Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Liberalism and the fundamentals of Catholic politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 01, 2022

D. C. Schindler, of the John Paul II Institute*, has a new book out entitled The Politics of the Real. It attempts to chart a genuinely Catholic approach to politics which avoids the theoretical and practical errors so common today in both a regnant Liberalism and a reactionary Integralism. I’ve only read a third of the book so far, so I won’t review it here, but it has already gotten me thinking again about why people find it so difficult to express a fully Catholic understanding of politics.

As a starting point for my own reflections, let me report that Schindler understands two things very clearly which nearly all political thinkers today forget:

  • First, that an authentically human social order requires something that modern Liberalism, in all its forms, deliberately opposes: Namely, the existence of a particular tradition which gives life to an authentic politics, so that politics is not elevated into a kind of ad hoc arbiter of all that is real—all that is true and good. Liberalism depends on the conceit that the real is merely whatever this or that person imagines it is, so that the ultimate source of unity is State power. This explains why various totalitarianisms began to proliferate as soon as Liberalism divorced politics from what is real.
  • Second, that an authentically Catholic understanding of government cannot solve this problem by adverting to various forms of Integralism which ultimately make the Church the political manager of the temporal order. Were it not that so many serious Catholics are desperate to find a way to escape the essentially secular lie of Liberalism, one would think this second point obvious.

Liberalism—which is the dominant theory behind politics as operative in the world today—trivializes the Real in the same way that it trivializes both tradition and religious belief, that is, by positing that every attitude or idea or belief outside of politics is purely personal and idiosyncratic. Thus there are no truths readable either through nature or Revelation which can command more than a private and personal commitment; there is simply nothing there which is essentially public and belongs genuinely to the common good. And into this vacuum steps the State, to take care of the one thing that “does” determine the common good, namely politics.

An ancient solution

Schindler describes, analyzes, and exposes the errors of the Liberal conception of reality (which consists essentially in denying reality, confusing disagreement with the absence of Truth), and (as I have indicated) he avoids the knee-jerk “Catholic” response of suggesting that the solution is for the Church to more or less directly orchestrate temporal affairs. To put the matter in a nutshell, Schindler recognizes the value of the “two swords”, first enunciated by Pope Gelasius in the fifth century, which neatly categorizes the two forms of rule in this world, the spiritual and the temporal. This much I have read so far, and I will now use it as the launch pad for my own exposition—so please do not blame D. C. Schindler for what follows.

The most important features of an authentically Catholic conception of the political order are simply these: (1) The Catholic Church alone has the authority to determine the proper ends and moral means of temporal government, including the Church’s understanding of what does and does not pertain to the common good; and (2) Temporal governments have both the right and the duty to make and enforce prudential decisions about how best to secure the common good of the communities over which they rule, operating within the parameters established by the spiritual and moral teachings of the Church.

As I have written many times, the nature of the common good, and the morality of particular means and ends to achieve it, can be known from two sources: Divine Revelation and the Natural Law. Absent the Church, healthy human societies and their governments are supposed to operate in accordance with the natural law, which can be perceived and known by all. However, both extrinsic Revelation (specifically delivered at particular times) and the revelation of God through His material creation (natural law) are communications from God which the Church alone has the Divinely-granted authority to elucidate. Consequently, in the case of disputes over good and evil, whether from Revelation or Natural Law, the Church’s official (or if that is lacking, traditional) understanding is to be taken as the correct understanding.

But one of the points of which D. C. Schindler particularly reminds us is that, even in “purely” human terms, all peoples and (generally speaking) all communities also have their own traditions, each of which is a far fuller transmitter of “the good” (in many general and particular ways) than is mere “politics”. It is no accident that Liberalism excludes as extraneous to the political order not only the fullness of reality as apprehended by both the human person and the Church but also the specific ways in which the good is mediated to human communities through their own traditions. Liberalism essentially privatizes everything except itself.

Recognizing limited potential

To say that the modern Liberal order makes it possible for a hundred traditions and a thousand values to operate within its political frameworks is an error into which even many Catholic thinkers have fallen, but which should be clear to us at least in practice by now. For Liberalism makes room for anything that is not itself precisely by privatizing all other traditions and beliefs and so reducing them to mere sentiments which, while people should be in some sense free to cling to these precisely as mere sentiments, cannot contribute anything to the social order as a whole or its ongoing public life. I believe we have seen enough of the ideological totalitarianisms which arise, when both religion and tradition are exorcized as mere private sentiment, to understand by now what a cunning trap this is.

