Front Porcher Patrick Deneen criticizes the critics of the HHS mandate for using the “dominant privatistic language of liberalism.”  He agrees this is the prudent strategy, but believes it masks the deeper divide between Catholic and Modern political thought in general.  Such a tactic will allow the critics to win the battle, but lose the war because it concedes the Modern outlook.  For example, to talk about religious liberty is to presuppose Modern concepts such as the public v. private sectors and individualism.

Deneen’s discussion resembles Leo Strauss’s distinction between the Ancients and Moderns on how society should be organized:  “Regime means that whole, which we today are in the habit of viewing primarily in a fragmentized form . . . ”  The Ancients portrayed society as organic, while Moderns artificially divided it into parts like public v. private, church v. state, and individual v. society.  Deneen takes this quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns and replaces the Classical view with the Catholic view: “Liberalism [Modernism] was fundamentally animated by a deep philosophical and theological objection to Catholicism – and, until recent times, vice-versa .”

Yet the Catholic view might have more in common with the Modern view than Deneen suggests.  For example, the fragmentation Strauss attributes to the Moderns can be traced back to a pre-modern thinker, Augustine.  He taught Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, the City of God and the City of Man.  Such a teaching conflicts with the holism of the Classical Regime and underlies the current tension between religious liberty and the HHS Mandate.   Augustine writes, “This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced . [emphasis mine]”  If a citizen’s duties to his state come into conflict with his duties to God, then he cannot obey both masters but will have to choose one.

Another idea which brings Catholics and Moderns together is the person or individual.  The Ancients saw the individual as a part of a whole, or as Peter likes to say, city fodder.  Catholics and Moderns, on the other hand, agree that every human being is unique and irreplaceable.  The disagreement between the two is over sovereignty.  The Modern believes in ‘sovereign selves’ while the Catholic locates sovereignty in God. The Modern notion of individual autonomy is an attenuated or thinner version of the Christian conception of the dignity of the human person.  It is an attempt to safeguard individual rights without making any grand claims about his place in the Cosmos. Thus both sides believe in religious liberty, but disagree about its purpose. Regardless, it shows the critics’ adoption of religious liberty language is not simply a prudential move, but a principled one as well.

Articles by Jason Joseph

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