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Liberalisms, Left and Right

Dray Dray

Artificial labels mask the fact that both political parties are built on liberal positions long condemned by the Church.

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Following Hobbes, Locke believed that man in a “state of nature” is an aggressively selfish loner, a fact that inevitably leads to the supremacy of the strong over the weak, thereby limiting the liberty of the many. Locke believed that the many, the weak, then formed governments in order to restrain the strong and reassert the liberty that is their birthright. His notions about civil society, separation of powers, and religious toleration were all aimed at creating a rational society in which liberty would be maximized by limiting the aggressions of the powerful.

But as C. B. MacPherson demonstrated in his 1962 book, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Locke’s idea of liberty was mechanistic, relativistic and characterized by “possessive individualism,” by which MacPherson meant the individual as solely the possession of himself. Where the priest John Donne had written, “No man is an Island entire of itself / every man is a piece of the Continent / a part of the main,” Locke’s rejoinder was that each man is indeed an island, and that the purpose of the state is to guarantee that blissful independence of one man from every other man.

Locke’s conception of liberty, according to MacPherson, was freedom from the will of others, from dependence on others, and from obligation to society. “Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human,” wrote MacPherson, “each individual’s freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedoms for others.” Here is the kernel of both the political-economic libertarianism of the right and the social-moral libertinism of the left. Here is the basis for both a form of capitalism that scours society of its traditional moral underpinnings and the moral adventurism that discovers endless new sexual and social “rights.” Here is the source of religious indifferentism and secularism. Here is the ground of consumerism and the commodification of human persons and relationships.

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It was assumed – and still is today in many quarters – that political and economic liberalism would have no effect on the social and moral character of a people, except perhaps as a positive reinforcement. That was certainly the conviction of Fr. John Courtney Murray, the 20th century Jesuit theologian who is today a hero to both right-liberals like George Weigel and left-liberals like James Carroll. Fr. Murray is often credited with providing the inspiration for th
e Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanæ), in which the Church adopted a distinctly American conception of religious liberty. Less known is Fr. Murray’s role as the inspiration for another “council” known as the Hyannisport Conclave of 1964. Author Anne Hendershott describes the scene:

"At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisors and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear conscience.”

"The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book, “The Birth of Bioethics” (Oxford, 2003). He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.

"Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”"

Father John himself crystallized what we might call the “Murray Principle” in a 1965 memo to Boston’s Cardinal Spellman. Spellman had asked Murray for an opinion on the proposed decriminalization of contraception in Massachusetts. In his memo, Murray wrote, “It is not the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong. By reason of its nature and purpose, as the instrument of order in society, the scope of law is limited to the maintenance and protection of public morality. Matters of private morality lie beyond the scope of law; they are left to the personal conscience.” That same argument has been now been made for forty years regarding everything from pornography to same-sex marriage to, of course, abortion.

What is instructive about this is that Murray, who was horrified by abortion and would have been appalled by the notion of same-sex marriage, apparently never considered that the anthropological assumptions embedded in political-economic liberalism and made concrete in constitutional devices like the First Amendment would wash over into the social and moral life of the nation. (For more on this I recommend Communio editor David Schindler’s essay, “Religious Truth, American Freedom, and Liberalism: Another Look at John Courtney Murray.”) But after two centuries, classical liberalism’s very subtle yet relentlessly corrosive properties have done their job. The Lockean definition of liberty as “freedom from the wills of others” has become freedom from the common good, the Natural Law, the teaching of the Church, and even the obligations of a mother toward her child.

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