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Liberalism: Must we really make it all on our own?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 19, 2013

When a serious Catholic talks about liberalism, he is not referring primarily to a political preference but to a philosophical outlook. For example, the Catholic is far more interested in whether the fundamental principles of liberalism conflict with a Christian worldview than in whether many liberals happen to favor extensive government programs to support the poor. In exactly the same way, the Church’s official condemnations of liberalism have not centered on specific social policies but on general attitudes toward religion and supernatural truth.

Consider, for example, the third proposition condemned in the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, which is the very soul of liberalism: “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil; it is law to itself, and suffices, by its natural force, to secure the welfare of men and of nations.”

The problem, as the Catholic sees it, is that liberalism tends to denigrate truth, and especially supernatural sources of truth, and to argue against the salutary influence of revealed truth in human affairs. Liberalism asserts the perfectibility of both the person and society through human agency alone, and presumes that the human mind is capable of judging and disposing of the claims of God in favor of its own rationalistic projects. This assertion denies all objective representations of divine authority, thereby reducing everything, including religion, to human opinion. What Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” inevitably follows.

I think anyone who has ever argued with a “liberal” will appreciate the fundamental repudiation of supernatural authority which liberalism involves. If one attempts to argue from observable reality, the liberal will insist on his right to form his own opinions. If one argues against a secular liberal that the claims of religion must be taken very seriously, the liberal will always dismiss religion as mere sentiment or, even worse, as a holdover from times and cultures when people had not yet learned to think for themselves. If one insists on obedience to doctrinal authority on the part of a “religious” liberal, including a liberal within the Catholic Church, one soon finds that the liberal has rejected the very authority principle implicit in revealed religion. Thus the liberal sees no incompatibility between being “religious” and subjecting every specific received doctrine to his own superior powers of determination.

Insights from John Henry Newman

Nearly 200 years ago, Blessed John Henry Newman had already devoted himself to a long struggle against liberalism, and especially liberalism in religion, seeing in it the chief evil of his age. His perceptions are so acute that I will refer to them to illustrate the larger points of my own presentation. For example, Newman clearly perceived liberalism’s elevation of mere human opinion over every sort of objective spiritual authority, and so he saw that any society dominated by liberalism could not remain religious in any significant way. In fact, he saw that such a society would soon lose the very idea of truth itself.

Interestingly, Newman also saw a strong connection between Protestantism and liberalism, a connection which lets us easily fill in what would otherwise be an immense historical gap. Protestantism rejected the authority principle inherent in the Catholic system, and replaced it with private interpretation. While claiming to accept the same Scriptural Revelation, the Protestant denied the existence of the very thing necessary to complete and secure any Revelation, namely a Divinely-guaranteed authority over its scope and content. No Revelation can continue to bear its Divine impress if it is ultimately subjected to the opinions of men. By its very nature, Revelation demands a Divine provision for the authoritative rejection of some religious opinions as false.

Thus Newman, writing in the British Critic in July of 1836, some nine years before he became a Catholic, identified the central problem of the Protestant culture out of which liberalism grew:

Is it indeed possible for the run of men, if they are bound to hold that the high doctrines about our Lord are only the private, uninspired inferences of individuals from the Scripture text, to hold also that they are necessary to be believed in order to [attain] salvation? Does not, then, as we have said, the theory that Scripture only is to be the guide of Protestants, lead them of a certainty, when it is mastered, to become liberals?

This question has been answered affirmatively over time. While an effort to adhere to “the plain truth” of Scripture still persists in some conservative sects, the very proliferation of the sects themselves gives the lie to the Protestant system, with truth being preserved here and there with no consistent pattern, primarily according to a sort of cultural prejudice. Meanwhile, what we used to call mainstream Protestantism has long since devolved into a kind of pious secularism, willing to affirm almost nothing of the original Christian creed. The bulk of Protestantism has liberalized itself out of existence as a religion based on Revelation; moreover, starting two generations later, the same trend within Catholicism, exemplified by Modernism, so sapped the strength of the Church that it has taken over a hundred years to finally begin to reverse the trend.

