This version of “The Metaphysics of Democracy” differs from the version that was published in the February 2018 print edition. The editors regret that they mistakenly printed an earlier draft rather than the final draft as approved by the author. We apologize to Fr. Thomas Joseph White for this error, and we apologize to our readers.
Liberalism began as a political project that sought to curtail the role of religion in public life. Religious impulses haven’t proven easy to expel, however, even in secular societies. Contemporary secular liberalism aspires to be a universal project that supplants traditional religion and relegates it to the private sphere. Paradoxically, this process frustrates the spiritual desires of many modern secular people, who are unsatisfied with thin consumerism and wish to participate in something greater than themselves. Their mounting rejection of the liberal project has precipitated a crisis, one felt most acutely in the political realm. It has taken the form of a resurgent nationalism, an inchoate response to the suppression of faith that is inadequate and perhaps dangerous. We need to address the weakness of liberal modernity differently, which means metaphysically. No doubt, an appeal to metaphysics strikes many as strangely abstract and inconsequential. Politics is the realm of action, and people want to see church leaders, politicians, lawyers, and columnists fighting for religious causes. One can sympathize with this instinct, but it ignores the deeper problem. The dispute over metaphysics was the concrete issue from the beginning. It always has been.
One story of modern democracy goes like this: The conflicts over religious absolutes in the pre-Enlightenment Christian period of European civilization gave rise to the realization that our public life should not be constituted by absolutist commitments. In order to persist in a pluralistic, peaceful way, democratic governments need to surrender their alliance with religious creeds and distance themselves from robust metaphysical accounts of reality and human purposes. The space for mutual human concord arises only when there is a public square where metaphysical rivals can live in mutual toleration. Today, this view translates into a simple theoretical principle. The modern state should practice an “ecumenism” of theoretical minimalism: It affirms no one particular creed so as to allow for the multiple beliefs of all those who inhabit public space. Liberal modernity functions through asceticism, restraining our strongest metaphysical judgments, rather than saturating public life with them.
John Henry Newman took a different view of modern democratic liberalism. He famously declared in his “Biglietto Speech” the night before he was made a cardinal, “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. . . . Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily.” In an extensive note in the Apologia he offers a definition of liberalism in which he presents its principles in the form of a creed consisting of eighteen propositions. These function as a system of secular faith and give orientation to modern politics in England, not unlike the Thirty-Nine Articles did in the seventeenth century. Basic to this view of the world is the primacy of what Newman calls the “principle of private judgment” in all matters religious, moral, and philosophical. The modern person is free to define his own meaning, and to do so he must be free from the influences of religious authorities. But this comes at a cost: Modern society must distance itself from any collective account of meaning and from all authorities who articulate such claims. When it comes to defining or defending the meaning of life, it’s every man for himself.
The first view of democracy is more libertarian, of course, and it is compatible with Christian ideas in some important ways. The second view of democracy is less so and suggests that at the heart of the modern world, there is an implicit theological debate that rages (now joined by Islam) about whether and to what extent traditional religious faith is compatible with modern democracy.
Contemporary secular progressivists seem to fit Newman’s description in that they are animated by a creed that is both anti-Christian and absolutist, and they stridently promote it. However, the secularism of our time is rife with sectarianism and marked by ideological disagreement and heterogeneity, which doesn’t tally with Newman’s version of liberalism as a “catholic” movement with a unified doctrine. The intellectual turmoil is evident when one considers the three metaphysical visions of reality that secularists promulgate, each one incompatible with Christianity and with one another.
One of these views derives from classical liberalism—Locke, Kant, and Rawls. It emphasizes the metaphysical primacy of freedom of choice in the individual subject. Its battle cry is autonomy, and its fruits are the ethics of authenticity. Each person has the right to define the meaning of his life, his sexuality, his way of participating in civic space, and his consumer opportunities. From this metaphysics we get the culture of rights talk, and the notion that sincerity of conviction serves as a moral warrant for the views that one holds.
Alongside this, there is the rival vision of the postmodern theorists who follow Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault in outlining the ways that deep currents in human culture inform our mentality, structure our pre-reflective interpretation of experience, and privilege or disempower us in ways we fail to see. The metaphysics of Nietzsche are about power, not rights or the individual autonomy of each citizen. When one overturns social conventions that are arbitrary and oppressive, one makes room for artistic creativity and Dionysian freedom in a world marked by bourgeois convention and aesthetic mediocrity. From this strand of thinking we get the discourse of prophetic denunciation, militant calls for radical cultural transformation, and the politics of identity.
