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Mandatum threatens covenant of respect


Liberalism has been taking a beating in recent decades in American culture, ever since the Republicans succeeded in making it the “L” word identified with “big government.” More recently a new wave of neoconservative theology, calling itself “Radical Orthodoxy,” has been seeking to discredit the entire movement of liberalism and modernity as the cause of the disintegration of faith in the truth of Christian revelation and church tradition. Thinkers who belong to this movement, spearheaded by English theologian John Milbank, assume that questioning scripture and church tradition through confidence in human reason led to the twin evils of “interminable violence and pluralism.”

I find these assumptions questionable. Interminable violence and pluralism existed prior to liberalism and modernity. Indeed, in my view, interminable violence has been partly due, and continues to be due, to efforts to repress pluralism, rather than to seek a way for pluralism (in religious, ethnic and cultural identities) to coexist.

I also question that there was or is a secure, certain, unchanging understanding of scripture and church tradition to which one can “return” to solve these problems. Church tradition has been a hot debate between different views from the time of the earliest Christians. Orthodoxy has been established by deciding for one view and disallowing all others. But this repression of other views has not caused these other views to be silenced. Rather, the continual effort to repress them has been the basis of inquisitions, book burnings and the torture and execution of “heretics.” This is not a state of violence to which I would wish to return.

I think that liberalism was too narrow (in fact, insufficiently pluralist) and needs to be reformed and expanded by movements that bring in the voices and affirm the social rights of persons ignored by the liberal definitions of the “person.” Yet I believe that liberalism is nevertheless basic for the assumptions on which both U.S. society and its institutions of higher education have been constituted.

I wish to highlight two aspects of liberalism that I see as basic to intellectual community:

Liberalism, on a cultural and intellectual level, means freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom to discuss and publish differing viewpoints on truth. This assumption is foundational both to the Declaration of Independence (a classical liberal document) and to the affirmation of academic freedom in university life that has been largely accepted by liberal theological schools. This concept of freedom of conscience, thought and speech is not a rejection of the existence of truth, but it assumes that truth cannot be finally and fully known. It can only be approximated. The way to best approximate truth is to allow all voices to be heard. The dogmatic assumption that one group has a privileged knowledge of truth that can be used to suppress all other voices keeps corrective insights from being heard that can bring us closer to truth. It is also the source of socially sanctioned violence.

The view that we get closer to truth through free debate is somewhat overly optimistic, since it ignores the ways in which debate is covertly limited by the propaganda of the powerful. But this means that one needs continually to correct power imbalances in order to make genuine freedom of debate possible. But this liberal ideal of free debate has not been without limits. The limits are based on a certain “humility” about one’s own claims to truth, an acceptance by all parties of the partiality of their own views of truth and a willingness to listen to others in order to arrive at a fuller consensus or at the least to allow some mutual acceptance and coexistence.

The liberal covenant, on which academic freedom is based, is that one accepts partiality of one’s own views and coexistence with other views. This is foundational to academic “civility.” Evidently those who wish to assert that there is one normative orthodoxy reject this liberal “humility.” They claim to be “silenced” by liberalism. This is partly true and partly misleading, since if they would “win” they would in fact silence all other voices. What is allowed in the liberal covenant is a vigorous affirmation of differences of perspectives, including views that the scripture and church tradition have vital resources for our understanding of truth. What is not allowed is the assertion of one perspective in a way that disallows others as possibly also offering some truthful insights.

The second essential aspect of liberalism for our life together is political liberalism. I leave aside here economic liberalism, or free market liberalism, which I see as a different problem. Its views were formulated in the 18th century as a way of undermining state monopolies and championing free trade among a plurality of small entrepreneurs. The problem with this tradition is that its rhetoric is used today to champion new global monopolies of the multinational corporations that effectively destroy the conditions for free trade for small businesses and local economies that it originally supported.

Political liberalism is based on the proposition that “all men are created equal” and therefore should have equal political rights and equal civil status before the law. Classical liberalism failed to vindicate the universalism of this promise by assuming that the “subject” of this equality was white propertied males. Originally women, slaves, Indians and those without property were excluded. But the liberal principle itself was open to a continual expansion of interpretation, and eventually included women, freed slaves and opened itself to religious and ethnic diversity.

Classical “orthodox” Christianity affirmed a basic principle that all humans are created in the image of God. But it failed to vindicate this on a legal, social and political level, accepting the hierarchies of male over female, masters over slaves (or servants) and rulers over subjects as the “order of creation.” These hierarchies were seen as mandated by God and a foundation of social order and thus must be accepted by all. To rebel against one’s “place” in this social hierarchy was to rebel against God. Liberalism rejected the identification of social hierarchy with orders of creation while drawing on the idea of the universality of all persons in the image of God as the basis of creating a new social order of equality in legal and political rights.

What can rejection of liberalism as a political covenant mean? It can only mean, in my view, a retreat to a claim that race, gender and economic hierarchies are divinely ordained and unchangeable. One can go beyond liberalism to a fuller justice. One cannot turn back from it, in my view, without negating the basic covenant that allows women and people of diverse races to coexist with an assumption of equality of rights. There are certain liberal principles that are the basis of the way in which universities and seminaries have constituted themselves as communities of diverse perspectives that can coexist in a covenant of civility and mutual respect.

The effort of Catholic bishops to impose a mandatum based on a supposed standard of orthodoxy from the premodern world threatens this covenant of mutual respect. Moreover it will not take us to a secure peace and certainty through univocal truths given by scripture and church tradition, as is promised, but only to an effort to establish one view of scripture and church tradition that must eliminate all others. The victory of these efforts, either from the Radical Orthodoxy group or from Catholic bishops, will, I am afraid, destroy the hard-won efforts of Catholic theological schools and departments of religion in Catholic colleges to establish their academic respectability.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill. Her e-mail address is Rosemary.Ruether@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001