Monthly Archives: July 2016

IS LIBERALISM A HERESY

FIRST THINGS    June/July 2016   —   IS LIBERALISM A HERESY?

Francesca Aran Murphy argues that liberalism
and a market economy are based on Christianity
.

The only viable vehicle of conservatism in modernity is a market-oriented liberalism that regards freedom within law as the means to the common good. Some religiously engaged conservative intellectuals cannot accept this. What drives their animus against the only workable form of conservatism in modernity? They cannot accept that this version of conservatism is at all conservative.

But how conservative is it to refuse to act in and through the givens of our historical moment? Is the paradox of liberalism as the way of being conservative too whimsical for conservatives to wrap their bookish noodles around? Could it be rationalist irritability with the irrationality of liberalism? Is the conservative affronted by liberal­ism’s vulgar historical success, like a Ph.D. student who cannot enjoy a popular movie? Is he like the teenager in Little Miss Sunshine, who cannot bear the boisterous eccentricity of his family? Does lib­eralism’s cheerful, can-do lack of a rational founda­tion drive the conservative into dark Nietzschean foreboding? Does he share the Marxist’s contempt for the bourgeoisie who are at home in the market economy? Is he too logical to be persuaded that the only human beings who actually and historically ex­ist are individual persons?

The fact remains: For at least two generations now, the most politically effective conservatism in the West has largely been a conservative liberalism. This political success has not been accidental. As a social, political, and economic form of life, liberal modernity does justice to important truths about the human person.

At the origins of modernity lie the market economies of late medieval Europe. A mixture of the rule of law and respect for personal freedom enabled market economies to emerge. People readily took to the roles of buyers and sellers of goods, be­cause buying and selling involves the kind of role-play in which human beings flourish. The market econ­omy involves an exchange of goods in which both parties benefit. The seller trades his goods for what he really wants, payment, and the buyer hands over his money for what he really wants, the goods. Because they obtain what they desire, both buyer and seller gain more than they give. Appealing as that may be, market exchange has a still greater allure. However well-meaning the administrator, we would exchange an administered life for the tension of auctions, the drama of negotiations, and the stratagems of the salesman that test our self-discipline. Buying and sell­ing became a driving force and expressive feature of modern societies, because the clever play of conceal­ment and exposure through language and gesture it entails fits our social, dramatic natures like a glove.

Modern philosophers reflected upon modern eco­nomic practice. Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling took homo economicus to be “humanity” as such. They rightly drew the lesson that human beings are made for praxis, for action, and for dramatic role-playing. But these bookish philosophers were not men of action themselves. In their recoil from the sheer inscrutability of the free play of market exchange, they exaggerated the fact that exchange involves competition for marginal advantage. They mytholo­gized this into a conception of human culture as a life-and-death struggle, and reinterpreted the role-playing in free-market exchange as competition. That hypes up role-play into a battle of wills. According to them, the marketplace trains us to think of life in terms of winners and losers, masters and slaves.

In all of this we find part truth, part Gnostic fantasy. On the one side, our exercise of freedom in the particularity of daily life makes us enigmatic to others. A market society is built around this relative inscrutability. Whether the exchange takes place at the local fish stall or in large-scale transactions of complex financial instruments executed by comput­ers, buyers and sellers play their parts. Each seeks to take advantage of an exchange, wanting as much as possible without scuttling the deal by eliminating any benefit for others. Human nature is expressed in this serious play of exchange—the brinksmanship of negotiation, the uncertainties of market conditions—which liberal philosophies capture in their emphasis on freedom and its drama.

Yet the marketplace and our roles in it look like a Gnostic melodrama when the play of exchange is inflated into a metaphysical drama rather than a hu­man one. A German idealist like Schelling pictures God-and-humanity as the single “playwright.” The struggle to get the best deal on day-old bread becomes the engine of human history. For Hegel, God storms through history in the guise of strug­gling and ascendant human desire. Sellers seek to incite desires in buyers. Seventeenth-century vendors during the tulip mania in Holland asked, how can one do without the exotic tulip bulbs? Buyers seek to satisfy their aroused desires, often for goods they never even knew they wanted. This pattern of desire evoked is the fuel of a market economy. Hegel inter­prets the open-ended nature of our market desires as a metaphysical desire for divinization. He made the further assumption that we play for keeps, and thus the market game of angling for advantage becomes the struggle for mastery, which is the world’s story.