Finally, there are the scientistic materialists, who think that the great philosophical and religious visions of the past must be discarded after the modern scientific revolution. Their battle cry is progress. Modern science lays bare the illusion of our religious past and makes room for a better society and a more rational world. The twin motors of progress are scientific knowledge and better technology. Real humanism is material: better medicine and food, the fight to prolong life and fend off death. Typically, these advocates of democratic liberalism follow the New Atheism and favor a political internationalism that advances universal education in the sciences and the use of life-enhancing technologies.
The three strands of thought are incompatible with one another in important and basic ways. Materialism and scientism accept the objectivity of modern scientific knowledge and the physicality of the human animal, but no materialist accounts of the human person provide an adequate basis for the affirmation of freedom as an irreducible element in the human person, let alone the autonomy of the liberal person as an ethical subject of rights. Nietzsche and Foucault have no place in their thought for a Kantian theory of rights, nor for a theory of universal political morality of the kind mainstream modern liberalism presumes. On the contrary, their projects lead one to treat the pretensions of Rawlsian liberalism as an arbitrary imposition of the will to power. They argue that the philosophies of liberal secular elites are metaphysically groundless, once sundered from ancient religious beliefs. In truth, they say, secular liberalism aims at the establishment and maintenance of an arbitrarily willed system of secular capitalism and sexual conventionalism (and note that this can be true even when the conventions change). These figures do not argue that modern scientific knowledge is false, only that knowledge of physical structures alone is never enough to procure moral norms or deeper metaphysical claims about meaning. They would perceive in the “aims of progress” of a person such as Richard Dawkins a kind of theoretical incoherence and moral hypocrisy.
Secular progressivists have made little real progress in making these divergent strands of secular thinking cohere with one another. The incoherence has real consequences because it thwarts their efforts to motivate sustained political commitments. In contrast to their Marxist forebears, today’s secularists have no profound understanding of the human condition to offer their peers. Marxism may have been deeply errant and deadly on a massive scale, but it laid out foundational conceptions of nature and history and man. Contemporary secular metaphysics is hollow to the core. When pressed on these incoherent strands of thought, defenders of the secular orthodoxy fall back upon the key dogmas of progress, autonomy, and inclusivity as a way of uniting the disparate sects. A tenuous political pragmatism allows them to unite despite their metaphysical differences, often fueled by what they are against (the Christian intellectual heritage, the pro-life movement, traditional concepts of sexual complementarity).
Aquinas speaks of the virtue of pietas as that dimension of justice by which we are inclined to acknowledge our dependence upon a reality greater than ourselves. We show gratitude or piety to our parents who gave us life, love, support, and education. We show deference and love for the state, or the patria, which ensures political and cultural well-being. Pietas toward God stems from the recognition that all that we have and are derives from the creative act of God, who sustains us in being and governs the world by his divine providence.
Pietas can be eclipsed but not eradicated. The human thirst to belong to something greater than ourselves haunts the modern post-Enlightenment state. In a world in which family life is deeply attenuated (after the sexual revolution) and the public practices of religion are alien to many, pietas crystallizes around the state, which now assumes the burdens of providing meaning in life. For the state to become a religious and all-inclusive project, it typically needs to assume universal horizons, which means that patriotism has to diminish and a kind of messianic internationalism must advance. Each state is now part of a larger secular order of universal political history. Some states are more dynamic advocates of the new liberal order than others, but all are implicated. Every sincere secular liberal is a prophet ushering in the future. This vision is already manifest in Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. The religious horizon of the enlightened modern man should be political and this-worldly. The universal ethics of peace, the spread of constitutional democracy, a free press, secular limits on religious engagement in public life, and a cosmopolitan ethics of internationalism—these are the aims of the new man. He has a cosmology without transcendence, where the highest aim is the distribution of goods (both material and educational) to the many through market economies, international state accords, and bureaucratic oversight.
