Attacking Our Mother? The Battle Against Liberalism

By Craig Michael White
August 9, 2018


“The dilemma of the Enlightenment, into which we have undeniably fallen, constrains us to re-pose these…questions…we must, therefore, reconsider the starting point of the career of freedom in modernity; the course correction which is plainly needed before paths can reemerge from the darkening landscape before us must go back to the starting points themselves and begin its work there.” —Joseph Ratzinger

Attacking liberalism, for Americans, feels a bit like attacking your mother: it is the set of political ideas of the Founders. Those ideas are tied to the existence of individual freedom and rights, of the democracy that flows from them, and of markets where that freedom is exercised. To question liberalism, which includes those ideas, is to question our birthright—perhaps to advocate cultural suicide. But a group of religious thinkers has been attacking for some time.

The defenders, usually of a liberalism conjoined to Christianity, are fighting back, and have a number of points to make, typically emphasizing the just-mentioned concomitants of liberalism. I begin with three of the defenders. The first, Francesca Aran Murphy, asked not long ago, "Is Liberalism A Heresy?"

Murphy tells a long and complex story of the interaction among markets, philosophy, and modernity, and then of a generations-long battle between two groups of Catholic thinkers in response. The hero of her tale is Maurice Blondel, whose work restated secular liberalism’s orientation toward desire and freedom in theological terms, along with two theologians he influenced, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Before and after this trio, and arrayed against them, is a group of rather crabbed Thomists and their heirs who, with their overemphasis on human nature and the good, miss the fact that we only discover what those mysteries are in the drama of free action, which is best nurtured by liberal societies.

Murphy ends up praising a liberalism “leavened by a Christian understanding of our final end in God.” While she admits that many liberals have forgotten the truth about God and human nature, she urges us “to waken the negligent liberal to the existential truths that undergird our society” and to “encourage liberalism to remember its birth in a market economy that drew ordinary people into habits of free action for the sake of satisfying desires.” “Liberalism is no heresy,” she concludes, “and the market exchange from which it emerges does not sin against the light. It is a healthy byproduct of Christianity…”

Vincent Muñoz, responding in particular to the attacks of Patrick Deneen, but also those of Adrian Vermeule, Rod Dreher, David L. Schindler, Alasdair MacIntyre, and to some extent Archbishop Charles Chaput, defends liberalism from another standpoint, that of the American Founding. American liberalism has its roots in a belief in the natural law and “Nature’s God,” the source of our rights in the Declaration. As such, it accepts duties correlative to rights, with the two “constitutive of the natural law.” Muñoz accepts that the Declaration is not “a Thomistic document,” but reduces that differences between Thomists and the Founders about the nature of liberty are part of “a debate among natural-law thinkers.” The Founders rejected Hobbes, he says, citing Hamilton, because Hobbes rejected a God-given law.

Muñoz warns that “to reject the necessity of consent, which some “radical” Catholics seem to do, is to reject natural equality.” (Muñoz is using Deneen’s terminology and linking to his article here). In addition, “in disparaging liberalism, the “radical” Catholics, perhaps unwittingly, raise doubts about the propriety of the separation of church and state and about the legitimacy of religious freedom.” A final warning is that, ironically and tragically, “‘radical’ Catholicism…undermines the pro-life cause,” because according to the critics, “Roe and Casey follow from a proper understanding of American liberalism.”

He acknowledges that “there is something” to the criticism that “even if the Founders accepted natural law, moral duties, and limits on rights, their account of freedom has proved to be too thin.” Yet, the Founders understood that safeguarding rights is not enough: “if we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles.” Critics of liberalism miss the point here: they fail “to recognize the reality and implications of human freedom.” The American experiment depended on virtue in the people, and if that virtue has flagged, it needs to be revived. Near the conclusion, he writes: 
We must regain…political wisdom…Reacquaintance with our actual liberal principles and a return to belief in the existence of an obligatory moral law are essential. The latter may require a reemergence of religious belief, especially among the cultural elite…The necessity of morality for liberal democracy, and of religion for morality, cannot be understated.
Jonah Goldberg, in a recent piece, makes many of Muñoz’s points from an evolutionary point of view. He warnsthat if we abandon “the Miracle” of “liberal-democratic capitalism” (to quote the magazine cover), we (“the West”) will commit suicide. 

What can be said in response to these three reasonably representative defenses of Western or Christian liberalism? After that defensive barrage, the critique may have disappeared under a cloud of cannon-smoke. I will try to bring its outline back into view in the next article.