For two centuries, Christians have quarreled over how to deal with the mixture of imagi­native half-truths, philosophical errors, and Gnostic heresies that make up modern phi­losophy. Between Vatican I and Vatican II, Catholics tried to sort things out and develop a philo­sophically cogent and spiritually sound approach to modernity in two different ways. Fortified by Thomis­tic encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII, Thomists thought that the way forward required a rejection of liberal philosophies and a revival of the premodern philoso­phy of Thomas Aquinas. They assembled a litany of errors that they ascribed to liberalism: making man the major of all things, exalting will over cognition, denying are created nature and more. . . .  (Pages 39&40)

Article concludes on Page 45 with the following paragraphs:

. . . Do we encourage liberalism to remember its birth in a market economy that drew ordinary people into habits of free action for the sake of satisfying desires, or do we anathematize it for itself self-caricature as a Gnostic capitalist heresy? . . .

Liberalism is no heresy, and the market ex­change from which it emerges does not sin against the light. It is a healthy byproduct of Christianity, and the only means by which Christians can fight Marxist-capitalism, that stage-managed freedom in which the benevolent will of the powerful consults reason, discerns what people “truly” need and want, and then superintends over and administers the al­ways vulnerable freedom of ordinary people. If one were searching for Gnostic heresies, surely this tech­nocratic political economy, which is very much with us today, is a good candidate for anathema. RR

Francesca Aran Murphy is a senior fellow at FIRST THINGS.

First Things,  June /July, pages 39-45.

 

PUBLIC SQUARE — PERMANENCE FOR MARRIAGE

Family and faith. These are two powerful ways of belonging, one natural, and the other supernatu­ral. But they, too, are weakened by the dissolving forces of our time. Pope Francis’s recent Apos­tolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia, represents an effort to combat this trend. The document affirms many aspects of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, including permanence. But it also seeks to increase scope for pastoral discretion so that those in “ir­regular” situations can participate as fully as possible in the Church’s sacramental life.

The effort to be more pastoral characterizes this pa­pacy. Francis wants to emphasize the power of God’s love, even in circumstances when we’ve wavered, failed, and fallen. Unfortunately, Amoris Laetitia participates in the dissolving trends of our times rather than resisting them. This is an unwitting complicity, no doubt. But we can see it in the way in which the exhortation turns marriage into something we aspire to rather than a sacramental reality we can rely on. The Church seems to become a plastic instrument of mercy, not a stable anchor.

When the document was released, journalists fixed on chapter eight, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” There, Francis takes up the controversial ques­tion of whether those in “irregular” situations can receive Communion, including those who have been civilly di­vorced and remarried, but have not received an annulment.

There’s been lots of commentary on just what is implied in the often technical and sometimes muddy verbiage of the chapter. Canon lawyers and moral theologians have parsed what Francis has written in different ways. But one thing is clear: Francis makes an ill-considered conceptual move. In order to create an atmosphere of flexibility and welcome, he speaks of marriage as an “ideal” rather than a sacramental reality.

This approach makes permanence itself into an ideal. Divorce betrays this, of course. As Francis writes, “It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and family.” Moreover, “In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.”

These seem like decisive affirmations, but they’re not. Remarrying after divorce is an “objective situation” that the Church teaches is an impediment to the reception of Communion. The reasoning is straightforward. The Church does not recognize civil divorce, and therefore regards the first marriage as ongoing. Thus the second marriage (without an annulment) isn’t a marriage at all, but instead an adulterous relationship.

