The Thomistic Institute’s Christianity and Liberalism Conference, which took place at Harvard last month, was exhilarating and over all too soon. The topic is so rich and varied, so deep and so important, that six talks, short Q&A sessions, a reception, and coffee and lunch breaks could only scratch the surface. In the last year or two, a small but growing member of Christian, mainly Catholic, intellectuals such as Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, and First Things editor R. R. Reno have begun questioning the Western liberal order, its apparent crisis, and whether it is possible to be both a Christian and a liberal—liberal given its broadest possible definition, that of a constitutional democracy with a free press, freedom of religion, individual rights, and a capitalist economy. Some of these writers and thinkers, like Vermeule and the Cistercian Edmund Waldstein, even embrace Catholic integralism, a political philosophy based on the idea that “political rule must order man to his final goal,” as Waldstein puts it.
For all the conference’s ferment, I thought two things were well-established: first, that what we call liberalism consists of two traditions, one rooted in classical and indeed Catholic thinking and compatible with Christianity, and the other not; second, that the issue today is not really between classical liberalism and Christianity but between today’s progressive secular liberalism (or whatever we end up calling it) and Christianity.
As I put it in a question to Vermeule, the comparatively happy days of the 1850s, when Archbishop John Hughes of New York and Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore were successfully defending the civil rights of Catholics and their participation in the American Republic (Pope Pius IX even donated a stone to the Washington Monument—it was promptly stolen by Know Nothings and lost, presumably sunk in the Potomac), don’t really matter today. Progressive secular liberalism now predominates and frames the debate. As Vermeule put it in his response, “The critique of liberalism is not a critique of liberty or freedom.”
Defining liberalism proved difficult, thanks to the two intertwined traditions. This was explored in Remi Brague’s keynote talk, “Made Free for Freedom,” where he explored the genealogy of liberalism.
According to Brague, liberalism in a way begins with St. Paul. In Galatians, Paul wrote that “Christ has set us free for freedom,” and if Paul meant that freedom was an end in and of itself, then he sounds strikingly modern. But Brague explained that the ancients had no concept of freedom as an end in itself. Rather they thought of freedom as Lord Acton did in the nineteenth century: “Not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
He quoted the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who said, “One seeks freedom…for the sake of the good.” In other words, according to Brague, the ancients believed that liberty was for the common good or some transcendent, supernatural good. This is, in my opinion, the understanding of liberty in the Anglo-American, classical liberal tradition.
But there was still that other understanding of freedom, that of an end in itself. Brague traced this back to Spinoza, who, along with Hobbes, denied that there was a common good. For Spinoza, rather than human beings desiring things because they were good, things are good because they are desired.
“Where the good is absent, freedom takes a different meaning,” Brague said. “More often than not liberation supplants liberty.”
Because the moderns have mixed this up, they continually look for new forms of oppression to be liberated from, and their liberalism becomes about “freeing” themselves from cultural norms, traditions, and now even their own natures. Vermeule calls this the “sacramental anti-tradition” of liberalism.
Looming over the conference were two shadows: the smaller shadow belonged to Patrick Deneen, the Notre Dame professor whose book Why Liberalism Failed was arguably the catalyst for the conference in the first place. It was brought up by every speaker at least once, and he himself was planning to attend but could not make it.
The other shadow, in contrast and surprisingly for an event steeped in Catholic philosophy and theology, was only mentioned once and his contributions to the topic did not figure in any talk. I am referring to Pope St. John Paul II.
A critic of totalitarian regimes left and right, John Paul II was also a champion of the liberal political order. While liberalism was somewhat different then, his example is more instructive than any philosophical debate—especially if Vermeule, Deneen, and Rod Dreher are correct and secular progressive liberalism continues to grow more openly hostile to orthodox Christians. John Paul II was not afraid to confront the regimes when they threatened human rights, but he criticized the liberal order when he thought it was growing too materialistic or ignoring the concerns of justice. He was also not afraid to evangelize and call upon nonbelievers to convert.
In his great encyclical Centesimus annus, written for the one hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, John Paul II affirmed the Church’s compatibility with classical liberalism and the understanding of human freedom advanced by the ancients and Lord Acton. But more important, John Paul wrote of the need for the New Evangelization and that “there can be no genuine solution of ‘social question’ apart from the Gospel.”
