A Note on Possible Meanings of "Liberalism"

Besides the "first rule of evangelization" gloss on not being a jackass, there was another conversation stemming from my first Holy Spirit Patheos piece, this one enabling a clarification of my thoughts on "liberalism."

This was my response to a person who did not like the sound of "liberal republican political order": 'You are not the first one to push the matter of "liberalism" with me, but you are the most congenial to do so. You give me reason to step back and to try to understand what a given person might hear when the word "liberal" is used. Yes, I grew up conservative, and that word signaled political idiocy--in a place very far in the rearview mirror. It has been a long time since I have used the word to describe the position of the Left. The word I use, is the word they tend to use themselves: "progressive." I think that far more accurate, and it honors their self-ascription. Win-win.

'For me, "liberal" now conjures one thing above all: the free soul cultivated by the liberal arts and attention to reality, the free development of the human person towards limitless love. I have no idea why conservatives surrendered a word of such nobility. (Well, on second thought, I fear it has to do with certain illiberal tendencies in certain conservatives. I think it very dangerous for a Catholic flatly to reject liberalism, that is, to be anti-liberal, when we have a very sorry history, within the last century, of living out anti-liberalism by dancing with fascists. And before that, we have the anti-liberal inhumanity epitomized by the Mortara abduction. Dealing with the admittedly toxic fallout from the French Revolution, we Catholics have not covered ourselves in glory.)

'Yes, there are still a few in a certain subset of the political-science community who hear "liberal" and think Rawls. Fine. That's not what I mean. I take Sandel to have been utterly successful in his demolishing of Rawls's libertarian anthropology.

'Which brings me to your view. Of course in some sense a conservative (or a thinking human) must be a communitarian. But there are all kinds of communitarianisms. In the heart of each fallen man lurks a tyrant. That is a basic fact that anyone who cares about the health of homes and post-organic intentional communities needs to grapple with.

'I would like a liberal communitarianism. Let's call it civic republicanism: built on a recognition that man has a rational nature, perfectible through virtue and persistent contemplation and worship--a nature irreducibly given, embodied, social/political, and personal (and therefore an end in him or herself)--and that this nature has been compromised by the Fall, such that the powers of our soul seek power in the world to lord it over those around us, convinced as we are that what we think we know is simply correct and what we desire is owed to us; that given our finite personalities (as well as the effects of the Fall), the urgent project of pursuing a common good (which essentially involves securing the conditions for the free development of each person) is necessarily agonistic; that, therefore, political regimes should be governments of law, not of men, and that power should always and everywhere be fragmented (so that limited government, representative institutions, and civil liberties are essential to human flourishing).

'Authority is a necessary correlate of our being social animals, but the balancing of forces is a necessary entailment of concupiscence.

'I am a personalist, through and through, but one committed to public action, a la Arendt. Individualism, that tyrannical impulse within each of us, is the great enemy. But anti-liberal social or political arrangements that allow some petty (yes, usually male, usually white) tyrant loose to run the show again: no, thanks. Does that mean I want some progressive multi-culti type revoking my freedom of conscience? Of course not. May all tyranny perish. Who wants rule by the technocratic progressive oligarchy, except members of the protected class? But I don't want to trade this horror show for another one, in which people who hate the American founding and think that throne-and-altar arrangements cool gain little fiefdoms of their own. I want the rejuvenation of the American republic, with high culture and liberal arts for all and political participation by all and, of course, recognition of the right to life of each member of the human species, plus recognition of our responsibility to care for the free development of these fellow persons.

'I really like the language of the "beloved community." King got it from Josiah Royce, as you probably know. The Johannine language does raise the question, though, of what the relation of the Church is to the larger social body. I would think, at least, it would mean that Christians should be most conspicuous, by our every mundane action, for our commitment to universal reconciliation.

'Anyway, thank you for reading and interacting with my work. I do think we are probably on the same page, and your gentle way of pressing me has helped me think these things through. That's a great gift. Thank you.'