About Bob Cavanaugh
(Extended Version) September 18, 2020
I am just another failed English major who left college in June 1973 after only one full year of instruction, to enter the contracting field. I left the Catholic Church about the same time. As my business prospects picked up during the boom of the 1980s, like many another young entrepreneurial soul I became a fledgling devotee of Rush Limbaugh and the gospel of prosperity.
My late father began slipping me seditious reading material in the latter half of that heady decade, and this slowly awakened my dormant Catholic consciousness. One influential turning point I found on my own was A Nation of Victims, The Decay of the American Character, by Charles J. Sykes (St. Martin’s Press, 1993). There were many other such literary mile-markers along the way, too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say I read my way back to the faith, with my formal return occurring during Christmas 1994, after having just turned forty, and three full years after the birth of our family’s first child.
I spent the next decade as a fairly conventional conservative Catholic, supporting my wife’s decision to home-school our children, and wondering why an entire generation of my fellow parishioners had all decided to limit their families to just two kids, as if by some decree.
The first chink in my easily identifiable ideological armor appeared when the U.S. retaliated for the September 11 (2001) attacks by invading Iraq in March 2003. In the wake of this invasion I found myself disagreeing with everyone I had been in complete accord with up to that point. And conversely, much to my surprise, I found myself agreeing – on this one issue, at least – with the folks I had previously dismissed as thoroughly reprehensible.
Yes, this pre-emptive military intervention made me sit up and take notice. It served as perhaps my first indication the liberal-conservative dialectic that defines all public discourse – and sees the world as an iron-clad, either/or choice between “conservative” and “liberal” viewpoints – may not hold the key to a comprehensive understanding of our socio-economic predicament.
It took still another decade for the doors of perception to fully open. In November 2013 Pope Francis promulgated his apostolic exhortation Evangelli Guadium (The Joy of the Gospel). It was for the most part pretty standard stuff, the sort of polite papal commentary on “let’s all behave and treat others with kindness” that nobody pays any attention to, let alone reads.
But buried in this two hundred and eighty-eight (288) paragraph document were eight (8) slightly edgy paragraphs that called the merits of unfettered capitalism into question. Mind you, what Pope Francis said in these eight paragraphs was no different than what his two immediate predecessors had already clearly stated. But Francis’ language was perhaps a bit less nuanced than those other two Popes.
This brought a swift reaction from prominent conservative Catholic commentators here in the States. The very ones, oddly enough, who had celebrated this modest prelate when he was first elevated/elected to the papacy a few months prior, in March 2013.
For my money the most intriguing rebuke came from a journalist by the name of Kevin Williamson, who at the time was writing for the esteemed journal National Review. (It would eventually dawn on me this flagship publication of the conservative movement is but one of many respected media outlets dedicated to the proposition Republican fiscal policy based on “economic freedom” is perfectly aligned with Catholic social teaching.)
Zeroing in on those eight offending paragraphs, Kevin Williamson took Pope Francis to task for repeating what he referred to as “some ancient Catholic criticisms of market liberalism.” I had no idea what that meant, so I looked it up.
I learned “market liberalism” is an offshoot of “classical liberalism.” Though we don’t read or hear it directly referred to very often, “classical liberalism” is an ideological movement that actually defines the entire modern era. Its core belief is the complete emancipation of the individual from all previously recognized authority, custom, and tradition – in both public (economic) and private (sexual) behavior. In practical application, this radical emancipation is expressed through “pluralism,” which is the foundation of “liberal democracy.”
And so the scales fell away from my eyes and my late-in-life amateur writing career found its focus.
The Catholic Church is not only opposed to the licentiousness that has received official sanction from Democrats since the early 1970s. It has remained steadfastly opposed to the “market liberalism” (aka, “economic freedom”) embraced by Republicans (and before that, the Whigs) since our nation’s founding.
In fact, Catholic social teaching is the only body of knowledge, the only system of thought, that currently recognizes how both heresies – one “liberal,” the other “conservative” – spring from the same seed: “Classical liberalism”, an ideology the Church has been doing battle with for the last five hundred years or so, with very little success to show for its effort.
Of course tethering myself to such a worldview puts me at odds with the popular contemporary narrative, which sees the Catholic Church on a spectrum from “hopelessly out of date and behind the times” to “a horribly retrograde institution that welded far too much power over regular people’s lives for far too long, and was single-handedly responsible for unspeakable atrocities down through history.” Not to mention the present-day priest sex abuse scandal, that has conveniently come along just in time to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions.
Even practicing Catholics are more than a little embarrassed by what is now generally accepted to be the Church’s shameful legacy. They, too, have come to put their faith in “religious freedom” and the “values of liberal democracy.” They don’t have the information it takes to see the world in any other way. They are unable to contradict the narrative or refute the charges.
I guess that’s what I am trying to do with my short essays: refute the charges. And I make no bones about approaching all this from a working stiff’s perspective, without trying to put on any scholarly airs.
Too many social commentators are stuffy and/or combative, in my opinion. It’s as if they start out assuming their audience already agrees (or disagrees) with what they have to say. So they often settle for what I consider to be warmed-over language in reaching the same old familiar liberal or conservative conclusions.
My reason for writing in simply that I can find no other brand-name commentator who approaches the big-picture question of culture, and its two main ingredients of politics and economics, in a satisfying way.
So what you have here is an unlettered layman who has no credentials whatsoever to recommend him, yet with the impertinence to address grave matters which at first glance would appear to be far above his pay grade.
But I believe there is a market for what I do. Unlike those brash professional pundits who come out with guns blazing, my intention is to sneak up on my fellow commoners in a friendly way, with a style I like to think of as practical poetry. My long-range objective is nevertheless an ambitious one: to prompt the average citizen to reconsider certain fundamental issues he or she assumed were already settled, requiring no further attention.
Christopher Bell, Professor Michael J. New, and the Catholic Vote November 2016
World Meeting of Families, Philadelphia 2015: A local resident offers a layman’s perspective