Printer Friendly

Christianity and contemporary political life.

PHILOSOPHIC LIBERALISM subtly but palpably erodes the moral, political, and spiritual life of the regime it helped bring into existence. On the one hand, it powerfully affirms the fundamental legitimacy and desirability of modern democracy and its various attendant goods such as civic peace, religious freedom, self-government, and constitutionalism. On the other hand, it champions a view of freedom that gradually erodes human beings' basic attachment to those inherited extrademocratic goods like religion and morality that liberal democracy must necessarily rely upon for its health and survival. Today that understanding of freedom is routinely identified with a radical view of human autonomy. For this reason, contemporary democracy tends to be both egalitarian and leveling. (1) As such, it not only abhors all natural and moral limits but increasingly those political limits placed on human beings by liberal democracy itself. Christian political thought in various ways can help present-day democrats--Christian and non-Christian--rediscover the necessity, desirability, and nobility of humanizing limits. (2)

But in pursuing this rediscovery, Christian political thought must resist the temptation to ape modernity and formulate its own "solution" to what Benedict Spinoza called the theologico-political problem. (3) It must find a prudent way of coming to terms with democracy's discontents and modern philosophy's disenchantment of the world. Max Weber famously traced the roots of this moral and spiritual disenchantment to modern science and its unprecedented success in systematically exorcizing any sense of meaning or mystery in humankind's world. The disenchantment of the world consequently is a reality we experience daily, an inescapable fact seared into our all-too-modern consciousness. In light of Nietzsche's "annihilating critique" of the "last men" who naively believed they "had discovered happiness," Weber somberly concluded there was no intellectually honest way for late modern humankind to think that reason could discover any vital sense of meaning or value in the world. (4) As Weber jeeringly remarked, who "believes in this?--aside from a few big children in university chairs and editorial offices." (5)

Pope John Paul II traced the disenchantment of the modern world back to a "profound crisis of culture, which generates skepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is." (6) But for obvious reasons he did not succumb to Weber's moral and spiritual fatalism. John Paul maintained that in response to late modern humankind's experience of disenchantment, moral theology must initially "turn to a philosophical ethics which looks to the truth of the good, to an ethics which is neither subjectivist nor utilitarian." (7) The formulation of that ethics itself, however, requires the prior articulation of "a philosophical anthropology and a metaphysics of the good." (8) If it is to address the specific moral, political, intellectual, and spiritual problems that characterize late modernity, moral theology must first turn to--and rely upon--the assistance of the kind of reflection first practiced by classical political philosophy. Only then, John Paul suggests, can moral theology begin to deal adequately with modernity and its discontents. (9)

But in responding to modernity's discontents, Christian moral and political thought should not attempt to transform or merely transcend modernity. Instead, it must proceed prudently, attempting to retain the authentic social, political, and scientific gains that modernity has helped bring about. In this way it does justice to the full truth about man and the nature of reality. As Peter Lawler points out, such thought can rightly be called "conservative postmodernism." (10) Christian political thought can defend what is genuinely good in the present because it is able to view the present from a perspective outside of modernity. From this untimely and enlarged perspective, Christian political thought can, for example, acknowledge the compelling truth in modern democracy's conception of justice and its affirmation of the nobility of self-rule. At the same time, it can remind liberal democracy of the natural inequalities and hierarchies that exist among real human beings and thus affirm the virtues of both aristocracy and democracy. By so doing, it calls critical attention to the ongoing need--and possibilities--for both kinds of virtue within contemporary civil societies.

To be sure, Christian political thought has a critical edge as well. Such thought seeks to expose the dehumanizing consequences of modern rationalism's claim of nature's basic indifference to the moral, intellectual, and spiritual ends that animate human beings and philosophic liberalism's reduction of real human beings to abstract individuals. It consequently puts contemporary humankind in a position to see through modern rationalism's Sisyphean attempt to construct a world that would dissolve the antinomies that mark a genuinely human life. Moreover, it would help human beings to appreciate the myriad of goods that they have been given by nature. That appreciation, however, also provides intimations that "despite all that nature has given us and all we do for ourselves we remain somewhat alienated" and therefore reason to believe "that our true home lies elsewhere, that it is in our nature to long for a personal God." (11) Indeed, the recognition of this "strange truth about our souls," as Lawler perceptively notes, is a defining characteristic of Christian political thought. (12)

