Liberalism Doesn't Exist

But liberals do

I’d like to begin with the proposition error has no rights. That is a proposition I take to be indisputable. It’s the beginning of a major syllogism. And it is the major syllogism that sustained religious persecution from about 320 a.d. into the twentieth century, or at least the rightness of religious persecution.

It’s an indisputable proposition. What’s wrong with it?

What’s wrong with it is: It personifies error. It supposes there is such a thing, such a person, as error, who might go around having rights. As the Marxists might have said, it reifies error, turning it into a thing. We might say it personifies error. I believe the same fundamental fallacy that underlies that proposition underlies talk of liberalism. It’s reified, it’s personified, it’s given this or that virtue or vice. I don’t believe it exists. I believe there are ideas, but the ideas reside in individual human beings.

Now, if I may strike at a root conception, which I think may appear in various forms in both of the presenters’ papers, I don’t believe in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a chronological era, quite comparable to the Dark Ages. No respectable historian now believes there was such a times as when the lights went out and it was dark. I think in time it will be seen that there’s no such period as when the lights went on.

What gives me great support is the work of a careful American historian, Henry May, in a 1978 book called The Enlightenment in America. He defines the Enlightenment with great strain as embracing two propositions. First, the present generation knows more than the past generation, and, second, human reason is a good thing. If those two propositions are all the Enlightenment boils down to, I would maintain that there is no enlightenment. May has great difficulty locating anybody in eighteenth-century America who can be genuinely put into the conventional caricature of the Enlightenment. You find the Enlightenment embracing persons ranging from John Locke, a very pious Protestant theologian, to Voltaire, a totally irreverent and cynical ex-Catholic. I heard a distinguished mathematician not so long ago begin the Enlightenment with Francis Bacon, in the age of Shakespeare.

I think, myself, that the Enlightenment is a reified or personified concept that modern secularists love because they want some intellectual ancestry, and they’ve invented the Enlightenment as the period. But I don’t feel it exists.

I feel the same way about liberalism. If you try to locate some set of ideas, they’re pretty incoherent. In the nineteenth century, secular liberalism put much stress on economic freedom. It was somehow connected with the Whigs in England. It stressed some government liberties but a lot of social repression. It was pretty much tied to Victorian morals.

As the same word evolved in this century, it came to cover people who believe in active government. The liberals were in FDR’s New Deal, so there had to be a great deal of government control. Eventually, as the term is used today, it applies mostly in secular terms to freedom from sexual restraints.

It’s an incoherent term. I think that the same thing is true when it’s moved over to the religious sphere and Catholic liberalism is spoken about. If it is moved left, as Peter suggests, then you get people who are so ardent in their desire to help the poor that they favor a heavy amount of state action. That’s just the opposite of earlier views. It’s an unstable concept and I think on the whole an unfortunate one.

If you look at persons and don’t try to personify an idea, you get people, as both speakers have suggested, like Lacordaire and Lamennais. Lamennais, with his journal, L’Avenir (The Future), looked to a democratic society with a certain freedom of conscience, and left the church because his ideas were explicitly condemned by Gregory XVI. You have Lacordaire, his associate to some degree, going on to become a Dominican and restore the Dominican order in France. These were two very different persons in their relations to the church. You can’t sum them up neatly and say that both were Catholic liberals in the nineteenth century.

The greatest paradox of all, I think, is someone that Cardinal George takes as a counselor and the present pope has spoken of in the highest terms, John Henry Newman. Newman, to his critics in England, to people like Ward and Manning, was a liberal. He was a dangerous liberal. Certainly for many of the people in Rome he was a dangerous liberal. He, himself, used that wonderfully modern term, bureaucrats, to describe the Roman curia.

If you read Ian Ker’s remarkable biography of Newman, you can get that quotation about the bureaucrats in Rome. He was a liberal to them. But only a few years after, perhaps only two years after Peter Steinfels’s quotation from Pius IX on fighting liberalism, Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal, his first cardinal. Leo XIII did not see him as a liberal. Again the attempt to catalog, to produce an artificial synthesis, is a mistake.

There are other ways you can look at people within the church. If you draw on Alasdair MacIntyre, you can talk of people being organization-centered or task-centered. You absolutely won’t get the task done unless you have an organization; there’s no point to the organization unless you have a task to perform. There is a third element that can never be forgotten. You must be people-oriented. Both task-oriented persons and organization-oriented persons will not do anything good unless they are also people-oriented. The church embraces all three in various degrees. But you could divide the church by those categories.

Another distinction is between the literalists and the non-literalists. I make the contrast between the spirit and the letter. Very few Catholics are literalists the way biblical fundamentalists are literalists. Quite a few Catholics are literalists about papal encyclicals. They will take a single sentence, a single phrase, out of a papal encyclical, in a way that they would consider ridiculous if it were taken out of Holy Scripture. But they will use that single sentence as though it was determinative of an issue. Then there are those who have slogans, and they use those slogans the way literalists, papal literalists, use a single sentence from a papal encyclical. So you could divide the church that way, if you wanted to.

I think driving all people throughout is the search for certainty. What’s uniting them is a search for certainty. We all want the repose of the human mind in certainty. There isn’t much repose to be achieved. But the search for it is one we can all sympathize with because we all share it. We have to balance that search for certainty with the necessity of freedom for attaining and continuing to adhere to the truth.

Now, that is one of the great lines of Dignitatis humanae, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom: that the truth which human beings must have about their relation to God cannot be achieved without immunity, as the council puts it, from psychological coercion. That gives a whole agenda for the future of Catholic education, which I suspect has not been realized to any degree. I hope that that is an agenda we would all agree on.

I end with the same thought that I think Cardinal George echoed and that Peter Steinfels referred to, the thought that Paul expresses in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he deplores the division of the church at Corinth into parties, the party of Paul, the party of Apollos, the party of Cephas. You are none of those, he says. You are Christ’s. I believe that is the proper approach to the church.


More from the Commonweal forum "The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism":
Introduction, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
How Liberalism Fails the Church, by Cardinal Francis George
Reinventing Liberal Catholicism, by Peter Steinfels
An Exhausted Project? by John T. McGreevy
We're All Liberals Now, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: 

John T. Noonan, Jr., judge of the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, is the author of The Lustre of Our Country (University of California Press).

Also by this author
Was He or Wasn't He?

Please email comments to and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads