George Weigel responds to Michael Hanby in his essay “To See Things As They Are.“
Rod Dreher responds to Michael Hanby in his essay “Christian and Countercultural.”
According to Hans Jonas, the birth of modern science was bound up with the advent of a radical new view of reality, a “technological ontology” that conflates nature and artifice, knowing and making, truth and utility. This metaphysical revolution has set in motion a perpetual historical revolution, whose interminable machinations continually threaten to overwhelm the revolutionaries themselves. Confronting the obvious question of how a perpetual revolution could be recognized or measured from the “inside,” Jonas offered for consideration the span of an ordinary man’s life:
If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then youngthen his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wisethen we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”
By this measure, there can be little doubt that we live in revolutionary times, even if this revolution is the full flower of seeds planted long ago. What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterdayfor example, that man, woman, mother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of childrenall this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency. This is astonishing by any measure; that it has occurred in half the time span proposed by Jonas makes it more astonishing still.
Such are the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, but to grasp more fully the meaning of its triumph, we must see that the sexual revolution is not merelyor perhaps even primarilysexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).
All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.
This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century. Encompassing the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the beginning of the twenty-first, this project has transcended the historical and theological division between Catholics and Protestants. This has been particularly the case as Protestant adherence to divisive confessional commitments has declined and Evangelicals, filling the void left by the decline of mainline Protestantism, have found common ground with Catholics on moral and social issues in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. Though popular imagination identifies this project in its latter stages with political conservatism, it also transcends the division between the Christian left and the Christian right, which partly explains why their opposing arguments so often appear as mirror images of one another.
Of course, for Protestants, the fate of the United States and the fate of American Protestantism have been deeply intertwined from the very beginning, so adherence to the civic project must stem not simply from confidence that American liberty was generally hospitable to the flourishing of Christianity but from a deep, if inchoate, conviction that the American experiment itself was the political outworking of a Protestant sense of “nature and nature’s God.” For Catholics, whose experience in this country was at least initially very different from that of Protestants, common commitment to this project is testimony to the long shadow cast by John Courtney Murray. Catholics generally find his argument for the compatibility of Catholicism with the principles of the American founding convincing because they believe that the argument has been vindicated by the growth and assimilation of the Church in the United States and by the apparent vitality of American Catholicism in comparison with Catholicism in Europe. Rarely do political or theological disagreements penetrate deeply enough to disturb this shared foundation. Liberal or conservative, postconciliar Catholicism in America is essentially Murrayite.
Broadly speaking, we may characterize the civic project of American Christianity as the attempt to harmonize Christianity and liberal order and to anchor American public philosophy in the substance of Protestant morality, Catholic social teaching, or some version of natural law that might qualify as public reason. George Weigel articulated one of the assumptions animating protagonists on all sides of this project when in Tranquilitas Ordinis he wrote that “there is no contradiction between the truth claims of Catholicism and the American democratic experiment.” This assertion rests on some form of Murray’s familiar distinction between articles of faith and articles of peace. This view defines the state as a juridical order that exists principally for the purpose of securing public order and protecting our ability to act on our own initiative. It therefore renounces all competence in religious and ontological matters. This ostensibly modest view of government opens up space that is then filled with the Christian substance that animates civil society.
One needn’t be ungrateful for the genuine achievements of American liberalism in order to question the wisdom of this project and its guiding assumptions. First, a purely juridical order devoid of metaphysical and theological judgment is as logically and theologically impossible as a pure, metaphysically innocent science. One cannot set a limit to one’s own religious competence without an implicit judgment about what falls on the other side of that limit; one cannot draw a clear and distinct boundary between the political and the religious, or between science, metaphysics, and theology, without tacitly determining what sort of God transcends these realms. The very act by which liberalism declares its religious incompetence is thus a theological act. Its supposed indifference to metaphysics conceals a metaphysics of original indifference. A thing’s relation to God, being a creature, makes no difference to its nature or intelligibility. Those are tacked on extrinsically through the free act of the agent.
Liberalism’s articles of peace thus mask tacit articles of faith in a particular eighteenth-century conception of nature and nature’s God, which also entails an eighteenth-century view of the Church. Moreover, liberalism refuses integration into any more comprehensive order over which it is not finally arbiter and judge. It establishes its peculiar absolutism, not as the exhaustive dictator of everything one can and cannot doto the contrary, liberal order persists precisely by generating an ever expanding space for the exercise of private optionsbut as the all-encompassing totality within which atomic social facts are permitted to appear like so many Congregationalist polities, the horizon beyond which there is no outside. Hobbes’s thought aspired to this kind of sovereignty, and Locke’s thought more effectively achieved it, but it was Rousseau who really understood it.
