The Catholic Moment Revisited

Luis Tellez

October 24, 2022


Today, we are experiencing a crisis as a consequence of the long march of Cultural Marxism through our elite academic, legal, corporate, and financial institutions, as well as the hollowing out of the classical model of liberal arts education. As we read in the news and observe in our own lives daily, we’re experiencing the aftershocks of what happens when CEOs, professors, public servants, journalists, and other leaders march from the elite university, which incubates radical and destructive ideas, into the elite institutions that govern culture. Moral relativism, careerism, and a rejection of classical intellectual traditions rule the day. Meanwhile, those who defend traditional ideas about free and open inquiry, human flourishing, and the common good are increasingly marginalized by this new orthodoxy.

Within the context of this cultural disorder, I believe that it is important to reevaluate what may be achievable at the university and, more broadly, to reevaluate what the Catholic project might or should be in the years ahead. In this talk I will suggest that, now more than ever, we must put the Catholic intellectual tradition at the service of humanity, and that one condition of this project must be to overcome the entrenched clericalism of the Catholic Church. This will require lay men and women to immerse themselves in the stream of society, carrying out the great work of cultural renewal and reform. It will also require patience, humility, and a spirit of generosity and equality, recognizing that we are united as equals to everyone else.

In this talk, I will present my comments in four parts. First, I will discuss Richard Neuhaus’s call for the Catholic intellectual tradition to be directed at the service of all. Second, I will outline the intellectual forces that have contributed to our cultural crisis. Third, I will highlight the importance of de-clericalization in any project that seeks to renew Catholic engagement in public life, with particular reference to the prophetic insights of St. Josemaría Escrivá, who called for all Catholics to attain holiness and to carry out apostolate in the midst of the temporal world. Finally, I will suggest that the FEHE strategy, which has achieved considerable success in its first decade, offers one promising way forward as part of this project of cultural reform.

Richard Neuhaus on the Promise and Possibility of The Catholic Moment

In 2003, Richard John Neuhaus, founder and editor of First Things, revisited his call for Catholicism to be fully and confidently the public community that is the Catholic Church. For Neuhaus, the recognition that being Catholic is not just a private matter, but carries the responsibility to order oneself towards the public communal reality of the Church, offers the promise of cultural renewal in light of the serious unraveling we’ve seen in recent decades:[1]

In 1987, while I was still a Lutheran, I published a book titled The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. There I argued that the Catholic Church is the leading and indispensable community in advancing the Christian movement in world history. In evangelization, in furthering the Christian intellectual tradition, in the quest for Christian unity, in advocating the culture of life, and in every other aspect of the Christian mission, this was, I contended, the Catholic Moment. I am frequently asked whether I still believe that, or whether the Moment has been missed, or derailed, or simply delayed. The short answer is: If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be—and about that I have no doubt—then every moment from Pentecost to Our Lord’s return in glory is the Catholic Moment. But the degree to which that Moment is realized in the little span of time that is ours depends on whether contemporary Catholicism has the nerve to be fully and distinctively Catholic.

Since the original publication of Neuhaus’s The Catholic Moment—and even since this reappraisal in First Things—our cultural crisis has deepened still further, with the acceleration of moral relativism, radical individualism, and a rejection of classical intellectual traditions. As a Lutheran minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 1990 and subsequently ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Neuhaus appreciated the leadership role that Catholicism needed to play in the battle to defeat the relentless march through our institutions of Cultural Marxism. I believe that Neuhaus’s core insight is correct and urgently relevant today: the Catholic intellectual tradition must lead on behalf of all, Catholic or not.

Here, I should clarify that I am not calling for the creation of a utopia that is in any event impossible to bring about in our imperfect world. As Neuhaus reminds us, while Catholicism is a corporate reality—what we used to call a “perfect society”—we nevertheless exist as finite beings within the imperfect societies of the world. Rather, I submit that the measure of our success will be a return to a society where God’s ways are neither difficult to learn nor fraught with obstacles to receive. Though we live in a vale of tears, we can still aspire to a life where men and women are free to pursue lives ordered towards true flourishing and the common good.

It is with Neuhaus’s compelling vision in mind that I devote the remainder of my remarks to Catholicism and how its intellectual tradition might be directed at the service of humanity.

Understanding Our Cultural Crisis

To respond to the cultural disaster that is evident all around us—from the sexual revolution to the decline of morality to the polarization and dysfunction endemic in our politics—we must first understand the forces that have led us to this point. In the past century, there has been a long march of Cultural Marxism through the elite institutions of society, particularly the elite university, which has exerted a dehumanizing effect on the political, legal, scientific, and economic foundations of our culture.

