Liberalism and Catholicism: Friends Not Foes
Both traditions are rooted in a belief in universal human dignity
We are thrilled to continue our new series at The UnPopulist probing the affinities between liberalism and various religious traditions. Today’s entry is on Catholicism, and it is written by James M. Patterson, associate professor and chair of the politics department at Ave Maria University.
So far, we have published entries on Judaism, Protestant Christianity, and Buddhism, but it is safe to say none of those traditions have directly clashed with liberalism to the degree that Catholicism has historically. James doesn’t paper over this tension but addresses it head on—and even encourages liberalism to make more room for a robust Catholicism to breathe freely within its realm.
But what James also does—and this gets to the heart of our series—is lay out the various ways the two traditions coalesce around shared commitments and affinities.
As James notes in his excellent essay, the most recent Church Council—whose rulings are binding on all faithful Catholics—opened the door wide to a social configuration that firmly maintains the freedom of individuals to believe what each’s conscience dictates. There are many ways to understand liberalism, and each version has a different degree of compatibility with religion in general and Catholicism in particular. But what James deftly shows is the working harmony between post-Vatican II Catholicism and the classical liberal emphasis on the dignity of each person, from which key freedoms, rights, and responsibilities flow.
To read the series in full, go here. To jump straight to James’s entry, please see below. Whichever option you choose, happy reading!
While Catholicism is much older than liberalism, throughout much of their shared history, the two traditions have been in tension with, if not outright hostile to, each other. But there is nothing about either Catholicism or liberalism that necessitates that they should be enemies. In fact, as things currently stand—indeed, as they’ve stood since the middle of the 20th Century—the two traditions enjoy more commonality than conflict. That’s because there’s a natural affinity between key aspects of a Catholic theological anthropology and liberalism’s respect for many of the rights and privileges that free societies acknowledge every human being possesses.
That’s not me saying that—that’s the Church herself saying it.
The Second Vatican Council’s Leap Into Modernity
The shape of the Catholic Church—what the church believes, how the church operates in the world—is determined to a significant degree by what gets decided at Church Councils when Catholic bishops from around the world are convened by the Pope to reflect on matters of great concern to the faithful. The most recent of these—the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II—took place over half a century ago and has had enormous impact on how Catholics relate to liberalism. From 1962 to 1965, for a couple of months each year, Catholic leaders gathered to hash out how the Church might pursue what Pope John XXIII called aggiornamento—an institutional and doctrinal “updating” to better situate the Catholic Church within a rapidly changing world.
At Vatican II, Catholic leaders sought a renewed engagement with the modern world as a correction to the often-grievous behavior of Catholic clergy and political leaders of the previous decades. Many of the Council reforms were contentious with the broader faithful, such as those to the Mass, but arguably the most internally contentious one was Dignitatis Humanae, a declaration with a lot to say about the core tenets of political liberalism.
Dignitatis Humanae teaches that human beings possess a dignity rooted in the imago Dei—the status each person bears as having been created in the image of God—that entails certain inviolable rights, including religious liberty. This means no institution—no state, no church—can permissibly coerce a person into the Catholic faith or into any belief at all. This teaching is a significant deviation from the earlier Catholic insistence on establishing confessional states that publicly enforce Catholic doctrine and proscribe other faiths. The Church’s affirmation of the right of every individual, grounded in their intrinsic dignity as bearers of the image of God, to freely determine what they believe is not identical to liberalism’s stress on individual autonomy and freedom of conscience. But it is certainly compatible with these notions in a way that the Church’s prior stance on religious freedom was not.
Council leaders knew reform was needed. Church efforts to use coercion and top-down state power to preserve a place of influence weren’t working—politically, but even more importantly, spiritually. Earlier in the century, Catholic political parties had allied themselves with fascists, sometimes out of actual sympathy for fascism and other times due to antipathy toward socialism and communism. Axis-aligned figures like Ante Pavelić in Croatia, Fr. Jozef Tiso of Slovakia, and Philippe Pétain of Vichy France reveal the extent to which this earlier approach to government was morally disastrous. What’s more, this earlier illiberal model of church-state relations accelerated a denuded spirituality, with the Church ultimately accommodating to the exigencies of the state rather than the other way around. The era of Christendom, for one, is littered with examples of the Church compromising its values, or watering down important tenets, due to political considerations.
Vatican II’s reforms did not put a stop to the process of spiritual diminishment, but they at least put the Catholic Church on the proper footing to meet the demands of modern life. Only with Dignitatis Humanae was the Church able to underwrite a politics suited to liberal democratic life in which the Church would not be the First Estate or a rival source of political legitimacy but rather a vehicle of spiritual and moral formation for the faithful both as believers but also as citizens. Many Catholics would be reluctant to straightforwardly call this “liberal” because of the Church’s history of conflict with liberals, but it would not be wrong to call this “liberalization,” meaning a reform of the Church to make it open to engagement with liberal democracy. As a measure voted on and approved during an ecumenical (or worldwide) Church Council, Dignitatis Humanae is binding on the faithful, and because of this, Catholics are required to see this liberalization as essential to the faith.
But for there to be true harmony between the two, liberalism must do its part to make space for a fully Catholic life to be compatible within it.