The liberal outlook has enjoyed a remarkable success among the elite in Western Europe and North America for at least two generations. However, we can also observe countervailing tendencies: populations that find insufficient sustenance (both spiritual and material) in the modern liberal vision. This anti-internationalist dynamic has taken on diverse forms in the past years, in Russia, England, Turkey, or the U.S., because national traditions are distinct. In each case, however, the rebellion against the liberal vision has taken on a primarily secular form, one marked by an alternative form of pietas that reaffirms the primacy of patriotism over the internationalist aspirations of secular modernity. This dynamic has shocked many of us, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. The state is, after all, a feature of human nature, even if a somewhat ontologically vague and historically unstable kind. It consolidates and manifests a coherent cultural unity, a covenant that binds people together. Measured patriotism is natural, not evil, and its cyclical reassertion in human history is inevitable.
But liberals are not entirely wrong to mistrust it. Nationalism can indeed turn in on itself, fueled by irrational racism. We also must make sure that patriotism accommodates genuine respect for the natural human family, which is the basic cell of human culture, and for freedom of religion, including the ethical universalism that the Church provides. A nationalism (or cosmopolitan elitist liberalism) that substitutes itself for the family becomes totalitarian. When the state seeks to provide ultimate orientation in religious matters, it becomes the unwarranted pseudo-theological censor of the free mind. Truth be told, it is only the Catholic Church in human history that has shown any real long-term success in sustaining in concord the twin principles of balanced nationalism and ethical universalism. The caricature-substitutes of secular modernity that vie against the Church always err on one side or the other, usually to the detriment of both.
Democracy is not a problem per se. It is a means toward an end. The end in question is the political common good, the collective life of individuals, families, and organizations that are sustained within a larger whole in which they can flourish. As a means of government, democracy has its advantages. It encourages the participation and responsibility of the populace as a whole, provides measures to protect their freedoms, allows for the subsidiarity of smaller groups, and wards off tyrants and ideological despots. By its very nature it is anti-elitist, and this brings with it a variety of vulnerabilities. Democracies are subject to the whims of superficial collective ideologies: indoctrination of the masses based on television values, demagogy, political correctness, and the influences of plutocracy. In a democracy, the rich can purchase their influence. Political parties tend to stay in power by galvanizing massive financial resources on an ever-greater scale.
When Robert Bellarmine writes about the ideal form of government for the real world which is marked by human selfishness, he advocates for a balance of powers. His vision is that of a mixture of monarchy, aristocratic nobility, and representative democracy. The three forms of classical government each serve the common good in their own way and seek to maintain a check on the pretensions to absolutism that might arise in the others. This ideal is represented better by early modern forms of European government than twenty-first-century American constitutionalism, but it is not a world away from us. Aquinas also has surprisingly relevant thoughts on this issue. When he weighs in on the question of monarchy and the transfer of power, he asks whether a people should elect their king. His answer is affirmative. The best forms of government make the royal or executive branch directly accountable to the subjects of the state. This assures greater loyalty on the part of the subjects and greater accountability on the part of the royals. In another place, Aquinas asks whether a Christian people can obey an apostate or a pagan ruler. The question was not hypothetical for St. Thomas, since Emperor Frederick spurned the Catholic faith and promoted Islam as a purposeful affront to the pope of the time, with whom he was in open civil warfare. Two brothers of Aquinas were killed by this ruler. Aquinas answers that the Christian may live under a non-Christian ruler without disobedience to the faith, so long as the ruler in question is willing to recognize the natural law and permit his subjects to observe it.
The point of these examples is to signal, first, that there exists no perfect age. Human beings contest with the consequences of original sin under every political regime, even if some are healthier than others. And second, the principles of political realism that emerged among Catholic thinkers in previous, less democratic ages still apply fairly directly to our own. The idea of Catholic democracy poses no problem in principle. There are demons that haunt every democracy, but that is because there are demons in civic polity more generally. They are not defeated once and for all by any one form of human political self-organization. This type of demon can only be driven out by prayer.
What is needed today is a Catholic metaphysics of democracy. Cosmopolitan liberalism is inherently unstable, but so is the current Catholic response to it. The Church’s engagement of democracy as a positive good comes in two historical stages, each recent and limited in success. The first came after World War II: the demise of the totalitarian regimes and the advent of Christian democracy in Western Europe. It provided the cultural space and fueled the optimism that made the Second Vatican Council possible. We may be accustomed to thinking about the secularization that followed the council as a sign of its ineffectiveness, despite all good intentions. But things could have been much worse. The positive vision of Christian humanism that the council articulated was inspirational in Western Europe at a critical moment. The Church was able to develop a complex social doctrine in a democratic context just at the time that it mattered, in response to the rival system of totalitarian communism, which risked engulfing the larger political order of world history.
