Catholicism sees freedom as directed toward the good life, and fills in the details with its understanding of God and man. Liberalism likes to avoid big issues like God, man, and the good, because they cause arguments, so it sees freedom not as freedom to pursue anything in particular but as freedom to choose freely. Freedom is freedom to go after whatever it is you happen to want.
The result of that view, along with the view that freedom is the highest political goal, is that the good life drops out of sight as a public concern. That’s a problem for Catholics who want to promote the good life through politics, because almost all politics today are liberal. Even the battle between liberals and conservatives is mostly a dispute between two groups of liberals. The two sides may differ in their interpretation of freedom, but they agree that it comes first, and that in essence it’s freedom to do whatever you want.
Progressive liberals take a consumer’s point of view, and combine the belief that freedom is simple freedom of choice with egalitarianism and social management. The result is a sort of Burger King “Have It Your Way” vision of freedom: it’s freedom to choose from a menu that’s as long as possible and available equally to everyone. For that kind of freedom to exist, the choices must be independent of the choices other people make. The menu therefore emphasizes choices that can be made individually and separately, like consumer goods and private lifestyle options. Freedom turns out to mean “access” and “tolerance”—a state of affairs in which people are given what they choose from a set list, and they have a right to have other people go along with their choices.
The Obama campaign’s Julia is a model citizen of a progressive liberal society. Her goals are completely private—even when she has a child it’s an entirely personal choice that has nothing to do with anyone else—and her concern as a voter is to have the government give her what she needs to attain her personal goals reliably and comfortably. The campaign makes her an Internet entrepreneur who creates jobs, and so gives her something of a public role, but the description is unpersuasive. A successful entrepreneur is not likely to be someone whose big political concern is whether other people pay for her birth control pills and provide her with a comfortable retirement.
The main alternative to the progressive liberal ideal today is the conservative or classical liberal ideal. Conservative liberals see freedom from a more typically entrepreneurial perspective. For them, freedom is freedom of action rather than freedom to choose among private satisfactions. They therefore favor a setting in which the rules of property and contract, along with public services like roads, schools, and national defense, allow people to form whatever goals they want and pursue them with whatever means they can put together. Everything’s open-ended, and the sky’s the limit, but it’s up to the individual to figure out where he wants to go and how to get there. The conservative version of Julia would therefore be more like an Ayn Rand heroine. Where Julia wants secure enjoyment of daily satisfactions, an Ayn Rand heroine wants adventure, struggle, and creativity. She is as single-mindedly interested in doing whatever it is she wants to do as Julia, but in a very different style.
Whatever the basic kinship between the progressive and conservative liberal positions, each claims superiority from a moral point of view. The conservative emphasis on individual action leads to an emphasis on how people act, so people who tend in that direction are likely to favor many traditional standards of conduct. On the other hand, the progressive system looks after everyone equally, so its supporters claim a more generous moral concern that protects the poor, marginalized, and unsuccessful.
The argument goes back and forth, and most of us incline to one side or the other. Active Catholics usually go for conservatism, because they believe in being active and take individual conduct seriously. Academics mostly prefer progressivism, because they like overall systems that take care of everything. Progressives complain that conservative morality is a mask for greed and bigotry, and the conservative love of action means invading countries and torturing prisoners. Conservatives respond that encouraging activity benefits the disadvantaged, and progressive insistence on taking care of everything means scrapping inconvenient babies.
Current developments give the conservatives something of a trump card from a Catholic perspective. The progressives want to reform social relations in a detailed way in line with their view of social justice, so they have very little tolerance for dissenting views that get in their way. That is why in much of the West you can be hit with criminal penalties for saying unprogressive things about sexual ethics or the merits of competing religions. In contrast, the conservative emphasis on freedom of action means letting the Church say what she thinks and carry on her activities in her own way for her own purposes. Ayn Rand is no Mother Theresa, but she won’t force Ave Maria University to buy abortifacients for Julia and hire her to teach alternate lifestyle acceptance.
Still, from a Catholic standpoint both Ayn and Julia are remarkably bad models to follow. Both ignore the transcendent dimension of human life. Ayn Rand’s romantic capitalism is a fake transcendent if ever there was one, and the faith, hope, and (government-administered) charity the Obama campaign offers Julia have very little to do with the Christian virtues. Also, both are essentially unsocial. Progressive concern for those at the bottom doesn’t include taking them seriously as actors, and the conservative appeal to traditional morality is shaky because it’s not grounded in a serious understanding of the good life. Hence the depressing effects of the progressive welfare state on how people live, and hence the routine abandonment by conservative politicians of issues such as abortion when they become mildly inconvenient.
So what’s a Catholic to do? We have to deal with what’s around us, so common cause with one side or the other is necessary on many issues. Still, Catholicism is not a matter of joining this team or that. If the Church is what she claims to be, she is the custodian of the most important truths about human life. For that reason, Catholics cannot put common cause with others first: they must know their own vision, and emphasize that vision above all else.
The Catholic vision, as the Church tells us and observation confirms, is what the world needs most, even politically. The striking thing about liberalism, and mainstream politics in the West generally, is how impoverished it is. To be rational, politics like any form of action must aim at the good—at the goals it makes sense to pursue. Liberalism tries to avoid arguments about those goals by limiting the common good to freedom, and making freedom self-defining as freedom to choose.
As our discussion has shown, that approach doesn’t work. Freedom is always part of a larger system that promotes some goals over others, so it always promotes a particular way of life. The conservative version of freedom favors a life of enterprise and acquisitiveness, while the progressive version favors a life of safe and inoffensive hedonism. Ayn Rand might like the one and Julia the other, but it’s unlikely many sane and normal people would take either as the standard to strive for if the situation were presented clearly.
With that in mind, the most important political function of the Church is to present man’s situation clearly so he can choose truly. She aims at truth rather than power, and exerts her influence by transforming understandings. For that reason, the goal of Catholics acting politically as Catholics should be less immediate victory than broadening the very narrow spectrum of economic and social concerns that now define public life. They can do that by maintaining Catholic principles, in season and out, and never compromising them. That approach can seem ineffectual, but the principles that are publicly available define what is politically possible. There is no political power greater than the power to change that, and that is the power Catholics can exercise by remaining true to their vision.
This essay first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 9, 2012 and is reprinted here with permission.