To avoid this summary judgment based on the “objec­tive situation” of divorce and remarriage, Francis implies that what really matters is the “ideal.” The driving ques­tions become subjective, not objective. Divorced and re­married? Yes, that presents serious difficulties. But there is a way out (perhaps). Are you appropriately penitent for the past failure to live up to the “ideal,” and now newly committed to the “ideal” in a sincere way? A person’s conscientious discernment of the answer to that question, Francis suggests, is what’s important. One’s relation to the “ideal,” determined in “conversation with the priest,” can open the way to further discernment about “what hin­ders full participation in the life of the Church and [about] what steps can foster it and make it grow.”

Will this process of self-examination mean that di­vorced and remarried Catholics will receive Communion in some circumstances? The debate goes on, and it’s an important one. Yet I find myself concluding that the most important dimension of Amoris Laetitia is found in the fact that Francis adopts and affirms what most of us now experience. This is not helpful. In our culture of divorce, permanence is only a distant ideal to which we can aspire. Marriage is no longer a trustworthy institution we can rely on.

What’s true for marriage is true for a great deal of our experience. We suffer an increasingly atomized, fluid, and vul­nerable existence, because we lack in­stitutions we can trust. We have plenty of ideals, some quite noble. But we have very few stable places to stand and little in the way of reliable permanence.

At one point, Francis writes about “the values of the Gospel.” One understands why. Values-talk is popular these days. It’s a way of signaling moral aspiration with­out focusing on the troublesome “thou shalt not’s.” Along with ideals, “values” allow us to imagine a moral outlook without law, moral failure without shame, and moral dis­cernment without negative judgments.

Which is why our therapeutic age is awash with ide­als and values. They’re in university mission statements. Corporations proudly tout their values, and “ideal­ism” becomes a marketing tool. Buy these shoes or that toothpaste, and Company X will make a contribution to eradicate polio, plant a tree, or bring Internet connections to Africa. It’s a dangerous misstep for Christianity to get into the business of marketing ideals and values.

Parmenides was one of the Greek thinkers who flour­ished before Socrates. His philosophical task was revealed to him when the goddess Justice whispered into his ear, “Cling to that which is and cannot not be.” “Unite your­self with permanence” was her message. That’s precisely what a man and a woman seek when they make their wedding vows. They desire a covenant that is, and can­not not be.

This desire is for a reality, not an ideal. For this reason, the Church’s teaching on marriage, strict though it may be by the standards of our time, is good news, a gospel in a way ideals and values can never be. We’re finite creatures, often sabotaged by our own deformed desires and bad choices, and always vulnerable to suffering and death. The sacrament of marriage anchors us, fusing our fragile lives to something that will not be eroded, will not fail us or betray us, even if we betray it. To refuse divorce, as the Catholic Church has done, is to reassure us that permanence in mar­riage is not an elusive ideal, but an accessible reality.

Francis misjudges our era. He seems to think we’re enclosed within rigid institutions and beaten down by legalistic systems. To my mind, the situ­ation is otherwise. We live in a dissolving era. The problem is not that divorce is judged harshly. It’s that young people experience marriage as a fragile institu­tion, one incapable of protecting them from the relentless flux of life.

This is part of life without a reliable inheritance. Few institutions are trustworthy today. The endless flow of power and money rules in our fluid world. Whatever per­manence is possible now depends upon steadfast personal commitments—a terrible burden for anyone with enough self-knowledge to recognize the unreliability of our fallen nature. It’s a sad irony that Francis gravitates toward no­tions such as “ideals” and “values.” They’re part of the contemporary toolkit for dissolving permanent truths. They serve the master-ideal of our time: the solitary in­dividual navigating on his own toward goals of his own.

St. Augustine observed that we’re all pilgrims in this world, journeying toward our home in heaven. But he did not think us alone and homeless. In Christ, God was made man, not an ideal. His sacraments make real what they sig­nify; they do not symbolize values. His Church is an “objec­tive situation,” a civitas with her own cult, rites, and laws.

Pope Francis speaks often and eloquently about “accom­paniment.” As so many other institutions weaken in our dissolving age, the Church’s greatest gift is to accompany us with a stubborn givenness, an inflexible permanence. Rusty R. Reno.

First Things, June/July Issue, pages 6-7.

“Food for thought as we work our way through gaining an insight into mercy, in this year of Mercy.” Editor’s Note.