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Postliberal Catholicism: A Fixture in the Conservative Movement

Max Bodach was a 2020-2021 Young Scholar Awards Program recipient. He is a graduate of Ave Maria University.

Recently, many of the political debates in the conservative Catholic sphere have moved in a postliberal direction. The shift stems from a dissatisfaction with the current political order and a desire to sacralize society for Christ. Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and Adrian Vermeule are three of the most influential commentators in this vein. While their books and articles have attracted much attention, a little-noticed connection flows between their arguments and ideas propounded by L. Brent Bozell, Jr. and his publication Triumph.

Who was Bozell? Leo Brent Bozell, Jr. studied at Yale and cultivated a deep friendship with William F. Buckley, Jr, the godfather of modern American conservatism. His early career was spent honing his skills as a writer and orator; he helped Buckley found National Review and the two wrote McCarthy and his Enemies, defending the controversial senator from criticisms. He then accepted a speechwriting gig with “Tail-Gunner Joe” before ghostwriting Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s runaway bestseller The Conscience of a Conservative. In short, he played a key, and oft-underappreciated, role in shaping the intellectual trajectory of modern conservatism.

However, Bozell diverged from the fusionist consensus (the attempt to merge anti-communists, free-market advocates, and social conservatives into one coherent political philosophy) because of his increasing devotion to Catholicism. Each of the three scholars I noted above are key players in Catholic political conversations, though Dreher has since converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Their postliberal philosophies stem from a suspicion that social conservatives get the raw end of the deal in the fusionist consensus. In raising this concern, they mirror criticisms of fusionism advanced by Bozell more than fifty years prior.

Both Patrick Deneen and Bozell are skeptics of liberalism. Deneen’s 2017 book Why Liberalism Failed and Bozell’s 1969 essay “Letter to Yourselves” inveigh against the failed anthropology and privatization of politics embedded within liberalism. Additionally, they both denounce the American dream as demonstrated in Bozell’s New York Times op-ed  that he published in the wake of his arrest while leading the first pro-life protest in front of a DC abortion clinic and Deneen’s First Things excoriation of the Frank Capra classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Due to their disillusionment with liberalism, both Deneen and Bozell argued for the necessity to retreat from a sinful and decadent American life. This is the same approach Rod Dreher advocates for in his bestselling 2016 book The Benedict Option. Since the Church is in crisis and American society morally corrupt, he offers examples, practical tips and solutions for Christians seeking to withdraw. In a similar vein, Bozell posed the model of “The Confessional Tribe” in 1970, hoping that small bands of committed Catholic families would be the seedbed of a new social order after living in an authentically Christian community.

Deneen, Dreher, and Bozell are united in their criticism of American society, but Bozell also sought the triumph of a more authentically Christian social order. If liberalism has failed and intentional, faithful communities can bring about a new, superior order, then what should that order look like? Integralism, the proposition that the temporal order must be subordinated to the spiritual order, seeks to offer a substantive vision of the common good that could arise within these communities. Adrian Vermeule made the popular case for this form of political regime in his essay for The Atlantic “Common Good Constitutionalism,” and many other Catholic thinkers still debate the precise contours at great length today.

Both Vermeule and Bozell before him were deeply dissatisfied with the jurisprudence of their day; Bozell strongly criticized the Supreme Court in The Warren Revolution and Vermeule propounds a complex amalgamation of classical and Schmittian law, disdaining originalism. Bozell’s criticism eventually backed him into opposing the entire American regime, despairing that restoration of a “Madisonian republic” was not possible. Instead, he advocated for various forms of Carlism, distributism, and Catholic sovereignty. While Vermeule’s arguments go further than Bozell’s in the specifics, it is notable that both harshly criticize the Supreme Court and promote non-liberal political forms that privilege the Church.

The common thread running through this discussion lies in the consistent response among socially conservative Christians to perceived policy failures. Bozell and Triumph reacted to the passage of Roe v. Wade, while the modern postliberals blame Obergefell v. Hodges and other signposts for the rapidly-shifting social mores. But if Bozell can clue us into a pattern in conservative discourse, perhaps he can point the way forward as well.

In his post-Triumph years, after recovering from bouts with manic depression, Bozell gave up political activism and dedicated his life to performing the corporal works of mercy—feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and ministering to the homeless. Seeking a Christian politics of mercy might be the way out of the moral and political thicket we find ourselves in today, and the aged Bozell’s resolute commitment to the least of these is a stark reminder of the demands of Christian political witness.