Conservative critics of liberalism frequently miss their target. Liberalism isn’t just a political system that prioritizes individual freedom and social equality. It isn’t constitutionalism, which took form long before liberalism emerged. Though it implies an anthropology and a metaphysics, liberalism is centrally an alternate, anti-catholic ecclesiology.
This is explicit in Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, where he defines the church as a voluntary society devoted to the pursuit of eternal life. Dedicated to private religious ends, the church “in no way concerns the commonwealth.” Consent reigns supreme. No one inherits religion; in this arena, every man has “supreme and absolute” authority. The mark of the church isn’t the proclamation of the gospel or devotion to truth, but an unshakeable commitment to religious indifference. Locke condemns civil coercion and tries to defuse the potential violence of intolerant Christianity, but the revolutionary thrust of his treatise is elsewhere. He sets out to dismantle and replace classic Catholic and Protestant convictions about ecclesial communion.
Instead of challenging this ecclesiology, critics of liberalism often assume it. In effect, they reduce the church to an institution of civil society, one among many private “mediating institutions” that buffer individuals from the state. As I have pointed out in the past, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed typically refers to religion alongside family, place, and region as social institutions corroded by liberalism. The church as such plays a subdued role in his alternative to a liberal system. In Return of the Strong Gods, R. R. Reno advocates a restoration of the strong gods of hearth, home, and religious devotion in order to curb the potential evils of national gods.
Being Catholic, Deneen and Reno believe the church is a transcendent community, of a different order from the family and neighborhood. In their political analysis and prescriptions, however, the church isn’t acknowledged as the people of the living God, but effectively treated as one species of the genus “religious community.” They insist the church has an important social function, but that’s the problem: Their ecclesiology makes the church a religious instrument that assists in the formation of a post-liberal polity and culture. From the outset, the ecclesiology assumed by their political analysis denies what Oliver O’Donovan has called the “primacy of love.” For orthodox Christianity, ecclesial communion isn’t a means to an end. It is the end.
A genuinely penetrating critique of liberalism must start from the universal Christian confession of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The church isn’t merely another social institution, but the family of the heavenly Father, the body and bride of the incarnate Son, the temple of the Spirit. Through the word, the Spirit gathers and knits us together. In the waters of baptism, we’re made members of Christ and of one another. At the table, we become one body because we all partake of the one loaf that is the body of Christ. For paedobaptists at least, membership in Christ and one another is inter-generational. To the naked eye, the ties that bind members of the church across time and space look fragile. Word, water, bread, and wine are surely no match for blood, flag, and soil. But the Spirit of the living God works in and through the fragile things of earth to form a communal body like no other, a solidarity in the Spirit.
The sheer existence of the church challenges liberalism’s claim to monopolize social order. Here is a differently constituted community of men, women, and children. Consent is real, but the will that makes the church isn’t the will of man or the flesh, but the will of God. Here is a sacramentally and spiritually formed body, living divine life in the flesh and manifesting the spiritual unity of the Father and Son (cf. John 17:20–21). If she does nothing else, the church stands as a witness against the imperialistic hubris of liberalism.
Paul says the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ form “one new man,” a new humanity, the fulfilled humanity (Eph. 2:15). As the body of the Last Adam, the church provides a glimpse of the final destiny of human society. She is the most human of human communities, and, precisely because of her utter uniqueness, she serves as a model and aspiration for other communities. The church has a distinctive rationale for popular participation, grounded not in a common human nature but in every member’s share of the common Spirit. That unique ecclesial form of “democracy” inspires experiments in participatory politics. As a catholic communion, the church embodies the hope for an international peace that embraces every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. International networks, nations, local communities, and families can become false churches, rivals to the body of Christ. When leavened by the church, such groupings can become shadows and images of the divine communion of the church.
The antidote to liberalism isn’t a political program, or the cultivation of communities of virtue, or the formulation of a new public philosophy, or a renewed stress on national solidarity. The antidote to liberalism is the church, if only she will be herself rather than a knock-off brand of liberalism. Christians must live church. That means no longer coming and go as we please whenever a church fails to “meet our needs.” It means jealous passion for truth—the truth about God, man, and the world. It means acknowledging that the church exercises real authority and members must submit to it. It means living Paul’s declaration: When one suffers, all suffer; when one rejoices, all rejoice, because we are members of one another. It means striving to heal the hideous fractures and wounds in the body of Christ, so we exhibit God’s own unity in our life together as we welcome one another as brothers and sisters.
As the first and most fundamental step, we must shatter our Lockean shackles and receive the truth about the church, that she is in fact the family of the Father, the body of the Son, the temple of the Spirit, united and enlivened by word and sacrament.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute. Thanks to the members of the Theopolis Civitas Group for many of the ideas in this essay.
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