Irving Kristol, Catholic social ethicist?

Several years ago, after Irving Kristol had had a cancerous lung removed, Father Richard John Neuhaus visited him in the hospital. After they chatted briefly, Father Neuhaus, at the door on his way out, turned back toward the bed and said, “I’ll pray for you, Irving.” To which Irving Kristol replied, “Don’t bring me to His attention!”

It was a typical Irving remark: wry, modest, indomitable. For those with ears to hear, there was also the undertone of an act of faith. For Irving, whose practice of Judaism was not strict, was nonetheless, as he might put it, “theotropic”—intuitively persuaded that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (and, as some of us would remind him, Jesus) was indeed the Master of the Universe to which his ancestors in the shtetls of eastern Europe had prayed.

Irving Kristol died on Sept. 18; it would be hard to find a man who, in our time, more vividly embodied the claim that ideas have consequences. Irving was not a conventional man of ideas, however, meaning an academic. During his tenure as editor of the Public Interest, which reshaped the domestic policy debate in America, Irving famously observed that the way to change the world was through small magazines and think-tanks: a bon mot of great comfort to those of us who published in small magazines and worked in think-tanks. In his case, though, it was indisputably true and had been since the 1950s, when he helped launch Encounter, the trans-Atlantic journal of ideas that nourished a principled anti-communism in which both conservatives (which Irving was becoming in those days) and intellectuals of the left (which he had been in his youth) could join ranks in the defense of freedom.

The obituaries dutifully described Irving Kristol as a founding father of neo-conservatism, which was true enough. But that moniker—coined by an unreconstructed leftist, Michael Harrington, by the way—tends to obscure at least as much as it illuminates. In Irving’s case, what it obscured was a combination of qualities rarely found in one man: common sense (which compelled his disentanglement from the Trotyskyism of his college days); empirical rigor (which taught him to look, hard, at facts, like the fact that Great Society welfare programs were destroying the families they were supposed to help); good humor (which Irving sometimes found lacking in older styles of American conservatism, and which he supplied in ample measure); courage (to take on the settled liberal consensus among intellectual, journalistic, and political tastemakers); and foresight (as in the creation of Encounter and the Public Interest).

Irving Kristol lived the last two decades of his life in Washington, but he was New York Jewish to his chromosomes; so I trust I won’t offend his memory if I suggest that these qualities were, in some sense, Catholic qualities. Despite what you will read in certain Catholic journals and blogs today, Catholic social doctrine is not about the infinite expansion of state power into every sphere of public life: education, social welfare, health care. One of the core principles of Catholic social doctrine is the principle of subsidiarity, according to which decision-making ought to be left at the lowest possible level in a social hierarchy, commensurate with the common good: you don’t ask the local fire department to rout al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan; you don’t ask the federal government to run the local schools or the local doctor’s office (or at least you didn’t, once upon a time).

The Public Interest, which was chiefly responsible for brewing the ideas embodied in the welfare reform of the 1990s, was a journal in defense of subsidiarity and in opposition to what John Paul II called the “Social Assistance State.” That, one suspects, is why Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who was Catholic New York the way Irving was Jewish New York) was one of its first paladins (before Pat veered off onto a political track defined by fear of the New York Times editorial board). And that’s why it makes posthumous sense to remember Irving Kristol as a kind of Jewish Catholic social ethicist. I like to think he’d appreciate the title.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash