National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

With the classic notion of liberalism as belief in democracy, human rights and free markets, Pope John Paul II, though not uncritically, stacks up as a basically "liberal" pope.
-- CNS/Reuters
Is the pope too liberal?

Some conservative quarters say John Paul goes too far in embrace of modernity


Is John Paul II too liberal?

The question cuts against most conventional wisdom. If the man who said no to women’s ordination, gay marriage and decentralization of power isn’t a conservative, many people would insist, then there’s no such animal.

But what if one has in mind not the sense in which Ted Kennedy is “liberal,” but in which virtually all Westerners are “liberals,” that is, the classic notion of liberalism as belief in democracy, human rights and free markets? If that’s the standard, then John Paul, though not uncritically, stacks up as a basically “liberal” pope.

Witness his proud claim in his Aug. 17 Angelus address that Christianity actually shaped the core tenets of liberalism: “The Christian faith gave form [to Europe], and some of its fundamental values in turn inspired ‘the democratic ideal and the human rights’ of European modernity,” the pope said.

Not everyone in the Catholic world approves. Although the movement has largely flown under media radar, John Paul faces a growing conservative opposition to this embrace of liberalism, understood in the classic sense.

“I wish the pope were right,” said Catholic thinker Robert Kraynak of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. “But I don’t think it’s working out the way he expected. Human rights are not being used to serve the whole truth about God and man, despite the pope’s continuous reminders.”

Who are these critics? In addition to Kraynak, they include influential Anglo-Saxon Catholic intellectuals such as Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler and Tracey Rowland, whose works are fast becoming required reading in conservative Catholic circles, even if they represent, for now, a minority view. Most Anglo-Saxon Catholics, as creatures of Western culture, tend to take its compatibility with their religious beliefs for granted. MacIntyre is a Scottish-born philosopher. Schindler, an American, is the editor of Communio, an international theological journal that serves as a platform for this school of thought. Rowland is dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Members of the hierarchy such as American Cardinal Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Archbishop Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, and Archbishop Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Canada, can also be loosely identified with this circle of opinion.

Make no mistake -- these are not “dissenters.” All are strong admirers of John Paul II. In fact, many teach at John Paul II institutes in various parts of the world. All would pass the most stringent tests of orthodoxy. Yet all worry that the pope, and the bulk of the post-Vatican II Catholic church, have gone too far in assimilating the values and vocabulary of modernity.

The key figure is MacIntyre, one of the fascinating personalities in 20th century intellectual history. Born the son of a doctor in Glasgow in 1929, MacIntyre studied at the University of London and other British universities, then began teaching. In 1947, he joined the Communist Party, and though he soon left, he continued to flirt with Trotsky-style socialism. In 1969, he moved to the United States where he taught at a succession of universities.

In 1981, MacIntyre published After Virtue, in which he posed his famous choice between Niezstche and Aristotle. Either ethics is the assertion of personal preference, as Nieztsche would have it, or it corresponds to something objectively real, as Aristotle believed.

In 1983, MacIntyre converted to the Catholic faith.

Through these twists and turns, the unifying constant in MacIntyre’s thought has been hostility to the bourgeois values of liberalism. MacIntyre tends to drive secular liberals crazy, since his point of departure is the same alienation from capitalism they feel, yet he arrives in a very different place: Thomism.

MacIntyre argues that when Thomists and secularists refer to human rights, for example, they sound like they’re saying the same thing, but this linguistic resemblance conceals radically different worldviews. Secularists emphasize rights because, having rejected the idea of an objective moral order, they exalt unfettered freedom. What freedom is for gets second shrift.

Kraynak, in his 2001 book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, lists five reasons why Christianity should be resistant to the ideology of human rights:

• Duties to God and neighbor come before one’s own rights.

• Pronouncements of a hierarchically structured church grounded in divine revelation take precedence over individual conscience.

• Original sin implies distrust of weak and fallible human beings.

• The common good must come before the good of individuals.

• Charity and sacrificial love are higher goods than the potentially selfish assertion of rights.

Some of these thinkers believe the concept of human rights can be “redeemed” by giving it a Christian content, which is John Paul’s project. Others, such as Kraynak and MacIntyre, believe it would be better to abandon the language of “rights” altogether.

John Paul is himself, of course, no unalloyed booster of liberalism. He coined the phrase “a culture of death” to describe its bioethics, and he has repeatedly criticized its rapacious capitalism. Most Communio-style thinkers are less concerned with the pope than with the penetration of the liberal worldview into the church’s bureaucratic structures, especially bishops’ conferences.

Lurking behind such debates is a broader analysis of the relationship between liberalism and Christianity. While “Whig Thomists” such as American writers George Weigel and Michael Novak see a basic consistency, reflecting their drive to reconcile Catholicism with American patriotism, thinkers associated with the Communio school are more dubious. They tend to believe that liberalism is actually toxic for authentic Christian living.

The movement is so loosely organized it does not even have a name. Rowland has proposed “postmodern Augustinian Thomism,” though it’s hard to imagine that on a bumper sticker. Yet its skepticism about the compatibility between faith and culture has profound implications.

On social justice issues, it tends to push the church into sharper confrontation with economic, political and military policies based on the classic liberal worldview. Many observers were startled last spring, for example, when Stafford, known as a conservative, came out against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Anyone familiar with the doubts he harbors about the values of contemporary America, however, should not have been surprised. In that sense, the anti-liberal instinct favors social causes dear to the left, such as pacifism and advocacy for the poor.

At the same time, it tends to side with the right in internal church debates. By accenting what makes Catholicism distinct, it favors traditionalism in liturgy, art and architecture, and theology. It is skeptical about the characteristic structures of liberalism, such as bureaucracy and reliance on so-called “experts.” When the Vatican in April convened a symposium of non-Catholic scientific experts on sexual abuse, for example, the event played to generally good reviews as a sign that Rome was listening. Catholics steeped in MacIntyre’s thought, on the other hand, were dubious, wondering if “experts” who don’t share the church’s moral and metaphysical assumptions would end up doing more harm than good.

The fear is, as Swiss theologian Hans Urs van Balthasar once warned, “a mere mechanical adoption of alien chains of thought with which one can adorn and garland the Christian understanding externally.”

This countercultural movement’s future is yet to be determined, but if nothing else, it illustrates the limits of “conservative” and “liberal” labels in sorting out the currents in the Catholic church. The perils of liberalism, like so much else, are in the eye of the beholder.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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