Lutheran Approaches to Catholicism: Neuhaus vs. Bonhoeffer

September 1988By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR. He is the author of On Synthesizing Marxism and Christianity and From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back.

The Catholic Moment: The Para­dox of the Church in the Post­modern World.  By Richard John Neuhaus. Harper & Row. 292 pages. $19.95.

The Cost of Discipleship.  By Die­trich Bonhoeffer. Collier/MacmilIan. 352 pages. $5.95.



The reissue of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (as part of Collier’s Christian Cornerstone Library, along with J.B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, all for a bargain of $12.95) is a welcome event. Bonhoeffer’s book, while not specifically addressed to Catholics, is nonetheless essen­tially an ongoing blessing to Catholics, while Neuhaus’s The Catholic Moment, though geared directly to Catholics, is much more of a mixed blessing.

Richard John Neuhaus is, among other things, a Lutheran spokesman for “neoconservatism.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, neoconservatism was vir­tually synonymous with intellec­tual creativity, as it set for itself the task of charting a new course — away from the inanities of the New Left, the tired nostrums of liberalism, and the flag-and-money obsessions of conventional conservatism. It was a tall order, and it was not to be. Even more so than Anglicanism, neoconserv­atism proved to be a half-way house on the road to somewhere else. With a few exceptions, the ex-leftist neoconservatives would, one by one, join in the Conserva­tive Celebration of America which swept over us in the 1980s. But what neoconservatism would lose in terms of originality and intel­lectual vitality, it would gain in national visibility.

If Neuhaus is essentially a conventional conservative today, he is nonetheless a brilliant po­lemicist, and if his new book isn’t animated with fresh and exciting ideas, it nevertheless contains a reasonable quota of pithy and significant observations. Because The Catholic Moment is written by a Richard John Neuhaus it cannot be ignored by Catholics; nor should it be overlooked by Protestants.

Many will find this book cleverly nuanced, which it is, but it is also laborious and awkward. Its awkwardness can perhaps on­ly be understood by fathoming the author’s underlying purpose in writing it — which is not explicitly avowed, but is easily in­tuited.

While Neuhaus says his pur­pose is to help “good Catholics” find a way to be “true Ameri­cans” because they are good Catholics, there seems to be a deeper purpose, which he inad­vertently states in a different context when he notes that those, “whether Roman Catholic or not,” who are leading the “con­servative assault” on liberal Ca­tholicism “are keenly aware of the stakes in bringing over to their side the world’s oldest and most inescapable symbol of mor­al legitimation, not to mention the more than fifty million Americans who profess allegiance to it.”

Here is the author’s prob­lem: How does a conservative and a Lutheran write a book that seeks to bolster the assault of conservative Catholics, while the author refuses to become one himself, and which critiques lib­eral Catholics, many of whom hold essentially Lutheran (or Protestant) views? He does it with much sweat, and even a lit­tle nerve.

Not surprisingly, this book is a rambling tribute to “para­dox” — not least as enshrined in the subtitle. The book slips and slides with on the one hands and on the other hands. But Neu­haus’s sense of paradox can run the risk of collapsing into painful contradiction. Hence, in justify­ing his outsider’s book about Catholicism, Neuhaus says that ecumenism “means that no church’s business is entirely its own”; but later he tells us that “we can only know a tradition by immersing ourselves in a tradi­tion, by submitting ourselves to the doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical ‘rules’ of a tradition.” By this latter standard, Neuhaus, who stands outside the Catholic tradi­tion and does not accept its rules, has disqualified himself from writing a book on Catholicism.

However awkward this book is, it isn’t really confusing and it won’t be misunderstood as long as the reader gets one thing clear: Neuhaus is making a brief for a conservative Catholicism, not orthodox Catholicism. There can be a whale of a difference, but most people don’t under­stand this. Conservative Catholics who only sift through this book for debater’s points in the ongo­ing conservative/liberal wars will likely assume Neuhaus is a cham­pion of orthodox Catholicism, even a likely convert — but he isn’t either one.

The authority of the Magis­terium — i.e., the teaching office by which the Catholic Church de­fines orthodoxy — is insignificant to Neuhaus. Says he: “The pres­ent Roman Catholic preoccupa­tion with church authority is theologically debased.… because it fixes attention not upon the truth claims derived from God’s self-revelation but upon who is authorized to set the rules for ad­dressing such truths, if indeed they are truths.” He denigrates what he calls “the package theo­ry of Catholicism,” namely, the view that “once the question of ‘obedience to Peter’ is settled, ev­erything else falls into line.” However crudely stated, this is essentially the orthodox self-un­derstanding of Catholicism, and it is, says Neuhaus, “of almost no theological interest whatever.”