What do I mean by Cultural Marxism? It is not straightforward to define, since it refers not to a coherent set of ideas, principles, or goals, but rather describes a broad range of destructive notions and postures that feed on victimhood and grievances, held together more by revolutionary spirit than internal logic. Cultural Marxism is often associated with other terms such as “woke ideology,” “social justice,” or “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” While largely opportunistic and incoherent, we can identify within this ideology some common doctrines.

First, it sees often sees truth and ethics as situational, and reduces social dynamics to crude power relations. Second, it sees history as an ongoing struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, with individuals evaluated on narrowly defined identity groups, with certain minorities given privileges on account of their historical oppression. Third, it proposes that the final ends of society are equity, liberation, and utopia, all of which can be achieved through a kind of totalizing politics. Together, these ideas have essentially become a new religion. Cultural Marxism explains the Fall and original sin by means of a scapegoat (the oppressor), offers a means of reform (social activism), creates a community of true believers (minorities and other marginalized groups), and promises a future redemption (utopia, liberation, equity).

As the twentieth century unfolded, the influence of radical and postmodern academic theorists, often Continental in origin, significantly influenced the elite American university. I note the ongoing influence of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher, socialist, and politician, whose theory of “cultural hegemony” helped form the basis of Cultural Marxism. This theory holds that the ruling class maintains power by controlling the means of cultural and intellectual production through which they indoctrinate the working class in a false consciousness that keeps them from overthrowing the capitalist system. According to Gramsci’s deeply influential vision, revolution therefore requires a long march through the institutions, particularly the university, to bring about cultural change.

But the long march of Cultural Marxism through elite institutions is only partly responsible for our cultural crisis; an equally important aspect is how liberal arts education has been hollowed out by credentialism, scientism, and social activism. Today, elite university education is no longer primarily seen as a way of shaping the moral and intellectual character of young people, forming them in the best that has been thought and said in classical philosophical and religious traditions. Instead, education is presented as a way to promote economic gain, technological power, or value-free models of “efficiency” or “skills.” This failure to view education as reflection on living a good life has created a vacuum that a new “woke” secular creed has filled.

The liberal arts model—which originated with the ancient Platonic view of education as the movement of the soul toward the true, the good, and the beautiful—was promoted in the modern university by John Henry Newman, who saw education as way to develop character through the pursuit of truth. However, during the twentieth century, several trends eroded this understanding of the purpose of higher education. First, the growth of the research university means that professors at elite universities often see themselves as researchers first and teachers second, with the moral formation of students rarely in view. Second, the hegemony of the natural sciences has adversely impacted study of the humanities, traditionally the core of the liberal arts curriculum. In our increasingly scientific age, many humanities disciplines have traded philosophical or historical narratives for “scientific” approaches to their fields. Third, elite universities have largely abandoned their traditional commitment to offering students a serious moral and civic education in values ordered towards the flourishing of both the individual and broader society. And finally, the professionalization and medicalization of student mental health has left professors ill-equipped and unwilling to form mentoring relationships with students.

The rise of Cultural Marxism and the concurrent hollowing out of liberal arts education have resulted in the corrosion of traditional values.As liberal learning becomes ordered toward careerist ends, the university curriculum has eroded its own ability to combat highly partisan or culturally destructive ideas with powerful and morally compelling historical narratives. Values once central to Western culture—the pursuit of truth, the cultivation of virtue, the contemplation of beauty, the protection of local communities—are falling out of our shared vocabulary.

Responding to our Cultural Crisis: The Importance of De-Clericalization

To respond to the cultural crisis that I have just outlined, I believe that it will be necessary for the goodness, beauty, and truth of the Catholic intellectual tradition to be offered fully and confidently to all. But for this vision to be realized, it will be necessary in the first instance for the Catholic Church to overcome its entrenched clericalism—a clericalism that Vatican II sought to counter, and that regrettably has not yet been achieved. In fact, the inability of the Church to implement an effective project of what I would call “de-clericalization” has meant that the promise and possibility of what Neuhaus referred to as the Catholic Moment remains unfulfilled. Our broader cultural challenge can be met if the specific challenge of de-clericalization is taken up by lay men and women in the Catholic Church.

To help clarify what I mean by de-clericalization, it might be useful here to offer a definition of clericalism. In 2018, Pope Francis suggested that it “arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church.”[2] This clericalism is one of the problems that Vatican II strived to challenge, with seminal works such as Nostra Aetate, which encouraged Catholics to pursue “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life,”[3] as well as Dignitatis Humanae, which supported religious liberty and clarified that the “right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”[4]

Unfortunately, sixty years after Vatican II, little progress has been made in terms of reversing clericalism. As such, I believe that the Catholic project still requires a commitment to de-clericalization, whereby lay men and women are taught, encouraged, and supported in leading the evangelization and administration of Church life that can and ought to be carried out by lay people. I am motivated in this consideration by the legacy of St. Josemaría Escrivá, who founded and guided the worldwide development of Opus Dei, which St. John Paul II established as a personal prelature in 1982. Not only did St. Josemaría, as early as the 1930s, accurately predict the cultural disaster ahead, but his work is also significant for its energetic call for de-clericalization. In many ways, his work anticipated the spirit of Vatican II, which made clear that the laity carry out their apostolic work precisely because they are part of the Church.

