Neocon Teocon. Il ruolo della religione nella vita pubblica statunitense
[Neocon, Theocon. The role of religion in public life in the United States]
by Flavio Felice.
Rubbettino Editore, Soveria Mannelli (Italy), 168 pp., 2006.

While often used in the American press, the book Neocon e Teocon effectively helps clear up the meaning for the Italian general public of these two terms that have become increasingly popular in the Italian papers. The former refers to the neoconservative, a term current in America which has had and continues to have major repercussions in the Old World as well. The second term, on the other hand, identifies what we might call “liberal Catholics,” to use a term that will be easily understood in Italian culture, even though the Theocons actually have an entirely different way of thinking.

The Neocons emerged out of the divergence of America’s moderate left wing from its more radically progressive left wing, and were thus defined by it, and they had anything but benevolent intent toward their former colleagues. The author notes that the Neocons champion a form of collective well-being that they believe is best achieved through individual initiative joined to a sense of social responsibility, inculcated primarily through education, rather than by an omnipresent State with its welfare system. The necessary corollaries of this mindset are anti-communism and anti-liberalism.

On the other hand, the Theocons are a typically American political and religious expression based on the principles of social Catholicism and liberalism: Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel are the most obvious examples, though they do not like the label, some preferring at times to call themselves Catholic-Whigs. Unlike conservatives “tout court,” the neoconservatives support social change, but with the necessary gradualism and prudence, which conversely serves to distinguish them from the progressives. We might say that they unconsciously emulate  Benedetto Croce, supporting the need for the new while forging a strong, bold link with the old, that is, with historically consolidated political, economic and social institutions. In this form of reasonable gradualism, the neoconservatives consider themselves the truest expressions of their country’s common sense: a similar prevalent feeling may be found in Italy and in most European Union member states.

It is no coincidence that the principles of horizontal subsidiarity, meritocracy, and various expressions of freedom are all broadly shared and characterise the orders of both the Old and the New World in our century. Croce promoted something like the Neocons’ combination of liberalism as an economic system and liberalism as a system of ideal values, two things that do not necessarily always go together, in the last century in opposition to president Einaudi, who, on the contrary, considered the two systems as indivisible. In Neocon thought, “social dynamism” must incorporate at least two elements in addition to capitalism considered alone: democratic institutions and a culture that defends ethical and cultural pluralism.

The author then goes on to look at the debate among the Neocons, the conservatives, and the progressives, and points out that the element characterising the former is—in the market economy—exaltation of the “bourgeois virtues”: hard work, humility, sense of responsibility, prudence and temperance. Somewhere between exaggerated, egoistic individualism and suffocating statism, the neoconservatives’ recipe, borrowed from the social doctrine of the Church, is exaltation of the institutions that fall in between: the family, enterprise, school, associations. In this framework, the State intervenes only if the institutions in between reveal themselves to be incapable of achieving freedom, social justice, and promotion of the human person (the so-called principle of subsidiarity).

The author emphasises that the neoconservative movement is a multi-faith movement, as it encompasses Jews and Christians of a variety of different denominations. For Catholic Theocons in particular, in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s thought, freedom of conscience is an inalienable human right, and only if this right is exercised can an action be defined as truly moral. They flee from both extremes: traditional Catholicism anchored to the principle of authority, dogmatically coercive, and progressive Catholicism aimed at achieving unilateral irenics with other religions or philosophies. The cornerstone of Theocon thought is the promotion of human dignity, liberty, and responsibility, all in the framework of natural law in the Christian spirit. In practice, those who identify with these values work to achieve respect for human rights and for development of free economic initiative. When it comes to bio-ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and experimentation with stem cells from embryos, the opposition of the Catholic component is not, as the author notes, always shared by all the other faiths and philosophic currents in the neoconservative movement.

In conclusion, we can say with conviction that Felice’s book, written with a clarity of exposition that is not very common today—making it accessible to a vast public—will be very interesting not only for those wanting to understand the ideals that inspire debate within the United States but also for those wishing to reflect more broadly on European society, which is in fact the subject of the book’s important closing chapter.

To us personally, this essay is particularly useful for inspiring meditation and reflection on the bipolar political system that currently exists in Italy, the fruit of a non-critical and untidy transposition of an American model that now appears to be in difficulty even in its country of origin. The “third way” of a form of socially oriented liberalism which is perfectly compatible with a form of religion called upon to encounter lay thought in the terrain of rationally shared moral values, of the sort Pope Benedict XVI himself favours, seems to us more consistent with the moderate vocation of the majority of Italians cutting across the two “Poles”.

Tito Lucrezio Rizzo is adviser to the head of services of the presidency of the Italian Republic.

* A slightly different version of this review was published in 2006, issue no. 3 of the magazine La Nuova Antologia.