What is of “momentous im­port” to Neuhaus is liberation theology, which, in its extreme forms, he correctly and valuably accuses of propagating “another gospel.” But liberation theology not only often challenges the integrity of the Gospel, it also chal­lenges (in various ways, depend­ing on the brand under consider­ation) liberal capitalism in gener­al and America in particular, which Neuhaus supports unstintingly.

Neuhaus is astute enough to realize that Catholic social teach­ing does not endorse liberal capi­talism or America — though this realization, which makes him jit­tery, dims at those times when his partisan purposes get the bet­ter of him. But Neuhaus is honest enough to state that conservative Catholics who stand with the “package theory of Catholicism” often don’t in fact adhere to the whole package. Especially when it comes to politico-economic is­sues, “their own submission” to Church teaching “may be some­what selective. (Mater Si! Magistra No!)”

Indeed, Neuhaus’s position is basically this selfsame “Mater Si! Magistra No!” (namely, yes, the Church is our mother, but no, she isn’t our teacher). Of course, as a Lutheran, he is free to endorse that position without falling into hypocrisy.

At most, Neuhaus allows that official Catholic teaching should be taken “seriously” — but this is faint praise, for there are few dissident Catholic theolo­gians who wouldn’t concede as much. What Neuhaus will not al­low is that the Church teaches with authority, not to mention the authority which commands assent.

However antipapal Neuhaus is in theory, he doesn’t adopt the standard antipapalist agenda in practice. He doesn’t want to scold the Church for not changing her teaching on birth control, the in­dissolubility of marriage, and such — which gives Neuhaus’s book a deceptively orthodox aura. This quietness, however, is not a fruit of assent, but, as we’ve seen, of disinterest. Neuhaus tends to regard the controversy over such issues as “not a deliberation about truths but a contes­tation over power” — i.e., about who (the dissident theologians or the Holy See?) gets to set the rules. As controversies go, much more important, by his lights, is promoting the cause of America and liberal capitalism, and battl­ing “the Left” generally. Hence, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

According to Neuhaus, or­thodox Catholicism makes “an idol of the institution and author­ity of the Roman Catholic Church” and is as such a “threat to the Christian faith”; yet liber­ation theology poses a “greater threat.” Hence, for Neuhaus or­thodox Catholics can perhaps be important allies in the battle against a common foe. And one treats potential allies, however misguided, very gingerly.

Pastor Neuhaus reminds me of no one so much as a conserva­tive Anglican priest-friend of mine who does not want to see — at least not under present cir­cumstances — the Catholic Church change her positions on birth control, compulsory celiba­cy, or papal infallibility. For if she did, she would be capitulat­ing to “them” — viz., the liberals, the Enemy. Never mind that this Anglican cleric is married, prac­tices birth control, and will never accept papal infallibility. Those issues are not considered signifi­cant as such — of course, an or­thodox Catholic would beg to differ.

One big problem for Neu­haus, in trying to mobilize the “authority” (which he rejects) of the Roman Catholic “institution” (which he considers an idol) for the cause of liberal capitalism and the West, is that said author­ity and said institution show no signs of wanting to join such a crusade. This vexes Neuhaus. It’s as if he just can’t fathom how an institution which is so conservative in some respects can be so unconservative in others. Of course, if, as Neuhaus says, “we can only know a tradition by im­mersing ourselves in a tradition, by submitting ourselves to the doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical ‘rules’ of a tradition,” it is readi­ly apparent why Neuhaus doesn’t “get it.”

But instead of keeping quiet here, Neuhaus chooses to do some scolding from his outsider’s perch: Pope John Paul doesn’t really appreciate the liberal dem­ocratic institutions of the West. His understanding of freedom is too statist; it is too concerned with freedom for and insufficient­ly attentive to freedom from. The Holy Father isn’t attuned to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and he probably hasn’t read de Tocqueville on democracy in America.

And worse: John Paul is in­sufficiently anti-communist. Says Neuhaus: “As is his habit, John Paul tends to suggest a mor­al equivalence between capital­ism and socialist collectivism [Marxism-Leninism].” Of course, with the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, which was released after this book was published, John Paul does more than “sug­gest” moral equivalence, he can be understood to assert it.

