Liberalism, Catholicism, and the Good

My May column of that name is up at Catholic World Report. It continues the pitch I’ve been making that when Catholics talk about politics they ought to emphasize the common good rather than freedom. That way people are less likely to think that Catholic social teaching is just liberal progressivism with a few moralistic quirks tossed in. Some people may be particularly interested in the discussion of the Catholic view of social justice and how it differs from the liberal view.

16 thoughts on “Liberalism, Catholicism, and the Good

  1. Jim,

    This essay is a good overview of how liberalism fails to provide a properly (or even adequately) ordered society: Liberalism promises to deliver material prosperity, freedom and comfort, but even if it could, men want other goods, goods that are not mathematically quantifiable or rationally manageable.

    You recommend Catholic social teaching as the proper way to order society. Question: To what extent is this teaching simply natural law or the common tradition of mankind (much like C. S. Lewis’s “Tao”) and to what extent is it uniquely Roman Catholic?

  2. It’s mostly natural law. The exception would be claims like the obligation of societies to recognize the authority of Christ and his Church, which at present are a long way from being relevant to political discussion.

  3. “That way people are less likely to think that Catholic social teaching is just liberal progressivism with a few moralistic quirks tossed in.”

    But it is! It is! Catholic social teaching IS liberal progressivism with a few moralistic quirks tossed in! Duh!

    • I heard this complaint long before I was Catholic (I think Robert Locke, my old paleocon hero, made it once, when he said that on every matter not immediately related to sex, the Church is simply another leftist organization) and even advanced it myself a few times. It misses a lot of subtleties and is pretty characteristic of what happens when you try to cram nonmodern institutions into the modern left/right paradigm. I certainly can see the resemblance, though.

      • At the day-to-day ground level there’s much more resemblance than there should be, because Catholics have recently been very bad at maintaining the distinctiveness of their own views. Benedict is trying to change that, and events are making the necessity of doing so obvious to more and more people. The column’s an effort to help that process along.

  4. … what’s good is getting what we want, justice is getting it equally, and social justice is an overall system that promotes those goals in every setting.

    There is a tension here between Individualism (“getting what we want”) and Egalitarianism.

    I think most Conservatives do not mind Individualism but are definitely anti-Egalitarian and in fact this is their sole point against Liberalism.

    The Catholic understanding of Common Good has grown out of the Classical tradition and it might be wise to downplay the Catholic element and stress the Classical elements. Aristotle with The City exists by Nature and Man is a Political Animal is a good starting point, as ever he has been in last two thousand years.

    The problem with usual presentations of Catholic Social Teaching is it does not sufficiently stress on the uniqueness of the Political Community aka City. Thus many Catholics seem to be under the impression that family, friendships and voluntary associations provide the entirety of a good Catholic life.

    They lose focus on the City, its nature and how it is irreplaceable by voluntary associations. The City is an involuntary association is the ground where the virtue gets its fullest exercise. As Harry Jaffa says:

    Whose actions have the widest consequences and are most in need of virtue to direct them? The rulers’. Hence morality in all its dimensions can be best seen in the lives of rulers. Private men or women cannot be moral in the highest degree because they are limited in the scope of their actions. Aristotle quotes the Greek proverb, “Rule shows the man.” No one ever knows with certainty how virtuous?or vicious?a man might be until he holds office and has power. Only those in power reveal their real natures.

  5. In reality, liberals support neither liberty, individuality, nor equality. So there is no reason to concede any of these generally admired attributes to liberals. Liberal societies tend to be extremely over-regulated and conformist in ideas, disproving the idea that liberals support liberty and individuality. In contrast, when America was a mostly Christian country, there was a lot of liberty. And there were many different Christian sects representing different ideas. These Christian sects reflected much more intellectual diversity than modern liberalism does. As for equality, nothing provides more support for equality than monogamy does. Monogamy means that everyone can find a mate, which means everyone has a solid family base to support them in life. On the other hand, promiscuity means that a few men have casual sex with most women and most men are left with little. This is an inequality in itself, but it also means that those men who can’t find a wife will be at a general disadvantage in life. The breakdown in marriage is one of the biggest causes of growing economic inequality. That liberals support promiscuity shows that liberals don’t really support equality.

    Liberalism should be attacked for what it really is, not what it claims to be. What Liberalism really is is simply a religion of evil. It worships selfishness, egotism, inconsideration for others, promiscuity, and oppressive government. In contrast to this, almost any other religion is preferable.

    • Really you think consevatives should waste more time trying to “reclaim” individualism, liberty and equality?

