Monday, November 14, 2005

On "Liberalism" - Discussion w. Chris Burgwald

Chris Burgwald picks up on the conversation begun at La Nouvelle Theologie with the first in a series of posts elaborating on the reasons for disagreement with Michael Novak (together with Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Fr. Sirico). The first of these posts to Veritas is on the proposition: "The death of God for our times, for our culture, for us, is Liberalism".

The 'liberalism' which is condemned by Chris and David Jones (and those whom I'll refer to as 'The Schindler camp') is "characterized by the autonomy of the individual, which results in the individual as the primary focal point of every form of discourse: political, social, cultural, religious, etc," citing as an example the inordinant emphasis on "rights talk" in public discourse, on unrestrained human autonomy or individualism.

At the risk of stating the obvious, but there is nothing to be deplored in the mere affirmation of human rights -- George Weigel has recounted a story from the early 1980's, when Sir Michael Howard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, suggested in a conversation that there had been two great twentieth-century revolutions: the first the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 (culminating in failure); the second the ongoing "evolution of the Catholic Church into the world's premier institutional defender of human rights," especially under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

In Memory and Identity, Pope John Paul II -- no shrinking violet when it comes to criticism of liberalism -- praised as "the positive fruit of the Enlightenment" the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and a better understanding of human rights: the rights of man as well as of nations, "to maintain their own culture and exercise political sovereignty." He oberves the significant proximity of the French Revolution (July 14, 1789), the proclamation of the Polish constitution (May 3, 1791) and the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America (July 4, 1776), and the "stimulating synthesis of the relation between Christianity and the Enlightenment" as found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

So, I think it is important to note the recognition of legitimate human rights by the contemporary Catholic Church, even as these are distinguished from the illusory rights born of a false notion of human autonomy (the disasterous judicial reasoning behind Roe v. Wade comes readily to mind).

Chris goes on to add that "individualism is not the only feature of liberalism: the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is well-known for his critique of what he calls "the Enlightenment project."

MacIntyre uses this term to describe the attempt by Enlightenment philosophers to construct a 'public morality' accessible to reason alone, i.e. without any reference whatsoever to religion and acceptable to anyone with the basic ability to think. (MacIntyre convincingly demonstrates how such a project is an ultimately futile one.) This, too, tends to define liberalism broadly understood.
In "Beyond Liberalism: Human Dignity, the Free Society, and the Second Vatican Council" (pp. 29-58. Catholicism, Liberalism, and Communitarianism, Rowman & Littlefield, 1995) Kenneth L. Grasso reminds us that if we understand liberalism in the broad sense to consist of that which is "supportive of constitutionalism, limited government, the rule of law, etc., over and against absolutism," it would not be inappropriate to describe the political teaching of the Second Vatican Council as liberal -- what John Courtney Murray described as "a political commmitment, however discrete, to constitutional government" -- a "preferential option" for constitutional democracy (Grasso, p. 30).

But the other kind of liberalism -- that which emerged in the seventeenth century and became constitutive of modern Western thought, which Grasso summarizes as "that theory of man and society that combines a methodological rejection of teleology with an emphatic rejection of any notion of natural or God-given goals," is rightly to be condemned. It is this form of liberalism that is characterized by "a view of human beings as essentially sovereign wills ["unencumbered selves"], subject to no order of obligations not of their own creation, subject to no order of human ends that obligate independent of, and prior to, an act of free consent to strive for these ends." (Grasso, p. 45).

Chris goes on to note that liberalism in the sense he describes it "encompasses the vast majority of political discourse in our country today; virtually all of those people who describe themselves as liberal and conservative are actually liberals in this broad sense." He explains why it is considered the 'death of God' in modern times:

Now, why is liberalism understood in this sense the death of God for our times? Because of its amazing capacity to create and sustain (false) antagonistic dualisms, e.g. faith and reason; body and soul; church and state; religion and life. Note well: I'm certainly not denying that each element of each pair of terms is distinguishable from the other -- that's obviously true. My point here is that liberalism doesn't merely distinguish between (for example) faith and reason: rather, it puts them in opposition to one another at a fundamental level.