An Anti-Dogmatic Principle

After writing his brilliant Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman found conversion to Catholicism inevitable. But he still saw himself as fighting against liberalism. Because his motives for converting were constantly and continuously attacked, he wrote a detailed explanation of the history of his conversion in the justly famous Apologia pro Vita Sua. Here he makes clear that from the first moment he recognized the truth of religion, he realized that it must be something Divinely solid, stable and authoritative; and that, even as a Catholic, he continued to fight against the same danger of liberalism which had occupied his attentions within the Anglican Church.

“[M]y battle was with liberalism; by liberalism I mean the anti-dogmatic principle and its developments,” Newman wrote. “I have changed in many things: in this I have not. From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion;…religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery…. What I held in 1816, I held in 1833, and I hold in 1864. Please God, I shall hold it to the end.” (Chapter 2). Newman also offered a more detailed analysis:

Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word. [Apologia, “Note A: Liberalism”]

This captures the essence of liberalism exactly. As we will see in a moment, I do not mean to say that this philosophical point is unconnected with particular social and political views, but the essence itself consists in a monumental category mistake—the application of the human mind to things the human mind is not capable of judging. This arises from the assumption, implicit in liberalism, that man is entirely self-sufficient and can, left to his own devices and expertise, perfect himself and the world without outside “interference” from any authority. It is precisely for this reason that all utopianism springs, at root, from liberalism.

Social Repercussions: The Preferential Option for Bureaucracy

This explains why the liberal is far more likely to insist that the world will be a better place if only we comprehensively impose the best (i.e., the latest) social policies. Here we see the instinctive reliance of the liberal mind on enlightened government, as if government and even alleged enlightenment are not subject to the same human deficiencies which have already led to the problems they seek to correct.

At the level of specific policy, of course, support or opposition is not always ideologically determined. What one person might endorse as the key to the future of mankind, another might endorse as the best we can make of a very bad business indeed. But unlike Catholicism, which bears within it a preferential option for the poor, liberalism clearly entails a preferential option for bureaucracy. Because liberalism holds perfection to be within the natural human grasp, it necessarily includes a powerful streak of utopianism. The predictable liberal response to whatever stands in the way of “utopia now” is to turn to the State as the agency most likely to be able to effect the comprehensive change needed to remove such impediments.

In this light, the totalitarian tendency of the Western world since the latter part of the eighteenth century reveals itself as an inescapable consequence of liberalism. As we look back on our own history with its simplistic clash between “left” and “right”, what we see as great conflicts are more often merely different branches of the tree of liberalism. The same fundamental liberal principles were at work in the Communist Revolution as in the French Revolution; the same ideology lies beneath our rapidly growing Statism in Europe and North America; the same fundamental disregard for objective truth and religious authority has animated such apparently diverse but often mutually consistent thinkers as John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and John Dewey. Liberalism everywhere provides the justification for State control over education.

In a word, liberalism nearly always favors bureaucratic control over personal liberty, in what becomes an ironic commentary on its own name. Liberalism perceives any sort of social backwardness as not so much a cross for those afflicted as an affront to its own utopian claims. Such backwardness must be eradicated at any cost. In other words: Liberalism includes a preferential option for bureaucracy.

An Ultimate Choice

Thus it is often not the specific social diagnosis but the underlying attitude which creates tension between the liberal and the Catholic mind. The underlying attitude of liberalism is locked into a direct conflict with Christianity. It is an opposition so fundamental as to take on a quasi-religious character of its own. It is hardly surprising, then, that while still an Anglican, Newman saw in liberalism the explanation of the spiritual shift which he predicted would soon engulf the Western world:

It will be said that the benefit which Christianity has done to the world, and which its Divine Author meant it should do, was to give an impulse to society, to infuse a spirit, to direct, control, purify, enlighten the mass of human thought and action, but not to be a separate and definite something, whether doctrine or association, existing objectively, integral, and with an identity, and forever, and with a claim upon our homage and obedience. And all this fearfully coincides with the symptoms in other directions of the spread of a Pantheistic spirit, that is, the religion of beauty, imagination, and philosophy, without constraint moral or intellectual, a religion speculative and self-indulgent. Pantheism, indeed, is the great deceit which awaits the Age to come. (Tracts for the Times, #85, 1838)

