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It is no secret that when Centesimus Annus appeared in 1991 some of us viewed it not only as an important teaching moment but also as a vindication of our understanding of Catholic social doctrine. There was a great temptation to declare triumphantly, “I told you so.” That temptation was not always resisted as it should have been. This contributed to a degree of polarization over the encyclical. Liberals who paid any attention at all to the document were not convinced of the demise of socialism and lifted up passages that they thought supportive of their collectivist dream. But, for the most part, liberals paid little attention. As with the other great teaching documents of the pontificate of John Paul II, the appearance of Centesimus Annus was for most liberal Catholics a nonevent.

The stronger polarization developed between certain conservatives and those called neoconservatives, the former accusing the latter of hijacking this pontificate, and Centesimus Annus in particular, in order to gain magisterial legitimation for what is called democratic capitalism or liberal democracy. The neoconservatives are described, and sometimes describe themselves, as advancing “The Murray Project,” referring to the effort of the late Father John Courtney Murray to square catholic teaching with the American democratic experiment. The conservative critics—for instance, Professor David Schindler of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C.—accuse Murray and those like him of selling out authentic Catholic teaching to a desiccated and desiccating liberalism.

Schindler writes in his recent book, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: “My argument, then, offered in the name of de Lubac and Pope John Paul II as authentic interpreters of the Second Vatican Council, has two main implications. First, it demands that we challenge the regnant liberalism which would claim that it (alone) is empty of religious theory in its interpretation of the First Amendment and indeed of Western constitutionalism more generally. Secondly, it demands that we seek a truly ‘Catholic Moment’ in America [as distinct from Richard John Neuhaus’ ‘Catholic Moment’], understood, that is, not as another Murrayite moment but as a truly Johannine (John Paul II) moment. This means that we must expose the con game of liberalism which enables it, precisely without argument, to privilege its place in the public order.”

In his book, and repeatedly in the pages of the English edition of Communio, of which he is the editor, Schindler assaults the liberal “con game” in which he thinks some of us are complicit. I confess that I find this somewhat frustrating. In my experience, David Schindler is a friendly fellow. We have engaged our differences in both private and public exchanges, after which he ends up agreeing that there is no substantive disagreement between us. I always look forward to our next amicable conversation, and brace myself for his next public attack.

I do think there is an important difference between us. It is not, or at least it is not chiefly, a difference over Catholic theology. The difference, rather, is that Prof. Schindler and those who are associated with his criticism tend to put the worst possible construction upon the liberal tradition, and on the American cultural, legal, and political expression of that tradition. In doing so, I believe Prof. Schindler and his friends hand an undeserved victory to those who interpret the liberal tradition in ways that we all deplore. With John Courtney Murray, I suggest that our task is to contend for an interpretation of liberalism that is compatible with the fullness of Catholic truth.

There is no doubt that the American experiment is constituted in the liberal tradition. Since we cannot go back to the eighteenth century and reconstitute it on different foundations, we must hope that the foundations on which it is constituted are not those described by Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, Richard Rorty—and David Schindler. Toward the end of understanding the liberal tradition as consistent with Catholic truth, Centesimus Annus is an invaluable guide.

Liberalism, needless to say, is a wondrously pliable term. There is the laissez-faire economic liberalism condemned by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and also by John Paul II. In American political culture that liberalism goes by the name of libertarianism, and, despite its many talented apologists, including Charles Murray (no relation to John Courtney), it has never acquired many adherents beyond what Russell Kirk called its “chirping sectaries.” In the American context, libertarianism remains in the largest part a thought experiment for college sophomores of all ages.

The liberalism so fiercely criticized today is not limited to libertarianism. At the hands of the critics, the republican liberalism of virtue and the communitarian liberalism of Tocquevillian civil society come off little better than libertarianism. David Schindler has good ecumenical company in attacking liberalism tout court. Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian at Duke University, has in books beyond number been assaulting, hammering, pummeling, and battering it with magnificent aplomb. Liberalism and all its ways and all its pomps has more recently taken a severe beating from Oliver O’Donovan, Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford. Despite his Anglican bias against what he calls “papalism,” I most warmly recommend his book, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press). It is not only a devastatingly convincing critique of a certain version of liberalism, but also a fascinating examination of what the idea of “Christendom” might mean in our moment of modernity’s discontent.

