There are two distinct “liberalisms” that bedevil American society today, with different origins and different paths. They require different responses. I shall call these “loosening liberalism” and “destructive liberalism.”
“Loosening liberalism” is the view that all human beings are by nature free and independent. Therefore, the only bonds which lawfully constrain them are those they have freely entered into. As a political philosophy, such a view is useful for shifting the burden of proof to royalty and nobility, to justify why they should govern. It clears the way nicely for government, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But taken as a general account of human nature, it is corrosive, since by its standards the family, the Church, and civil society are unjust.
Loosening liberalism becomes especially corrosive when applied to economic relationships (“the market”), because these are so pervasive. Its effect is to drive out from that domain any sense that market participants should act in view of a common good. It, therefore, permits the wealthy and powerful to advance their own interests, under the guise of “freedom and equality.”
When Catholic critics claim that “liberalism” has failed, or when they attack the free market, they typically have in mind this “loosening liberalism.”
And yet there is another form of liberalism that is at least as problematic, which I call “destructive liberalism,” because acts of destruction are required under its understanding of social concern.
Perhaps you recall Robert Frost’s remark that “a liberal is someone so broad-minded that he will not take his own side in a quarrel.” That remark should have already alerted us that there is a different kind of liberalism from the “loosening” kind. This other kind is marked, at first, by a not unattractive self-effacement, which can look a lot like humility. But it blossoms into a kind of intellectual suicide. Its full flower is disloyalty to its own commitments, indeed, a subversion of them and of those who still hold them. Clearly, such a pathway if very different from the logic of “persons conceived of as free and equal.”
We see examples of destructive liberalism all around us. Consider legal abortion construed as a “right” to abortion, that is, as the claim against you and me that we are obliged to support it. It is not enough, for a destructive liberal if you and I show compassion towards women with difficult pregnancies, concretely, in all sorts of ways: it is also necessary that we negate and destroy our love for the unborn, which is to destroy ourselves. Our care is not proved to them without that act of self-destruction.
Or take transgenderism: it is not enough for us to collaborate in finding ways for people with various sufferings to flourish as best they can. Rather, it is necessary that manhood and womanhood, and father and mother, be destroyed in doing so. The destruction is necessary for the sake of “inclusion”; inclusion counts only if it involves an act of destruction of what was formerly including. One may see that all of the “reforms” of a destructive liberal have this character. We think we make progress in persuading by pointing to how much is destroyed in the “reforms” (as “unintended consequences”) not seeing that the destruction is precisely what is required as proof of love.
Fully to understand what “destructive liberalism” is and how it behaves, we must construe it as a corruption of Christian charity. In an act of charity, it can look superficially as though the giver destroys himself in benefiting the other. Consider for example St. Maximilian Kolbe, taking the place in the Starvation Bunker at Auschwitz for a fellow prisoner. Don’t we praise Kolbe precisely for annihilating himself to aid another? Actually, no. It is true that Kolbe gave up his body to be sacrificed. But in that act, he gained for himself a martyr’s crown, glory in heaven, and even the acclaim of the Church. His total position after his act, fully accounted for, was stupendous gain rather than complete loss.
Yet imagine someone who lacks faith viewing Kolbe’s example. Imagine someone who thinks that the only goods and evils that can be in play, in an act of love, are bodily goods and evils, bodily pleasures and pains. Such a person, when he sees Kolbe admired precisely because of his sacrifice for his fellow prisoner, must suppose that charity is most extreme when it involves some kind of annihilating sacrifice of what one cherishes the most. Wouldn’t, then, someone who actually sacrificed his deepest commitments (and what reality do they have, after all?), show an even greater disregard of self, and greater love for others, than someone who simply sacrificed his body?
Various misguided theological views would encourage him in this supposition: the idea for example that Jesus actually emptied himself of his divinity, negating his divine nature, to become man (a misguided interpretation of Pauline kenosis): if so, then shouldn’t we too follow that example, and negate what is divine in us, to help others?
Or suppose universalism is true, and everyone is saved, including those thought to be despicable sinners – then, for all we know, an apparently despicable public sinner, who defends himself by saying that he places care of others over correct doctrine and the moral law, would be showing greater charity than the ostensibly upright person – precisely because he despised and rejected these things.
To a destructive liberal, a President Biden or Nancy Pelosi will clearly appear more admirable, more charitable, than an upright pro-life activist, because Biden and Pelosi hold themselves out as doing good precisely through the sacrifice of what they purport to hold most dear.
In this case as in many others, the movies tell us about ourselves. In the 1990s, there was a film Breaking the Waves, set in Scotland, about a husband who, after he becomes paralyzed in an accident at work, out of compassion for his wife tells her to have affairs and report back the details, so that he can share in them vicariously. His wife at first is aghast but then complies in increasingly lurid ways. The filmmakers clearly wanted to represent her as a woman of great self-sacrificial love, while the church-going people around her who criticized her morals were of course rigid, self-righteous hypocrites.
If the theological basis which I sketched for destructive liberalism seemed fanciful to you, consider this reflection by a well-positioned cleric:
There can be a genuine gift of oneself to another, in which the Procession of the Spirit is extended, together with a compelling sapiential experience, in which the Procession of the Son is extended, but coexisting with ethical imperfections. In this sense – to take an extreme case – I can accept the positive interpretation which some commentators placed on the film, Breaking the Waves.
This comment is by Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, reputed to be Pope Francis’s closest theological advisor and the ghostwriter of Amoris Laetitia. (The passage is from “La Mistica de estar atento al otro,” Communio, Revista Catolica Internacional, Ano 6, No. 3, Sept. 1999, pp. 73-74.)
How does someone who views things soundly even think of using such a movie as an example of a moral truth?
There are good forms of liberalism, to be sure, such as the “system of natural liberty,” defended by Adam Smith and James Wilson, among others, which can fructify spontaneously into an ordering, conducive to the common good, among decent citizens. I regard myself as such a liberal. I’m not one to leave my own view undefended in a quarrel, and I think the family tells us more about ourselves than the Original Position of highly influential philosophers like John Rawls.
We refer to destructive liberals as “liberals”, although typically they purchase some kind of freedom for a very few at the expense of the legitimate freedoms of many others.
But whether it is rightly called “liberalism” or not, we desperately need to see that besides a loosening liberalism which makes it such that “the center cannot hold,” there is something else, something which looks for destruction, which is slouching towards Bethlehem.
*Image: The Massacre of the Innocents with Herod by Gerolamo Mocetto, c. 1500-25 [National Gallery, London]
You may also enjoy:
Francis J. Beckwith’s Rock-ribbed vs. Faint-hearted Liberalism
St. John Henry Newman’s Liberalism