The Left, the Right, and Catholicism

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.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Vishal Mehra

    The question is what can Church offer politically?
    Curiously we find that  the Church is advocating Global governance and generally sharing in the Progressive
    goal of eliminating the distinction between a citizen and a non-citizen by making everyone a citizen.

    The other great logical branch of liberalism, i.e libertarianism, seeks to erase this distinction by making everyone a stranger.

    The conservatives flounder between the two liberal rivers.

    Perhaps, as the Catholic writers  omit to mention the headship of husband in their voluminous writings on Natural Law, they likewise omit to stress the politcal nature of man that implies that man looks at the Law through national lens. Nations exist and exist by nature.  Man is made such as to share the Law and the vision of Good with his neighbors.

    Now the Law is both Natural and Divine. The Natural Law pertains to the State and Divine to the Church or Religion more generally. The demarcation of natural and supernatural is made through Reason and Revelation. The distinctness of State and Religion is confused when and where natural is not clearly distinguished from the supernatural. That we find in ancient societies.

    The confusion of citizen and stranger brings forth both alienation and despotism. It alienates since man is made to share Law and Good with his neighbor. It makes for despotism since different visions of Good clash and force is the only thing that brings order.

    The City that Commerce has built is the City full of Strangers and thus is no City. 

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  • Al_Kilo

    Here is the problem: the Catholic church has a terrible track record running actually governments, starting with own. Especially lately. Just look at Canon law. Even though it is generally well written, the hierarchy does not even follow it, or they change rules. Bishops allow abusing priests to go free. They delete items like the office of promoter of faith on a whim, to favor own elites/agendas/$$$. Full members of so called “lay” groups like “Opus Dei” (the real term Opus Dei comes from St Benedict), are anything but free to follow their God given conscience. They have no protection under canon law, when conflicts arise with superiors, like tradtional orders do. On a secular level, look at Spain now.  A lot of the financial service elites and technocrats were formed in “Opus Dei” business schools, and what a mess Spain’s banks are in.
    Another example of great catholic governance in Honduras. The Pope said, soon after the coup, that the Church “is helping rebuild institutions”. Look at what happened since. Pesky journalists are simply assassinated. It is one of the most chaotic places on the planet, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The biggest source of GDP does not come from fat, lazy, aristocratic, infighting, oligarchs that Cardinal Rodriguez of Tegucigalpa supports, but comes from regular people that had to flee that dump and work in places like the US, save money to send back to family members, as remittances.
    The other problem is that Ayn Rand /“Opus Dei” catholics can not swallow the concept of helping neighbor (as in Love God and Neighbor), and working together with others to make it happen, in the context of positive subsidiarity when called for. The story of the multiplication of loaves is repeated several times for a reason. Christ also said to give to Cesar what is to Cesar for a reason. He must have known that Rome was building networks of road, ports. Through his apostles, Christ used these modes of communications very effectively to spread His message around the ancient world, in less than 100 years.
    For liberals, they are all for “helping neighbor” but only in the abstract. only if it is in the form of a welfare check, or a cheep Hollywood actor run campaign. They have no problems using their totalitarian self given adult power to kill their own children in utero, when they are inconvenienced, because that baby is not a baby but a “mistake” produced by “Free Love”.

    Also Ayn Rand /“Opus Dei” catholics as well as liberals refuse to understand the work of people like James Madison. The idea was to form a system of government that was primarily anti tyrannical. That was the original meaning of the term “social justice”, as, for example, used in the Federalist Papers. To ensure this form of “social justice”, James Madison, based on best evidence at the time, created a system of checks and balances, and artificial perpetual campaigning. It was to prevent tyranny.

    Ayn Rand’s world is tyrannical, it is the world of the Honduran oligarchs, now supported by Ayn Rand /“Opus Dei” catholics. The pro abort, cradle to grave welfare liberal model is also tyrannical.  It is primarily the tyranny of selfish adults killing their own children in utero, the greatest cause of death in human history.

    Ayn Rand /“Opus Dei” catholics= Extreme Liberation theology/pro abort liberals=selfish human based utilitarianism.

    • Scott

      I am not sure what Opus Dei has to do with this discussion.  You might want to check out John Allen’s book on Opus Dei.  The evidence does not support the stereotypes.