It’s Liberalism’s Turn to Evolve
Liberalism hasn’t always been fully hospitable to religion—and in many ways it still isn’t. During the years following the Second World War, liberalism in the West rebounded and became a regnant ideological framework up to the present. Efforts to articulate the nature of this liberalism always seemed to retain the old liberal antipathy for Catholicism but applied it more generally to religion as a category. John Rawls, the American godfather of analytical liberalism, originally argued in A Theory of Justice that “comprehensive doctrines” (meaning religion) should have no place in democratic deliberation, a position he somewhat softened in Political Liberalism precisely became of how well some Christian advocates had argued for liberal positions. Rawls’s softening illustrated a pattern that has become typical for secular liberals—religion is acceptable to the degree to which is it is a form of liberalism. Thankfully, liberalism’s own core commitments push back against this skeptical posture toward religion.
For liberalism to deny Catholics the right to live out their faith in public—as when Rawls suggested that their faith-based reasoning cannot be admitted when discussing social issues (such as abortion and euthanasia)—too violates the separation of church and state because it requires the state to distinguish the various kinds of reasonings. This flies in the face of liberalism’s own commitments to values like the dignity of the individual and the free exercise of religion. That Catholicism might run afoul of some liberal political opinions is not a disqualification of this religious tradition but part of what it means to uphold a modern pluralistic democracy. Liberals sometimes mistake their own views as somehow less dogmatic because they’re liberal. But the implementation of their views illustrates how liberalism contains its own “comprehensive doctrine.” This doctrine cannot be privileged over Catholic doctrines in public discourse, law, or constitutions, if liberalism wants to honor its commitment to state neutrality. Just as it would be wrong for Catholics to demand liberalism change while the Church refuses to make any adjustments at all, it can’t be that the Church’s Vatican II reforms represent a unilateral disarmament in its relations with liberalism.
Fortunately, liberals and Catholics have many areas of agreement, and these should be the spaces where both dedicate their energies.
Liberals are committed to establishing a fairer, more prosperous world for everyone but especially those in emerging economies. The Catholic Church echoes this commitment, and works within nations to provide basic healthcare, education, and cultural stability for the same end. One issue that has dominated the papacy of Pope Francis has been that of “throw-away culture,” or a world which treats anything and everyone as disposable. On the personal level, throw-away culture maintains that people are only of any value if they are of any economic use, and those who are burdens are “thrown away” because they can no longer contribute to economic production. On the social level, the “useless” become a burden that states euthanize, leave to die, or send away. On the global level, throw-away culture endangers the earth by clogging the oceans with trash, polluting the environment, and generating exploitative economies built on the ever-growing demand for consumable goods to throw away when used up.
For these reasons, the Catholic Church can elevate liberals to see rights not merely as liberties due equally to all. Rights by their nature also entail duties that bind rights-bearers. Rights are not powers to use arbitrarily but toward one’s personal, social, and global obligations. Ordinary citizens can exercise rights of free speech to engage in public debate or campaign for political office. They exercise their right to own property to obtain greater wealth not primarily for personal consumption but to invest for future generations. These investments are not merely financial, wherein profits go towards family members, but also in institutions that continue to improve the lives of those in their communities. Wealthy citizens, then, should understand that the property rights that ensured their wealth can support the starting of charities, schools, and hospitals. On a global scale, ordinary citizens are usually less able to influence things, but specific elites can exercise their duties toward nations suffering from unjust wars, like Ukraine, by providing them aid out of their abundance to defend against unjust attacks on their sovereignty. As Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said to Americans during the 1950s, “it is up to us as a free nation to choose the Truth, to choose the Good, and to choose and affirm God and the freedom of the people of the world.” Indeed, Sheen was speaking even prior to Vatican II but gave voice to its mission and those who inherit it today.
If the above reflects the affinities between liberalism and Catholicism on the dignity of the human person, there’s also a subtle but surprising measure of agreement between the two on the autonomy of the human person. Within the Catholic faith, the notion of autonomy is a theologically scandalous one, if what is meant is autonomy in the Enlightenment-era sense of the human person untethered from obligations to God. But Catholicism shares with classical liberalism a full-blooded affirmation of the individual’s autonomy from the state. Faithful Catholics could never disavow their subservience to God’s commands—those remain binding and not subject to being overridden by human disagreement. But they can absolutely lock arms with liberals whose commitment to individual autonomy inclines them to cast a skeptical glance toward statist power and paternalistic forms of government. To endorse individual autonomy will sound to illiberal Catholics like an egregious violation of Catholic social teaching, but again bringing in Archbishop Sheen, who showed its concurrence with Church teaching in 1940, can help us here:
Unlike the beasts of the field, man does not exist for the sake of the species, for these individuals die that the species may survive. Rather each person is a possessor of a unitary value, which not even the State absorbs, for the State exists for man, not man for the State. Man has rights anterior to any State, which the State may recognize, but not create. The human person and his family, being prior to the State, have inalienable rights, such as the maximum of personal liberty and economic well-being consonant with the laws of God. Such is the traditional concept of the source of rights which is today the essence of Catholic social teaching and the basis of Americanism.
Sheen argued this before the Council with the full support of Pope Pius XII. There can’t be a clearer statement against fascism. To disagree, then, the illiberal Catholic has to contradict not only a pope but one of the finest theological minds America has ever produced.
To be fair to the sweep of history, the story of liberalism and Catholicism is not one of long-running mutual respect or harmony—but one could make a case that its current chapter is the one that matters the most. If that’s so, then the reforms undertaken by the Church in the mid-20th Century that remain active today, along with the two traditions’ confluence on the surpassing importance of the dignity of every human being, means that liberalism and Catholicism have the capacity to reflect the best of each other, and to reinforce each other’s most important commitments.
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