The God who gave us life gave us liberty.
They clamor for freedom—God, make them heed. For freedom resembles the possession of a flute: If it is handled by a person deaf to music he will lose his breath—and torment the ears of his neighbors.
There is liberalism, and then there is liberalism. We in the post-Communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe, and especially we in Poland, do not have an easy time sorting out the varieties of liberalism that are being proposed to us. We know that the eyes of the West, especially American eyes, are on us during this difficult time of transition. And I do not mind admitting that we are looking at the experience of societies that have had long experience with liberal democracy. We have much to learn. And, just maybe, others will, in time, be able to learn from our experience.
This is an essay attempting to sort out the different meanings of liberalism. Because Poland is undeniably—although in complicated and sometimes confused ways—a strongly Catholic society, it is not surprising that we look to the Church's social teaching as a resource for our political theory and practice. In this connection, particular attention must be paid the 1991 encyclical of John Paul II, Centesimus Annus. Also in the established democracies, liberals had high praise for the encyclical, noting in particular its thorough critique of socialism and the welfare state, its vigorous affirmation of democracy and the market economy, and its powerful emphasis on the importance of personal freedom.
Some liberal commentators have difficulty, however, with the Pope's insistence that there is a necessary and mutual relationship between freedom and truth. Milton Friedman, a classical liberal of the libertarian persuasion who has been called “the pope of liberalism,” says that John Paul's way of connecting freedom and truth “freezes the blood in the veins.” Friedman ends his generally favorable review of Centesimus Annus with questions that others also ask: Whose truth is at stake? Who defines what is true? For all the fine words about democracy and freedom, doesn't the teaching of John Paul still echo with the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition?
Such questions reach the heart of the problem that a certain tradition of liberalism has with Catholic thought—and vice versa. For the adherents of that liberal credo, absolute truth does not exist, or at least we must publicly act as though it does not exist. In this view, any public assertion of “truth” is dangerous, carrying with it an authoritarian, if not totalitarian, threat. One can understand this anxiety. The Church, which, to put it delicately, has not always been so friendly to liberal democracy, bears a strong measure of responsibility for this anxiety. Surely the time has come, however, to examine more critically the assumption that the assertion of absolute truth is a threat to liberalism. Might it not be the case that a free society cannot be sustained without the idea of absolute truth? If the denial of absolute truth is the necessary price to be paid for liberal democracy, liberal democracy is going to have a very hard time of it—in Poland and, I dare say, in most of the world of the twenty-first century.
“Pluralism” is the term that immediately and inescapably arises in such a discussion of freedom and truth. We live in a pluralistic world, we are told, and that is true. Therefore nobody can say what is the truth, we are told, and that is not necessarily true. A more critical examination suggests that liberalism betrays a remarkable propensity for raising pluralism to the position of an absolute truth that must be embraced in order to secure freedom. Ewa Bienkowska, the distinguished philosopher at the University of Avignon, examines the way in which these arguments appear in the very influential thought of Isaiah Berlin. According to Berlin, he writes, “liberal culture teaches us about the possibility of the existence of holy principles, albeit not absolute and imperishable. Social life requires certain principles for the sake of which we must be prepared to do battle. Berlin does not hesitate to speak of the ‘sanctity' of such principles, so long as nobody builds upon them a structure of truth that claims to be absolute. Berlin urges us to defend these principles since they are the product of a civilization with which we identify and which, in turn, defines us and helps us to realize our highest values.”
As has been pointed out frequently (although perhaps not frequently enough), the claim that all ideas, opinions, and convictions are the product of culture—are “socially constructed”—is fraught with difficulties. It is a claim, however, that seems to be essential to the liberal apotheosis of “pluralism.” In this view, some people defend their homeland, others collaborate with the conqueror, and each choice is the product of a different “cultural paradigm.” Some eat human flesh in the same way that others avoid pork and shrimp, because of culture. Some care for the sick and marginal, others devote themselves to eliminating the “unfit,” and who is to say who is right and who is wrong? Radical pluralism—intellectual and moral pluralism—seems to be the only truth. Pluralism is thus presented as the fundamental principle of reality, the Absolute. Absolute truth is denied in the name of an absolute truth claim that eludes rational challenge and assumes the character of a religious faith. It is not too much to say that pluralism is the operative religion of at least one stream of liberal theory and practice.