If we analyze the liberal character of the American project in this deeper way, we find that there is room to accommodate many of the nuances and to circumvent many of the controversies about the American founding. It is not necessary, for instance, to settle every contested question in the interpretation of Locke, to regard the founding as a purely Lockean event, or to deny the presence of classical and Christian elements alongside the unmistakable Lockean elements. I would readily concede that, in the founders’ minds, the presupposition of republican self-government is not liberty in the form of license (Locke himself said as much) but the self-governed man who is master of his passions. One can also concede a good deal of truth in the notion of a Progressive “fall” when in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a positive conception of rights supplanted the negative rights of the founders, and Progressives substituted, in Woodrow Wilson’s image, a “Darwinian” approach to the Constitution for the older, “Newtonian” one.
Wilson’s image is revealing, for it captures the dependence of political philosophy on natural philosophy, and it rightly locates the early modern revolution in political thought within the broader revolution in natural philosophy and metaphysics, the one that conflated nature and art, knowing and making, in ways that so concerned Jonas. The prevailing nominalism, voluntarism, and mechanism infected eighteenth-century assumptions about nature and nature’s God with a built-in obsolescence. Therefore, it is fair to say that the ontological presuppositions of liberal political theory were fated to undermine the classical and Christian moral inheritance and the nobility of liberalism’s own ideals. For instance, inasmuch as the founders’ notion of free self-government rests on an essentially Lockean conception of freedom as power outside and prior to truth (however much God or truth imposes an extrinsic obligation to obey, and however reasonable it is to do so in view of future rewards and punishments), then American liberty will eventually erode the moral and cultural foundations of civil society inherited from Protestant Christianity. The founders fretted over this possibility in their own lifetimes.
John Locke in the Second Treatise remarked that law enlarges the scope of freedom. He does not appear to have considered the converse, that freedom enlarges the scope of law. But insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claim of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions, and, ultimately, even nature itself. The liberal state then becomes the mediator of all human relations, charged with creating in reality the denatured individuals heretofore existing only at the theoretical foundations of liberalism.
The result, as Pierre Manent and others have observed, is a paradoxical coincidence of absolutism and libertarianism, indeed an absolutism that grows in proportion to the increase in liberty. For every clarification of negative rights brings with it an increase in the scope and power of the state to secure and enforce them. The line between negative rights and positive entitlements is thus inherently blurry. If I am to have a right to free speech, for example, then I must be empowered to speak and be heard, which means using the power of the state to give me the resources I need and to suppress anything that might disempower me. Finally, insofar as a mechanistic understanding of nature and a pragmatic conception of truth are the correlates of the abstract individual and the liberal notion of freedom as power, even a Newtonian understanding of nature, reason, and freedom will eventually destroy the foundations for the rationality of natural law, as reason is reduced to the calculation of forces and law becomes an extrinsic imposition.
The civic project has taken as gospel Murray’s conviction that the founders “built better than they knew.” But this presupposes the very thing in question: that the state and its institutions are merely juridical and that they neither enforce nor are informed by the ontological and anthropological judgments inherent in their creation. That exactly the opposite has more or less come to pass suggests rather that the founders built worse than they intended, that the founding was in some sense ill-fated. This does not make liberty any less of an ideal or its obvious blessings any less real. It simply suggests a tragic flaw in the American understanding and articulation of it. Nor need this diminish our affection for our country, though it is an endlessly fascinating question, what American patriotism really means today. One can love his country despite its philosophy, provided there is more to the country than its philosophy. Yet it is surely a sign of the impoverishment of common culture and the common goodand an index of the degree to which liberal order has succeeded in establishing itself as boththat we are virtually required to equate love of country with devotion to the animating philosophy of the regime rather than to, say, the tales of our youth, the lay of the land and the bend in the road, and “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.”
This creates a great temptation for protagonists on all sides of the civic projectright, left, and in betweento conflate their Christian obligation to pursue the common good with the task of upholding liberal order, effectively eliminating any daylight between the civic and Christian projects. For example, virtually absent from our lament over the threats to religious freedom in the juridical sense is any mention of that deeper freedom opened up by the transcendent horizon of Christ’s resurrection, though this was a frequent theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy. If we cannot see beyond the juridical meaning of religious freedom to the freedom that the truth itself gives, how then can we expect to exercise this more fundamental freedom when our juridical freedom is denied? Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goodsincluding religious freedom.