The second stage took place during the pontificate of John Paul II, first in direct confrontation with communism and, subsequently, in the wake of its defeat. Democratic market economies succeeded and communism crumbled, but the end of the Cold War was treated by many as a triumph of capitalism alone, not of the spirit. The Church found herself in a paradoxical situation. She advanced a system that now has no need to reference its own religious roots and is indifferent to them.
There was a time when the leaders of the Church could continue to promote democratic values as part of a strategy of forming the future of the modern West. That strategy has lost its force, and the Church now risks becoming a sociological ghetto, or worse, an archeological museum of ideas. Today it seems that three options remain. One is to re-emphasize the identification of Catholicism with modern liberal culture. The Church should reinvent herself as a flexible church of permission, one that embraces the metaphysical indetermination and moral fluidity of modernity. Our liquid culture can be genuinely spiritual and implicitly Christian just so long as each person chooses his options in a sincere way. Grace presupposes and builds on sincerity.
This is the option of much of the northern European Catholic hierarchy. Its end is foreshadowed in the fate of modern liberal Protestantism. The social services of the state are already accomplishing the main political aims of this version of Christianity, and the state handily instrumentalizes the Church in view of its own ends. The sociological outcomes are predictable. When people are invited to participate in Christianity merely so as to educate themselves in what Newman took to be the doctrines of liberalism, set to an accompaniment of polyphonic music, they stay home and watch soccer instead.
A second option is to cultivate a creative minority that preserves and promotes the forgotten ideals of Christian humanism. This aim can be more or less countercultural. In recent decades a kind of dual rhetoric has emerged: one of accompaniment and one of strategic provocation. When John Paul II visited France for the first time as pope, his opening words were “First daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptismal promises?” But he also strongly emphasized the core referents of the post–World War II period: modern human rights and the democratic market economy.
The third option is to acknowledge that we are entering new territory. Christianity is now alien and almost culturally inaccessible to most Western liberals, even when they think they know something about it. And modern secular democracy is failing. Not materially or practically, but spiritually, because it is not providing an adequate depth of meaning and cohesive kind of social unity. The trend toward nationalism will not be adequate to fill the void. Rightly understood, our new situation in fact represents an opportunity. The Church needs to emphasize the deeper meaning of things, against the various sectarian dogmas of modern secular liberalism, and by offering a rival version of modernity.
If we follow in the footsteps of Newman, what are the key metaphysical principles of the Catholic religion that should be promoted in the modern democratic context? Consider first the doctrine of Leo XIII in his 1888 encyclical Libertas. A fundamental priority of the Church in the modern world is to uphold the truth that the human being has a spiritual soul that is not subject to corruption at death and that has an eternal destiny, either for perennial happiness with God or for misery in perpetual alienation from God. As Leo noted, this teaching has a number of important effects in a modern context. It underscores the irreducible dignity of the human being as distinct from other animals. It affirms man’s true moral autonomy and freedom against all temptations to fatalism or materialism. It provides a fundamental metaphysical explanation of universal human equality and irreducible personal dignity. It shows that the temporal secular state cannot have final dominion over the destiny of the human person or over the competence of the Church. Most importantly, it establishes that man’s true purpose is found in something that lies beyond the horizon of temporal existence in this life, beyond political life in civic society and the realm of empirical measures and sensate pleasures.
So long as the Church’s message to the modern world is one of accompaniment in view of purely material ends (clean drinking water, a more just distribution of resources, the stability and harmony of families), her services to the state may be welcome, but they will never be essential to human flourishing. What is not essential is optional, and what is optional over time will fade to oblivion. If the Church does not offer the human being more than life in this world, she offers the human being nothing that he cannot find elsewhere. By contrast, if there truly is a spiritual dimension to the human person, then not only is the spiritual adventure of human existence invested with transcendent purpose, but also that purpose is to be found in the smallest details of temporal and civic life. As Solzhenitsyn noted in his famous speech at Harvard in 1978, religion can subsist without democracy, but democratic polity in its modern form becomes hollow and fragile without a reference to religious transcendence. The capacity to name evil and seek the good requires a moral code. A culture that cannot name God ceases to be able to name evil for what it is, and loses its capacity to name the ultimate good that can unite the aims of human beings to one another. Real progress is not measured by material technology, but by the advance toward spiritual life.
