|Gregory XVI: 'So, too, it is a crime for the state to act |
as if there were no God, or not to have a care for religion,
as something beyond its scope, or as of no practical
benefit; or out of the many forms of religion to adopt
whatever one it likes; for states are bound absolutely to
worship God in that way which he has shown to be his
will.' (Mirari vos 1832)
Political liberalism is the view that, on the basis of an agreed set of very basic moral principles designed to protect us from obvious harms like being murdered, everyone should be able to pursue the good life as he conceives it to be. This contrasts with the political theories of the ancient world, which started from a particular understanding of the Good Life, as the life of virtue, and maintained that the role of the state was to promote that by encouraging virtues and discouraging vice. Classical Catholic theories, to simplify, had the same idea but bearing in mind that our ultimate good as human beings is heaven, and dividing responsibility for the government of a Christian society between the state and the Church. A Catholic state, naturally, must do its best to assist the Church in its proper function spiritual government over Catholics.
|Pius IX: 'that erroneous opinion, ... called |
by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an "insanity,"
viz., that liberty of conscience and worship is
each man's personal right, which ought to be
legally proclaimed and asserted in every
rightly constituted society; and
that a right resides in the citizens to an
absolute liberty, which should be restrained
by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil,
whereby they may be able openly and publicly to
manifest and declare any of their ideas
whatever, either by word of mouth,
by the press, or in any other way.'
(Quanta cura 1864)
The first derives from the fact that the theory is not going to get off the ground unless the basic moral principles protecting us from being murdered etc. are uncontroversial. The whole idea here is that liberalism can contain a wide range of views by allowing each person the freedom to do what they want as far as their 'substantive conception of the good' is concerned: to devote oneself to painting, collecting stamps, meditating on a cushion, making money, having as much pleasure as possible, or whatever. (It excludes, of course, the conceptions which actually harm others, such as those which stop homosexuals getting married, pregnant women getting abortions, unmarried couples sharing a room in the B&B of their choice: those conceptions are unreasonable.) We can all agree - they say - on the basic things which make a common life possible.
The problem is that their basic principles are not uncontroversial at all. When you look at them in detail, they are clearly derived from certain specific moral theories - how could they not be? - and there aren't any non-controversial moral theories out there. The claim is often made by liberals that these basic ('thin') principles derive from rationality, but exactly what rationality implies is also hugely controversial, and the way rationality is understood has varied enormously over time. (A good place to see arguments about this is Alasdair MacIntyre's book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?)
|Leo XIII: one of the “chief duties” of rulers |
is to 'favour religion, to protect it, to shield it
under the credit and sanction of the laws,
and neither to organize nor enact any
measure that may compromise its safety.'
(Immortale Dei, 1885)
The interesting fact is that issues which liberals regard as 'substantive' are often less controversial than issues which liberals call 'thin'. It is much easier to get the saloon bar to agree that children should be taught the three Rs or that incest is disgraceful than to get them to agree that it is rational to seek to make the worst-possible future outcome as good as possible, rather than to take a risk with that for a higher chance of getting a much better outcome. This has real political implications. Liberals like to claim that they can cope with multi-culturalism better than conservatives, but this is not so. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians disagree on fundamental issues, but we actually agree on many substantive issues, such as the need to limit sexual licence and support the stability of the family. There are historically many examples of multicultural societies run successfully on conservative lines - it is true of all the great empires of history. They way they do it is to make policy on the basis of widely agree aspects of the substantive good, just as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland agree to restrict abortion there. As the radical implications of liberalism are worked out, it is increasingly clear than a consistent liberal state could never co-exist with a large body of, say, Muslim citizens.
The second exploitable problem with liberalism is that it implies a very radical freedom for each person to do what he likes with his life, as long as it does not harm other people. The horrible consequences of this principle are such, however, that even liberal states can only apply it selectively and inconsistently.
|Pius XI: ' these manifold evils in the world were due to |
the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ
and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place
either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further,
that as long as individuals and states refused to submit
to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful
prospect of a lasting peace among nations.'
(Quas primas 1925)
Health policy has currently swung so far back against liberal principles that I begin to wonder whether my body is my own, or a tool of the state to improve the efficiency of the economy or to lower the costs of the National Health Service. But of course the health fascists, like feminist opponents of prostitution, have a point: it is just not a liberal point. The state has, perfectly reasonably, a substantive conception (shared by pretty well everyone) of what is good for us in terms of physical health, and, perfectly reasonably, wants to encourage (not necessarily compel) us in that direction. The state has an interest in the health of its citizens: liberals should logically deny this but it is obviously true.
To conclude, liberalism as a theory cannot cope without basic, 'thin' moral principles being accepted by (pretty well) everyone: to point out that their chosen principles are actually accepted by almost no-one (this is indeed the case with the most influential account of rationality in liberal theory, that of John Rawls) check-mates the whole theory. Again, the theory cannot do without a nice clear distinction between what harms others (to be forbidden) and what is a legitimate pursuit of a private, perhaps controversial, conception of the good life (to be permitted). To point out that this distinction collapses in practice is to show that the whole theory is untenable. If all the things we'd expect to be optional conceptions of the good turn out to be required or forbidden by justice to others (because they affect other people), liberal freedom simply disappears.
So liberalism is not unassaible: in fact it is weak. On the other hand, a conservative alternative to liberalism isn't a dystopia: it is just a set of compromises between people with much in common, but disagreements as well, about what makes for a good life, negotiated by perfectly ordinary political means.
We don't hear the arguments I've outlined much because, to repeat, the mainstream so-called conservative parties don't actually have the courage to criticise liberalism as a system, and the same is true of the bulk of so-called conservative Catholic apologists. When they come across issues related to these problems they use them only to score minor points on specific issues, such as fighting back against the legalisation of prostitution. It isn't a problem about prostitution, however: it is a fundamental flaw in liberalism.
Oh and did I mention that political liberalism is also against the teaching of the Church? For more on 'religious liberty', which is in fact only partially relevant here (it is not primarily religious liberty which is at issue), see here.