From the beginning of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría preached the universal call to holiness and apostolate, with all Christians called by Christ to become holy in the realities of everyday life. In 1932, he explained why he rejected the “mistaken view” that governed the ecclesial role of the laity at the time, which was based on excessive clericalism:[5]

There is no reason for the laity’s apostolate to be always a simple participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. The laity, and especially the children of God in his Work, have a duty to do apostolate because they have a divine call as members of the people of God. And this is so, not because they have received a canonical mission, but because they are part of the Church. They carry out this mission through their profession, their job, their family, their colleagues, their friends.

Throughout St. Josemaría’s writings, he addresses our cultural challenge in a way that should resonate not only with members of Opus Dei, but with all Christians, particularly in terms of the necessity of service to the common good in public and social affairs. Just as Neuhaus insisted that Catholicism is not and cannot be simply a private affair, St. Josemaría is very clear that all Christians are called to play an active role in public life, not on the basis of a canonical command but in virtue of their baptismal vocation. He observes that a loyal and consistent presence in public life “offers immense opportunities to do good and to serve. Catholics cannot abandon this field in the hands of people who do not know or observe God’s law or who are clearly hostile to his holy Church.”[6]

In this sense, we can see how St. Josemaría’s call for de-clericalization relates to the cultural challenge confronting us today. As he notes, even apparently responsible and virtuous Catholics can easily fall into “the error of thinking that they are obliged only to fulfil their family and religious duties.”[7] This is a function not necessarily of selfishness, but simply a lack of formation. If Catholics do not take part in the life of society and try to solve the problems that affect the whole community—if they subcontract this duty to the hierarchy of the Church—then temporal questions will fall into the hands of those who do not consider natural law, human flourishing, or the common good. Indeed, the story of the past century is that these questions have fallen into the hands of people who are actively hostile to these principles, and who seek to replace them with something along the lines of the Cultural Marxist views I described earlier. As St. Josemaría puts it, without the participation of the laity in public spheres, including educational and political arenas, “there can be no peace, or freedom, or justice in society.”[8]

Although St. Josemaría called for the laity to carry out their apostolic work in public life—through their profession, their family, their colleagues, and their friends—he also insisted that this mission should not lead Catholics to separate themselves from others. Anticipating the spirit of common humanity and equality that underpins Nostra Aetate in particular, he argued that a properly Catholic mission will lead us “to unite ourselves to everyone, because we are the equals of the other citizens in our country… we share all the ordinary civic concerns, and those pertaining to professional work and other activities.”[9]

Following biblical language,[10] St. Josemaría compared the Catholic mission to “the action of leaven working away in a mass of dough, until it is all turned into wholesome bread.”[11] As he explains:

Our hearts should be filled with joy when we consider that what we are is just this: the leaven that transforms the dough. Our life is not self-centered; it is a battle on the front line. It is to immerse ourselves in the stream of society, passing unnoticed and to reach all hearts, carrying out in all of them the great work of transforming them into wholesome bread, so that it be the peace of all families, of all peoples; justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

With this memorable imagery of Catholics as leaven in the dough, the core themes of St. Josemaría’s call to action come into view: the need for all Catholics—lay men and women—to join the front lines of the cultural battle, the importance of immersing ourselves in the key public debates of our time, and the goal of bringing about transformative change for all. At the same time, he emphasizes that we do this work as equals of other citizens, allowing ourselves to disperse in the multitude of society thereby giving it quality and goodness, and working with humility to pass unnoticed as we complete this work and reach all hearts. After all, “leaven does not produce any effect if it is not buried in the dough, if it is not mixed in to become one with it.”[12]

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition at the Service of All: The FEHE Strategy

In light of Neuhaus’s call for a renewal of purpose and mission for Catholicism, and given the cultural crisis we confront—with the long march of Cultural Marxism and the hollowing out of liberal arts education—I propose that it is more important than ever for the Catholic intellectual tradition be presented at the service of humanity. But for this Catholic project to be successful and to bring about enduring cultural reform, it must be implemented carefully and strategically within the context of the post-Vatican II failure to overcome clericalism and to address the root causes of our current crisis. As part of this project, I believe that the FEHE strategy offers one promising way forward because it addresses the role of the elite university in our cultural crisis, it offers a truly catholic, or universal, perspective on education and moral formation, and it presents a broad network of truth-seekers immersed in the stream of society and dedicated to the quiet but fundamental work of enduring cultural change.

