larger wholes are all there are or that they should overpower the individual and his rights. A nation or a culture is not a god or even a person, yet it performs an indispensable function in the scheme of things. That function is derived from man’s nature. Man is a social animal, which means that he becomes what he most truly is when he is part of a concrete society—a society that is not simply a collection of rights, nor a mission to democratize mankind by exporting freedom to the whole world, nor a mission to Americanize mankind by importing the whole world into America, but something real in itself, with its own history, its own culture, its own integrity, its own being. That’s what traditionalist conservatives, real conservatives, are seeking—that the nation (along with the other larger wholes that have been denigrated by modern ideology) resume its natural place in the scheme of things, that the nation once again be something, instead of, as now, being drained away into nothing and replaced by other peoples and cultures.
1. Traditionalist Catholic websites offer profound critiques of the Pope’s liberal and humanistic doctrine. See here and here. I discussed some of these issues in my article, “How Liberal Christianity Promotes Open Borders and One-Worldism.”
2. George Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 860.
3. Wilson Wyatt, quoted in “The Endless Party,” William Voegeli, Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2004.