Monday, November 07, 2005

Liberalism

A week or two ago, David referred anew to his list of reasons for disagreement with Michael Novak and his “Whig Thomism” theology. After a brief email discussion, I accepted David’s invitation to work together on a series of posts elaborating on the reasons for disagreement; I’m not with David on all of them (e.g. the Iraq War), but for those which I’d see as foundational or fundamental, we see eye to eye.

(I also want to note that I consider this a work in progress, and I’m more than open to constructive criticism.)

With that brief introduction, let’s get to it…

First on David’s list is the following: “1. The death of God for our times, for our culture, for us, is Liberalism.”

I see this as the most important of the points, and I’m completely with David on it. So… what does it mean?

Speaking for myself (although I think David would echo me), there are a number of important theologians and philosophers who have led me to the view that Liberalism is Public Enemy Number One when it comes to widespread contemporary worldviews in opposition to the Catholic understanding of reality. (NB: “widespread” and “contemporary” are both important qualifiers in that statement; don’t forget them.) In order of my “discovery” of those thinkers (“discovery” meaning my awareness of their opposition to Liberalism), they are as follows:

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
David Schindler
Alasdair MacIntyre
Tracey Rowland
Robert Kraynak
Peter Augustine Lawler

There are others as well, but these serve as the primary sources for my views on the matter.

So, what is this “Liberalism” which David and I see as such a threat to Catholicism? Essentially, liberalism in all its forms (more on this below) 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. (We see this evidenced today in what Mary Ann Glendon referred to as “Rights Talk”: you can’t have a very significant substantial conversation without someone’s (or some group’s) rights being referred to in one form or another.) This characterization of liberalism goes by a common name: individualism.

However, 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.

It’s important to note that liberalism in this sense 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. MacIntyre explains how there are radical liberals (communists, nihilists, etc.), liberal liberals (John Kerry et al), and conservative liberals (George Bush et al), but all of them are liberal in this larger sense. (The conservatives people like Russell Kirk.)

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.

U
ltimately, liberalism is so problematic because of its propensity to separate religion from “everyday life”. I’d submit that the vast majority of Americans fail to structure their lives according to their faith at an ontological (as opposed to moral) level. Were you to ask someone how being Christian informs and shapes (for example) their profession, you’d be lucky to get more than, “I don’t cheat, lie, or steal because of my faith” (i.e. moralism). What we’re talking about here is the split between the faith believers profess and the lives they live which Vatican II and Pope Paul VI referred to as the great drama of our times. And I think a convincing argument can be made that the origin for this drama is liberalism.

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.

It is precisely because of its secularist consequences that liberalism is regarded by people like David and myself as the “death of God for our times”. If we want to get to the heart of the problem of secularism, dealing with the problem of liberalism is a necessary consequence.

(This is crossposted at Veritas.)
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