Rather, the multiplicity of religions and human traditions raises two very different questions, which are perfectly legitimate questions: (a) In what sense can the Church’s principles guide the State when the population of a State is not Catholic? and (b) In what sense can legitimate government exclude or punish religious or traditional influences and practices which it considers deleterious to the common good (which is its purpose to secure)?

The answers to these questions are far easier than one might expect, and if we had kept them in mind for the past five hundred years of the decline of Western civilization, we would have doubtless been much better off. To the first question, the answer is that the Church can only seldom succeed in instilling in human governments the correct understanding of the ends and means proper to politics. The world is a vale of tears; it is not the New Jerusalem. The Church cannot impose these understandings by force; she properly does so only through conversion. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases throughout history, human governments will not receive these things from the Church. But when Catholics govern, they are spiritually and morally bound by God to acknowledge these gifts, and to strive sincerely to implement laws and policies whose goals and methods lie within the Church’s teaching.

To the second question, the answer is that when governments cannot operate with a fully Catholic understanding of these matters, they must do their best to draw the appropriate principles regarding the ends and means of government from the Natural Law. In accordance with the Natural Law, government may do its part to work against errors and evil customs found in particular cultures, which by their nature harm the common good of the whole community. Thus it is perfectly possible for a government which is not made up of Catholics to find effective ways to counter cultural habits which violate the natural law (murder, suicide, racism, caste systems, divorce, polygamy, child abuse, gender manipulation, abortion, extreme punishments, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, hogging of resources, theft, monopoly, violence, environmental damage, and so on).

In all this, the opportunities for a significant explicitly Catholic influence on government will be occasional at best, but Catholics can still accept the natural authority of temporal governments, approving and assisting in what is good while opposing what is bad (including sometimes being punished or persecuted for their efforts). But what they cannot do—and what no person ought ever to do—is to be actively complicit in the privatization of religion and tradition in theory, as if the State is the source and fountainhead of the Good—and as if this privatization which is always effected by Liberalism is anything more than a usurpation of the Good, that is, as if it is always best on principle to create what has often been called “a naked public square.”

Totalitarianism

This is not a summary of Schindler’s book. It is an exposition of my own Catholic political understanding, but in reference to an author who has been able to explain (so far as I have read) the “politics of the real” far more effectively and far more thoroughly than I could ever hope to do. Schindler himself takes the American experiment as his starting point, because it was in the United States in 1776 that the Liberal theory of government, polity and the common good was first formally and constitutionally proclaimed. It has had its Catholic apologists ever since—not entirely without reason, considering what has been on offer around the world. But until relatively recently, we have not seen so clearly the collision course with reality which is enshrined within the typical American notion of “self-evident truths”.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we Americans have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind, and that our end is turning out to be not so different from that of many others around the world who have fallen into the same trap with a louder ideological roar. For our own brand of “innocuous” Liberalism has also devolved into mere ideology and increasing totalitarian control—even if the horrors did manifest themselves far more quickly in France in 1789. Moreover, in answer to those who believe the American experiment is perfectly open to Truth (or Catholicism), I join Schindler in answering that this has actually been prevented by the inherent Liberalism even in its direct, unchanneled and necessarily vague appeal to the God of nature, which privatizes every particular religion, every tradition and each moral truth, reducing all that is not political power to mere sentiment. No wonder we inhabit an empire of legal positivism.

Catholics must play their role in the Common Good wherever they can find it, and they can often find clever ways to increase their scope. But they cannot deliberately rule out of bounds Divine Revelation and their own Tradition, as if the privatization of all such personal “sentiments” gives maximum scope to human flourishing. Even if we do not understand the logic of the position, we have seen by now the catastrophic results of the experiment—in many places, again and again, so as to create an unmistakable pattern.

Without restoring a public tradition, and not just a collection of dismissible private whims; and without restoring a public understanding of the natural law, and not just a collection of irrelevant private prejudices; and without restoring a public grasp of Divine Revelation, and not just a collection of foolish private sentiments—without all this, the common good will remain subject to ideological decree executed through the bureaucratic control of the modern State. In other words, the Common Good will remain captive to that spirit-crushing Liberalism which reigns throughout the world today.


* Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Mar. 03, 2022 6:09 AM ET USA

    Dr Jeff, mindful of the origin of the United States, formed by men of strong character & honorable intentions yet anti-catholic, the entire political situation in our country could easily be fixed by one simple amendment, not that it would ever happen. It seems to me that all it would take would be to formally institute the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity into our system, and that would kneecap the elites, but in a good and wholesome way. Most of the graft would be eliminated.