We can summarize some of the salient points in the indictment offered by the Christian critics of liberalism and modernity (the two terms usually being more or less interchangeable). Whether it be the enchanted G. K. Chesterton, the near-magisterial Alasdair MacIntyre, the caustic George Grant, the swashbuckling Stan Hauerwas, the daring O’Donovan, or the melancholic David Schindler, the indictment tends to be much the same. Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me say that I find myself in warm agreement with the indictment of a certain kind of liberalism. The contention turns on what we mean by liberalism.

The first charge is that Christian thinkers have been too ready to trim the Christian message in order to accommodate the ruling cultural paradigm of liberalism. I definitely agree. That, however, is more accurately seen as an indictment of Christian thinkers, not of liberalism. If we are hesitant to declare in public that Jesus Christ is Lord, the fault is in ourselves. We cannot plead the excuse that liberalism made us do it. John Rawls or Richard Rorty or the Supreme Court, claiming to speak in the name of liberalism, may have intimidated us, but the fault is with our timidity.

Other points in the indictment of liberalism are variously expressed. It is charged that liberalism is purely procedural. Excluding the consideration of ends, liberalism claims to be only about means, but in fact disguises its ends in its means. Thus Father Murray’s construal of the First Amendment as “articles of peace” is in fact—or so the indictment reads—a surrender to the inherently antireligious bias of liberalism. In short, the claimed “neutrality” of liberalism is anything but neutral. Liberalism, it is charged, is premised upon the fiction of a “social contract” that is, in turn, premised exclusively upon self-interest. Liberalism denies, or at least requires agnosticism about, transcendent truth or divine law, recognizing no higher rule than the self-interested human will. Liberalism’s idea of freedom is freedom from any commanding truth that might impinge upon the totally voluntaristic basis of social order.

These liberal dogmas, it is further charged, are inextricably tied to the dynamics of capitalism. Liberal dogma and market dynamics are the mutually reinforcing foundation and end of a social order that is entirely and without remainder in the service of individualistic choices by the sovereign, autonomous, and unencumbered Self. The wages of liberalism is consumerism, and consumerism is all-consuming. The end result is what some critics call “liberal totalitarianism.”

It is an impressive indictment, and it is supported by impressive evidence. Against each of the distortions mentioned, I have written at length, as have others who are favorably disposed toward liberal democracy or, as some prefer, democratic capitalism. But that is just the point: one may argue that the indictment is an indictment of the distortions of liberalism. If that is the case, we are contending for the soul of the liberal tradition.

A personal word might be in order. In the 1960s I was very much a man of the left. Not the left of countercultural drug-tripping and generalized hedonism, but the left exemplified by, for instance, the civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the latter half of the 1960s, this began to change with the advent of the debate over what was then called “liberalized” abortion law. By 1967 I was writing about the “two liberalisms”—one, like that earlier civil rights movement, inclusive of the vulnerable and driven by a transcendent order of justice, the other exclusive and recognizing no law higher than individual willfulness. My argument was that, by embracing the cause of abortion, liberals were abandoning the first liberalism that has sustained all that is hopeful in the American experiment.

That is my argument still today. It is, I believe, crucially important that that argument prevail in the years ahead. There is no going back to reconstitute the American order on a foundation other than the liberal tradition. A great chasm has opened between the liberal tradition and what today is called liberalism. That is why some of us are called conservatives. Conservatism that is authentically and constructively American conservatism is conservatism in the cause of reappropriating and revitalizing the liberal tradition.

Toward that end, Centesimus Annus, as I said, is an invaluable guide. The document is often described as an encyclical on economics, but I suggest that is somewhat misleading. Certainly it addresses economic questions in considerable detail. One reason for that is that the encyclical is commemorating and developing the argument of Rerum Novarum, which was much and rightly concerned about the problems of the worker and the threat of class warfare in an earlier phase of capitalism. Another reason for the focus on economics is that the Pope is addressing the situation following the Western-assisted suicide of the Soviet empire, and that empire had justified itself by a false ideology that reduced the human phenomenon to the economic dimension. In explaining why that ideology is false and in pointing the way toward a more promising future, it was necessary for the encyclical to pay close attention to economics.

It is more accurate, however, to say that Centesimus Annus is about the free society, including economic freedom. The discussion of Rerum Novarum, of the right understanding of property and exchange, and of the circumstances following the momentous events of 1989, culminates in chapters V and VI, “State and Culture,” and “The Person Is the Way of the Church.” When we consider the encyclical in relation to American liberalism, several cautions are in order. Centesimus Annus is not a free-standing text. It must be understood within the large corpus of this most energetic teaching pontificate, and, beyond that, in the context of modern Catholic social doctrine dating from Rerum Novarum. Even further, it must be understood in continuity with the Church’s teaching ministry through the centuries. Then too, we must always be mindful that the Pope is writing for and to the universal Church.