How does Neuhaus try to salvage John Paul for the liberal capitalist agenda? Well, try some “higher criticism”: John Paul doesn’t really mean what he says. So, the Pope’s strictures against capitalism in Laborem Exercens are merely against a capitalism “that is nowhere taught and prac­ticed.” But Neuhaus’s tactic doesn’t persuade: it is wholly im­plausible that John Paul would bother to write an encyclical de­nouncing something which doesn’t exist.

Neuhaus emphasizes those passages in Laborem Exercens where the Pope refers to capital­ism as “rigid” capitalism. Says Neuhaus: rigid capitalism “might be pertinent to the capitalism — or at least the caricature of the capitalism — practiced by Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan in the last century. It has little bearing on the democratic capitalism prac­ticed” in the West today. One would think, then, that the Pope would refer to rigid capitalism in the past tense; but actually he refers to it in the present tense. Says he: “‘rigid’ capitalism con­tinues to remain unacceptable” and “should undergo a construc­tive revision both in theory and practice”; indeed, it must “un­dergo continual revision” (para. 15). It is quite clear from the Pope’s wording that rigid capital­ism is a thing of the present, not just of the past. Moreover, when John Paul means to refer to a past form of capitalism he (logi­cally) calls it “early capitalism” (see para. 7). Not surprisingly, in his later encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the Pope says that both the East and West are cur­rently “sustained by rigid ideolo­gies” (para. 36). Sorry, Pastor Neuhaus, but the Pontiff does mean what he says and the capi­talism of today does qualify as rigid capitalism in his mind.

If today’s capitalism is rigid, toward what end should it be continually revised? In Laborem Exercens, John Paul identifies the goal, with qualifications, as “various forms of neocapitalism or collectivism” (para. 8), and without qualifications, as “satis­factory socialization” (para. 14) and “personalism” (para. 15). What the Pope is calling for is not state ownership and control, which he usually regards as un­satisfactory socialization (I say “usually” because in para. 15 he explicitly allows for state owner­ship in certain cases). Rather, he is aiming toward workers sharing in the ownership and manage­ment of enterprises, regardless of whether those enterprises are owned “privately,” “governmentally,” or in some other fashion. This solution can be called various things, as the Pope himself indi­cates, but it is clear that it is neither the predominant form of capitalism in today’s world (rigid capitalism) nor the predominant form of communism at this time (rigid socialism). While it is not merely a third way between rigid capitalism and rigid socialism, it can be understood as a third way in the sense of being “a category of its own” (Sollicitudo Rei So­Cialis, para. 41). In this sense it might tentatively be conceived of as, among other things, combin­ing attenuated forms of capital­ism and socialism, because it joins capitalism’s market forces with socialism’s rejection of the essen­tial sovereignty of the capitalist or private investor over produc­tive property.

Neuhaus is fascinated by the apparent Americanization of Catholicism in the U.S. And why not? Neuhaus is a Lutheran, and Lutheranism is an archetypically national form of Christianity. Here his Lutheranism and his conservatism dovetail nicely. As a conservative, he is not much in­terested in the Americanization of Catholicism which takes the form of anti-Roman rebellions over issues such as birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. No, he’s interested in a different, a political, form of anti-Roman Americanization — a Catholic embrace of America’s liberal cap­italist institutions.

In this sense, he is working toward a situation where being a “true American” and a “good Catholic” are “not antinomies at all.” Declaring that Americaniza­tion “is inevitable” anyhow, he adds that “there is no reason why it should not be acknowledg­ed as imperative, as is ‘indigenization’ and ‘inculturation’ for the church in Third World coun­tries.” Indeed, “the hoped-for goal…is being a true American because one is a good Catholic.” These are jarring assertions, espe­cially coming as they do after a long chapter directed against those liberation theologians who zealously maintain that one should be a true revolutionary because one is a good Catholic.

Yet, Neuhaus sees a differ­ence. Liberation theologians say an unequivocal “yes” to the liberationist agenda while Neuhaus claims he is saying a “yes and no” to the liberal capitalist agenda. But while we get plenty of ap­proval for liberal capitalism in this book, when a “no” is report­ed on, from the Pope no less, Neuhaus informs us that the Pope is ill-informed.

