Catholicism and the New American Right

October 15, 2019

Sohrab Ahmari, a convert to Catholicism and an editor at the New York Post, is part of a growing movement of intellectuals and writers seeking to refresh the meaning of conservatism (the so-called “Right”) in American socio-political life. As laudable as this project may be, how closely does it align with Catholic social principles?

The New American Right

In the October 2019 issue of the Catholic-run magazine First Things, Ahmari synthesizes a series of principles that he believes undergird the “New American Right” (NAR). This includes, among other things, “ask[ing] whether or not a new development allows man to participate in common goods proper to family, polity, and the religious community.” Gone are the days when American conservatism fetishized autonomy and liberty, or so Ahmari hopes. This does not mean that human freedom should be constrained by totalitarian policies; but “liberty without ends” and “freedom without limits” are not the proper bases for American politics, at least not anymore.

It has been noticeably easy for liberals, particularly those associated with the far Left, to caricature the NAR as either a brand of retrograde authoritarianism or a politics of nostalgia longing for an age that never existed. Even ostensible conservatives, the sort who have long promoted individualism and market autonomy as founts of flourishing, have taken umbrage with the NAR. Holding as they do to a privatized conception of “the good,” one that is shaped around personal preferences rather than objective truth, the NAR represents an apparent threat to this hyper-individualism. Moreover, political liberals across the ideological spectrum grew indifferent to the idea of the common good many moons ago; the NAR’s attempt to re-center the common good in American politics looks like a step back to some unspecified “dark age” where virtue and responsibility were paid more than lip service.

The NAR and Catholicism

Ahmari does not hide that he is a Catholic, nor does he accept the liberal dogma that religion is an exclusively “private affair” undeserving of a public voice. What remains unclear from his thought and the thinking of others associated with the NAR is how open they are to seeing American politics shaped along authentically Catholic lines. Although the NAR should be praised for speaking once again of the common good, what is that good but a relative good without the highest good, which is communion with God? Yes, Ahmari does focus attention to the importance of religion, but no martyr ever died for an undifferentiated “religion” nor have any saints initiated mass spiritual renewal under the banner of “religion” generally. 

As Pope St. Pius X taught in his encyclical Notre Charge Apostolique, Catholics are not permitted to adhere to a form of politics that intentionally blurs religious lines in the name of “unity” alone. Prudence may dictate the need for Catholics and non-Catholics to work together toward justifiable goals, especially in a pluralistic society, but Catholics in particular must be cautious against allowing cooperation to breed indifference.

As for concrete policy goals, the NAR is still trying to put meat on the bones. However, there is a detectable disdain for gluttonous consumption (“consumerism”) that dovetails with traditional morality and Catholic social teaching. A heavy emphasis on family life calls to mind the teachings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI on political economy, including the need for business owners to pay their workers a just wage in order to allow a working man to support his family without usurious lending and generate enough savings to purchase property of his own. Further, the NAR’s skepticism toward centralization and needlessly complex bureaucratization reminds one of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which holds that matters ought to be addressed locally whenever possible.

The NAR and Anti-Liberalism

There is no doubt that the NAR wishes to distance itself from the predominant forms of liberalism promoted historically by both the Left and the Right in the United States. Whether this is possible remains to be seen. Certainly the NAR is not alone in seeing the inherent dangers in liberalism and the deleterious effect it has had on public morals over the centuries. Abortion-on-demand, “gender theory,” “consumerism” as a perverse national religion, and blasphemy in the name of “free speech” are all but unthinkable social phenomena without the liberal order to sanction them. Further, Catholicism’s retreat from politics is the direct result of liberal thinking shaping the way the Church relates to the contemporary world. 

All of these problems and more were identified by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), decades ago. The moment the Church refused to stand up for the social rights of Christ the King after the Second Vatican Council was the moment the Church started degenerating into the world’s largest non-governmental organization, willing to trade the Gospel’s salvific message for the jargon of the United Nations. Only by restoring Christ’s Kingship, the Archbishop taught, could modern societies be saved from the errors of liberalism and people could once again come to the knowledge of the Truth, which is Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Without Christ as its head, the NAR risks becoming just another earthly political movement susceptible to worldly compromises. It is not religion generally but the true religion — Catholicism — that has the power to restore all things in Christ. The political good, as noted, is not the highest good; temporal peace and material prosperity cannot replace eternal beatitude. The NAR may be on the right path, its instincts may be in the right place, but it must be guided by the Light of Christ which illumines all if it hopes to succeed.