Friday, May 4, 2012

What is Liberal Thought? How is it not Religious?

5/4/2012—Sarah Morice-Brubaker wrote an important piece today in Religion Dispatches. She was describing the situation of Emily Herx, who was fired as as teacher at a Roman Catholic School in Indiana for trying to conceive using in vitro fertilization. The story of Herx involves a lot of claims and counter-claims, including the charge that the Church in this instance is practicing inconsistency in not applying like standards to male teachers. I’m not familiar enough with the facts to comment on any of that.

But Morice-Brubaker is after bigger game than just commenting on one story. She is making a larger point about religious and liberal thought. She writes,

“The fact is, there is a significant and sustained tradition within Catholic (and not only Catholic) religious thought, which stands in sharp opposition to much liberal political reasoning. Yet it’s that very liberal reasoning which would give religions a designated space where they can be faithful, without imposing such faithfulness on others—provided those groups implicitly agree to the underlying liberal presuppositions.”

To illustrate the point of differing thinking, Morice-Brubaker quotes Pope Leo XIII’s 1888 encyclical, Libertas. “On the Nature of Human Liberty”:

“these followers of liberalism [who] deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man's individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs.”

Morice-Brubaker claims that the difference between some religious thinking about liberty and the thinking of liberalism is the difference between substance—“something ‘ordered’ to something by God"—and process—liberty as “a procedural safeguard against individuals being infringed upon by other individuals.”

But is this so? Pope Leo condemns the idea that “every man is the law to himself.” But the claim of conscience is not that everyone is right about right and wrong but that everyone gets to decide for himself about right and wrong. But that person might be wrong. If the Southerner in 1850 decides for himself that slavery is right and the slave is better off, we simply say he is mistaken. It is not a matter of opinion. Of course the slaveowner has the right to make up his own mind. But he is not in the end a law to himself. There is a higher authority—the authority of actual right and wrong. Pope Leo and I only disagree about the source of that authority, since I don’t believe in God.

There may be some realm in which my actions affect no one else and we therefore decide to allow people to act on their wrong conclusions. But in most situations I do affect others and therefore I cannot claim the right to act as I please.

And the authority of actual right and wrong is important as a political theory as well. Pope Leo also makes the point that if each man is a law to himself, then the will of the majority must also be the only authority in the State. Under that theory, the will of the people could never be wrong.

We see here that the whole tradition of human rights rests on Pope Leo’s foundations and not those expressed by Morice-Brubaker. There is a higher authority and the people can be wrong. Again, the majority may retain the power to act. But that does not make the majority a law to itself. As Robert Bellah has written, references to God in the public square often are used to make this point—that the majority can be wrong.

I am not sure that Morice-Brubaker would disagree with some, or even most, of this. I’m going to send this to her to see.

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