The “religion of pluralism” is very tentative in discussing the Absolute. It typically avoids such discussion, except to deny the reality of what it refuses to discuss. Radical pluralism does have a great deal to say about human nature, however. There is an anthropology of pluralism. Explicitly or by way of taking it for granted, that anthropology assumes that all people are equal, that all people are good (or at least that evil is nonexistent), and that the human condition is fundamentally solitary. Since people and cultures are equal, it is the individual who must decide for himself. This becomes the chief, sometimes the only, meaning of freedom. And it is, of course, a “negative freedom,” that is to say, it is delineated by minimal interference by anyone or anything that might restrict my right to choose.
Just as one can be a “Sunday Catholic,” one can easily be a “Sunday pluralist” who casually and unreflectively goes along with the motto “live and let live.” It is much more difficult, however, to be a consistent pluralist. Pluralism is, after all, the faith of a lonely and, one would think, bitter self-consciousness. It is a faith that requires of its adherents a heroic pessimism in being religiously devoted to the realization of principles that are, as Isaiah Berlin says, holy but not absolute or imperishable. Those who embrace the belief that there is no possible appeal to truth beyond the truth of pluralism have the heavy burden of trying to work out the implications of that belief for their own lives. Our concern here, however, is the significance of that belief for the ordering of society.
Can a free society be built on the religion of pluralism? Put differently, is pluralism capable of becoming a state religion—or, as some prefer, a “civil religion”? It seems unlikely, despite the remarkably successful missionary work of this new faith in the last two centuries. One reason why it is unlikely is that this liberalism has no aspiration toward becoming an established church, and indeed has principles and dispositions that militate against such a development. Religare refers to what binds together, and the liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is devoted to liberating the individual from what is binding. Many critics have thought this to be a rather dubious project. The Oxford historian Owen Chadwick writes, “This was not very realistic, but at least it was the expression of faith and not of experience. The liberal mind was individualistic. It [was concerned with] solitary consciousness and its right to be respected. Nonetheless, people cannot be complete individualists if society is to survive.” It is very hard to draw the line between liberation from stifling and oppressive bonds, on the one hand, and the destruction of community, on the other. The liberalism in question has no principled criteria by which to draw that line. It moves only in one direction: it can effectively eliminate abuses of oppressive community but it cannot create or protect the communities required to make and keep life human.
I make no claims to having discovered anything new in this connection. There is a vast and growing literature on “the crisis of liberalism” in which attention is directed to the problematic relationship between community and autonomy. Out of this have come, notably in America, liberal proposals for a “communitarian” reconstruction of liberal theory and practice. Elements of this seem hopeful, but I believe it will not get very far unless it addresses the particular species of community that we might, for lack of a better term, call spiritual community. Eric Voegelin claimed that liberals “are insufficiently intelligent to understand the problem of endowing matters of the spirit with an institutional dimension.” Ralf Dahrendorf addresses the question in a somewhat different way. For all that liberal institutions can do effectively, says Dahrendorf, they are “cold” institutions. “Warm” institutions, by contrast, provide a social rootedness, and a personal identity within a communal affirmation of encompassing spiritual meaning. Liberalism not only underestimates the importance of warm institutions, it frequently undermines them, viewing them as the enemy of individual autonomy. It seems doubtful that many people today will knowingly choose the cold institutions of liberal efficiency, if it means giving up the warm institutions of communal meaning. If people do not choose liberalism, that ought to be of concern to liberals for whom liberalism is most essentially a matter of choice.
