Contending with Liberalism

Some advice for Catholics

What follows is an edited version of remarks by political philosopher William Galston made to a colloquium sponsored by Commonweal on "Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Pluralism." The colloquium is part of a project, titled "American Catholics in the Public Square," funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. One of the project’s central interests is the relationship between Catholic social thought and political liberalism.

In the hope of exploring that relationship more fully, Commonweal asked Galston to contribute his reflections on the following proposition and accompanying questions: While Catholics have obviously worked out practical compromises with the liberal pluralism that has come to shape all aspects of American society, it is unclear whether Catholic social thought uses a moral vocabulary and indeed assumes a whole mindset alien to most Americans, including many Catholic Americans. Catholic social teaching seems to offer a comprehensive idea of the good and puts forth a vision of a harmonious social and political order. Liberalism eschews such comprehensive visions, is agnostic about the nature of the good, and accepts conflict and competition as more or less permanent, often productive features of society.
Where and to what extent does the Catholic tradition tend to mesh or clash with the various conceptions of liberal pluralism? Where can these traditions fruitfully engage...

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About the Author

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.