      • Some traditionalists may support individualism, liberty, and/or equality, and some may not. The important thing is not to concede these points to liberals who lie when they say that they support these things. I don’t think it is a waste of time to expose these liberal lies. Or at least to take the “most charitable view”, as James Kalb suggests, and show that even if liberals do support these things in theory, their actions don’t in practice.

  6. To vishmehr24: I agree that American conservatives like individualism. One result is that they have a hard time avoiding egalitarianism in a principled way. Individuality is something we share equally, so making it the basic principle makes us morally indistinguishable. I also agree that playing up the classical natural law roots of Catholic social teaching can be useful in dealing with non-Catholics. Dunno about stressing the political City when the City isn’t Catholic. Participating in something non-Catholic is not, for the Catholic, the way to develop and display the highest virtues.

    To Franklin: I agree that liberalism ends up destroying liberty, individuality, and equality. That’s why I say Catholic social teaching is better for liberal goals than liberalism is. The strongest argument is to take the most charitable view possible of your opponents’ outlook and show that it defeats its own purposes.

  7. @vishmehr24

    Well expressed, and clarifying.

    My feeling is that *Roman* Catholicism is severely impaired by its insistence on The Church as The City of God – and the consequent separation of Church and State (of cours, this applies to any types of Protestant church as well).

    By contrast, both Liberalism/ Leftism and Islam are aiming at a synthesis of ideology/ religion and state – as is Eastern Orthodoxy.

    This is – in one sense – only a discussion about ideals, and of course reactionary Christians are a very long way from anything ideal. (Since the modern Western state is actively hostile to Christianity.)

    Yet, the ideal shapes conduct, and also can either strengthen or weaken the will.

    My feeling is that the doctrine of an ideal division of Church and State confuses and weakens Christians. On the one hand there are those who seek to take-over and enlist the state in support of their beliefs, and on the other hand most Christians are trying *not* to take-over and enlist the state; but are instead engaged in a (futile) attempt to reduce the power and influence of the state.

    If this separation of Church and State really was a Christian necessity then of course that would be correct – but the example of Orthodox Christian societies such as Byzantium and Holy Russia (before Peter the Great) are strong evidence that a unified Church-State can lead to societies of (what seem to me) extremely high levels of holiness and devoutness.

    There were also some Protestant examples of national unified Church-States – Cromwell in England, some of the US states, and others I know less about. However, these do sem to tend to be undermined by the intrinsically fissile nature of pure Protestantism…

    (Although these societies were not, of course, anything like a real Heaven-on-Earth and did not consider themselves as such – they were acuttely aware of Original Sin. To attempt to make a real Heaven on Earth is impossible and evil to attempt. Yet, nonetheless, these were societies dedicated to modelling-themselves on Heaven, and providing glimpses of Heaven; and in this they had significant – albeit very partial and intermittent – success. They were also – especially Byzantium – cohesive, resilient and had a high morale and clarity of purpose.)

    In sum, I regard the spectrum of possible futures as a choice between unified ideology/ religion-states whether Leftist/ Liberal, Islamic, or Christian.

  8. An excellent article, which I think will help my right liberal family a great deal.

    Dr. Charlton,
    I do agree that the obsession with a wall between Church and state is misguided and destructive, but I don’t agree that complete unification is conducive to holiness. I believe that if spiritual authority is unified with temporal authority it will have a corrosive effect on the quality of the individuals that enter the priesthood, and will create confusion in the citizens of such a polity about the nature of the good (mistaking power for righteousness). In this world, true authority will rarely coincide with temporal power. When it does, it creates pressure to betray the source of true authority in the pursuit of greater or more secure power. I think at the level of a city, this union can work, but no higher. An empire that enforces religious conformity with temporal power will not save many of the souls it corrects, and risks its own in the process.

    I acknowledge that the worm of liberalism could still be eating my brain and leading me to this erroneous belief, and I have not yet rectified my lack of knowledge of Byzantine history as you recommended I do a while back.

  9. @Gabe – My point point is that the theory is refuted by practice – but why? I think it is related to the fact that spiritual leadership came from ascetic monks. This probably served to weed out most of the mere power seekers.

    “enforces religious conformity with temporal power ” – this is a mistaken way of conceptualizing things.

    It is not ‘enforcing’ Just think of how contemporary society creates an anti-Christian environment so that wherever you turn you are distracted from spiritual into worldly things and encouraged to admire the destruction of the Good. Yet secularism is not being ‘enforced’ (at least, not until recently).

    Then imagine the reverse of the modern situation – a spiritual milieu, everywhere you turn you are reminded of Christian things. That is what should happen and what the state can provide.


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