Liberalisms, Left and Right

by Mark Gordon

This piece was published at Aleteia

In recent decades, the supposed divide in American politics has been between two irreconcilably opposed camps: “liberals” and “conservatives.” In the wake of Richard Nixon’s successful “southern strategy,” this imagined division has also been embedded in the identities and self-understanding of the two major political parties, with the Democrats representing “liberalism” and the Republicans standing for “conservatism.” This binary template is even imposed on papal auguries, with some “conservatives” warning that Pope Francis is a “liberal,” and some “liberals” promising that they’re right!

From a Catholic point of view, this divide is artificial and grounded in a misrepresentation – sometimes deliberate, sometimes innocent – of what liberalism is, and, by extension, who is a liberal and who is not. The fact is that in the United States, we have two dominant liberal parties. The Republican Party, far from being conservative, is in fact the party of what we might call right-liberalism, also known as classical liberalism, which is primarily political and economic. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, carries the standard for left-liberalism, or what we might term modern liberalism, largely social and cultural. The disagreement of these two liberalisms on particular issues masks their shared roots and their mutually reinforcing worldviews.

In his apostolic letter Octogesima Aveniens, Pope Paul VI wrote that “at the very root of philosophical liberalism lies an erroneous conception of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation, and the exercise of his liberty.” To modern ears, the Pope’s words may seem like an indictment of social-cultural liberalism, with its libertine rhetoric of choice, rights, and autonomy. But in fact, the Holy Father was discussing the political-economic liberalism of the right, which taught the modern world to deploy the language of individualism, and through it communicated an anthropological point of view fundamentally at odds with the Catholic conception of man and society.

In his book, “Holocaust of the Childlike,” writer Daniel Schwindt summarizes the rhetorical affinity between the two liberalisms neatly: “we find ourselves in a situation in which there is nothing before us but Philistines and Pharisees. One says ‘My body! Leave me alone,’ while the other says, ‘My money! Leave me alone.’ Both mentalities can be boiled down to the philosophy of ‘Mine!’ and so they are both, in the end, adherents of liberalism, believing zealously that the highest good lies in the individual freedom to do whatever one wants, whether that involves one’s body or one’s finances.”

The origins of liberalism are easy to pinpoint. It is a modern movement that sprang from the 17th century Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was fundamentally a movement of ideas characterized by a rejection – sometimes explicit and vigorous, sometimes less so – of the Christian civilization that had preceded it, especially the spiritual and temporal authority of the Catholic Church. As an expression of that rejection, the philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to formulate a rational basis for ethics and morality, including the governance of human societies. Their enemy was tradition, particularly what they considered to be the superstition of the Church. Where virtue had been the principal concern of philosophy from the classical to the medieval age, the Enlightenment made liberty – and especially the freedom of the mind – its abiding preoccupation.  Liberalism itself had many fathers, but David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are most often cited as its founders. Of these, Locke was the most important inspiration for the founders of the United States, the world’s first liberal republic.

Following Hobbes, Locke believed that man in a “state of nature” is an aggressively selfish loner, a fact that inevitably leads to the supremacy of the strong over the weak, thereby limiting the liberty of the many. Locke believed that the many, the weak, then formed governments in order to restrain the strong and reassert the liberty that is their birthright. His notions about civil society, separation of powers, and religious toleration were all aimed at creating a rational society in which liberty would be maximized by limiting the aggressions of the powerful.

But as C. B. MacPherson demonstrated in his 1962 book, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Locke’s idea of liberty was mechanistic, relativistic and characterized by “possessive individualism,” by which MacPherson meant the individual as solely the possession of himself. Where the priest John Donne had written, “No man is an Island entire of itself / every man is a piece of the Continent / a part of the main,” Locke’s rejoinder was that each man is indeed an island, and that the purpose of the state is to guarantee that blissful independence of one man from every other man.

Locke’s conception of liberty, according to MacPherson, was freedom from the will of others, from dependence on others, and from obligation to society. “Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human,” wrote MacPherson, “each individual’s freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedoms for others.” Here is the kernel of both the political-economic libertarianism of the right and the social-moral libertinism of the left. Here is the basis for both a form of capitalism that scours society of its traditional moral underpinnings and the moral adventurism that discovers endless new sexual and social “rights.” Here is the source of religious indifferentism and secularism. Here is the ground of consumerism and the commodification of human persons and relationships.

It was assumed – and still is today in many quarters – that political and economic liberalism would have no effect on the social and moral character of a people, except perhaps as a positive reinforcement. That was certainly the conviction of Fr. John Courtney Murray, the 20th century Jesuit theologian who is today a hero to both right-liberals like George Weigel and left-liberals like James Carroll. Fr. Murray is often credited with providing the inspiration for the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanæ), in which the Church adopted a distinctly American conception of religious liberty. Less known is Fr. Murray’s role as the inspiration for another “council” known as the Hyannisport Conclave of 1964. Author Anne Hendershott describes the scene:

“At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisors and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear conscience.””The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book, “The Birth of Bioethics” (Oxford, 2003). He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.

“Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”

Father John himself crystallized what we might call the “Murray Principle” in a 1965 memo to Boston’s Cardinal Spellman. Spellman had asked Murray for an opinion on the proposed decriminalization of contraception in Massachusetts. In his memo, Murray wrote, “It is not the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong. By reason of its nature and purpose, as the instrument of order in society, the scope of law is limited to the maintenance and protection of public morality. Matters of private morality lie beyond the scope of law; they are left to the personal conscience.” That same argument has been now been made for forty years regarding everything from pornography to same-sex marriage to, of course, abortion.

What is instructive about this is that Murray, who was horrified by abortion and would have been appalled by the notion of same-sex marriage, apparently never considered that the anthropological assumptions embedded in political-economic liberalism and made concrete in constitutional devices like the First Amendment would wash over into the social and moral life of the nation. (For more on this I recommend Communio editor David Schindler’s essay, “Religious Truth, American Freedom, and Liberalism: Another Look at John Courtney Murray.”) But after two centuries, classical liberalism’s very subtle yet relentlessly corrosive properties have done their job. The Lockean definition of liberty as “freedom from the wills of others” has become freedom from the common good, the Natural Law, the teaching of the Church, and even the obligations of a mother toward her child.