The question of the compatibility of Catholicism and Liberalism can be answered either by a theoretical exercise of comparing principles but also by looking at the historical practices of Catholics who claim to be liberals. From the Catholic anti-liberal perspective, the former is essential for giving an intellectual defense of our position; the latter seems often to be forgotten. It is, however, no less important as an opportunity to show a compelling narrative about the futility of the compatibilist project. While the mind can be convinced by the articulate arguments found in academic journals, being shown how the principles have played out in society and in your own life can go a long way toward building a fuller understanding of the truth.
The embrace of liberalism by Catholics has a relatively short history. Until 150 years ago, religious liberalism (which found a voice in various Protestant sects) was considered simply heretical. The idea that the Christian need only concern himself with his individual relationship with God was unthinkable if you claimed to be Catholic, and the formal hierarchical church with a common sacramental life was vigorously defended in the Counter-Reformation period. Political liberalism, on the other hand, with its ideal of the individual man free to seek his own end, and society as a means to that end, was hidden by the more pressing religious question. The tension between political liberalism and the Catholic Church came to a head in the wake of the French Revolution, which specifically targeted the Catholic Church’s place in French society. Christendom, wounded by the political divisions following the Protestant reformation, was given a mortal blow in 1789. The 19th Century, then, saw a Church responding to this new situation where political liberalism and religious liberalism were united and in fact shown to be a two heads of the same beast. This response culminated in the promulgation of the Oath against Modernism by Pope Pius X. Since that time, liberalism has grown even stronger and is now by all accounts globally dominant.
According to one narrative, Catholics gradually accepted both religious and political liberalism over the last 100 years. For some, this is evidence that Catholicism and Liberalism are indeed compatible; for others, this is the reason the Church is in decline. If we look more closely, however, the alliance with liberalism is nuanced by strong illiberal streaks that remain in various modern movements in Catholicism. This is especially evident in the Catholic representation in the American political system: on the American Right, there is a strong emphasis on the promotion of sexual morality, while on the Left, economic illiberalism is a primary driving force. Catholics have found places in both sides of the aisle, latching onto (and promoting) illiberal tendencies in what are ultimately liberal parties.
While there is a certain wisdom in engaging the politics of the day and trying to draw out the good in contemporary political movements, there is also the danger of attaching yourself to corrupt political elements and promoting not the Faith but the idol of the individual. This is what we often see in American Catholics. Catholics on the Right move from a strong defense of the prohibition against abortion, contraception, and premarital sex to the libertarian conception of economic development that is championed by the mainstream Republican Party. Catholics on the Left, on the other hand, seeing the dire social straits in which many find themselves and a clear concentration of material goods in the hands of a few, move from promoting the preferential option for the poor to embracing a never ending stream of tribal political movements that thrive on conflict and the freedom from traditional limits on personal expression.
It may seem strange that such strong illiberal tendencies should be linked in contemporary politics with such strong liberal platforms. Indeed it is, however, what makes them illiberal is the motivation from which they come. While Catholics may support a redistribution of wealth in order to build a society built on Christian charity for those suffering, many on the Secular Left are motivated by more liberal concerns, namely that everyone be given the greatest opportunity possible to pursue his individual fulfillment. Conversely, the Secular Right is not concerned with a society established on Christian virtue and as we see today, most American secular conservatives are moving away from traditional Christiana morality and focusing entirely on eliminating restrictions on personal economic growth. Ultimately both sides of the spectrum end up seeking the same thing: material goods aiding a liberal life, that is a life free from outside interference,
This continues to be entirely antithetical to Catholicism, which Catholic, left or right, realize to some extent. Unfortunately, the coincidence of ostensibly illiberal positions with liberal ones has led Catholics to buy into the liberalism at the basis of contemporary American political thought. Buying into the platform of political parties, Catholics have now adopted liberal principles and often seek liberal ends, seeing them as compatible with Catholic ends. Ultimately, however, this compatibilist vision cannot last as it is based on a deception. A self-examination is in order so that we can more clearly call people to a life in Christ.
It is clear that while Catholics have been wooed and won by liberalism, it more often than not the case that they have been enticed by something that accidentally approximates the Gospel. Liberalism frees us from the demands of others, including (and especially) God himself. The Gospel frees us from our own shortcomings by making demands on us that move us past ourselves, ultimately to God. If we are to bring this Gospel to the world, it is imperative that we not ally ourselves with its antithesis, but focus our efforts on promoting a truly Christian society. Catholics may have been duped by secular liberalism in the past, but the instinct for the common good at the root of much of Catholic political action in the past 100 years should be celebrated and should become the starting point for political action in the future.
Nathaniel Gotcher, Editor-in-chief