To acknowledge the qualified alienated character of human life is in part to recognize the grounds of Christianity's distinctive teaching on the greatness and misery of man. "Christianity," Pascal pointedly observed, "is strange." (13) On the one hand, the religion tells human beings they are fallen and wretched creatures. On the other, it tells them they are aliens in this world and bids them to live a life that imitates Christ's. And yet by affirming the moral and spiritual paradox that is humankind, Christianity saves human beings from themselves by calling them into communion with God. Pascal saw only too well that unless the greatness and misery of humankind are recognized, human beings inevitably become either "horribly vain or horribly abject." As both Pascal and Lawler show, the perceived strangeness of Christian realism accordingly mirrors and therefore partially explains the strangeness of human beings themselves.

Christianity's realistic appreciation of fallen man's qualified alienation stands in sharp contrast to the disquieting moral and spiritual isolation that characteristically mark the real life of liberalism's great abstraction: the rights-bearing modern individual. Truth be told, the free and equal individuals philosophic liberalism describes do not exist by nature. Yet through its bold denial of any preexisting natural or divine restraints placed on human beings and its assertion that we are essentially asocial beings, liberalism theoretically allowed for the emergence of this new human type. And the course of modern democracy has increasingly produced instances of this type. As Pierre Manent has felicitously observed, modern democratic life requires humankind to engage "in an exploration of what it means to become an individual." (14)

To the extent that democratic human beings think of themselves as individuals, they believe they are essentially free from all familial, social, political, and religious ties. The idea of the rights-bearing individual has had remarkable success in changing the way in which human beings are likely to view themselves and the world. Under this idea, all human actions are prone to be interpreted as matters of consent. The individual is thought to be the sole source of legitimacy. To cite Manent again, "anything which is added to the individual ... is only a more or less regrettable necessity, and not something that has any real human meaning." (15)

This view undoubtedly feeds into the propensity of democratic citizens to feel a sense of detachment from the political societies in which they live. It also in part explains why democratic citizens are prone to view the common good not as the "weal" the political community justly holds in common but merely as the sum total of material and economic goods to which all citizens legally ought to have access. But its effects are not limited merely to the political order. It can, for example, be seen in the increased tendency in theWest today to understand marriage not as a natural society that grows out of human beings' desire to couple and procreate but as a partnership forged by consenting adults seeking mutual self-fulfillment. And it also helps explain why legislators within liberal democracies currently find it difficult to formulate any reasoned, non-Scriptural-based objection to the democratic individual's asserted right to same-sex marriage. What is more, it also fuels the claims of those who argue that the hierarchical Catholic Church should be "democratically" reorganized and that Church doctrine--especially on moral matters--should be grounded in the consent of "the people of God."

Individualism necessarily erodes human beings' understanding of themselves as social and political beings and thus flattens their understanding of the mystery of the human soul. Today, the rights bearing individual is increasingly believed to be able to construct his or her own happiness through self- realization and self-determination. Belief in such creative abilities weakens human beings' fundamental sense of indebtedness to family, friends, country, and God. It insidiously isolates the individual from other human beings and ultimately from him- or herself. Contrary to the uneasy but partially satisfied alienation of which Christianity speaks, individualism, as both Tocqueville and Nietzsche pointed out in their own ways, characteristically cultivates an outwardly liberating but inwardly crippling sense of sovereignty.

But despite the palpable effects of this form of thinking, the real human beings that live in liberal democracies remain much more than mere modern individuals. While they may increasingly think of themselves as individuals, they nonetheless live--and also think of themselves--as daughters, husbands, friends, citizens, and people of faith. To greater or lesser degrees, they still live as naturally social, political, and religious human beings. Yet given liberal democracy's tendency to foster a view of the artificial or constructed character of human life, human beings currently find it difficult to understand, let alone explain, the meaning of the kind of lives they naturally desire to live. For this reason, Christian political thought presently must defend and help cultivate what Daniel Mahoney has called "the moral foundations" of democracy. (16)

