The tension continues

So there’s this really fascinating article by Patrick Deneen at TAC where he argues that the real battle of Catholicism in America is not between the “conservatives” and the “liberals”, but between orthodox Catholics who are essentially sympathetic to the American project and more radical ones who are not:

Its [the former group’s] 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.


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.

Religious orthodoxy – to an outsider – can sometimes seem like this monolithic thing, and then you get inside it and start to notice all the little allegiances within it.

This particular divide is acute for me because I feel the pull of both sides. My ‘political formation’ as it were, was primarily in classical liberalism/libertarianism. I even wound up getting assigned readings in the Austrian School of Economics during my undergrad years. So when I start conceptualizing politics, the language of negative/positive rights etc. is the one that I most easily gravitate towards. There is also a sense, I think, in which it corresponds to my schooling in analytic philosophy.

However (and, somewhat ironically, my intellectual exposure to some of the more radical left and postmodern stuff is partially responsible for this) part of me is also trained to see the core of liberalism as ideologically loaded – it’s just that I’m more inclined to see it in the manner that Alastair MacIntyre describes it than in the way that, say, Theodore Adorno does.

As time goes on, I’ve increasingly noticed that I’ve used the language and diagnoses of both fairly interchangeably, and that I seem to waver between the two positions. And I don’t like my thought to just get all gnarly like that.

The annoying thing is that all of this is tangential to what I’m studying at the moment, even though it’s driving me up a wall. Which means that there will probably be more posts on this in the future, as I have no other real outlet to sort my thoughts out.


About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in Catholicism, higher education, Politics as Opium and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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