The relationship between Catholicism and liberal democracy has been, is and will always be a complex one. To say that the founding fathers of Liberal political thought were less than friendly to the Catholic faith would be to engage in resounding understatement. Even the more allegedly benign ones, like Locke, singled out Catholicism for its inherent incompatibility with Liberalism. Hobbes and Rousseau were more overt. The problem with Catholicism is so obvious, the latter tells us, that it need not even be argued.
But what, exactly, was the problem? Well, obviously we can’t forget that all of the modern political philosophers were reacting to various overreaches on the part of the Church. Hobbes and Locke are reeling from the so-called “wars of religion,” and Rousseau had his fill of the French Catholic Church’s rather too cozy relationship with the French aristocracy (the ancien regime). Nevertheless, the critique goes much deeper than the abuses of the late medieval-early modern Church.
This becomes clear if we look at the two central aspects of Rousseau’s political philosophy: the social contract and the idea of civil religion. The first is Rousseau’s attempt to retrieve Hobbes (for whom he had significant respect) without the authoritarianism. Rousseau’s “state of nature” is much less nasty than Hobbes’, but equally requires some version of society. Even if the human person is most himself and freest when least encumbered with social, traditional, religious or familial ties, society is a necessary evil which protects as much as possible the freedom of the individual without being much of a threat to it. That society is the social contract, which is designed to express the will of the people.
Like most modern thinkers, Rousseau has an enormous amount of confidence in the ability of the “moral law within” (to quote another Rousseauian philosopher) to point each of us in the right direction. Indeed, the natural law is indistinguishable in his thought from private, individual conscience. And conscience is no longer rooted in something “above” the individual, which therefore needs to be formed by a healthy and traditional community; conscience is a perfectly functioning tool residing already in tact in the heart of every individual.
This leads to Rousseau’s understanding of civil religion. If the social contract is the structure of his thought, civil religion provides its soul. (more…)