But Neuhaus can be read to mean that his “no” is transcen­dental. Unlike many liberation theologians, Neuhaus doesn’t re­duce the transcendent or the eschatological to the political. This is indeed the saving grace in Neuhaus’s world view. But in an­other sense his stance can be de­ceptively benign. It is relatively easy for faithful, informed Chris­tians to see how the liberation theologian’s embrace of Marxism is a betrayal of the faith. The greater danger may well be the erastian embrace of “My Coun­try,” for, both historically and contemporaneously, nationalism is a stronger force in the world than ideological Marxism. The se­ductions involved in the Constantinian “God and Country” syn­drome can be most beguiling. As C.S. Lewis would tell you, the devil is a clever fellow; he often comes dressed as a benefactor.

It is easy to say that one’s “yes” to America’s politico-eco­nomic institutions entails a “no,” but when and where does that “no” become concrete, incar­nate? Neuhaus’s “no” seems so transcendental (almost gnostic) as to defy any incarnation. His “yes” to America is so concrete while his “no” is so hypothetical that his “yes/no” is just too asymmetrical to appear credible. A hypothetical “yes” might only be able to elicit a hypothetical “no,” but a highly incarnate “yes” would seem to beg for more than a hypothetical “no.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said a “no” to the Germanization of Christianity which was not mere­ly hypothetical, and he paid for his “no” with his life. Theologi­cal grounding for his treason and martyrdom can be found in his The Cost of Discipleship.

As noted earlier, Neuhaus is much taken with paradoxes. But there is a key Catholic paradox which he refuses to validate, namely, that of embracing both faith and good works.

Neuhaus is monistically insistent upon salvation by “faith alone.” In striking contrast, the Lutheran Bonhoeffer states what any good Catholic must know: “only he who believes is obedi­ent, and only he who is obedient believes. It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition with­out the second.” For Bonhoeffer there is an “indissoluble unity” between faith and works. For him, faith without the works of obedience is “the deadly enemy of our Church”; it is the cheap grace which abounds in any church that understands grace as “intellectual assent” alone. “In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins.… Cheap grace means the justifica­tion of sin without the justifica­tion of the sinner…. so every­thing can remain as it was before.”

It is hard to escape the ink­ling that Neuhaus’s effort to find Catholic justification for Ameri­can liberal capitalism is really a way of bestowing a cheap bless­ing upon America. This blessing would appear to be, as Bonhoeffer put it, “the grace we bestow on ourselves,” the grace which enables me to “cling to my bour­geois secular existence.” It is all too easy to imagine Bonhoeffer reading Neuhaus’s book and then rending his garments and exclaim­ing, as he does in The Cost of Discipleship, “We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace….”

No wonder Neuhaus finds Dorothy Day “confused”! No wonder he finds Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen’s radical “no” to nuclear weapons incom­prehensible! Theirs is a costly grace. Sadly, Neuhaus is all too eager to accuse such nay-sayers of being part of the “blame America first syndrome.”

Neuhaus says, correctly I think, that we are to say both a “yes and no” to America’s eco­nomic and political institutions. But when Catholics actually do say “no,” Neuhaus wants to see them as “against America,” hence suspect. There is a puzzling and disturbing disjunction between Neuhaus’s theory and his applica­tion of it.

More generally, Neuhaus says the proper relation between the churches and the world is one of paradox: Christians say both “yes and no” to the world. Eloquently and profoundly, he states that, “the Church must often appear to be against the world, but it will always be against the world for the world.” This is “a negativity logically derived from an intense realization of the way God intends the world to be and the way the world is not. Thus the most rigorous withdrawal from the world can be for the world.” Likewise — but this Neu­haus does not want to see — the most rigorous “no” to America can be for America, because the refusal to utter a costly “no” where obedience to Christ entails it may gain America nothing more than “a cheap covering for its sins.”

Neuhaus poignantly, but in­advertently, makes this point in his three sentences on St. Thomas More’s high treason and martyr­dom: “Thomas More was not be­ing ironic when at the block he declared himself the king’s good servant. Precisely in being God’s servant first he served the king best. It is not surprising that the king, representing the world, did not appreciate the truth of that.” One finishes The Catholic Mo­ment with a sense of melancholy, for Neuhaus doesn’t really appre­ciate the truth of that, at least as regards his cherished America. And not to appreciate the truth of that is not to understand fully what it means to be a Catholic in America, not to mention any­where else.

DOSSIER: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus



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