What we're talking about here is secularism: the view that denies religion's intrinsically pervasive nature. Secularism tries to create the "naked public square," i.e. to make religion a purely private matter without bearing and impact on the public life of a nation. I would argue that secularism is one of the logical consequences of liberalism, in spite of the fact that some liberals (e.g. conservative liberals) might themselves be vociferous opponents of secularism. In other words, there is a logic of liberalism which inexorably works itself out, whatever the positive and good intentions of individual liberals.

I find that definitions are key to this discussion. "Liberalism," as Fr. Neuhaus wryly notes in his response to Dr. Schindler, "is a wonderfully pliant term." It runs the gambit from the the laissez-faire economic liberalism (condemned by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum) to the libertarianism "which remains in the largest part a thought experiment for college sophomores of all ages" -- and one has only to take a survey of the many varieties of liberalism through the ages to notice the distinctions between them.

A number of the sources I have mentioned this past week in the context of our discussion here and at La Nouvelle Theologie concern those scholars who demonstrate that the thought of our founding fathers on the interaction of 'faith and reason', 'church and state,' 'religion and life' is a far cry from the secularism of contemporary liberals. While the experience of strife between religions motivated them to establish a boundary between 'church and state', their writings reveal that they did not see them in mutual opposition. (Indeed, they would likely be rolling in their graves at the antics of the ACLU). Likewise, they demonstrate that the founding principles of this nation have far more in common with Catholic tradition than some today would care to admit.

Among such resources cited are: Fr. Hunter ("Catholics and the Republic"), Fr. John C. Rager ("Catholic Sources of the Declaration"), the reflections of Fr. John Courtney Murray, the contemmporary research of Michael Novak (On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding), and -- thanks to David Jones for the introduction -- Scott McDermott (on the person of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence). Novak's On Two Wings stands out as one of the best compilations of the founders' real thought on religion in public life -- one that he "wanted to write for some forty years," if not for his ignorance, "convential (but mistaken) wisdom" and the many "erroneous perceptions . . . unconsciously drunk from public perception." I heartily recommend it.

* * *

There are two articles by Fr. Neuhaus which were written in response to the criticism of Dr. Schindler in Heart of the World:

In the latter post, Neuhaus expresses a concern with the sweeping condemnation of liberalism and its implications for Catholic engagement in the public square:
"The burden of the present book," he writes, "is to suggest that liberalism cannot so easily claim the moral authority of Catholicism, and, at the same time, to indicate why an increasing liberal hegemony throughout the world should be viewed not altogether with favor but, on the contrary, with a certain alarm." Well, yes, if, like Schindler, one puts the worst possible construction on liberalism' meaning the American founding, liberal democracy, and market economics. And that is what Schindler tends to do. Liberalism is condemned tout court as a dogmatic system premised upon radical individualism, the autonomous self, calculated self-interest, and human creativity as opposed to receptivity to God's grace. In sum, Schindler starts out by agreeing with those who construe the liberal tradition -- and its chief historical instantiation, the American experiment -- along rigorously secularist and un-Christian (maybe anti-Christian) lines. Those of us who defend the "Murray Project" might easily turn around and charge Schindler with selling out the American store to the enemies of the faith. I am not about to join him in giving up the argument and letting Laurance Tribe or the ACLU define the meaning of liberal democracy.
Both essays are well worth reading, addressing the conflicting understandings of liberalism and the Catholic Church's engagement with the liberal tradition in the thought of John Paul II (particularly in Centesimus Annus (which Neuhaus rightly points out is not so much a document on economic questions as it is about the nature of the free society).

As there is too much in Neuhaus' dual response to simply recount in the space of this blog, I recommend reading them with Chris Burgwald's post in mind, along with the recent discussions with David Jones and company.

Next Post: Religious Convictions in Public Discourse


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