Fringe Government

Richard Neuhaus
Richard Neuhaus; drawing by David Levine


The election of Pope Benedict XVI increases, naturally, the importance of certain conservative members of the American Catholic Church hierarchy; but it also increases the influence of some Catholics who are not bishops—who, in fact, have put pressure on the hierarchy. Four men especially had good relations with the Vatican of John Paul II and will have even closer ties to that of Benedict XVI. They are also situated at the contact points between the similar ruling systems of the Vatican and the White House, along with overlapping financial support systems. Two of these four are laymen (Michael Novak and George Weigel) and two are priests (Joseph Fessio and Richard John Neuhaus). I have just named them in the rising order of their probable importance.

Michael Novak has been a deft maneuverer up an improbably jerry-built scaffolding. He began in the 1960s as an ex-seminarian calling for an “open church” and attacking Paul VI’s condemnation of contraceptives. He studied several years for a doctorate at Harvard, which he did not take—right-wingers sometimes call him “Dr. Novak,” perhaps from some honorary degree or other. Then he served as an assistant professor of humanities at Stanford, where he was known as a beads-wearing “hippie prof” and wrote A Theology for Radical Politics (1968). As an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, he worked in the 1968 campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

In 1972, Sargent Shriver invited three young liberal Catholic writers (including Novak and me) to his house to advise him on the positions a Catholic might take in running for president. Only Novak showed interest in this project, and when Shriver ran for vice-president on the McGovern ticket, Novak became a press aide in that campaign. But earlier that year he was at loose ends, writing speeches for various politicians, including a seconding speech for George Wallace at the Democratic National Convention—an odd credential for one who would later be appointed by the Reagan administration as US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission.

By that time Novak had moved from the hippie left to the hard right and written The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). He collaborated with Nixon’s rich Catholic former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon in criticizing the American bishops’ 1984 pastoral letter on the failings of the US economy with regard to the poor, and he won the 1994 Templeton Award (with a cash prize of one million dollars) for the advancement of religion. He was invited to Rome by President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the Vatican to defend the attack on Iraq, which the Pope had deplored and Novak had promoted along with his fellows George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Catholic fellow traveler Jean Bethke (“I am not in full communion with the Catholic Church”) Elshtain.

George Weigel also climbed the foundations ladder to become president of the Ethics and Public Policy…

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