      • Al_Kilo

        I read the Allen’s book, Escriva’s works, “OD catechism” and had personal contact with “THE” Work.
        The New “Holiness/Virtues:” “ coercion,  intransigence and shamelessness” via gnostic materialistic, pantheistic worship of “little things” like chocolate making, while giving 10%-90% of one’s salary to “THE” work as only obligation for salvation.
        They use extensively Orwellian double speak (forbidden in the Bible), such as work=prayer (contrary to teaching of the Bible and church doctors), poor=rich; charity= strict obedience to OD superiors; world=outside enemy; radical=”THE” work; heroic=ordinary etc…
        They highjacked St Benedict’s universal Catholic milenia old definition of Opus Dei.
        They are now imposing their brand of extreme utilatarian equivalent of liberation theology on the church.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The origins of Liberalism are to be found in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion and the English Civil War.

    To all appearances, the religious divisions of Christendom produced by the Reformation appeared permanent and ineradicable.  In countries like England and France, a measure of  toleration was recognised as a practical necessity, before anyone, except a handful of Protestants, in the Anabaptist tradition, enunciated the theory that the government should confine its attention to this world and had no right to coerce consciences in matters of religion.  This new principle was that, “as the Sovereign has no authority in the other world, whatever the lot of its subjects may be in the life to come, that is not its business, provided they are good citizens in this life.”

    Moreover, the stalemate with which the Wars of Religion ended led many to reflect that, whilst Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists could not all be right, they could all be wrong, or that ultimate truth, if it existed, was unattainable.  The contrast between the rapid advance of the physical sciences and the inability of the divines to reach a consensus led many thinkers to conclude that man should rein in his intellectual ambitions and confine his attention to the world of the senses.

    The Throne and Altar Conservative and the Marxist have this in common, that each has a blueprint of the good society and a route-map for getting there.  The Liberal, by contrast, with his belief in progress, puts his faith in an emergent vision, ever more perfectly realised, as Progress and Enlightenment overcome Superstition and Ignorance – It sounds like a bad allegorical painting and it has inspired not a few of them.

    • Al_Kilo

      What is your definition of “Liberal”, UK vs USA?

    •  Quoting Rousseau is certainly a strangely inaccurate way to summarize the gist of liberal thought.

      • DoReMi

         How is it inaccurate? Was not Rousseau one of the major thinkers of what became the liberal position?

        What is claimed as liberal nowadays is mostly socialist or modernist of one stripe or another. There are very few people out there would are actual “liberals.”

  • RB

    Interesting piece, but it does kind of remind me of during the good old days of the Cold War when intellectuals attached a sheen of moral relativism on both the U.S. and Russia. Because the U.S. was not perfect and had sinned, it could not deem itself morally superior to the gulag that was Russia. I disagreed with that premise then and I disagree that liberal/progressives and liberal/conservatives are two sides of the same coin now. As a point of clarification, politically I see myself as a liberal democrat…just one who resides in the 18th century. Not a liberal democrat of the French variety who denied God’s supremacy and set the world on a course it is still reeling from, but rather the liberal democracy from those wonderful old dead white guys like Adams, Madison, Franklin, Jefferson, et al. All men with distinctly robust flaws, but men who fashioned a political system the world had never seen before and one that it hasn’t seen since. Free will is at the core of our Salvation history. It was free will on the part of our first parents that destroyed earthly paradise. It was free will on the part of the Blessed Mother and her husband Joseph who, said yes to God’s request and set in motion the most important 33 years in human history. The “freedom” the Founding Fathers attempted to unleash in the New World was not license. To paraphrase Madison, the only way the American experiment was going to work in his eyes was if we had the most secular government we could have and it was run by the most pious and religiously minded people. Unfortunately, now we only have half of Madison’s equation and anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry knows an equation must balance.

    Contrary to progressive thinking and contrary to the ex-nun who runs the Confirmation preparation class down the street, my salvation is not a community project. There’s a reason the Church in her wisdom recently fortified the Nicene Creed with the singular pronoun “I” instead of the previously and misleading “we” when people professs their faith. Mary was alone with a messenger of God when she had to choose. But again, this is not an Ayn Rand position of I’ve got mine now you get yours either. I am commanded by God to love my neighbor, even love my enemy, and contrary to all of our separated brethren in the protestant world, I must take action in these matters or else my “faith” is “empty.”