Keeping these and other cautions in mind, however, one cannot help but be struck by how much Centesimus Annus is a reading of “the signs of the time” with specific reference to the world-historical experiences of this century. The encyclical is not historicist, in the narrow sense of that term, but it is firmly and determinedly located in a historical moment. And, while it is not a free-standing text, one can through this one text trace the controlling themes of this teaching pontificate. Although it is written to and for the universal Church, the Church in each place is invited and obliged to read the encyclical as though it were addressed to its own specific circumstance.

Moreover, I am confident that we as Americans make no mistake when we think that the American experiment is a very major presence in Centesimus Annus. After all, the Western democracies, and the United States most particularly, are the historically available alternatives to the socialism that so miserably failed. I think it true to say that in this pontificate, for the first time, magisterial teaching about modernity, democracy, and human freedom has a stronger reference to the Revolution of 1776 than to the French Revolution of 1789. It is, then, neither chauvinistic nor parochial to read Centesimus Annus with particular reference to the American experiment. On the contrary, it is the course of fidelity, made imperative by the duty to appropriate magisterial teaching to our own circumstance, and by the powerful awareness of the American experiment in the mind of the encyclical’s author.

There is no more common criticism of the liberal tradition than that it is premised upon unbridled “individualism.” CA speaks of the “individual” and even of the “autonomous subject” (13), but most typically refers to the “person.” Citing the earlier encyclical Redemptor Hominis, John Paul writes that “this human person is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission . . . the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption.” He then adds the remarkable statement, “This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church’s social doctrine.” (53)

This, and this alone. He writes, “The Church has gradually developed that doctrine in a systematic way,” above all in the past century. Very gradually, we might add without disrespect. In the later encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul pays fulsome tribute to modernity and its development of the understanding of the dignity of the individual and of individual freedom. Individualism is one of the signal achievements of modernity or, if you will, of the liberal tradition. Nor should we deny that this achievement was effected in frequent tension with, and even conflict with, the Catholic Church. One important reason for such conflict, of course, was that the cause of freedom was perceived as marching under the radically anticlerical and anti-Christian banners of 1789. It is a signal achievement of this pontificate that it has so clearly replanted the idea of the individual and of freedom in the rich soil of Christian truth from which, in its convoluted and conflicted development, it had been uprooted. Only as it is deeply rooted in the truth about the human person will the flower of freedom flourish in the future.

It is a mistake to pit, as some do pit, modern individualism against a more organic Catholic understanding of community. Rather should we enter into a sympathetic liaison with the modern achievement of the idea of the individual, grounding it more firmly and richly in the understanding of the person destined from eternity to eternity for communion with God. The danger of rejecting individualism is that the real-world alternative is not a Catholic understanding of communio but a falling back into the collectivisms that are the great enemy of the freedom to which we are called. As CA reminds us, “We are not dealing here with humanity in the ‘abstract,’ but with the real, ‘concrete,’ ‘historical’ person.” The problem with the contemporary distortion of the individual as the autonomous, unencumbered, sovereign Self is not that it is wrong about the awesome dignity of the individual, but that it cuts the self off from the source of that dignity. The first cause of this error, says ca, is atheism. (13)

“It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. Every individual must give this response, which constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it.” (13) The great error of both collectivist determinism and of individualistic license is that their understanding of human freedom is detached from obedience to the truth. (17) Culture is a communal phenomenon, but it is in the service of the person’s response to transcendent truth. In one of the most suggestive passages of the encyclical, John Paul writes, “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.” (24)

We are brought back to the remarkable proposition about the flourishing of the human person. “This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church’s social doctrine.” This is not individualism in the pejorative sense, but it is commensurable with the modern achievement of the idea of the individual. It is commensurable with the constituting ideas of the American experiment, in which the state is understood to be in the service of freedom, and freedom is understood as what the Founders called “ordered liberty”—liberty ordered to the truth. And there are, as the Declaration of Independence declares, “self-evident truths” that ground such freedom and direct it to the transcendent ends of “Nature and Nature’s God.”

The theistic references of the Declaration are not, as some contemporary commentators claim, simply crowd-pleasing asides but are integral to the moral argument of the document—and the Declaration is, above all, a moral argument. Moreover, such references must be understood in the context of the innumerable statements by all the Founders that this constitutional order is premised upon moral truths secured by religion. The American experiment is constituted by a Puritan-Lockean synthesis that in recent decades has been bowdlerized to fit the secularist prejudices of our academic elites. It is imperative that we challenge the bowdlerized version of the founding that has been fobbed off on several generations of students, from grade school through graduate school, and take our American history straight.

