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.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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