Let the reader familiar with today’s quasi-spiritualities—the New Age, anti-human environmentalism, and the widespread claim to be “spiritual” without any specific religion at all—judge of Newman’s prescience! In a private letter three years later, he asked, “Are you aware that the more serious thinkers among us are used, as far as they dare form an opinion, to regard the spirit of Liberalism as the characteristic of the destined Antichrist?... The spirit of lawlessness came in with the Reformation, and Liberalism is its offspring.”

Again, what ties all these things together is liberalism’s ultimate rejection of the objective claims of truth, and with it the rejection of every claim of religious authority. This makes liberalism not only incompatible with Christianity but ultimately destructive of the human person. Either man is made in the image of God or he is not. Either he is made for God or he is not. Either he is ever dependent upon grace, or he is not. Either he is called to respond to a religious authority which transcends the limits of his own nature, or he is not. Catholicism affirms and insists on all of these things; liberalism is their absolute negation.

It is precisely in this that liberalism is such a profound disservice to man, for by its very nature liberalism insists that human societies must at all costs be shaped and organized to do exactly the one thing that human persons can never really do at all. I mean to succeed without God—to make it all on our own, bereft and isolated, with no help in heaven or earth.

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  • Posted by: richardols3892 - Apr. 26, 2013 9:27 AM ET USA

    I am a liberal, and a serious Catholic. Favoring liberalism is a matter of, as you said, "referring primarily to a political preference." I found "conservatism" to be too hostile to the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised to be worth my consideration and support. Yet I know there are some "good" conservatives. There ought to be a set of terms for both "good" liberalism and conservatism, and for the bad aspects of each view. It would serve for less hostility from both sides.

  • Posted by: lloydfamily612601 - Mar. 23, 2013 2:11 PM ET USA

    Liberalism's rejection of spiritual authority reminds me of Dr. Sam Johnson's dictum: "The first Whig was the Devil!" Boswell wittily replied: "He certainly was Sir. The Devil was impatient of subordination!" (Rebellionagainst the so-called burdens of religion is foreshadowed in Psalm 2: "Let us cast away our yokes from us" Let us pray that this generation does not suffer from the fate foreshadowed in the psalm!)

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Mar. 20, 2013 10:09 PM ET USA

    Most excellent as always, Dr. Jeff. How sad to be forced to see our Founding Fathers as the Luthers of this great country. Sad but apparently true. Bbut glad to see ur conclusion that liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. We conservatives have been saying this for years. Liberalism is evil incarnate. Someone better tell the USCCB, and tell them and tell them and tell them, til it starts getting through their thick skulls.

  • Posted by: larindoggieland5449 - Mar. 20, 2013 2:40 PM ET USA

    I suppose we are all protestants of some sort when we are not converted. We like to think we are "outside the box" the Church wants us in. Paradoxically perhaps, but truly, we can only escape the box which we may call utopia one day, gulag the next, by entering into Christ's one Church by His mercy and transcendent grace. Thank you, Dr. Mirus, for this essay. I was baptized in the Anglican Church 55 years ago, was many years a Pantheist, and am now approaching the Mother Church, rejoicing.

  • Posted by: jtlebherz3705 - Mar. 20, 2013 8:55 AM ET USA

    Excellent post Dr. Jeff. You have the extraordinary gift of putting into print many of the thoughts that cross my mind on a daily, if not hourly, basis. What infuriates and discourages me is that this "liberalism" seems to be gaining strength more and more each day. For all of the billions of prayers that have been lifted up in the name of faith and reason, darkness still seems to abound. Newman knew of what he spoke.

  • Posted by: matt_nelsonx5154 - Mar. 19, 2013 7:29 PM ET USA

    I find it interesting that American 'conservative' Catholics rarely impugn the founders of the United States. Jefferson: "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the Trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus." Adams: "Let the human mind loose..Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it." Negation? Amen!

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