Among other things, those foundations are today subtly but powerfully eroded by the idea of human dignity and autonomy. Prevailing theories of human dignity tend to be a vulgarized version of Kant's moral teaching. The upholding of a truly rational, hence universal, morality, which for Kant was the ultimate expression of human dignity, hinged upon postulating the existence of God, freedom, and immortality. However, most contemporary theories of human dignity only see the necessity of postulating the existence of human autonomy. But in so doing, they not only strip morality of the rigorous demands Kant placed on it but also infuse the idea of human autonomy with even more significance than it had in Kant's moral system. Emptied of content as well as criteria, it bears the entire burden of moral and political life and thought. Human dignity is seen to require the exercise of human autonomy, and the exercise of human autonomy is seen to be definitive proof of human dignity. (17) In short, a perfect circle is here formed.

Combining a claim about human dignity with a radical notion of human autonomy, this understanding of human dignity necessarily views the restraints placed on humankind by the created moral order as illegitimate. The limits natural or divine law places on human freedom are seen not as revealing the cosmic foundations of human freedom but as direct affronts to human dignity. Accordingly, every such restraint must be interpreted as arbitrarily limiting human beings' fundamental right to self-mastery and autonomy. The pervasiveness of this radical view of human dignity can be seen in that it is currently championed by so-called moderate thinkers like the sociologist Alan Wolfe. Wolfe goes so far as to say in his Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice that human dignity includes the right to express one's authentic personality." Emphasizing the "basic" human importance of determining the moral worth of one's actions, Wolfe claims the only legitimate brake that can be placed on moral freedom is that one considers all possible actions before one acts. This view of the requirements of human dignity, which knowingly severs the moral order from all transcendent ends, can thus be used to justify almost anything--except, of course, the fundamental reason why human dignity should be understood as a good that must be recognized and defended. (19)

One important way to counter the corrosive moral and political effects of this understanding of human dignity is to remind democratic citizens and statesmen that liberal democracy necessarily re lies on the moral structure of human freedom for its health and survival. Given its powerful affirmation of such things as the moral equality of human beings, the justice and nobility of self-rule, and the indispensability of constitutional law, modern democracy is rich with moral content. And yet the very logic of philosophic liberalism's deracinated view of nature in general and human nature in particular ultimately defines that content in a remarkably formal or tautological way. Liberal democracies consequently tend to speak endlessly about the institutional and procedural requirements of human rights and self- governance yet remain conspicuously silent about how these things comport with, let alone ennoble, the nature of humankind and political life.

Mahoney has drawn attention to an array of Christian political thinkers and statesmen like Charles de Gaulle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Bertrand de Jouvenel who have emphasized the self-destructive excesses of the liberal democratic dogma. (20) But in many ways it is his work on the relatively little known Hungarian Catholic philosopher Aurel Kolnai that best illuminates the enduring internal moral and philosophical defects that plague modern democracy. And, as Mahoney also shows, Kolnai's philosophic thought provides much needed political support and depth to Pope John Paul's argument that democracy "is a means not an end; its 'moral' value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law ... [and] the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs." (21)

Taking liberal democracy's tendency to emancipate man from "what is highest in man and higher than man" as his point of departure, Mahoney emphasizes the ways in which this effort destroys the authentic political expression of "pluralism, individuality, and any coherent notion of the Common Good." (22) Over and against the typically modern desire for emancipation, citizens and statesmen in liberal democracies urgently need to recover an appreciation of "the basic truth that response, not fiat, is the prime gesture of the human person." (23) Central to this appreciation is the recognition that human beings participate in a hierarchical natural order that they themselves do not make.

That recognition carries with it the consequent affirmation of the humanizing limits placed on human beings as creatures--the exact opposite of the religion of humanity's or the cult of the unencumbered self's claim that a human being is or can be the omnipotent creator of all things, including him- or herself. Without the positive affirmation of a metaphysical and natural order that grounds, shapes, and orients the exercise of human freedom, the very notions of equality and liberty to which democracy rightly gives political expression become unintelligible and indefensible. Indeed, only if political liberty is rooted in and reflective of a naturally given moral order is it able to ennoble the life of the citizen who exercises that freedom. Nobility, a good that liberal democracy begrudgingly still recognizes, is a constant reminder "of the objective and hierarchical character of value but also of the transitoriness and finiteness of every merely human rank and claim." (24)