The key concept of liberalism is freedom. It seeks to guarantee the greatest possible domain for choice, and does so by warding off the idea of absolute truth that might limit choice. Liberalism's “negative” freedom, however, becomes a freedom to make decisions whose significance is bestowed only by the solitary individual, by me. Such freedom might be compared with placing a bet on any number in a game of roulette in which it is entirely up to me to decide whether black or red wins. I may tell myself that I am winning all the time, but what does “win” mean in this context? If there is no truth apart from my choosing, if there is no absolute truth, absolute freedom is both sad and empty.
Moreover, it is dangerous. “If there is no truth, then everything which I say could become truth . . . The idea of absolute truth opposes a relativism which negates the existence of truth. A relativist, believing in the nonexistence of truth, does not wish to discuss the matter. He remains oblivious to the fact that such an attitude leads to usurping a sui generis authority, and towards the right of the clenched fist and not the right of truth.” That observation is not from a papal encyclical but from Karl Popper, author of The Open Society. Popper understood that the distance between freedom that is not oriented toward truth and authoritarianism is not very great. One is led to conclude that a liberal society that is consistent with the chief features of liberalism—individualism, a denial of absolute truth, a depreciation of the domain of the spirit, and freedom defined only negatively—would be no society at all. In the absence of communal bonds and shared meanings related to truth, society simply atrophies. Liberal theory and practice cannot explain or sustain society; it cannot explain or sustain a liberal society.
The strengths and the weaknesses of liberalism are played out in history. Liberalism was, in many respects, a rational reaction to the social reality that prevailed in the eighteenth century. The role of the Catholic Church in that social reality was by no means incidental. After the terrible wars of religion, and under the influence of the aggressive anticlericalism of the Enlightenment, especially of the Enlightenment in France, liberalism saw the Roman Catholic Church as its chief opponent. In some parts of Europe, religion as such was viewed as the enemy. The state was also the enemy, insofar as the state had absolutist aspirations that monarchs sought to realize by an alliance of throne and altar. Because they were so pervasively influenced by religion, liberalism's enmity was also directed against the family and, more generally, against all traditional institutions that subordinate the individual to the socially normative. The emancipation of the individual, combined with a passion for the “rational” reordering of society, understandably cast the Church, and particularly the papacy, in the role of arch-enemy.
Also understandable is the reaction of the Catholic Church to these developments—a reaction in which the Church felt called upon to do battle against liberalism en bloc. Recall the famous (some would say infamous) eightieth proposition of the Syllabus of Errors, which declared it to be impossible that the “bishop of Rome should come to terms with progress, liberalism, and the contemporary state.” If that sounds very sharp, and it does, we should remember that it came in response to an extremely hostile political climate. A classic French liberal election program put the matter in plain terms: “We wish to realize the basic liberal formula—free churches in a free and sovereign state by means of a ban on monastic orders, the seizure of mortmain Church property, and the abolition of payments for the clergy out of public funds.” If in 1864 Pius IX felt besieged, it was because he was besieged.
In historical retrospect the conflict between liberalism and the Church takes on the appearance of having been unavoidable. It may be, however, that liberalism had incorrectly located its opponent. The opponent, one might suggest, was not religion but ideology. By ideology I mean an all-comprehending explanation of social reality that is premised upon an uncritical notion of the true and the good and is in the service of creating or preserving a particular social order. Not truth, but the ideological deployment of truth, is the threat to freedom. Religious faith necessarily involves a commitment to absolute truth, and indeed to the Absolute, who is God. But the religious person should know that this truth cannot be deployed for our own purposes; the truth is not something that we “possess” in the sense of having it at our disposal. When truth is viewed as something that is in our service, rather than our being in the service of truth, it is very easy for religious faith to degenerate into ideology. This can happen despite the best of intentions, and there is no need to deny that Christians have at times attempted to advance their faith in the form of ideology.
