Debate Rages: Is American Liberal Democracy compatible with Christianity?Submitted by Sophron on Fri, 02/21/2014 - 21:39
Patrick Deenan, of the American Conservative magazine, informs readers of a debate raging between conservative Catholic intellectuals. On the one side there are those who represent something of the conservative "Old Guard," who see America's political system as fundamentally neutral or amenable to life as a Catholic. They represent
...an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak.
Deenan summarizes very succinctly the intellectual position of these conservatives (emphasis mine):
Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin—its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism—it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence. Murray went so far as to argue that America is in fact more Catholic than even its Protestant founders realized—that they availed themselves unknowingly of a longer and deeper tradition of natural law that undergirded the thinner liberal commitments of the American founding. The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project.
One often encounters this opinion among older Catholics, who see the problems in the Church and in society as a falling-away from a good model. And they point out that the intellectual life of America's founders was informed, to various degrees, by Catholic social teaching, which articulates principles like subsidiarity. It is certainly no coincidence that many modern "libertarians" (in 18th century language, they would be liberals) are traditionalist Catholics, including Thomas Woods, Andrew Napolitano, and Jeffrey Tucker. Such Catholics tend to be eager to point out parallels between libertarian thought and the writings of saints, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who advocated positions that seem strikingly libertarian, such as the permissibility of a state tolerating prostitution.
They do seem to have a point. As Karl Maurer at catholicculture.org points out in this article, https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?rec... , well-read men of the generation of Jefferson thought about religious freedom, and the relation of Church and state, in a way that had been framed by an earlier controversy, the Oath of Allegiance of 1606 imposed by King James I after the Gunpowder Plot. St. Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit priest and scholar, was a noted participant in this controversy, and American Catholics have long defended a Bellarmine-Jefferson connection.
On the other side of the debate are intellectuals who reject democracy, not simply as a system, but for being based in its essence on falsehood. Deenan summarizes the position of this circle of intellectuals:
The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism, among which are the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
This debate will only grow louder in the years to come. Although the left is presently influential within the Church, both within the hierarchy and among the parishioners, left-leaning religious orders are declining, and the children of leftist Catholics tend to simply become irreligious in adulthood. The Catholic conversation, when it comes to political thought, will increasingly cleft along these lines.
If the "radicals" are right, what does a Christian polity look like? Thomas Woods' former collaborator, Christopher Ferrara, who worked with Woods on a critique of the Second Vatican Council ( http://www.amazon.com/Great-Facade-Vatican-Novelty-Catholic/... ), attacked libertarian politics several years ago in a noted work that was more or less a condemnation of more or less everything Woods has done in recent years with the liberty movement and Ron Paul. The book was The Church and the Libertarian: A Defense of the Catholic Church's Teaching on Man, Economy, and the State. http://www.amazon.com/The-Church-Libertarian-Catholic-Teachi...
Perhaps it may be useful to look elsewhere for models, beyond America's relatively brief history, beyond the documents of America's founding, beyond the interpretation of ancient Greek and Roman political thought as articulated by Deist Englishmen in North America.