This picture of the structure of human freedom complements John Paul's argument in The Splendor of the Truth. That work emphasizes that human beings possess neither the freedom nor the power to determine the nature of good and evil. Rather, they have been given the ability to reason and act in accordance with a created moral order that is tethered to and informed by "transcendent truth." Human freedom is therefore not an end in itself but a qualified good. It needs to be directed by natural and divine law if it is justly to be put in service of the truth about God and by extension the truth about humankind. As John Paul forcefully argues, when ordered to truth, the exercise of human freedom contributes to the "perfection" of the human person as a human person.

In addressing such salutary arguments to modern democracies, Christian thinkers must not forget that by its very nature liberal democracy seeks to pit the rights of the sovereign individual against its political need of an ordered liberty under God. (25) Their task is necessarily Sisyphean. They must not forget this. In other words, they must think politically. They must not fall prey to the naive belief that the mere presentation and acceptance of a theoretical argument can solve the problem of liberal democracy once and for all. To do so would replicate modern political philosophy's error, to think that political life can be founded on and guided by "pure reason." Like the "umpire" of Aristotelian political philosophy, Christian political thinkers must seek to moderate the modern regime from the inside, prudently working to curb, but not expecting to eradicate, its tendencies and excess. Advancing the kind of "education relative to the regime" that Aristotle points out is constantly necessary in political life, Christian political thinkers should seek to counter modern democracy's dominant tendencies. (26) Accordingly, they should remind liberal democracy that its ever-expanding proclamation of the demands of human rights needs to be moderated by a firm and steady recognition of the moral, political, and spiritual requirements of natural law. (27)

From its inception, philosophic liberalism has tended to dissolve political life into the subpolitical realms of the "individual" and "society." More deeply, it fundamentally affirmed two natural realities, the individual and humanity. Other groupings, including the political community, were based on consent. But today the persistent emphasis on the demands of universal human rights "has an incontestably anti-political flavor." (28) As Manent has recently shown, the idea of a "united humanity" configured around the recognition of human rights--an aspiration anticipated by Kant's moral dream of a truly cosmopolitan humanity--increasingly captivates the late modern Western mind.

Such an idea gains support from the West's memory of the brutal totalitarian tyrannies of the twentieth century and the current fears of the escalating violence that necessarily would accompany a clash of civilizations. Administered by transnational courts and legal bureaucracies, such a world would pursue the material and moral well-being of humankind universally and abstractly conceived. The desire for such a world, as Manent points out, can be seen in the dominant idea of a united Europe. It also can be seen in the establishment of the international human rights court at The Hague and the growing belief among many in theWest that the United Nations alone can sanction and administer the just use of military force.

The tension between what Manent describes as the "natural order of politics and the project and hope of a new metapolitical or postpolitical order" (29) reflects modern humankind's ongoing desire to seek refuge in abstractions like the "individual" or "humanity" that transcend the limiting, but for that reason humanizing, constraints of nature and political life. To a great degree, the dream of a world organized around the universal recognition of "the rights of man" is the logical conclusion of modern political philosophy's teaching on the individual in the state of nature. The individual as individual has no natural ties to a particular family, people, and, above all, to any particular political community. Formally, he or she exists in an abstract world inhabited by other rights-bearing individuals. Understood as such, he or she should be able to be affirmed abstractly, that is, unfettered by the particular (hence limiting) claims of any genuinely political body or authority. Drawn to its logical conclusion and taken on its own terms, this means the notion of human being ought to be preferred to that of the citizen. This partially explains the growing "tendency to reject the collective restrain linked to citizenship." (30)

Late modernity's humanitarian desire to flee from the concrete, limiting realities of citizenship and political life can have its Christian analog. Today, this typically takes the form of giving undue or inappropriate social and political emphasis to an eschatologically conceived "civilization of love." That term made its first official appearance in the writings of Pope Paul VI. For Paul VI, the building of a "civilization of love" is consistently, if somewhat vaguely, linked to the establishment of a stable and lasting peace within the international order. In his 1977 "Message for the Celebration of the 'World Day of Peace,"' for example, he states that the peace forged by the civilization of love "makes its own ideal of civilization." Yet he there insists that this ideal "is no dream, no utopia, no illusion." It is "possible" and its establishment is humanity's "duty."