In essence, FEHE focuses not on restructuring or replacing the elite university, but on leveraging the elite university to create a network of truth-seeking people who are renewing culture from within. FEHE is distinctive because it serves this mission by building research and teaching centers in or near elite college campuses; forming exceptional students at these schools through intellectual friendship; networking these students with leading professionals and with each other; positioning them at key levers of cultural influence; and multiplying their impact through a broad network. Since 2012, FEHE has built a network of 26 independent institutes and academic programs at 14 elite universities in the United States and United Kingdom, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, Berkeley, and Oxford.

Earlier I mentioned John Henry Newman, who was a key figure in the development of the modern university. On the crucial question of moral formation of students, Newman acknowledged that, to a certain degree, the university can inform the moral life of students by introducing them to the complexity of the human condition and helping them to develop analytic and sympathetic capacities. However, as John Doherty notes in a recent Public Discourse essay on Newman, “this limited and indirect type of moral formation does not mean that the university will be truly effective or reliable in forming moral conscience… To be moral is to choose well, and choice is the act of the will, not just the intellect.”[13] In recent years, efforts to reform the university have had limited impact because they fail to form students effectively. Internal initiatives, such as free-speech networks or programs that host controversial speakers, often deepen partisan rifts at the expense of students’ moral formation, while external initiatives, such as online skills-training, offer no character- or culture-forming alternative to the hollowed-out liberal arts.

Unlike other academic reform initiatives, FEHE focuses directly on the moral formation of students. In the past decade, FEHE has achieved considerable success in forming students as part of its work to renew the university from within and, by extension, the broader culture. To that end, FEHE’s programs and institutes form students as whole human persons, capable of seeking the truth, practicing the good, celebrating the beautiful, and developing friendships across difference in their chosen fields. FEHE scholars prioritize the student-teacher relationship, mentoring students and encouraging them to reflect constructively on life’s fundamental questions for themselves. FEHE also helps students to learn the value of leisure, friendship, cultural literacy, and other non-instrumental goods that have mostly disappeared from the elite university’s achievement culture. In addition, FEHE programs constructively engage a wide range of Western and non-Western history, religion, literature, art, and philosophy. These traditions give students new perspectives from which to evaluate and critique the default partisan and careerist values they find in the academy and the broader culture. FEHE programs help students embrace their responsibility as free moral agents to discern their callings and decide how best to lead lives of service and meaning. To this extent, it could be said that FEHE embodies a catholic vision, broadly understood: that is, it draws mainstream learning into conversation with the Christian and Catholic intellectual tradition and cultivates reflection on the catholic, or universal, questions that animate every human life.


With the rise of Cultural Marxism and the decline of authentic liberal learning, our own cultural moment calls for the Catholic Moment that Neuhaus and many others have long advocated. This project would confidently and productively bring the Catholic intellectual tradition into the reach of all; it would focus on the moral formation of young people according to the principles of truth-seeking, generosity, curiosity, and intellectual friendship; it would promote true human flourishing and the common good; and it would encourage all Catholics, regardless of status or position, to contribute to this critical work.

For the reasons I have discussed here, I believe that the FEHE strategy opens one way forward to help advance this vision. FEHE focuses on working within—and reforming—the elite university, which is the key leverage point for cultural change today; it focuses directly on the moral formation of students and bringing them into dialogue with the best that has been written and spoken; and it nurtures a broad network of friends that is dispersed throughout society, working diligently and quietly to bring about change. FEHE is one part of the front line of the cultural battle in which we must all participate; there are of course many others, and I hope that what I have shared today might encourage others to reflect on their own contributions to fulfilling the promise of the Catholic Moment.

[1] Richard Neuhaus, “The Persistence of the Catholic Moment,” First Things, February 2003.

[2] Pope Francis, “Address to the Synod Fathers at Opening of Synod 2018 on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” October 2018.

[3] Nostra Aetate, October 1965.

[4] Dignitatis Humanae, December 1965.

[5] St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Collected Letters: Volume 1 (Hounslow, Scepter), p. 167.

[6] Ibid, p. 177.

[7] Ibid, p. 181.

[8] Ibid, p. 185.

[9] Ibid, p. 45.

[10] “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matt 13:33)

[11] St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Collected Letters: Volume 1, pp. 45-46.

[12] Ibid, pp. 46.

[13] John Doherty, “Moral Education and the University,” Public Discourse, August 22, 2022.

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