There are important debates about how and why the liberal order has attained this dangerous, all-encompassing absolutism. Patrick Deneen evokes its main contours in his American Conservative article “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” He describes a debate between “radical” Catholicism and “neoconservative” Catholicism. The neoconservative Catholic often draws attention to a progressive fall from classical liberalism, while the radical Catholic sees our current crisis as the outworking of liberalism’s deepest premises. Not surprisingly, therefore, the radical Catholic thinks it necessary to engage liberal order in a fundamental, ontological critique, while the neoconservative Catholic settles for a moral, sociological, legal, or political approach. He thinks energies are best spent recalling America to its founding principles, in hopes of preserving the dwindling space of freedom for Christians in the public square. The radical Catholic is more likely to counsel preparing for the day when filing another lawsuit is no longer enough. The same contrasts play out among Protestants, largely along the same lines.
This is a debate worth having, for it addresses fundamental questions about the structure of being, the nature of human beings, and the relations between nature and grace, faith and reason, and the political and ecclesial orders. I am inclined toward the “radical Catholic” side of this debate, convinced that unless and until we engage in a thorough reassessment of the metaphysical and crypto-theological conceits of liberalism, we will find ourselves coopted by it, unwittingly serving its project even as we bemoan and increasingly are afflicted by its excesses.
Yet I wonder whether at some level this debate has not already been overtaken by events. Even if all parties were to agree that American republicanism is not classically liberal, or that classical liberalism really is ontologically indifferent, or that the laws of nature and of nature’s God are the foundation of constitutional order and that these are the same thing as natural laweven if, in other words, all parties were to agree to some version of a pristine American founding harmonious in principle with the truth of God and the human beingreturning to the first principles of the eighteenth century isn’t much more realistic than a return to the first principles of the thirteenth. For in its enforcement of the sexual revolution, the state is effectively codifying ontological and anthropological presuppositions. In redefining marriage and the family, the state not only embarks on an unprecedented expansion of its powers into realms heretofore considered prior to or outside its reach, and not only does it usurp functions and prerogatives once performed by intermediary associations within civil society, it also exercises these powers by tacitly redefining what the human being is and committing the nation to a decidedly post-Christian (and ultimately post-human) anthropology and philosophy of nature.
To understand this, let us ask: What must one take for granted in order for same-sex marriage to be intelligible? (This is not a question about the motives or beliefswhich can seem quite humaneof those who support same-sex marriage.) It is commonly argued that marriage is no longer principally about the procreation and the rearing of children but that it centers instead on the companionship of the couple and the building of a household. The courts have repeatedly accepted this reasoning. And yet, if same-sex marriage is to be truly equal to natural marriage in the eyes of society and the law, then all the rights and privileges of marriageincluding those involving the procreation and rearing of childrenmust in principle belong to both kinds of marriage, irrespective of the motives impelling a couple toward marriage or whether, once married, they exercise these rights and privileges.
With same-sex couples this can be achieved only by technological means. And so the case for companionate marriage has been supplemented again and again by the argument that we must endorse reproductive technologies that eliminate any relevant difference between a malefemale couple and a same-sex couple. This elevates these technologies from a remedy for infertility, what they principally have been, to a normative form of reproduction equivalent and perhaps even superior to natural procreation. But if there is no meaningful difference between a malefemale couple conceiving a child naturally and same-sex couples conceiving children through surrogates and various technological means, then it follows that nothing of ontological significance attaches to natural motherhood and fatherhood or to having a father and a mother. These roles and relations are not fundamentally natural phenomena integral to human identity and social welfare but are mere accidents of biology overlaid with social conventions that can be replaced by functionally equivalent roles without loss. The implications are enormous: existential changes to the relation between kinship and personal identity, legal redefinitions of the relation between natural kinship and parental rights, and practical, biotechnical innovations that are only beginning to emerge into view and will be defended as necessary for a liberal society.
This rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-defining subjectone often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sexgender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.
Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thingand Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternativesit marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.
This is not to say that Christians should disengage or retreat, the usual misinterpretation of the so-called Benedict Option. There is no ground to retreat to, for the liberal order claims unlimited jurisdiction and permits no outside. We do not have the option of choosing our place within it if we wish to remain Christian. We cannot avoid the fact that this new philosophy, once it is fully instantiated, will in all likelihood deprive Christians of effective participation in the public square. Hobby Lobby notwithstanding, appeals to religious liberty, conceived as the freedom to put one’s idiosyncratic beliefs into practice with minimal state interference, are not likely to fare well over the long haul as these beliefs come to seem still more idiosyncratic, as religious practice comes into conflict with more “fundamental” rights, and as the state’s mediation of familial relations becomes ever more intrusive. And attempts to restore religious freedom to its proper philosophical place, as something like the sine qua non of freedom itself, presuppose just the view of human nature and reason that our post-Christian liberalism rejects from the outset.