With Pope John Paul II, the term took on a more specific, yet still largely conceptual, meaning. John Paul's 1994 "Letter to Families" contains perhaps his fullest account of the meaning and demands of the civilization of love. John Paul there traces the origins of the term back to the Greek and Latin Fathers' description of the "domestic church." (31) But while the Fathers used the term in this limited ecclesiastical sense, John Paul insists it "has a particular significance for the present time." (32) In his view, that significance can be glimpsed in the etymology of the word "civilization." Initially used to describe the "civic or political dimensions" of human life, it has now been extended to include the full scope of "human culture ... which in the final analysis is nothing else than the 'humanization of the world.' (33) Viewed in this light, "civilization" is synonymous with "culture." It is thus presently possible to speak of a "culture of love." Originating "in the revelation of the God who 'is love,"' this "culture" would transcend the particularized, visible limits of the political community and the domestic church and incorporate and unite all of humanity. (34) John Paul's stirring vision of a civilization of love thus provides a salutary and much-needed corrective to modernity's ruthless individualism.

However, the inherent depoliticizing tendencies of this view of the civilization of love come to sight most clearly in John Paul's 2004 "Message for the World Day of Peace." At the conclusion of that address, he notes true peace requires that "justice finds its fulfillment in charity." (35) But John Paul here does not limit his treatment of the need for justice to be perfected by charity simply to the operations of charity on the individual's soul or the community of people incorporated into the Body of Christ. Rather, he also states (with an eye especially to the religious and political tensions in the Middle East) that "justice is not enough." For this reason, "the establishment of true peace in the world" requires charity. Indeed, charity must "enliven every sector of human life and extend to the international order." Only a world modeled on "the civilization of love," John Paul firmly concludes, "will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace."

Such statements call needed attention to the imperfections that necessarily plague and will forever continue to plague life within the earthly city. True justice, as Augustine never tired of pointing out, only reigns in the City of God. But the practical problem of imperfect justice in human affairs is not solved by transcending the realms of political justice and political life altogether. By directing the political and international order to an eschatological horizon where justice is perfected by charity, such statements necessarily put unrealistic weight and expectations on the limited but genuine good that can justly be achieved in political life. To say the least, it is difficult to see how the fundamentally spiritual and transpolitical society bound together in charity and worship of God can be a model for either national or international politics. This is especially true given Christianity's traditional teaching on the disordering affects sin has on human beings and the political communities they found.

It may at times be possible to forge an uneasy temporal peace among nations, given statesmen's careful exercise of prudence and the formation and recognition of reasonably just international laws. But what would it even mean, let alone look like, to have love among nations? Justice, as John Paul points out, is certainly not enough. On its own, the virtue of justice cannot perfect human beings as human beings, let alone substitute for the life of faith, hope, and charity that contributes to the ultimate perfection and happiness of human beings. And yet justice is the indispensable and proper virtue of political life, both in and among nations. The recognition of the true end of the civilization of love undoubtedly points to the intractable limits of life within the earthly city. Yet for this very reason, it cannot ever become a goal of the earthly city.

Recently, this point has been clearly restated by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est. (36) Benedict there states that the "entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man" ([section] 19). Grounded in the love of God, Christian charity imbues and informs the "service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man's suffering and his needs, including material needs" (ibid.). Christ's injunction to love one's neighbor as himself is thus a responsibility for each individual Christian and for "the entire ecclesiastical community at every level" (ibid.). And yet because it moves through the particular men and women incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, the charitable "social service" the Church carries out in the world is a spiritual and a concrete reality. Echoing Augustine's treatment of the order of charity in On Christian Doctrine, the Pope refers to this movement as a concrete, spiritual expression of "a well-ordered love of neighbor" ([section] 21). Such an order unites all those who belong to the Church with Christ and each other and ultimately aims to bring men and women into true, lasting communion with God in eternal life.