    There is no perfect political system, when it comes to classical liberal democracy.  God is not a liberal democrat, even of the 18th century variety, but neither is he a dictator.  God is not our slave master, he is our Father. We must be free to choose him or else we are nothing but robots. Sometimes that freedom means people will choose poorly or they will choose evil over good. But only a political system that enshrines that kind of freedom can provide a glimmer of hope of a balanced equation. It will never perfectly balance because we live in a flawed world. But that doesn’t mean we should stop striving and recognize the good in any given political system and reject what is not good.

  • Clement_W

    Obama Campaign’s Julia appears to me to be more a person created by God in His Image, convinced that the Image that she is, is the Original. Thus, the Progressive view is that each Progressive is a god and that some of them are more a god than the rest.

    The last time I saw such a situation was during the heyday of the Soviet Union pretending all are comrades followed by Nazi Germany without the pretence of comradeship but the ‘Fuehrerprinzip’.

  • Alecto

    Kalb describes liberals and libertarians, not conservatives.  Conservatives could rightly be described as libertarians with religion or libertarians with a moral sense.  Unfortunately, the modern libertarians have the same disregard for moral codes as modern liberals.  In that sense, the two groups are indistinguishable. 

    I confess, I have never held Ayn Rand in very high regard, except in her abilities as a writer of fiction.  I’d rather take direction from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s fiction.  At least Anne of Green Gables contains moral imperatives.  How could one view Rand as a conservative?  She was born in Soviet Russia, emigrated to a libertine free-for-all in Paris and never received any kind of training or education in morality?  Her economic and moral philosophy reflects some kind of Darwinian noble savage at best.  Conservatives are nothing like this because they recognize that charity is a personal duty, not a collective one.  Libertarians don’t recognize any personal moral duty towards anyone.  Liberals don’t recognize any personal moral duties either, they’re all collective. 

    • Al_Kilo

      OK, so what is the conservative catholic point of view regarding Romans building roads, ports and aqueducts, the financing of Christopher Columbus’s and Lewis and Clark’s expeditions, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hoover dam, the dicovery of Higgs boson, and Mar’s exploration? Is it all just all inefficient waste of money, better done by a solo, cave dwelling Rand fictional entrepreneurial genius? Or is there room, in some cases, for private/public partnerships? That it is, in a democracy, possible to establish rules to make sure everyone is accountable/moral?

      Answer1: all the discoveries, Higgs boson or going to Mars, and all the damn dams don’t look so hot if the same governing principals are paying for the largest destruction of children in the history of man kind.

    •  You need to read more political non-fiction and less novels. Your attempts to categorize are so overly broad they are not just useless, but dangerous (most especially to the church). As I suggested to the author of this essay, you might benefit from looking into the life of Otto von Habsburgh, and perhaps it will spark an interest to throw away the fiction, and learn the real intellectual/political history.

    • Al_Kilo

      Answer2: but if there is no compassion, or it is narrowly dogmatically defined, where pulling together, working with others to improve the lot of neighbors is forbidden, if by these new dogmas there is no such thing a being poor, out of luck; if the good Samaritan is just a fool; if Mathew 25:35-36 is just a sentimental naïve joke, how can these deaths be prevented? Put 1 million teens in prison? If there is no more compassion, how can compassion be taught? If all that is important is one’s gated home, how are children going to be saved? If all that counts it to focus on ones “ordinary” life, the new “Holy” (“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children… Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13”) how will this evil be conquered?

    • Scott

      Concur.  There is a surprisingly big gap between libertarians and conservatives with the moral dimension being at root.  Many libertarians falsely reject prohibitions on abortion as it may be infringing upon an individual’s right to kill their own child.  What they fail to grasp is the secondary consequence of infringing upon the child’s inalienable right to life.

      • Cord_Hamrick

        Ah, but Scott, back when I was a card-carrying Libertarian Party member, the stats showed something like 43% of Libertarians believing that abortion ought to be restricted or outlawed at the state level.

        Not, sadly a majority, and I expect the numbers have dropped since then, but you see the point: Libertarians do believe in using force to protect the rights of individuals from wrongfully-initiated force or fraud. Intellectually-consistent libertarians naturally view the assault on a human in an early stage of development as wrongfully-initiated force.

        (The pro-choice libertarians mostly avoid this conclusion by ignoring the argument entirely, but others express skepticism about the personhood of the organism until late in development — how late is the tricky bit, there, and they have no satisfying answer — and still others acknowledge the personhood of the child but treat the pregnancy as a sort of assault against the mother to which she may forcibly reply, with assistance from others. This last is the most intellectually consistent view in one limited sense, were it not outrageous in other ways.)

