The Catholic intellectual world needs better political thought and less politics. Especially in the United States, Catholicism since the seventies has sought to make itself relevant to the modern world by tying itself to causes of societal reform and social justice. And, not coincidentally, the divisions among Catholics in America and elsewhere now run largely along explicitly political lines.
These political divisions witness to a vacuum of Catholic political thought. Instead of facing the difficult questions of political philosophy from within our deep intellectual tradition, many opt for easy answers. The more zealous and orthodox, naturally, become frustrated that public policy does not closely reflect our social or ethical teaching, and want their faith to have impacts on how they engage in politics, but are increasingly attracted by problematic and shallow solutions to our political problems.
In a recent article in the Church Life Journal titled “Abortion Tests the Limits of Liberalism,” a friend of mine, political writer Jonathan Culbreath, voices a concern about the political conditions that made it possible for many countries to legalize abortion. Focusing on Roe v. Wade, he reflects on the long-term prospects of the pro-life movement in America.
On one hand, he sees as pyrrhic victories the success that the pro-life camp has had in limiting abortion at the state or federal level, as these are often achieved in ways that can easily be reversed. State legislatures can have laws struck down in the courts, and presidentially-issued executive orders can be withdrawn by the next candidate in office.
On the other hand, he argues that overturning Roe and returning the issue to state legislatures is equally problematic. “The opinion of any majority vote, even if protected by the structures of legality that have ostensibly been set up in our Constitution, is liable to change and thereby to produce very opposite outcomes.” (He responds to my criticism here in a follow-up article titled Liberal Democracy Cannot Protect the Unborn. We Need ‘Illiberalism’.)
Culbreath’s piece follows a certain vocal segment of Catholics who have been advocating for political illiberalism. Most of this expresses a concern for the ‘common good.’ The anti-liberal Catholics argue that what has gone wrong with the world is that modern governments decide policy through democratic means, without endorsing any particular group’s perspectives on the societal good.
There is, they argue, a right answer as to what is really good for human beings, an objective truth as taught (for example) by the Catholic Church. Debate can only get us away from that truth. As Culbreath puts it: “When society is unmoored from all common reference to shared morality and the common good, then the very question of what is good or evil becomes merely a matter of vote.” What we need is a good, firm hand at the wheel: the government should not allow us to have a voice in deciding what the common good involves.
This illiberal political critique involves what appear to me to be fundamental confusions about the nature of liberal institutions. I am not a classical liberal, but classical liberalism, of the sort advocated by John Locke or JS Mill, just does not hold the sorts of things Culbreath imputes to it.
For example, he seems to be taking ‘liberal regime’ to be equivalent to an ‘amoral regime’. But this is gratuitous assertion. There is nothing that necessitates this particular construal of what is essential to liberalism. It is a straw man.
A liberal state is, on some liberal theories, supposed to refrain from invoking controversial religious or comprehensive moral frameworks to justify public policy. But nothing about liberalism requires all moral truths to be decided by majority vote. The right to life, ironically, is one that classical liberals thought was an exemplary case of a right that the state had a duty to protect.
It is certainly defensible, then, to argue that a liberal state would be no less liberal for writing into its constitution a recognition that life begins at conception. The legal philosopher John Finnis has recently argued (for example) that the politically liberal US Constitution includes the right of the unborn to life.
Frankly, the strongest case to be made against Roe v. Wade is that it was a highly illiberal decision. The reason for the embittered fights in the US over abortion is precisely because a group imposed, by undemocratic means, a significant culturally-loaded piece of legislation through a court decision and not through liberal democratic processes. John Rawls was in favor of abortion, but not every liberal needs to be.
The crux of Culbreath’s argument against liberal democracy is the fact that democratic processes could result in legislation fundamentally at odds with moral norms. Specifically, rights to life, but many other moral norms as well. However, his argument against the good of such processes involves a non-sequitur.
He begins: “There is something fundamentally wrong with a political system in which no institutions exist where the rights of the unborn may find permanent protection.” This I grant. There is something unjust about societies that allow abortion, assuming (as I do) that abortion involves the intentional killing of a human being. But then he continues: ‘since all the major institutions [in liberal democracies] are subject to the whims of a majority.’
Here, I’m already off the train. Nothing about liberalism requires our institutional arrangements be subject to whims of a majority. In fact, it strikes me as entirely not the aim of the American system that this be the case. Even were abortion legalized in the US by a tyrannical majority, that would only show that majority tyranny is problematic — not liberalism.
In fact, classical liberals such as Mill were very much concerned about such ‘tyranny of the majority’ and proposed remedies for it. It is not freely to be granted that liberal institutions are functioning well, then, when they produce illiberal outcomes.
“For the protection of the natural law and the rights of the unborn,” Culbreath then suggests, “a constitutional order is required that is in some respects pre-democratic, even ‘authoritarian,’ which will relentlessly pursue the common good without tolerance for those who would commit radical evil against the most defenseless among us.”
What kind of ‘authoritarianism’ is Culbreath promoting? The claim appears to be that a regime should have political or legal mechanisms that do not allow legislation contrary to the right moral norms. I find this puzzling: while I agree a constitution should not be amended to allow abortions, I don’t quite see how we could implement a legal mechanism for making it impossible to do so without seriously bad consequences.
In the United States, no majority of persons voted in favor of abortion laws, and no constitutional referendum was conducted. Yet imagine that we had. If we suggest that the federal government should have stopped this, by disallowing certain kinds of legislation (including constitutional referenda) that conflicts with its governing philosophy, this seems to slide pretty clearly and immediately into straightforward authoritarianism.
It seems to me that Culbreath’s suggestion about ‘authoritarianism’ is left vague because there is no real alternative being advanced. And that’s the problem. These kinds of illiberal critiques of democracy and procedural fairness in favor of the ‘common good’ strike me as ill-thought-out (and often romantic) approaches to government.
The basic sales pitch for the illiberal ideal is simple: as long as our political policies are achieved, we can destroy all the other political institutions and let God sort it out. I know personally many of these zealous young Catholics, like Jonathan, who think illiberalism is going to pay dividends for them and who mean well in wanting to see the ‘social reign’ of Christ the King.
The naïveté of the approach is staggering. The proponents of this kind of ‘common good authoritarianism’ just think that their friends will be the ones in charge. That, to put it mildly, is improbable in the extreme.
It is foolish and dangerous to think authoritarianism comes in ‘good’ varieties. The illiberal programme — if it can be called that — will only end in disaster.
Jonathan Culbreath responds in Liberal Democracy Cannot Protect the Unborn. We Need ‘Illiberalism’.
Fr James Dominic Rooney, OP, is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great (Chicago, IL), and a member of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. His work is primarily in metaphysics, medieval philosophy, and Chinese philosophy, and is currently editing a volume of political philosophy that deals with perfectionist politics in pluralistic societies.
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