At the same time, Benedict is here careful to point out the relation between justice and charity. It is important to note that in doing so he acknowledges "the Church's leadership was slow to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way" ([section] 27). The rise of the modern state brought about "new situations and issues" (ibid.). Indeed, the body of "Catholic social teaching," as he goes on to say, was "gradually developed" precisely to respond to this new social, economic, and political situation (ibid.).

The shift away from the political and to the social order in Catholic social thought thus did not mark any fundamental change in the Church's traditional understanding of the relation of political to social life. The Church continues to teach that while each "human community possesses a common good which permits it to be recognized as such" it is nevertheless "in the political community that [the common good's] most complete realization is found."" In other words, this shift of emphasis reflected the Church's prudential attempt to address a new kind of regime, modern democracy, which works in an unprecedented way to order life around the lines of a variegated civil society.

Drawing attention to Christianity's "fundamental" recognition of the distinct, yet related, realms of Caesar and God, Benedict here affirms that the "just ordering of society is ... a central responsibility of politics" ([section] 28). Since justice is "both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of politics," the political community cannot be reduced to a mere administrative mechanism that parcels out the material goods that are needed for human life. Nor can it be reduced to a juridical body of laws (ibid.). The political community is responsible for preserving and cultivating the common good and for leading citizens to a life of virtue. What is more, it is charged with arriving at some, ultimately imperfect to be sure, reasonable adjudication of the various claims to justice "arising from the different social forces" within it (ibid.). As Manent has pointed out, for this reason the political community as political community is "the great mediation or the mediation of mediations." (38) As such, it allows the various social forces within the political community to communicate with one another and consequently prevents any one of these forces from absolutizing itself.

The Church undoubtedly does not sit idly by as a mere witness to this great mediation. It has much to say about the nature of justice, even the nature of justice in human affairs. On the basis of reason and natural law, the Church can (and must) articulate the basic, unchanging principles of justice that must be acknowledged by any legitimate political society. But in engaging in this pedagogical task, the Church is not arrogating to itself the "responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life.... Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly" ([section] 28).

It must not be overlooked that Benedict presents these reflections on the nature of justice and political life in an encyclical titled Deus Caritas Est. In reflecting on the natures of eros and agape and their relation to each other, the Pope is gradually led to address the proper relation of faith, philosophy, morality, and politics. Reflecting on the significance that through faith Christians "have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us," the Pope is naturally led to raise questions that cut to the very heart of the theologico-political problem. Moreover, the pursuit of these questions eventually leads to the conclusion that Christianity does provide a genuine solution to the humanly irresolvable theologico-political problem. And yet it can do so precisely because while it affirms the indispensability and natural desirability of humankind's life within the earthly city, that solution remains fundamentally transpolitical. It is ultimately found in the City of God.


(1.) At the same time, contemporary democratic societies are in some important respects also oligarchic. As such, they can affirm distinctions that are at least questionably related to their common good. Typically, however, such distinctions are seen as acceptable precisely because they do not point to any natural hierarchy among human beings. This is especially true in the realm of economics. Few Americans today would deny that a man or a woman should be able to live "the American dream" and amass as much legitimate personal wealth as he or she possibly can. At the same time, most Americans would prefer that the person amass this wealth him- or herself, that is, that he or she be self-made. In this sense, our form of oligarchy is a strangely democratic form of oligarchy.

(2.) One way to gauge the degree to which contemporary democracy embraces a radical view of human autonomy is to look at the different ways in which thinkers like Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and John Courtney Murray have been viewed over the past sixty years. Midway through the twentieth century, Maritain, Simon, and Murray had reputations as being nontraditional, even somewhat progressive, Catholic thinkers. Each man at that time was engaged in a project to establish the basic compatibility of Christianity and liberal democracy. Faced with the brutal experience of both communist and fascist totalitarianism, these thinkers defended the virtue of the only political regime that seemed legitimate in the modern world. However, today the three men are widely viewed as conservative Catholic thinkers, largely, though not exclusively, because each defended the moral and political limits natural law places on human autonomy.

