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Catholicism and Liberalism:
 Contributions to an American Public Philosophy Edited by R. Bruce Douglass and David Hollenbach
Cambridge University Press, 352 pages, $59.95

The audacious and ambitious intellectual project proposed by this volume must be understood in the context of two developments. The first concerns contemporary America’s quest for a substantive public philosophy. That we need such a philosophy is today widely recognized. America’s loss of a public philosophy, it is increasingly apparent, has devitalized our institutions and deprived our public argument of coherence. Perhaps the leading candidate to address this loss is the form of liberalism associated with the idea of the sovereign self and championed by such influential intellectuals as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Laurence Tribe. Nevertheless, although embraced enthusiastically by our cultural elites, this liberalism is by no means uncontroversial. Today’s culture wars attest that the morality espoused by contemporary liberal theory is abhorred by large segments of the American people. 

The second development relates to the Catholic intellectual tradition. On the one hand, an increasing number of thoughtful individuals have turned to the Catholic tradition in the hope of finding there either a coherent alternative to the liberal model of man and society or, at least, the intellectual resources necessary to remedy the most glaring deficiencies of contemporary liberalism. On the other hand, there is the far-reaching development in Catholic social teaching that crystallized at the Second Vatican Council (what George Weigel has termed the Catholic human rights revolution) that has transformed the Church into a principled supporter of the institutions, practices, and principles of the free society.

Edited by R. Bruce Douglass and David Hollenbach, this volume consists of twelve essays (with an introduction by Douglass and a conclusion by Hollenbach) designed to bring the Catholic and liberal intellectual traditions into conversation. This conversation is intended to initiate a process of “mutual learning” that will afford both traditions “an opportunity to grow,” and enrich “what they themselves intrinsically are.” The ultimate goal of this conversation, however, reveals the provocative character of the intellectual project this volume proposes. This conversation, apparently, designed both to effect a rapprochement between Catholicism and liberalism and to bring about a gradual convergence of the two traditions (at least at the level of political theory). This, in turn, will presumably lay the groundwork for the new public philosophy America needs.

A project effecting a convergence between the political theories of the Catholic and liberal traditions, the editors recognize, might be viewed with skepticism in light of the “antagonism and alienation” that has traditionally characterized the relation between the two. Nevertheless, there is precedent for the project: “The American ‘proposition’ has in reality always been a synthesis of different beliefs drawn from a variety of sources.” Besides, such skepticism overlooks the fact that the Catholic and liberal intellectual traditions “have had fundamental differences in the past that they have successfully resolved.” “Both traditions,” furthermore, have changed in recent years, in the process ”redefining rather fundamentally what they stand for.” Thus, if we do not allow ourselves “to become obsessed with certain particularly divisive issues” (e.g., abortion) about which the two traditions continue to have “differences,” it becomes clear that Catholicism and liberalism “no longer stand in principled opposition to one another.”

The good news about this volume is that it contains some fine essays. Whatever reservations one might have about this or that aspect of their individual arguments, there can be no question that anyone interested in Catholic social thought and its possible contribution to the forging of a public philosophy for contemporary America will find the essays by Peter Steinfels, Philip Gleason, Joseph A. Komonchak, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Louis Dupre, and Paul E. Sigmund, and Hollenbach’s conclusion as well, worthwhile reading. The bad news, however, is that Catholicism and Liberalism , though far from a bad book, is nonetheless a profoundly disappointing one. The whole of the book somehow equals less than the sum of the parts.

It is disappointing, first, because the serious encounter between liberalism and Catholicism it promises never quite materializes. In part, this is due to its generally perfunctory treatment of contemporary Catholic social thought. The past century has been an extraordinarily fertile time for Catholic social thought. Indeed, it is at least arguable that during no other century has there been such serious, sustained, and radical reflection on the implications of the faith for the right ordering of life in society. One thinks here immediately of the seminal series of social encyclicals from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus , of the historic documents of the Second Vatican Council, and of the pathbreaking work of thinkers like Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray. Admittedly, most of these texts are at least touched on somewhere in this volume. Astonishingly, however, only rarely do the essays engage in a serious and systematic fashion either this rich body of literature or the key ideas that inform it (e.g., subsidiarity, the dignity of the human person, and natural law).

In part, it is also attributable to the level at which these essays tend to engage the traditions. Neither tradition is reducible to simply a theory of politics. At the heart of both Catholicism and liberalism are distinctive understandings of the nature and destiny of man- understandings, in turn, rooted in distinctive metaphysical and theological visions. While the metaphysical and theological vision of Catholicism is theocentric and Christocentric, liberalism reflects the anthropocentric rationalism of the Enlightenment. And, inasmuch as the political theory of each tradition is ultimately rooted in these visions, an understanding of their visions is a precondition for an understanding of their political theories.

The moral realism, for example, of Catholic social thought-the insistence on a universal and knowable human nature that is the source of obligatory moral norms and that possesses a knowable good-is rooted in the Catholic conception of a universe that is intelligible because it is divinely created and bears the imprint of the divine logos. The personalist understanding of man in Catholic social thought requires a conception of man as a being created in the image and likeness of God. (Our idea of the person emerged largely as a byproduct of the Christological controversies within the early Church.) Similarly, Catholicism’s understanding of the origins and nature of human social life is rooted in the triune character of the God whose image we bear. Catholic social thought thus insists on the dignity of the human person as the fundamental moral fact from which social and political life must take its bearings, for man in this view not only bears the image of God but is called to communion with God, destined to share in the divine nature, and joined with God through the Incarnation.

