Can the liberal experiment be declared dead yet?
It is an irony of the Catholic experience in the United States that at the very moment when the liberal state is beginning to demonstrate the unsustainable philosophical and moral relativism embedded in its charter, faithful Catholics who aim to expose that fact are pilloried, sometimes in the harshest terms, by liberal Catholics who would prefer to pretend that things are fundamentally fine in the American Republic. What’s more, when Catholic critics of the liberal state offer the teaching and lived experience of the Church as an analytical lens and possible source for alternative visions of the polis, the Church herself comes under attack by those same liberals, as in the recently minted formula, “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition.”
This phenomenon proves the truth of Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that “the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself – that is, for putting liberalism in question.” Indeed, when one undertakes to criticize the liberal state, all sorts of chaff are deployed as countermeasures, from paeans to the virtue of the Founders to dark intimations of disreputable designs. Rarely will defenders of the liberal castle permit the battle to be waged on their side of moat, even when those behind them have already barred the gate and are busy raising the drawbridge.
A friend of mine once noted that even Brazilian atheists have a more Catholic sensibility than most faithful American Catholics. I think that’s right, and it’s because for two centuries the Church in America has been stewing in an acid bath of relativism, materialism and secularism. The liberal state has played the long game, permitting religious liberty, which is a good thing, but structuring the terms of that liberty in such a way that over the passage of generations the faith would become so enervated that it wouldn’t matter. That’s where we are today, and that’s why the argument for more liberalism – that is, for a more comprehensive application of liberal principles – as a way of arresting the aggressions of the liberal state is akin to prescribing an extra dozen donuts as a cure for obesity.
In his book, Subversive Orthodoxy, CalTech professor Robert Inchausti recounts a speech given by the economist E. F. Schumacher, who went on to write the landmark Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered:
This is where we are in this debate: Can those in stage two break free from the partisan, ideological, and nationalist loyalties that bind them and honestly confront the inherent contradictions of the liberal state, which formally vouchsafes religious liberty even while it undermines belief and practice? Similarly, can those in stage three, who have already divested themselves of their reflexive attachment to liberalism, describe in positive terms the sort of polis they would construct as a humane and tolerant alternative, taking into account the authentic teaching of the Church and the lessons learned in passing through stages one and two?
Like it or not, history will soon force both camps to answer these questions. As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote in his commentary on The Second Coming, “The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction… The revelation [that] approaches will… take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre…” The gyres are rotating at a breakneck pace now, and Yeats’s rough beast no longer slouches – it positively gallops.