John Paul II argues in Centesimus Annus that the Christian message contains an anti-ideological core. The Church is not the owner of the Truth by which she is constituted, nor has she examined this Truth sufficiently. As the servant of the Truth, the Church is the servant of all truth. If we are faithful to that understanding, we will resist any effort to turn Christianity into ideology. Ideology claims to own the truth that it seeks to deploy for specific purposes. All religion is susceptible to becoming ideology. There can be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim ideologies. But not only religion is susceptible. Nobody can doubt that there are Marxist, scientific, Freudian, and liberal ideologies. The last—liberal ideology—would seem most oxymoronic, since the theory and practice of liberalism has built into it protections against the kind of “totalism” produced by ideology. Yet, as we have seen, the denial of absolute truth threatens to undo the truth of liberalism. Again, the enemy of liberalism is not the recognition of absolute truth but an absolute claim of control over truth. Therein lies the menace of totalitarianism.
Isaiah Berlin was undoubtedly right about the difficulty with a concept of “positive” liberty that assumes an answer to the question of “who or what is the source of power or intervention that can decide that someone is to do this and not that, to be such and no other.” That is the kind of positive freedom proposed by Marxists in the name of historical necessity. It is freedom subjected to an absolute principle, which principle is understood and disclosed by its leading adherents. Toward the realization of that freedom there is but a straight and narrow path along which we are to march in disciplined file. I suggest that Berlin is much less convincing, however, when he says that there is a direct relationship between accepting the existence of ultimate principles and despotism. Totalitarian rule is risked not by the acknowledgment of truth but by the claim to control truth. As the Pope writes in Centesimus Annus, the danger arises when we think that we already possess a truth and have become sufficiently acquainted with it so that we are able to “interpret the extremely diversified socio-political reality by means of a rigid scheme.”
There is liberalism and then there is liberalism. The liberalism that is radically individualistic, denies the reality of absolute truth, and can affirm only “negative” freedom is incapable of sustaining society, especially a liberal society. There is available to us another liberalism, however, one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition. In this liberalism, freedom is not separated from the existence of absolute truth; freedom can be oriented to truth. In this tradition, there is no need to pretend to have the only correct solution to all social problems. Freedom is like the magnetic needle of a compass, never immobile, always pointing to something beyond itself. In this tradition, liberalism is not threatened by the formation of spiritual communities that witness to, and to some extent embody, the “beyond” to which freedom points. Here the “warm” institutions can be cherished and secure. Here, in distinction from Berlin's negative liberty and positive liberty, we are invited to an understanding of what Lord Acton called “ordered liberty.”
Catholicism is in profound and irreversible conflict, at the level both of theory and practice, with the individualistic and necessarily relativistic liberalism described above. But a liberalism that is respectful of community and open to absolute truth is becoming an exceedingly important part of Catholic social thought. Even a few decades ago such a statement would have seemed quite implausible. Among almost all liberals, including American liberals, Catholicism (and the Pope personally) was viewed as the foremost enemy of freedom. At the same time, the Catholic Church often seemed unable to distinguish between faith and ideology, between the right to make errors and the approval of those errors. The whole liberal package—economic, political, cultural—was the object of deep suspicion on the part of the Church. Much has changed in these decades. Liberalism has changed, as evidence the community-and truth-oriented critique of liberalism launched by liberals in recent years. As some American writers have discussed in detail, there is today a Kulturkampf that is in many respects a struggle between rival versions of liberalism.
And, of course, the Church's self-understanding has developed, as dramatically evident in the Second Vatican Council. The council's Declaration on Religious Freedom declares that the right to liberty belongs to the very foundation of human nature, while the Pastoral Constitution on the Church makes unmistakably clear that man can turn toward the Good only by way of freedom. This understanding of religious freedom is by no means limited to the spheres ordinarily called spiritual. It is an anthropological understanding in which freedom is perceived as constitutive of human thought, behavior, and aspiration. A greatly enhanced and freshly articulated understanding of freedom enables the Church to engage, much more constructively than was before possible, in public reflections about the meaning of market economics and democratic political order.