Likewise, if for the liberal tradition the individual human being continues to be surrounded by the aura of sanctity originally imparted to the human person by Christianity, the understanding of the nature of man and of the human good that informs liberalism’s political morality is decisively shaped by its conception of reason-a conception deriving from Enlightenment rationalism with its esprit geometrique. This conception of reason issues both in a naturalism that rejects any reality transcending the physical universe and in the denial of any order of human ends obliging us independently of our consent. The result is ultimately a conception of a universe stripped of meaning except that which the individual chooses to give to it by his sovereign will. It is this vision of man and the universe that elevates choice to the status of the human good and thus creates the utterly voluntarist conception of social relations in liberalism’s theory of politics.

Unfortunately, with only rare exception, these essays fail to pursue their analysis past political institutions and principles to metaphysics and theology. As a result, far from bringing the two traditions into conversation, they ultimately fail to come to grips with either of the two traditions and so bypass the real issues of their longstanding conflict.

On a deeper level, however, the disappointment of this volume is a necessary result of the intellectual project it proposes. It is easy to see why this project might appear attractive. It would resolve America’s culture wars and rescue us from the morass of the procedural republic. It would end the long-standing conflict between Catholicism and the modern world. It would facilitate the quest by certain American Catholic intellectuals for full acceptance by contemporary America’s cultural elites. And, inasmuch as the type of wholesale change in the Church’s social teaching required to secure its convergence with liberalism would necessitate a fundamental change in the Catholic understanding of man and the human good, it would open the door to the change in the Church’s magisterium for which many clamor. (The latter prospect is greeted by several contributors with scarcely disguised glee.)

And the intellectual project does possess a certain superficial plausibility. Not only would the Church’s embrace of the free society seem to open the door to an embrace of the liberal model of man and society, but, inasmuch as it is widely believed that liberalism provides the essential intellectual foundation of the free society, it would seem even to entail such an embrace.

The project rests, however, on a series of untenable assumptions. It assumes, first, that such traditions can change in the sense of “redefining rather fundamentally what they stand for,” and that the two traditions here have so changed. On the contrary, an essential feature of an intellectual tradition as such is the presence of a shared body of core commitments that endure over time. Despite their many differences, we can speak of Locke, Kant, Mill, Dewey, and Rawls as representatives of a single intellectual tradition, of liberalism, because their work is informed by such a body of core commitments. A tradition may develop (in the sense explored by Newman), but it cannot undergo the fundamental changes attributed to the two traditions here. Indeed, the fact that we can still speak meaningfully of a Catholic or liberal intellectual tradition indicates that neither has undergone a fundamental change.

Secondly, the project assumes that Catholic social teaching has in recent decades developed toward a convergence with liberalism. But this convergence is more apparent than real. The free society is not a univocal concept; indeed, there exist a number of different theories of the free society with divergent understandings of politics and disparate conceptions of the nature of man. Although superficially similar in their institutions and practices, the versions of the free society engendered by these conflicting theories differ markedly in spirit and substance. A principled commitment to the free society does not entail an embrace of the liberal model of man and society.

The Catholic human rights revolution offers a model of the free society that differs dramatically from the model championed by liberalism. One need only imagine how the spirit and substance of a society animated by John Paul II’s social vision would differ from one animated by the vision of Locke, Dewey, or Dworkin. Indeed, the issue that divides Catholicism and liberalism today at the level of political theory is nothing less than the spiritual substance of the free society.

The question of religious liberty provides an apt illustration. Although both Catholicism and liberalism embrace the principle of religious freedom, they disagree fundamentally about the foundation, nature, and implications of this principle. The affirmation of religious freedom does not entail the embrace of the liberal understanding of that principle; and the agreement between the two traditions on this subject is apparent rather than real.

Finally, the intellectual project of Catholicism and Liberalism assumes that the sort of convergence it envisions between Catholicism and liberalism is possible. Had this volume pursued its analysis of these two traditions to the point where their constitutive commitments were identified, the ultimate impossibility of the rapprochement between their political theories that the book is designed to effect would have become apparent. Catholicism and liberalism cannot and will not converge in their understanding of the defining principles-the spiritual substance-of the good society, for the simple reason that they are animated by conflicting and irreconcilable conceptions of the nature and destiny of man. The sort of convergence envisioned here would necessarily involve the sacrifice of the integrity of one or both of the traditions.

In the final analysis, the project proposed in this volume can only distract attention and divert efforts from the real intellectual project that confronts Catholic social thinkers on the eve of Christianity’s third millennium. This project is the systematic elaboration of the theory of politics that informs the Catholic human rights revolution. This project will require the sort of deep knowledge and profound love of the Catholic tradition exhibited by thinkers like Maritain and Murray, the type of serious engagement with conciliar and papal social teaching rarely found in this volume, and a conversation with liberalism in which the desire for a rapprochement between the two traditions is not allowed to obscure the fundamental differences at the heart of their ongoing conflict.

In contrast to the one proposed in this volume, such a project would be an important step toward ending American Catholicism’s post-conciliar pattern of abject capitulation to American culture. And in the area of social and political theory at least, it would mark a step toward the sort of serious engagement with that culture called for by Vatican II. By providing a real alternative to an intellectually moribund and morally bankrupt liberalism, this project might, in the long run, accomplish what a futile effort to secure a rapprochement with this liberalism could never achieve: the revitalization of America’s democratic experiment.

Kenneth L. Grasso teaches in the Department of Political Science at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.