(3.) The desire to solve the theologico-political problem animates those Christian thinkers who attempt to reconcile liberal democracy and Christianity fully with each other. The most recent and clearest effort to harmonize these two parties has been given by Robert George in his The Clash of Orthodoxies. George there juxtaposes contemporary libertarianism's view of liberty with the "old-fashioned Liberalism" of the American Founding. The latter form of liberalism, according to George, is "fully in line" with the understanding of ordered liberty championed by "John Paul II and the contemporary Catholic Church" (Robert George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis [Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001], 235). Siding with the argument of some of the later writings of Pope John Paul II, George even goes so far as to say that liberal democracy is "the system of government most in keeping with the fundamental Christian belief in the equality in human rights and dignity of every human being" (ibid., 240). Yet despite his understandable moral desire to harmonize Christianity "fully" with a healthy notion of liberal democracy, George's cultural and legal argument never finally comes to terms with the fact that the political philosophy behind liberal democracy, even in its Anglo-American presentation, necessarily requires one to view human beings as free from natural, moral, and divine restraints. To the extent that it does so, philosophic liberalism ultimately cannot be fully harmonized with the moral and spiritual teachings of Christian faith.

(4.) Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation," Max Weber: Sociological Writings, ed. Wolf Heydebrand (NewYork: Continuum, 1994), 290.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 1995), 11.

(7.) Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Boston MA: Pauline Books and Media, 1998), 98.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) For a full development of this argument in Fides et Ratio, see J. Brian Benestad's "Philosophy, Political Philosophy, and Historicism in Pope John Paul II's Fides et Ratio" in Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach: Essays on Religion and Political Philosophy in Honor of Ernest L. Fortin, A.A., ed. Michael P Foley and Douglas Kries (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 53-68.

(10.) See chapter 2, "Postmodern Conservatism, Conservative Postmodernism" in Peter Lawler's Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future (Wilmington, DF: ISI Books, 2005), 23-44.

(11.) Ibid., 42.

(12.) Peter Augustine Lawler, Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls (Wilmington, DF: ISI Books, 2002), 270.

(13.) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, ed. and trans. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005), 103.

(14.) Pierre Manent, "On Modern Individualism" in Modern Liberty and Its Discontents, ed. and trans. Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 152 (italics added).

(15.) Ibid., 155.

(16.) Daniel J. Mahoney, "The Moral Foundations of Liberal Democracy" in Public Morality, Civic Virtue, and the Problem of Modern Liberalism, ed. T. William Boxx & Gary M. Quinlivan (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 24-39.

(17.) There is a world of difference between the ways in which the Catholic Church and contemporary social science understand the nature of human dignity. Whereas the Church roots human dignity in a human being's creation in the image and likeness of God, present-day social science characteristically roots it in skepticism about our ability to know anything substantive about the nature of human beings. Yet in appealing to the language of human dignity, some of the Church's references to human dignity could suggest that because God has given humankind a privileged place in creation, the human person is the source of moral legitimacy. Such imprecise language can all too easily be co-opted and used to justify the conflation of human dignity with radical moral autonomy. An illustrative example of this occurs at the beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church's crucial first article on social justice. The Catechism there makes the rather confusing statement that "respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority (1930, italics added)." Jumbling together moral and political terms such as respect and rights with theological terms such as creature and the dignity of the human person, the Catechism here gives the impression that the dignity of the person is "the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority." Taken literally, this would mean that the human person him- or herself--by the very fact that he or she exists--provides the grounds of moral legitimacy. Such an imprecise statement about the nature of human dignity can feed into the very kind of subjective and even nihilistic view of morality that the Catholic Church, through its teachings on natural and divine law, traditionally and rightly has opposed.

(18.) Alan Wolfe, Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001). For a thoughtful critique of Wolfe's notion of moral freedom, see Jean Bethke Elshtain's review in The Wilson Quarterly 25, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 112-13.

(19.) For a profound discussion of how the purportedly humanitarian affirmation of the autonomous individual's right to express him- or herself can be used to justify the most dehumanizing practices, see Flannery O' Connor's "A Memoir of Mary Ann" in Flannery O'Connor Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988), 822-31. O' Connor observed that one
 of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to
 discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited His
 goodness, you are done with Him. The Alymers whom Hawthorne saw as
 a menace have multiplied. Busy cutting down human imperfection,
 they are making headway also on the raw material of good.... In
 this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in
 vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they
 saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance,
 which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we
 govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off
 from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is
 detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is
 terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas
 chamber." (830-31)

In a remarkably prescient way, O' Connor recognized that this would be the moral posture behind many future arguments justifying the increased use of biotechnology. Indeed, today we are frequently told that compassion for suffering and human dignity requires us to enter the Brave New World of eugenics, euthanasia, and, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, human cloning.

