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Issue Date:  September 1, 2006

The conservative crack-up

It has been a summer of conservative and neoconservative discontent, both outside and within the church.

First, the church.

In his weekly column in The Observer, newspaper of the Rockford, Ill., diocese, Bishop Thomas Doran not-so-subtly equates the Democratic Party with the Nazi Party.

“Since the mid-1940s we have been accustomed to look askance at Germans. They were protagonists of the Second World War and so responsible for 50 million deaths. We say, ‘How awful,’ and yet in our country we have, for the most part, allowed the party of death and the court system it has produced to eliminate, since 1973, upwards of 40 million of our fellow citizens without allowing them to see the light of day. They have done their best to make ours a true culture of death. No doubt, we shall soon outstrip the Nazis in doing human beings to death.”

Doran makes clear he is not attacking a bipartisan “party of death.” He writes: “We know … that adherents of one political party would place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people.”

The bishop is Pat Buchanan without the panache: “The seven ‘sacraments’ of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation. These things they unabashedly espouse, profess and promote. Their continuance in public office is a clear and present danger to our survival as a nation.”

Well, that’s one approach to spreading the Good News.

Meanwhile, earlier this summer, papal biographer George Weigel used his column to attack the retired archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In a series of retirement-eve interviews, McCarrick stressed his “moderate” and “civil” approach to dealing with politicians and others who disagree with church teaching.

Weigel, a longtime behind-the-scenes McCarrick nemesis, pounced. “It’s not easy to know what Cardinal McCarrick means by his oft-repeated admonition to moderation,” wrote the neoconservative columnist. He proceeded to equate McCarrick’s beliefs with those of a Jakarta nun, a Sri Lankan Jesuit, and a Benedictine college president who have expressed varying degrees of dissent with church teaching and doctrine.

In an unusual move, McCarrick responded to the Weigel column. “The column incorrectly equates my repeated calls for civility in public life and in the church with a lack of uncompromising commitment to the doctrine of our faith,” he wrote. “Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who has taken the time to read my many talks and columns would know.”

McCarrick continued, “Not only that, the column goes on to describe the positions of three Catholics from other nations -- people I don’t know -- as if their erroneous views were my own. That is, at the minimum, deceptive journalism, if not worse. It is an old trick of debaters to create a straw man and then demolish it, giving the false impression that one is thereby proving a point.”

On the secular front, three dozen or so Republican members of the House running for re-election are running as fast as they can from George W. Bush and the disastrous war they once embraced. The electorate, however, appears unforgiving.

The war in Iraq is lost. The neoconservative vision of a unified Iraq brought to democracy by the barrel of American guns is now widely seen as what it has always been, a tragically unrealistic notion. Daily, more than 100 Iraqis and members of the U.S. military pay the ultimate price for this hubris. Two-thirds of Americans now consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq a mistake.

The war in Lebanon is lost. Given the opportunity early in the month-long conflict to broker peace, the administration instead gave Israel a green light to destroy Hezbollah. The unhappy result is that the most radical elements in Lebanon (and their equally radical patrons in Tehran, Iran) are emboldened. The people of the Middle East and the United States will pay for these mistakes long after the last American troops have left Baghdad.

Finally, both William F. Buckley, the creator of modern American conservatism, and George F. Will, its leading public intellect, have declared George W. Bush no conservative.

There are times when the secular and the sacred eerily intersect. One thinks of that short time many years ago when the “two Johns” -- John F. Kennedy and John XXIII -- emerged on the world stage together. So it is today -- in reverse. This was to be the Catholic conservative moment.

Weigel’s argument is, in fact, less with McCarrick than with Benedict XVI. He’s clearly not the type of pope the neoconservatives hoped for and had every reason to believe he would be. From both a stylistic and management standpoint (though not on doctrinal issues), Benedict appears to be, of all things, a relative moderate.

It’s worthy to note that Weigel’s column is syndicated by the Denver archdiocese, whose archbishop, Charles Chaput, was the conservative hope to succeed McCarrick in Washington. Instead, Benedict chose Archbishop Donald Wuerl, another “moderate” member of the hierarchy, to head the church in the nation’s capitol.

McCarrick, meanwhile, remains a trusted insider at the Vatican, taking on diplomatic missions where moderation is properly seen as a virtue, not a vice.

Here at home, George W. Bush is now viewed with suspicion by conservatives. He too is not what they had reason to hope for. Wild deficit spending and ill-considered foreign adventurism is not the conservatism of Buckley and Will. Nor apparently of the American people, given the president’s approval ratings.

No wonder conservatives are frustrated. Bush is a failure, Benedict a disappointment.

It should be an interesting autumn.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006

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