Breaking Open the Liberal Echo Chamber
by Mark Gordon
This piece appeared at Aleteia
About a dozen years ago, in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that descended on the Archdiocese of Boston, a group known as Voice of the Faithful (VOF) was formed. Ostensibly, its purpose was to work for greater accountability and justice for victims – all worthy goals. But VOF was soon captured by the usual gaggle of dissenters, who saw in VOF a platform to push their left-liberal agenda on the Church: women priests, popular election of bishops, changes in the Church’s teaching on sexuality, and so on. In response, I formed a little local group called Fidelity Forum. We saw it as our mission to write editorials and attend VOF’s public meetings in order to witness to the authentic teaching of the Church on matters that had nothing to do with accountability or justice for victims.
A nearby parish had become something of ground zero for VOF in our area. At one meeting, the discussion topic was doing away with the Petrine office, which the moderator claimed was a fourth century innovation. I stood and made a case for the papacy based on Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and admonished the priest who was hosting the event. The moderator, a layman, got very angry and accused me of wanting to “take the Church back to the Dark Ages” in order to “kickstart the Inquisition.” He explained to the group that I was an Ultramontanist who didn’t understand the spirit of Vatican II, and was in all likelihood fixated on my “daddy figure” in Rome.
These caricatures and accusations were not unexpected, of course. It’s what liberals of both the right and left do best, particularly when confronted with the disconnection between their secular, rationalist vision of the good society and the truth about what the West has become and, more importantly, where it’s headed. They really have the same story to tell, and the formula for telling it is always the same: “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition.” Sure, the objects of liberty are different for left-liberals and right-liberals: the former are focused on sexual and social liberties, while the latter are largely consumed by economic and political rights. But what they share is a common vocabulary as well as a philosophical anthropology, which Pope Paul VI summed up neatly as “an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.”
Given their superficial differences, it is perhaps no surprise that both camps fail to recognize each other as brothers beneath the skin. So, in order to facilitate a breakthrough moment of clarity, I offer a formula of my own: classical liberalism equals modern liberalism. The former is the feedstock of the latter, providing both a point of view, as well as a lexicon for expressing it. And the two often overlap: just consider this choice nugget from Murray Rothbard, economist of the Austrian School and co-founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute:
“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus … Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body. Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”
I grant that such language likely appalls most Catholic liberals, both left and right. But therein lies the cognitive disconnect, because this extract from Murray’s “Ethics of Liberty” is in fact the quite sensible extension of the liberal ethos, which at its heart is animated by Locke’s possessive individualism, or what C.B. MacPherson defined as “freedom from the wills of others.”
The logic of possessive individualism reached its rhetorical end-point in 1992, when the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to abortion on demand in Casey v. Planned Parenthood. Writing for the majority, the liberal Catholic Anthony Kennedy demonstrated just how deeply the “ethics of liberty” had sloshed over from the political-economic realm into the social, moral, and cultural life of a nation: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.” Gone from Kennedy’s definition of liberty were fine distinctions between formal-negative liberty and substantive-positive liberty. Gone was any appeal to natural law, much less the “general will” of a still demonstrably Christian United States. Left in its place was a radical liberal ontology drawn on a philosophical straight line from John Locke through Murray Rothbard to Peter Singer, and enabled by fairly standard conventions of American constitutional jurisprudence.
Is that too far a reach? I don’t think so. Catholic denunciations of liberalism have always focused on three things: secularism, relativism, and rationalism. Secularism because by exempting the public square from the universal truth claims of the Church, it sunders the unity of truth, creating an artificial division between private and public morality. Relativism because by adopting formal neutrality toward competing moral claims, it amounts to a rejection of universal truths and a reduction of morality to legality. Rationalism because by making human reason the ground of truth, it does away with the authority of Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of the Church.
To many Americans – pickled in the liberal ethos as they are – these are features, not bugs. I know that’s not the case for liberalism’s Catholic apologists – at least I hope not – but as our Lord promised, “by your fruits you shall know them.” So what are some of the liberal “fruits” we see today? One could point to a dramatic attenuation of Catholic culture, belief, and practice; or the triumph of capitalist materialism, with its reduction of persons to units of consumption and debt; or an advertising-driven popular culture that belches up one obscenity after another; or a vast national security state that lurches from war to war in the name of “freedom”; or the divinization of “choice,” which reaches its apex in abortion on demand; or the pulverizing of civil society, ground to fine powder between the state and the market. This is who we are now: secular, rationalist, relativists all, and thoroughly liberal. The blessings of liberty, indeed.
Some will ask, what about Dignitatis Humanæ? Didn’t the Second Vatican Council baptize and confirm the Anglo-American liberal order in 1965? As a matter of fact, it did not, any more than Blessed John Paul II placed his nihil obstat on American-style finance capitalism in Centesimus Annus, which is another liberal convention. Something new did occur at the Council, but that newness had more to do with clarification and emphasis than a break with the past.
Keep in mind that the Lockean conception of liberty relies upon a “possessive individualism,” marked at bottom by “freedom from the wills of others.” According to Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Dignitatis Humanæ does not embrace this liberalist concept of freedom but, on the contrary, rejects it. It adheres to the classical notion of freedom, which had been incorporated into official Catholic teaching by Leo XIII in his papal encyclical, Libertas Præstantissimum (1888) and by John XXIII in his papal encyclical, Pacem in Terris (1963). Dignitatis Humanæ, while dealing chiefly with religious freedom as a universal human right, ‘leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ’ (Dignitatis Humanæ, no. 1).”
Here’s what Dignitatis Humanæ did: it confirmed that the state, on its own authority, has no right to limit religious practice or compel belief. However, the Council also reaffirmed that the Church herself does retain a coercive authority, especially over the baptized, and that in a Catholic polity, that authority may be exercised by the state on the Church’s behalf and on her sole authority. That is a far cry from the liberal notion of religious liberty as an absolute right, or that the Council somehow elevated the American Bill of Rights to the status of a fifth Gospel.
“Dignitatis humanæ has often been seen, both by celebrants and by detractors, as a text in which the Catholic Church finally absorbed and internalized the Enlightenment – as a marriage deed between Catholicism and liberalism,” writes Thomas Pink, who has done extensive work on the declaration, “And certainly the declaration’s description of the human person in relation to the state is profoundly marked by the outlook of the Enlightenment. But it is a gross mistake to see the declaration as anything even approaching a marriage with modern liberalism.”
The writer Christopher Ferrara, author of Liberty, The God That Failed, has written that “Liberalism is in thought (or philosophy), rationalism; in politics, secularism; in economics, greed; and in religion, indifferentism.” There is today a growing body of concerned Catholics who recognize that this simply isn’t good enough. These critics of liberalism – people like Patrick Deneen, John Médaille, Artur Rosman, Daniel Schwindt, and others – are not hide-bound rad-trads, eager to “kickstart the engine of the Inquisition” and roll back Vatican II. Those sorts of intemperate imprecations only reveal the angry illiberalism lurking at the core of liberal ideology. No, the critics of liberalism are ordinary, faithful Catholics who look around, ask, “What’s gone wrong?” and try to supply an answer. This, of course, is both the privilege and responsibility of Christians, who are called to “put everything to the test; retain what is good.”
The political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed that, “contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself – that is, for putting liberalism in question.” Thoughtful Catholics are taking up MacIntyre’s challenge, busting open the liberal echo chamber and putting the system in question. And it is high time.