Centesimus annus affirms the Church’s commitments to individual rights and freedom of conscience, writing that “new forms of religious fundamentalism are emerging which covertly, or even openly, deny to citizens of faiths other than that of the majority the full exercise of their civil and religious rights…. No authentic progress is possible without respect for the natural and fundamental right to know the truth and live according to the truth. The exercise and development of this right includes the right to discover and freely accept Jesus Christ, who is man’s true good.”
This idea was not present in the sessions. For example, in his talk with Notre Dame’s Philip Munoz, “Two Perspectives on Liberalism and Politics,” Vermeule said that while he agreed with Deneen that there are paradoxes within liberalism that are destroying it today, he disagreed with him (and, ultimately, Dreher) that “thick, local communities” are a viable strategy for resisting. “It’s foolish to expect a truce with liberalism,” he said.
Instead, Vermeule advocated that illiberal actors slowly and surely take over the liberal state (the Catholic tradition frowns on rebellion, so I find the embrace of coup d’etat odd) and compared this approach to the Old Testament figures of Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai, and Esther using their embedding within the state to protect the Jewish people. He said the Book of Acts demonstrated a determination to co-opt a decaying regime.
But Christians did not co-opt the Roman Empire. Indeed they were willing to accept the empire with its pagan establishment, so long as they were not required to participate in those rites. Instead, the Christians converted the empire, with millions of ordinary people taking up the faith before any emperor did.
One thing the conference made clear, at least to me, is that much modern thought is based on the paradigm of John Stuart Mill. Candace Vogler of the University of Chicago explained Mill’s social theory in her talk. According to Vogler, Mill does not deny the existence of objective truth or the common good, but his emphasis was on personal and bodily autonomy and coercive harm. “He was as concerned about coercion in custom and popular opinion as in law,” she said.
One begins to see the implications for the current era. If custom and popular opinion are forms as coercion every bit as harmful as physical force, then they must be fought and restrained. Thus our ancestors are deprived of their votes, to paraphrase Chesterton, and any disapproval of someone’s behavior, such as a middle-aged man insisting that doctors and legal authorities recognize him as an eight-year-old girl, becomes an act of bigotry that must be opposed with boycott, protest, and violence.
For conservatives or classical liberals and Christians, there are two possible responses to Mill’s dominance. One is to take the Rothbardian route and embrace the nonaggression axiom, restricting coercive harm merely to the initiation of force or fraud. While convenient, there’s no real reason to adhere to this axiom as a philosophical principle, and it conflicts with Catholic teachings in a number of areas, especially in economic matters. The other option is to recover the concept of the common good, not as a utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number” or an aggregate of private goods, but as those goods that are common to all.
Rev. Dominic Legge, OP, offered an important perspective on individual rights and the common good in his talk, “When Rights Go Wrong.” Father Legge said that Deneen claims that individual rights only emerged in the Enlightenment. “I offer a different perspective, the long-term perspective of a Dominican Thomist,” he said.
According to Legge, the modern idea of rights is like two neighbors arguing over the location of their property line, competing and conflicting with one another. But for St. Thomas Aquinas, individual rights are part of justice, which is an attribute of God. “Justice always refers to a reasoned ordering of things,” Legge said. “It’s primarily about God’s intellect.”
Law, for Aquinas, describes this order in a way similar to how physical law describes the motion of an object that has been thrown. “Law is not an expression of God’s Will, but an expression of reason,” Legge said. “The law sets forth the ordered plan to attain the good. Human justice is part of how man is ordered to God.”
According to Legge, Aquinas described individual rights under the term jus and defined it as “The … intelligible form of the law. Jus is the object or measure of justice.” Where Aquinas differs from the moderns, however, is that individual rights are neither fundamental nor absolute. Individual rights are “not abstracted from the common good,” Legge said. “They always consider how one is related to the common good. Rights are a function of law and the common good.”
Legge said that William of Occam and Francisco Suarez lost sight of the common good in their work. He said that Suarez altered the meaning of Aquinas in his work on law in order to fit him into a system where morality depends on God’s will and not on intrinsic goodness. Suarez’s mistakes, according to Legge, were magnified by the Enlightenment thinkers. “Rights claims are a function of some ordering toward a good,” Legge said. “It’s not that we have prolific claims of rights; we have disagreements about the good.”