(20.) See Daniel J. Mahoney, De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996); Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent for Ideology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); Bertrand De Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity (Wilmington, DF: ISI Books, 2005).

(21.) Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1995), 70. See Mahoney, "The Moral Foundations of Liberal Democracy," 37-39.

(22.) Daniel J. Mahoney, "Liberty, Equality, Nobility: Kolnai, Tocqueville, and the Moral Foundations of Democracy" in Democracy and Its Friendly Critics: Tocqueville and Political Life Today, ed. Peter Augustine Lawler (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004), 22-23.

(23.) Aurel Kolnai, "Privilege and Liberty" in Privilege and Liberty and Other Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. Daniel J. Mahoney (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999), 26.

(24.) Mahoney, "Liberty, Equality, Nobility," 28.

(25.) For an insightful discussion of this paradox and its relation to Christian political thought, see chapters 7 and 8 of Peter Augustine Lawler's Aliens in America. John Courtney Murray, for example, drew attention to this very equivocation in the American regime. Murray located a tension at the heart of the American Founding between a "voluntarist idea of law as will" and "a tradition of natural law as inheritance ... [as an] intellectualist idea" (John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths [Kansas City, KS: Sheed & Ward, 1988], 41).The problem of radical autonomy or liberty severed from any end that plagues America today was "a possibility ... inherent from the beginning." In other words, contrary to the claims of those Christian thinkers like Robert George, Murray recognized that the contemporary moral and spiritual crises of liberal democracy cannot naively, though well intentionally, be reduced to an epiphenomenon of the radical liberationist ideologies of the 1960s. Quite the contrary, they grow out of the very nature of liberal democracy.

(26.) Aristotle, Politics, Book S, chap. 9.

(27.) Robert P Kraynak makes a related argument in his thoughtful and provocative book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). Yet Kraynak does not so much argue that contemporary Christian political thought should seek to moderate liberal democracy from the inside as much as he argues that it must advocate a prudential recovery of Augustine's teaching on the two cities (see chap. S of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy). Kraynak concedes that in the modern world this approach would have to take the form of "Christian constitutionalism," a form of liberty under God that is not tied to the antinomian, rights-based premises of philosophic liberalism. Kraynak admires the non-rights-based democracy described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn--whom he presents as apolitical Augustinian--as a model of this kind of government. But the relationship between democracy, liberty, and Christianity is more subtle than Kraynak's version of political Augustinianism tends to present it. Because it lines up too squarely on the side of classical or premodern thought, Kraynak's powerful defense of the genuinely premodern elements within Christianity paradoxically cedes too much ground to liberalism's claims. Like the "Kantian Christianity" he rightly and powerfully criticizes, Kraynak's approach in effect tends to allow liberalism to define the content of democracy and liberty. His apologetic approach has the undesirable and unintended effect of defending Christianity's basic stance toward liberty and democracy negatively in reaction to that of philosophic liberalism.

(28.) Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State, trans. Marc Lepain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 99.

(29.) Ibid., 186.

(30.) Ibid., 99.

(31.) Pope John Paul II, "Letter to Families," (1994) 13.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) Ibid.

(34.) Ibid.

(35.) Pope John Paul II, "Message for the World Day of Peace," (2004), 10. All references to this address in this paragraph are to this section.

(36.) Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), hereafter cited in text by section number.

(37.) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1910.

(38.) Manent, A World Beyond Politics? 201.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Guerra, Marc D.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Previous Article:Inclusivism in the fiction of C. S. Lewis: the case of Emeth.
Next Article:The resurgence of religion in the advent of postmodernity.

Related Articles
Christian political discourse.
The cultural roots of democracy.
Introduction to Christianity.
Real Christianity.
From pews to polling places; faith and politics in the American religious mosaic.
Re-enchanting the world; Maya protestantism in the Guatemalan highlands.
Twentieth-Century Global Christianity.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters