Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Neuhaus and the "reappropriation of the liberal tradition."

With respect to theology the neoconservatives and the 'Communio' school are largely in agreement with each other. Both are strong supporters of Pope John Paul II and steadfast in their commitment to the orthodox Catholic faith. As Neuhaus says, the debate between them boils down to the neoconservatives' support of 'The Murray Project' -- square Catholic teaching with the American democratic experiment [and free market capitalism] -- and the conservative critics like David Schindler who "accuse Murray and those like him of selling out authentic Catholic teaching to a desiccated and desiccating liberalism."

Neuhaus clarifies some points in his dispute with David Schindler in his article The Liberalism of John Paul II (First Things 73, May 1997). The article is a response to Schindler's book Heart of the World, Center of the Church, in which Schindler summarizes his argument in three points: 1) to "challenge the regnant liberalism which would claim that it (alone) is empty of religious theory in its interpretation of the First Amendment and indeed of Western constitutionalism more generally"; 2) to "seek a truly 'Catholic Moment' in America" -- after the teachings of John Paul II against John Courtney Murray; and 3) to "expose the con game of liberalism which enables it, precisely without argument, to privilege its place in the public order." Of course, Schindler and others believe Neuhaus & Novak to be implicit in this "con game of liberalism."

In an interview with David Schindler blogged earlier, he had said of self-interest: "Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love." One reader of this blog (Hank_F_M) challenged Schindler's conflation of self-interest with selfishness and greed:

Thomas Sowell (not a Catholic, but an influential neocon economist) in his book Knowledge and Decisions approaches [self interest] as each individual choosing the interest he serves and thus makes decisions on it. While the decision may be greed, it is often to do what is necessary to fulfil ones proper duties to family and society, and perhaps in some cases to altruistically serve the community beyond ones duties. (That is my summery of a key idea in the book)

This reduces the dichotomy that Schindler points out. If we are making decisions to respond to the call of sanctity and love in imitation of Christ then the economic and social systems should operate in a manner much more in a much more human manner. It also allows for intelligent decisions in the face of the fact others will not act accordingly and without imposing a totalitarian an unacceptable regime on them.

Neuhaus criticizes Schindler for having engaged in a similar reduction of "liberalism", putting

the worst possible construction upon the liberal tradition, and on the American cultural, legal, and political expression of that tradition. In doing so, . . . [handing] an undeserved victory to those who interpret the liberal tradition in ways that we all deplore. With John Courtney Murray, I suggest that our task is to contend for an interpretation of liberalism that is compatible with the fullness of Catholic truth. 1

Liberalism, says Neuhaus, is "a very pliable term." Of the varieties that exists he notes the laissez-faire economic liberalism condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum & John Paul II, the libertarianism of a political minority in American culture ("a thought experiment for college sophomores of all ages"), the "republican liberalism of virtue" and the "communitarian liberalism of Tocquevillian civil society".

Clarification of what one means by "liberalism" is imperative in this discussion, if not only because Neuhaus & his colleagues would actually agree with Dr. Schindler's critique of a certain kind of liberalism, or even that "Christian thinkers have been too ready to trim the Christian message in order to accommodate the ruling cultural paradigm of liberalism." Of the many criticisms of liberalism raised by Schindler and others -- that it is 'purely procedural', excluding a consideration of ends (and thus its claim to 'neutrality' inherently anti-religious); that it is premised entirely on self-interest, excluding consideration of transcendent truth or divine law; that it is "inextricably tied to the dynamics of capitalism" and condusive to a culture of rampant material consumerism -- Neuhaus maintains that these are not no much an indictment of liberalism per se but distortions of liberalism, and that he, Novak, Weigel and others are "contending for the soul of liberalism." This struggle is absolutely crucial, because

There is no going back to reconstitute the American order on a foundation other than the liberal tradition. A great chasm has opened between the liberal tradition and what today is called liberalism. That is why some of us are called conservatives. Conservatism that is authentically and constructively American conservatism is conservatism in the cause of reappropriating and revitalizing the liberal tradition.

Neuhaus devotes the latter part of his article to a proper understanding and appreciation of individualism in light of Pope John Paul II's teaching in Centesimus Annus (recommended as an "invaluable guide" to the revitalization of the liberal tradition). 2 Noting that individualism developed in frequent tension and even conflict with the Catholic Church (perceiving it as radically anti-clerical and anti-Christian), Neuhaus credits John Paul II with having "replanted the idea of the individual and of freedom in the rich soil of Christian truth."

Concerning the human person, John Paul II cites an earlier encyclical Redemptor Hominis: "[the] human person is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission . . . the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption", to which is appended: "This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church's social doctrine." (53) For Neuhaus, CA's recognition that man recovers and attains his dignity in responding to the call of God ("to transcendent truth"), can lead Catholics in America to appreciate individualism, properly understood and articulated in 'The American Experiment':

This is not individualism in the pejorative sense, but it is commensurable with the modern achievement of the idea of the individual. It is commensurable with the constituting ideas of the American experiment, in which the state is understood to be in the service of freedom, and freedom is understood as what the Founders called "ordered liberty"—liberty ordered to the truth. And there are, as the Declaration of Independence declares, "self-evident truths" that ground such freedom and direct it to the transcendent ends of "Nature and Nature's God."

Theistic references in the Declaration are not merely superficial allusions to appease the public; they are essential to the Founder's argument "that this constitutional order is premised upon moral truths secured by religion." As we can see in the numerous writings by Michael Novak, George Weigel and Fr. Neuhaus, re-discovering the religious vision of the Declaration and other writings of our founding fathers is a critical element of the Catholic re-appropriation of the liberal tradition. 3

Neuhaus' article is worth reading in full, as there are too many points to cover here. Altogether it is an excellent explication of Centesimus Annus and the specific goals of those 'neoconservatives' engaged in 'The Murray Project.'


  1. Referring to our very first blog, Fr. Zieba contended that "there is liberalism and there is liberalism", the former distinguished by relativism and a radical autonomy free of moral constraints, the latter distinguished by an appreciation of freedom's relation to and dependance upon absolute truth. "The Liberalism That We Need", First Things 40 (Feb. 1994).

  2. Those interested in Fr. Neuhaus' reading of Centesimus Annus might appreciate his Doing Well & Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (Oct. 1992), or Michael Novak's The Catholic Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, both of which focus on the Pope's encyclical.

  3. See, for example, Michael Novak's The Faith of the Founding (First Things April 2003), or his recent book: On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books April 2003). See also "Christianity and Democracy", a formal statement written by Fr. Neuhaus in 981for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, "to set forth the Christian case for, and stake in, the liberal democratic order."


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