        So I think your concurrence is premature and that the moral/non-moral divide is too simplistic.

        There are certainly moral libertines among Libertarians; indeed part of the party’s P.R. problem is how it manages to attract potheads. But more Libertarians and libertarians are found in the “personally opposed” camp with respect to immoral, but not forceful or fraudulent, behavior: They think gossip and private pot-smoking and buying Britney Spears recordings and Mormonism and young earth creationism are all wrong in their various justice-oriented and prudence-oriented and aesthetic and historical and scientific senses of “wrongness,” but they don’t believe in prohibiting you from them at gunpoint.

        The basic Libertarian moral intuition is, “I only have just cause to pull out a gun when someone else wrongfully pulls out theirs.” (There is of course an extension to acts of fraud on the basis that they constitute “intellectual forcing.)

    • Conservative parties and politicians don’t represent the conservatism of ordinary concerned citizens. They mostly represent their own ambitions, and to get anywhere they have to speak the common language of political discussion in present-day America. So they don’t take religious, moral, and cultural issues all that seriously, any more than their liberal counterparts take concern for people at the bottom seriously.

      With that in mind, I think the situation ends up as I describe it–self-defining freedom as the highest goal, since that’s the point of basic agreement, with the only basic dispute whether that goal should be seen from the producer’s point of view or the consumer’s.

      I should say that Ayn Rand in the piece is a counterpart to Julia, a cartoon character, so she’s used symbolically. I think she works as such to set up a basic polarity, since the kind of conservatism that’s most influential in actual political life has more to do with self-interest than with religion or morality, but your mileage may differ.

      •  The ambitions of politicians and the desires of conservative voters are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Your article serves to underscore how misleading labels are.  Like all political tags they do an injust to the beliefs of each human person.  You can put 10 conservatives in a room with 10 different opinions about the meaning of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What no one dares to say is that only one view is the correct one.  Absolute truth is the antithesis of political correctness. What is desperately needed is to cut through the sophistry of political dialogue and focus on the essential – individual rights based on the inherent dignity of man created in the image and likeness of God.  Without this as the point of departure we are grasping at straws.

    • Midwestern Trad

      Pardon me, but Ayn Rand never spent any time in Paris to the best of my knowledge.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Most conservatives I know are the very reverse of Libertarian.  They believe in order, tradition, discipline, hierarchy, authority, continuity, unity, work, family

      • Cord_Hamrick

        Michael, most Libertarians I know — in fact I think I can say it of all of the hundred or so Libertarians and libertarians I have personally met — believe in “order, tradition, discipline, hierarchy, authority, continuity, unity, work, family.”

        The thing you must keep in mind is the question “Ought it to be compelled, and with what degree of compulsion, and by whom, and whence does their authority to use compulsion derive?”

        If we are to take the view that one only “believes in” something if one believes in making it compulsory, then anyone who doesn’t believe in compulsory marriage and compulsory religion is “anti-family” and “anti-religion.” That would be a funny thing, to make Jesus (as the Catholic Church views Him, at least) “anti-religion!”

        It is truly only a judgment about the limits of the morally-permissible
        use of force which separates Libertarians from Conservatives. The Libertarians have less tolerance for the use of compulsion in preserving good things than the Conservative. That’s the difference.

    A big part of the problem here is the
    use of Ayn Rand as an icon of [classical] liberalism – a claim she
    did not make. Indeed Ayn Rand was so incredulously arrogant it was
    her belief that she had no intellectual or ideological predecessors
    except Aristotle.

    It might be productive to get your
    terminology right and focus in on Otto von Habsburg rather than Ayn
    Rand. You are, in one broad generalized sweep, tossing out some of
    the Church’s most fervent, dedicated and important defenders. E.g.

    • Al_Kilo

      Interesting link, thanks, although the attacks on poor Mark Shae are at the primary school recess level, also not sure where Otto von Habsburg fits in this debate…

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  • GaryLockhart

    “Ayn Rand is no Mother Theresa(sic),”

    No “h” in Teresa, James.

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  • Alan Lille

    This is an excellent and reasonable assessment of the problem the Augustinian-Thomistic approach has in face of modern liberalism in its both forms.