Such constructive public engagement is, of course, a mark of this pontificate. Especially in Centesimus Annus, John Paul proposes a careful yet bold rethinking of what is meant by a free society. A market economy is necessary, he says, not only because it is more efficient than other systems but because it is based on personal freedom. Such an economy can promote human creativity and cultivate the habits of cooperation and accountability. Similarly, a democratic political order recognizes the integrity of the political and makes possible the fullest participation in decisions that affect the entire society. The encyclical's critique of totalitarianism has been much and rightly praised, but insufficient attention has been given the Pope's more general critique of ideology—including the temptation to reduce religion to ideology. This factor in the argument of Centesimus Annus addresses directly the anxieties of those who fear that imposing an ideology is the permanent and, given the opportunity, irresistible temptation for the Catholic Church.
The Catholic affirmation that man is created for freedom might be cheered by liberals of all varieties. The opinion is expressed by some that the developments of the council and subsequent papal teaching is simply a case of the Church “catching up” with what liberals knew all along. That is, I believe, a gravely mistaken liberal conceit. The proponents of individualistic liberalism must come to terms with John Paul's argument on the integral connection between freedom and truth. Like Milton Friedman, they are made uneasy by the assertion of Centesimus Annus that “freedom loses its content in a world without truth.” They fear that this means that somebody—and who more likely than the Catholic Church?—must impose its version of the truth. But John Paul recognizes that such imposition is the denial of freedom. As he says in a recent encyclical on the missionary life of the Church (Redemptoris Missio), “The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes.” A free society includes the freedom of the Church to propose its understanding of the truth, to which understanding people can respond in freedom. In exercising their choice, some people may decide against freedom, but in doing so they are deciding against what the Church proposes.
The concept of freedom proposed by John Paul is in no way what Isaiah Berlin means by the “positive” freedom associated with totalitarianism. There is a powerful anti-ideological and anti-authoritarian component in the argument of Centesimus Annus. At the same time, John Paul reverses the direction of the liberal critique. Liberalism that systematically excludes the question of absolute truth is, he suggests, less a philosophy than a form of atheism or skeptical relativism. Liberalism that excludes truth is unable to contend for its own truth, and is thus left defenseless in the face of totalitarianisms that claim to be the truth. Liberal societies that exclude or stifle communities that bear witness to truth unwittingly end up by acting as though they possess the absolute truth-the existence of which they theoretically deny.
Many more books and articles will no doubt be written about “the crisis of liberalism.” Centesimus Annus is a critically important contribution to that discussion. Liberals have not begun to appreciate the nature or depth of the crisis until they rethink the concept of freedom, which both theoretically and historically is the cornerstone of liberalism. Freedom, says John Paul, is not only a gift and a right but a duty and a task. There can be no secure freedom that is not grounded in truth, including the truth that man is made for freedom. And there can be no grounding in truth unless communities and persons-in-community are free publicly to propose the truth that they think they know, submitting it to the free response of others. Individuals are free to make the mistake of thinking that freedom means freedom from truth rather than freedom for truth. The institutions of ordered liberty make large allowance for disordered liberty. But a free society, if it is to be sustainable, must be able to articulate the truth that makes freedom both possible and imperative. As, for example, in the declaration, “We hold these truths.”
Catholic social teaching is not simply catching up with the liberalism of the last two centuries. In a manner deeply respectful of the achievements of liberalism, especially its institutional achievements, the Church is challenging liberalism to reconstitute itself on a more adequate conception of human freedom. Although it will meet resistance from anti-Catholic liberals and from Catholic anti-liberals, it is not too much to say that, on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, John Paul II has proposed to the world a Catholic version of liberalism. It is, I am persuaded, the liberalism that we need.
Maciej Zieba, O.P., is a Polish priest, journalist, and teacher. He is coauthor of Christianity, Democracy, Capitalism.