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Breaking Open the Liberal Echo Chamber

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Most people are more liberal than they think.

I grant that such language likely appalls most Catholic liberals, both left and right. But therein lies the cognitive disconnect, because this extract from Murray’s “Ethics of Liberty” is in fact the quite sensible extension of the liberal ethos, which at its heart is animated by Locke’s possessive individualism, or what C.B. MacPherson defined as “freedom from the wills of others.”

The logic of possessive individualism reached its rhetorical end-point in 1992, when the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to abortion on demand in Casey v. Planned Parenthood. Writing for the majority, the liberal Catholic Anthony Kennedy demonstrated just how deeply the “ethics of liberty” had sloshed over from the political-economic realm into the social, moral, and cultural life of a nation: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.” Gone from Kennedy’s definition of liberty were fine distinctions between formal-negative liberty and substantive-positive liberty. Gone was any appeal to natural law, much less the “general will” of a still demonstrably Christian United States. Left in its place was a radical liberal ontology drawn on a philosophical straight line from John Locke through Murray Rothbard to Peter Singer, and enabled by fairly standard conventions of American constitutional jurisprudence.  

Is that too far a reach? I don’t think so. Catholic denunciations of liberalism have always focused on three things: secularism, relativism, and rationalism. Secularism because by exempting the public square from the universal truth claims of the Church, it sunders the unity of truth, creating an artificial division between private and public morality. Relativism because by adopting formal neutrality toward competing moral claims, it amounts to a rejection of universal truths and a reduction of morality to legality. Rationalism because by making human reason the ground of truth, it does away with the authority of Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of the Church.

To many Americans – pickled in the liberal ethos as they are – these are features, not bugs. I know that’s not the case for liberalism’s Catholic apologists – at least I hope not – but as our Lord promised, “by your fruits you shall know them.” So what are some of the liberal “fruits” we see today? One could point to a dramatic attenuation of Catholic culture, belief, and practice; or the triumph of capitalist materialism, with its reduction of persons to units of consumption and debt; or an advertising-driven popular culture that belches up one obscenity after another; or a vast national security state that lurches from war to war in the name of “freedom”; or the divinization of “choice,” which reaches its apex in abortion on demand; or the pulverizing of civil society, ground to fine powder between the state and the market. This is who we are now: secular, rationalist, relativists all, and thoroughly liberal. The blessings of liberty, indeed.

Some will ask, what about Dignitatis Humanæ? Didn’t the Second Vatican Council baptize and confirm the Anglo-American liberal order in 1965? As a matter of fact, it did not, any more than Blessed John Paul II placed his nihil obstat on American-style finance capitalism in Centesimus Annus, which is another liberal convention. Something new did occur at the Council, but that newness had more to do with clarification and emphasis than a break with the past.

Keep in mind that the Lockean conception of liberty relies upon a “possessive individualism,” marked at bottom by “freedom from the wills of others.” According to Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Dignitatis Humanæ does not embrace this liberalist concept of freedom but, on the contrary, rejects it. It adheres to the classical notion of freedom, which had been incorporated into official Catholic teaching by Leo XIII in his papal encyclical, Libertas Præstantissimum (1888) and by John XXIII in his papal encyclical, Pacem in Terris (1963). Dignitatis Humanæ, while dealing chiefly with religious freedom as a universal human right, ‘leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ’ (Dignitatis Humanæ, no. 1).”

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