The Catholic debate over liberal society

The Catholic debate over liberal society October 9, 2014

Rod Dreher describes what happened at a conference sponsored by First Things on the future of religion in the public square.  In the course of doing so, he describes a current controversy among conservative Catholics:  The “Murrayites” believe that Catholicism is compatible with American-style political and economic liberalism.  (Not so much liberalism as left-wing ideology, but the ideals of liberty, democracy, and free-enterprise economics.)  Against this view are the “radical Catholics” who believe that this liberalism is incompatible with Christianity.

Read the remarks after the jump and click on the link to Patrick Deneen’s article on the conflict.  Substitute “Christian” for “Catholic.”  Do the points still hold for Christianity in general, or does the debate hinge on specific tenets of Catholicism?  Can there be a “Murrayite” Protestantism vs. a “radical” Protestantism?  Or is Protestantism intrinsically connected to liberalism?  How about “Lutheranism,” or does the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms work for any society?

I’m curious too what the alternative is for the “radicals.”  Some kind of authoritarian regime?  The Pope at the head of an Emperor, as in the Middle Ages?

From Rod Dreher,  Ghosts of Colson & Neuhaus | The American Conservative:

There were three of us who delivered papers, which will be published in First Things, so I suppose it’s okay to say who they were. Michael Hanby of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute gave the main paper, in which he argued that our culture has moved into such a radical phase that we are redefining what it means to be human; this requires rethinking what he calls “the civic project of American Christianity.” In contrast to the Murrayite (as in John Courtney Murray) view that Catholicism is well-suited to American democracy, Hanby took a more skeptical approach, siding (with some qualifications) with Pat Deneen’s “radical Catholicism,” as expressed in his much-discussed TAC essay from February.  From Deneen’s piece:

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 (Catholics hold) 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.

George Weigel, identified by Deneen as the most prominent contemporary advocate of the Murrayite position, delivered a response to Hanby in which he acknowledged that we have entered a new era that calls for a rethinking of the Catholic, and general Christian, response to the culture’s challenges. He said that the Catholic Church’s leaders have to pick and choose their battles carefully, and that they should prepare the flock for the possibility of a season of persecution. He also said that Christians should try to come up with more compelling and understandable explanations of key metaphysical concepts. His view was somewhat pessimistic, but still an affirmation that there is still plenty of space at the American table for orthodox Christians, though we are going to have to fight harder and smarter to keep it.

I gave the third paper, siding with Hanby’s critique and arguing for the Benedict Option. My point was essentially that public culture in America has gone so far from its Christian roots, with no reasonable hope of recovery anytime soon, that orthodox Christians would do well to step back from trying to shore up a liberalism that cannot help but be antagonistic to them, and instead build up their own communities and institutions to withstand the chaos ahead.


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