It will be protested by some that this is mere “civic religion.” But we have missed the point of CA if we think there is anything “mere” about sustaining a public order that acknowledges the transcendent source and end of human existence. Of course such formal acknowledgment provides only a very thin and attenuated theology, but it creates the condition within which the Church can propose a rich and adequate account of the human story. But that, it is objected, is just the problem: In a liberal society the Church can only propose its truth, putting the gospel on the market place as one consumer item among others.

This is a frequently heard objection, and we have to wonder what people mean by it. Are they suggesting that the Church should coerce people to obey the truth? In the encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio, the Pope says, “The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes.” She would not impose if she could. Authentic faith is of necessity an act of freedom. If we fail to understand this, it is to be feared that we fail to understand what John Paul calls the principle which alone inspires the Church’s social doctrine. The Church is to propose—relentlessly, boldly, persuasively, winsomely. If we who are the Church are not doing that, the fault is not with liberalism but with ourselves. Although the Church’s message provides a secure grounding for liberalism, liberalism is not the content of the Church’s message. It is simply the condition for the Church to invite free persons to live in the communio of Christ and his Mystical Body, which communion is infinitely deeper, richer, and fuller than the liberal social order—or, for that matter, any social order short of the right ordering of all things in the Kingdom of God.

Few things are more important to the free society than the idea and reality of the limited state. However much the courts and secular intellectuals may have denied it in recent decades, the American order is inexplicable apart from the acknowledgment of a sovereignty higher than the state. As in “one nation under God,” meaning a nation under judgment. Christians understand and publicly declare that higher sovereignty in the simple proposition, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” It is not necessary for the state to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord. Nor, at least in the American circumstance and any foreseeable reconfiguration of that circumstance, is it desirable that the state declare that Jesus Christ is Lord. The role of the limited state is to respect the political sovereignty of the people who acknowledge a sovereignty higher than their own. As the encyclical states, “Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the victory of the Kingdom of God has been achieved once and for all.” (25) That victory denotes the highest sovereignty by which the state is limited, and the proclamation of that victory is the most important political contribution of the Church. In a democratic society that has been effectively evangelized, citizens do not ask the state to confess the lordship of Christ. Their only demand is that the state be respectful of the fact that a majority of its citizens confess the lordship of Christ. We affirm not a confessional state but a confessional society, always remembering that the state is the servant of society, which is prior to the state.

The Church also makes an invaluable political contribution by insisting upon the limits of politics. The great danger, says CA, is that “politics becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society . . . can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God . . . . By presuming to anticipate judgment here and now, people put themselves in the place of God and set themselves against the patience of God.” The power of grace “penetrates” the political order, especially as the laity take the lead in the exercise of Christian public responsibility, but there can be no pretensions that earthly politics will create the final right order for which our hearts yearn. (25)

As in the liberal order the ambitions of the state are checked by the democratic assertion of a higher sovereignty and by the limits of politics itself, so those ambitions are checked by diverse “sovereignties” within society itself. With Leo XIII, John Paul declares that “the individual, the family, and society are prior to the State.” The state exists to serve and protect individuals and institutions that have priority. (11) Human persons and what I have elsewhere described as the mediating institutions of society “enjoy their own spheres of autonomy and sovereignty,” according to CA. (45) These spheres of sovereignty are smaller than the state, but they are not lower than the state.

The striking modernity of the encyclical’s argument is evident also in its understanding of the state. Unlike earlier formulations, the state is not situated within a hierarchy of authorities, descending from the rule of God to the rule of the lord of the manor. The argument of CA is profoundly democratic. Christ is sovereign over all, and that sovereignty is asserted by those who acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ. The unlimited state, whether based on Marxist atheism or the engineering designs of Enlightenment rationalism, aspires to totalitarian control. “Thus there is a denial of the supreme insight concerning man’s true greatness, his transcendence in respect to earthly realities, the contradiction in his heart between the desire for the fullness of what is good and his own inability to attain it and, above all, the need for salvation which results from this situation.” (13) The limited state is kept limited by the democratic assertion of the transcendent aspiration of the human heart.

In this connection, John Paul infuses the doctrine of subsidiarity with new vitality by the use of a most suggestive phrase, “the subjectivity of society.” “The social nature of man . . . is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political, and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good.” (13) In the free society, the state is one institution, one player, among others. It is an indispensable player in its service to all the other players, but it is subject to the subjectivity of society, and the subjectivity of society consists in free persons and free persons in community living in obedience to God and solidarity with one another. There is in CA and in other writings of this pontificate, I believe, a fresh and compelling theory of democracy that awaits systematic development by the next generation.