To say that the civic project of American Christianity is at an end is not to say that it will simply cease, however. There will no doubt be those who continue to fight on, like Japanese holdouts after the Second World War, unaware that the war is over. And they should carry on in some fashion, doomed though the civic project may be. Religious freedom is worth defending after all, even in its flawed liberal sense, and Hobby Lobby shows us that it is still possible to win some battles while losing the war. Moreover, if liberalism is indeed absolute, so that there is no longer any outside, then a contest of rights is really the only ground on which liberal public reason will permit itself to be publicly engaged.
Yet something greater than liberal freedom is at stake. There seems to be a prevailing sense that this moment is something of a kairos for American Christianity, a moment of deep change in the public significance of Christianity and a moment of decision in the life of the Church. When George Weigel concedes his naivete over the possibility of a “Catholic moment” in America and concludes that the West no longer understands freedom, or when Robert George solemnly declares to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast the end of “comfortable” Christianity, then you know that the times they are a-changin’. Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.
This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.
A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason,the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilizationor this civilization from itself.
This quest requires an internal renewal of theology and philosophynot merely as academic disciplines, but as ways of lifeand they need to be brought to bear on the governing assumptions, the unarticulated ontology of our culture. In other words, we will need a much more penetrating ontological engagement with the first principles of liberal and secular order than has heretofore characterized American Christian thought. We will need a deeper assessment of how liberal principles shape both the objects of our thought and the very form of our thinking. Only thus can we really hope to come to grips with the true depths of our predicament and help our liberal culture understand the truth about itself and the profound implications of its present course toward an impoverished absolutism now poised to seize control of the most primitive junction between nature and culturethe family itself.
This labor is contemplative before it is active. It is not primarily political; indeed, everything in our politics and in our culture seems predisposed against it. To the extent that we Americans can be said to have a philosophy, it is pragmatism, which is less a philosophy than a trick the devil uses to entice philosophy into killing itself. One need only note the sheer absence of thought that has accompanied the revolution of liberal absolutism to see how successful this trick has been. To speak of freedom as something more than immunity from coercion, to speak of nature as something other than so many accidental aggregations of malleable matter at our disposal, to speak of truth as something other than pragmatic function, is to place oneself outside the rule of public reason and to risk becoming a stranger to the public square. To undertake this labor, in other words, is to risk becoming what liberal absolutism would make of each of us anyway: a man without a country.
Even so, to see and to think are not without political effect. We have seen that the liberal state cannot really limit itself; its act of self-abnegation is the very act by which it refuses integration into an order of nature or grace that precedes and exceeds it. Only the Church can really limit the state, which is why the existence of the Church is a perennial problem for it. Ultimately, the Church’s limitation of the state depends on our ability to recover a genuine understanding of the Church’s true nature and to regard ourselves not simply as a so-called intermediate association within the state and civil society but as the true whole, the heavenly city, that precedes and transcends them. This contradicts the implicit ecclesiology of liberalism, which recognizes no universality but itself. Knowing only “denominations,” it can acknowledge no truly catholic Christianity. And yet, to see the truth of God and the human person, even through a glass darkly, is already to begin to live in accord with something greater than liberal absolutism. It is already to limit the state in some measure, for it is already to see beyond liberalism’s immanent horizons.
Sustaining this vision will require disciplined reflection, and this labor is daunting enough. Yet it will also require a countercultural way of life, a deep faith in the goodness of God and in the intelligibility of creation, and real hope in the transcendent vantage, beyond our immanent success or failure, opened up by the Resurrection. It will take a great deal of courage and not a little imagination to risk failure, powerlessness, and cultural and political irrelevanceto be, in Pope Francis’s words, a less “worldly” Churchfor the sake of the truth.
I have long thought the civic project of American Christianity an implausible enterprise that underestimates the imperial ambition of liberalism’s metaphysical conceits. However, as the civic project of American Christianity and its hopes of providing moral and metaphysical ballast to our liberal polity come to an end, let us not allow liberal absolutism to control our sense of what is possible. Yes, liberalism today refuses to license the conviction that human beings have a natural end, and to speak in this way puts one in violation of the canons of public reason. Yet to live in witness to the truth simply because it is true is already to have exercised religious freedom in its deepest form, a freedom that passeth liberal understanding. It is already to have done something when there is nothing else that can be done. This freedom cannot be taken away; indeed, it often grows in proportion to the attempts to suppress it. But it can be given away, through failures of courage and poverty of thought and imagination. It is this freedom that will be the ground for a new Christian mode of serving the common good in the “post-human” dispensation in which liberalism is all we’re allowed to have in common. Weigel alludes to it, perhaps, when he laments our misunderstanding of freedom, and George gestures toward it more directly when he prophesies the end of Christian comfort. This is the freedom that the truth itself gives and that the Church in our society will increasingly be called to exercise as the revolution overseen by liberal absolutism proceeds along its present course: the freedom to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.
Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.