Volume > Issue > The Neoconservative Catholics' Dramatic Change of Direction

The Neoconservative Catholics’ Dramatic Change of Direction


By John F. Quinn | October 1998
John F. Quinn is Associate Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.

In the early 1980s a small cadre of thinkers emerged on the American Catholic scene. With just three principals — Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel — this group, who came to be known as “neoconservatives,” challenged the American Catholic bishops for being overly critical of American foreign policy and unduly attached to the welfare state.

At the same time, they took pains to distance themselves from Catholic conservatives whom they labeled “restorationists.” They declared that any efforts by Catholics to resegregate themselves from American culture would be counterproductive. Instead, what was needed was for Catholics to enter into a constructive dialogue with American culture. They hoped that Catholic leaders would take up the “Murray Project” — the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who died in 1967. Murray had firmly believed that faithful Catholics could be loyal Americans. He had claimed that America’s commitment to religious freedom and church-state separation had allowed Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and secularists to live together more or less amicably. In his view, the American experiment had been good for Catholics. At the same time, since Catholics were well versed in the natural law, he was convinced that they had unique insights to offer their fellow Americans.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel continued to promote the Murray Project, convinced that restorationist Catholics were overly pessimistic about America. In the past half-dozen years, though, their rhetoric has changed considerably. They have adopted a much more negative tone about America and its institutions. The enthusiasm for all things American that had animated them throughout the 1980s has fizzled out.

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