Friday, September 12, 2003

Fr. Maciej Zieba: "The liberalism that we need"

This post is a summary and thoughts on the essay "The Liberalism We Need" [First Things 40, Feb. 1994: 23-27], by Maciej Zieba, a Polish priest who, like many others residing in post-Communist nations, are "attempting to sort out the different meanings of liberalism."

He begins with a critique of Milton Friedman, "a classical liberal of the libertarian persuasion", who is wary of Pope John Paul II's insistence on the relationship between freedom and truth (as articulated in Centesimus Annus). Like many liberals, Milton perceives the Church's claim on absolute truth as an infringement upon liberal democracy, smacking of the Spanish Inquisition. Fr. Zieba questions whether liberal democracy is contingent upon such a denial of absolute truth, asking whether free society (such that he and his fellow Poles are striving to attain) can be sustained without it.

This kind of liberalism goes hand in hand with the affirmation of pluralism, which asserts that claims on truth is "culturally relative" or "socially constructed" and consequently nobody can really know what is objectively true. Fr. Zieba points out the inherent contradition in such a claim:

Radical pluralism-intellectual and moral pluralism-seems to be the only truth. Pluralism is thus presented as the fundamental principle of reality, the Absolute. Absolute truth is denied in the name of an absolute truth claim that eludes rational challenge and assumes the character of a religious faith. It is not too much to say that pluralism is the operative religion of at least one stream of liberal theory and practice.

While many proponents of radical pluralism are reticient with respect to the Absolute, they do not hesitate to expound on human nature. Fr. Zieba lists the basic tenets of this 'anthropology of pluralism':

. . . that all people are equal, that all people are good (or at least that evil is nonexistent), and that the human condition is fundamentally solitary. Since people and cultures are equal, it is the individual who must decide for himself. This becomes the chief, sometimes the only, meaning of freedom. And it is, of course, a "negative freedom," that is to say, it is delineated by minimal interference by anyone or anything that might restrict my right to choose.

Such a philosophy of radical autonomy offers little in the way of sustaining civil society. This is because liberalism of this nature "has no principled criteria by which to draw that line. It moves only in one direction: it can effectively eliminate abuses of oppressive community, but it cannot create or protect the communities required to make and keep life human." Fr. Zieba cites Karl Popper's observation that the vehement insistence on the non-existence of truth is in itself but a thinly-veiled authoritarianism, "the right of the clenched fist".

Pope John Paul II points out the very the same in Centesimus Annus:

"IIf there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. . . . the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. People are then respected only to the extent that they can be exploited for selfish ends." [p. 44]

This, of course, does not bode well for those who wish to reside in a civil society. "In the absence of communal bonds and shared meanings related to truth," says Fr. Zieba, "society simply atrophies. Liberal theory and practice cannot explain or sustain a liberal society."

* * *

According to Fr. Zieba, liberalism was a rational reaction to the social circumstances of the eighteenth century. The Church played no small part in the terrible wars of religion which, in turn, provoked the "aggressive anticlericalism of the Enlightenment", and which also turned its hostility toward the state, "insofar as the state had absolutist aspirations that monarchs sought to realize by an alliance of throne and altar." However, says Fr. Zieba, we should also understand that the Church's general condemnation of modern liberalism (as expressed in Pope Pius IX' Syllabus of Errors) was, under the circumstances, also justified: "If in 1864 Pius IX felt besieged, it was because he was besieged."

Fr. Zieba contends that liberalism's opposition to religion was in fact misplaced -- that the real opponent is ideology:

By ideology I mean an all-comprehending explanation of social reality that is premised upon an uncritical notion of the true and the good and is in the service of creating or preserving a particular social order. Not truth, but the ideological deployment of truth, is the threat to freedom. Religious faith necessarily involves a commitment to absolute truth, and indeed to the Absolute, who is God. But the religious person should know that this truth cannot be deployed for our own purposes; the truth is not something that we "possess" in the sense of having it at our disposal. When truth is viewed as something that is in our service, rather than our being in the service of truth, it is very easy for religious faith to degenerate into ideology. This can happen despite the best of intentions, and there is no need to deny that Christians have at times attempted to advance their faith in the form of ideology.

We have already mentioned the dangers that a principle of radical autonomy poses to the health of civil society. But is the liberalism that Zieba has examined the only kind that is available to us?

There is available to us another liberalism, however, one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition. In this liberalism, freedom is not separated from the existence of absolute truth; freedom can be oriented to truth. In this tradition, there is no need to pretend to have the only correct solution to all social problems. Freedom is like the magnetic needle of a compass, never immobile, always pointing to something beyond itself.

The "liberal package" (economic, political, cultural) has been regarded with suspicion by the Church, chiefly on account of the dangers posed by a liberalism marked by radical individualism and moral relativism. However, Zieba believes that "a liberalism that is respectful of community and open to absolute truth is becoming an exceedingly important part of Catholic social thought". Zieba sees the Church's appreciation of a new kind of liberalism both in the documents of Vatican II (particularly the treatment of freedom in Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium Et Spes) and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. It is in the Pope's encyclical Centesimus Annus that Fr. Zieba sees "the Church challenging liberalism to reconstitute itself on a more adequate conception of human freedom", which he describes as nothing less than a Catholic version of liberalism.

I selected this article because I think it contains a good starting point to the discussion -- I find especially valuable Fr. Zieba's contention that "there is liberalism and there is liberalism", the liberalism distinguished by relativism and radical autonomy and the 'Catholic liberalism' of Pope John Paul II, distinguished by an appreciation of freedom's relation to and dependance upon absolute truth. It is a point I find often unrecognized by secular critics of the Church and "anti-liberal" Catholics within the Church, and something to keep in mind as we begin this investigation.


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