There must be a cultivated skepticism about the state if it is to be kept limited. “To that end, it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds.” (44) Skepticism regarding the power of the state does not mean, however, skepticism about the purposes that the state is to serve. Quite the opposite is the case. Only when those purposes are clearly and unambiguously asserted can the state be held accountable. Section 45 of CA clearly and unambiguously challenges the point at which contemporary liberalism has most severely distorted the meaning of democracy in the liberal tradition. Here is the crucial paragraph:

Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the “subjectivity” of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility. [Then comes the vital passage.] Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that the truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.

The importance of this paragraph, and its pertinence to our American situation, can hardly be overestimated. The dogmatic insistence upon agnosticism in public discourse and decision making has created what I have called “the naked public square.” People who, like the Founders, hold certain truths to be self-evident are today “considered unreliable from a democratic point of view.” In a usurpation of power that indeed threatens a “thinly disguised totalitarianism,” the courts have presumed to declare that the separation of church and state means the separation of religion and religiously grounded morality from public life, which means the separation of the deepest convictions of the people from politics, which means the end of democracy and, in fact, the end of politics. Thank God, we are not there yet. But it is the direction in which we in the United States have been moving these last several decades, and it is the real and present danger requiring those of us called conservatives to rally to the defense of the liberal tradition.

In contending for the soul of liberalism, we must be sympathetically alert to some of our fellow citizens who honestly believe that any appeal to transcendent truth poses the threat of theocracy. John Paul recognizes how widespread that misunderstanding is, and therefore immediately follows the above passage with this:

Nor does the Church close her eyes to the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism among those who, in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious, claim the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing sociopolitical realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom.

Let it be candidly said that that has not always appeared to be the Church’s method. We should not leave it to others to point this out. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Nears) and on many other occasions, the Pope has candidly called upon Christians to acknowledge the ways that, individually and corporately, they have failed to respect the dignity and freedom of others. That acknowledgment must, however, be joined to two other propositions. First: When, in the name of democracy, transcendent truth is excluded from the public square, the result is “open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” Second: Democratic totalitarianism, which recognizes no higher truth than majority rule, creates a treacherously dangerous circumstance for minorities.

We could go on to examine other themes of Centesimus Annus that can be correlated with the liberal tradition, rejuvenating that tradition and turning it in more promising directions. There is, for instance, the connection between freedom and virtue, both personal and public, which must evoke intensified effort toward the evangelizing and reevangelizing of society. The stakes in that effort are very high, as John Paul sets forth with such urgency in Evangelium Vitae's dramatic portrayal of the conflict between “the culture of life” and “the culture of death.” But these and other questions are for another time. Indeed, as I have suggested, it will be the work of generations to systematically unfold and disseminate the remarkable teaching ministry of this pontificate.

I began with some comments on Centesimus Annus and what some call “The Murray Project.” Nobody should try to usurp the authority of magisterial documents in order to advance particular intra-Catholic partisan arguments. Before the magisterium of the Church we are all learners. Our purpose must be sentire cum ecclesia, to think with the Church. I know that I have learned from and have been changed by Centesimus Annus, and I trust that will continue to be the case. In no way should the encyclical be interpreted as an unqualified affirmation of the American experiment. In many ways, it is a searing criticism of what that experiment has become under the influence of contemporary liberalisms. Yet I do believe CA is commensurate with the American liberal tradition, and in critical continuity with the great work of John Courtney Murray. I believe that is the case, and I hope that is the case, for we have not the luxury of imagining the reconstitution of this social and political order on foundations other than the liberal tradition.

As sympathetic as we may be to some of the determined critics of liberalism, we do well to remind ourselves that all temporal orders short of the Kingdom of God are profoundly unsatisfactory. When we survey the depredations and ravages of our social, political, and religious circumstance, it is tempting to look for someone or something to blame. It is easy to say, “Liberalism made us do it.” But liberalism is freedom, and what we do with freedom is charged to our account. For American Christians, and for Catholics in particular, there is nothing that has been done wrong that could not have been done differently. Amidst the depredations and ravages of an American experiment that once exalted the human spirit, and may do so again, Centesimus Annus invites us to reappropriate and rebuild the liberal tradition.

Richard John Neuhaus is Editor in Chief of First Things. This article is adapted from a paper delivered at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center marking the fifth anniversary of Centesimus Annus.

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