This leads to a second metaphysical principle, one regarding the true purpose of freedom. Traditional Christianity affirms that human freedom is spiritual and real. But it is not a mere capacity for autonomy, nor is it characterized primarily by the will to power. Human beings value their autonomy, and there are dialectics of power in human culture, but these “moments” in the life of freedom are neither first nor last. What is first and last is truth: truth regarding what is authentically good and the activities from which we derive real human happiness. In response to the orthodoxies of modern liberalism, John Paul II rightly emphasized that human freedom develops in its depths in reference to the mystery of God and to the grace of Christ. Real freedom is freedom for God and for grace. Constructive autonomy comes from the pursuit of a life of holiness. If this is true, then the dogmas of the Church, and her metaphysical teachings regarding grace and human personhood, remain the key to unlocking human freedom.
Third, there is the issue of knowledge of God. The most fundamental conflict between Catholicism and liberalism stems from the modern prohibition of public appeals to any real knowledge of God, whether natural or revealed. Kant’s theoretical agnosticism, Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Christianity as a repressed will to power, the materialist dismissal of religion as a social pathology—these three incompatible systems of thought share in common the conviction that all claims to real knowledge of God are intellectually dishonest. These rival versions of secularism are all profoundly in error on this fundamental point. The most basic claim of Catholic metaphysics that requires public defense and promotion in the modern context is this: that God exists, that monotheism provides the ultimate realistic explanation of reality, and that God can be known by human beings, both naturally and supernaturally. Truths about the human person and public life follow from this knowledge, which is reinforced by way of religious life, liturgical worship, and sacrifice.
Finally, there is the core ethical principle that follows from those noted above. Augustine notes in the City of God that the essence of the Church is sacrifice, which he defines as any act of the human person that is motivated by genuine love of God. Sacrifice, in other words, is mystical, and has to do with the union of human beings with God by love. Its center is found in the Mass, where the Church offers the unique sacrifice of Christ to the Father. Our modern world is not a culture without sacrifice, as many imagine. It is a place where human beings make important sacrifices in their lives, but often for things that are ephemeral. Metaphysical realism foretells the twilight of the idols, and disposes us to offer true sacrifice to the living God alone.
In 1965 Jürgen Moltmann wrote a letter to the aged Karl Barth, who had challenged the theological warrant for Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. Moltmann responded to Barth by noting that the culture that was emerging in their period was one in which the political theology of Joachim of Fiore had much more importance than that of Augustine of Hippo. Joachim was a twelfth-century Cistercian monk who famously claimed that there would be a third age that would emerge after the time of Israel and the time of the Church: that of the Spirit. After the era of visible institutions, there will be a new age of deinstitutionalized spirituality, one that is purer than the time of the visible Church with her fixed creeds, sacraments, and hierarchy. Henri de Lubac’s last book consisted in a massive study of Joachim’s heretical idea and of the myriad historical echoes of it in the modern age, marked by the theology of historical progress from Marx to Nietzsche to the liberalism of the post–Vatican II period.
Today the dogmas of liberalism that Newman identified animate the historical narrative of progress, or the “Joachimism” of the secular ethos. Catholics are naturally tempted to join in this spirit of fluidity as a means to advance the kingdom of the spirit, razing the bastions of institutional stability and references to traditional authorities. We should go back and contradict the problematic affirmation of Moltmann. In fact, the great political theology of our age should be that of Augustine in the City of God. The Church neither conforms to the world artificially nor retreats from the world. Instead, she bears witness across time, in every age, to the perennial truths that endure: the dogmas of the Church, principles of metaphysical realism, the ethical norms of human virtue and happiness. This stance does not produce historical revolution but a continual consideration of the metaphysics of the things that remain. God is our eschaton, not the profane aims of the Gentile nations.
The future belongs to the tribe that can articulate correctly the human orientation toward transcendence that cannot be eradicated and that remains at the heart of modernity, and especially at the heart of modern democracy. Newman was right to see in modern liberalism a theological adversary. Today we need to formulate a Catholic view of democracy that is not based on the dogmas of liberalism. Our task is to challenge the premises of Kant and rediscover the basic claim of Aristotle: “First philosophy” is not politics or ethics. It’s metaphysics.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.