“The common good is not something that competes with private goods,” Legge said. Instead, it’s something that’s not diminished and not exclusive. As an example he offered the idea of a sports team’s victory for its fans.
More work really needs to be done on the relationship of individual rights to the common good. While there’s a valuable understanding of rights here, the common good is often employed as more of a rhetorical device to shame one’s opponents than as a key component of a commonwealth.
John Paul II evinced a similar, though not identical, view of individual rights in Centesimus annus, writing, “In situations strongly influenced by ideology, in which polarization obscured the awareness of a human dignity common to all, the Church affirmed clearly and forcefully that every individual—whatever his or her personal convictions—bears the image of God and therefore deserves respect.” I think John Paul II is saying that individual rights are more fundamental to the human person than Legge argued—although they could be saying the same thing in different ways.
One criticism I have of the conference as a whole is that no one even attempted to explain how liberalism declined from Acton or the postwar rapprochement that produced John Paul II, John Courtney Murray, Michael Novak, and Jacques Maritain to what passes for liberalism today. Deneen’s absence was felt strongly here, since he has a theory. There was no one really defending liberalism, either, apart from Princeton’s Margarita Mooney.
The most that the speakers would offer was that it didn’t really matter. At one point Vermeule quoted Valery Giscard d’Estaing on how the French couldn’t go back to before 1968 because the conditions that led to 1968 would still be present. I disagree. I think that reform—as in returning to the intended form—is possible, and even if it proves not to be, it would be fantastic to assert that a future integralist or post-liberal order would be immune to the problems Vermeule, Reno, and Deneen have identified in the liberal order merely because the order changes.
Economic inequality, hedonism, elitism, nihilism, and other pathologies are not unique to the modern era. The Roman Emperor Heliogabalus demanded to be acknowledged as a woman; the decadence, elitism, and indeed religious unbelief of the French and English aristocracy in the eighteenth century is legendary. So it is not clear to me that there is anything inherent within liberalism, or at least the better kind, that would not plague other societies. When people are ruled by their passions and desires, their philosophies become hollow. They either embrace a philosophy that fits their desires, admit their hypocrisy, or use fallacy and pride to twist their philosophy to fit their desire.
Writers like Niall Ferguson, in The Great Degeneration, Jane Jacobs, and Charles Marohn have done excellent work in exploring the present situation. Ferguson writes about how growing public debt, complexity in regulations, a transition from rule of law to rule of lawyers, and the welfare state’s supplanting of civil society are producing economic stagnation and political polarization. Jacobs explored the breakdown of other institutions in Dark Age Ahead, and Marohn has shown how poor ideas about development and infrastructure are undermining communities and resulting in their taking on more debt.
When I asked Reno and Vermeule why the crisis of modern liberalism was different from previous eras, I got answers I did not expect. “I think it’s a feeling of being in a dead end,” Reno said. “The feeling of being trapped.” Vermeule added, “It’s one thing to be confused by the common good, it’s another to have no notion of transcendence.”
If people do feel trapped, if they do not have a notion of the transcendent, then I humbly submit that the trouble is not liberalism but materialism. Our economic troubles have not resulted from the application of liberal principles but their distortion—we seem to have one law for the poor and one for the rich, which is very illiberal. The high housing prices in coastal cities, caused by existing homeowners using their political power to limit the growth of housing stock, is preventing millennials from forming families, thus exacerbating economic inequality on a national scale and keeping economic opportunity out of reach for millions. The issue here seems to be less about Hobbes and more about the decline of public virtue.
A rebirth in public virtue cannot come from any grand political reorganization but arises from a conversion of hearts toward the good. Without virtue, Deneen’s thick local communities will splinter and fail like so many attempts to build phalansteries, and Vermeule’s integralist state will end up being a secular progressive integralist state rather than a Catholic one.
“Christianity has a great depth of vision,” said Rev. Thomas Joseph White, OP, in his concluding remarks. “God is not the enemy of human dignity, but magnifies it. To come to know God is to be able to love what fulfills us.” Truth, justice, life, liberty. These are the transcendent principles, as much as faith, hope and charity, that can lead us out of the trap.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.