From the Publisher: The Catholic Whig Tradition

Thomas Jefferson once wrote of North America that with respect to rights, “there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects.” By Whigs he meant “The Party of Liberty”; believers in republican government or government by the people; and those intent upon creating, in accord with nature and nature’s God, a “system of natural liberty.”

Crisis exists in part to further a stream of Catholic thought of similar inspiration. We call it “the Catholic Whig tradition.” To our knowledge, no one has ever called the philosophia perennis by this exact name before (although Walter Lippmann in The Public Philosophy came close). But the existence of the tradition is plain enough. It is also plain that the Whig tradition—and in particular the Catholic Whig tradition—is beginning to enjoy an intellectual renaissance. It has become the alternative both to traditionalism and to progressivism; both to the left and to the right.

It is characteristic of the Whig tradition to teach by pointing to examples, to personal embodiments, rather than solely to theories. In that spirit, let me point to John Paul II as the pontiff who most deserves the name of “Catholic Whig.” Among the principles central to his social thought are: creativity, liberty, solidarity, and anti-utopian realism. He has called religious liberty the first and most fundamental human right. His many speeches on religious liberty show him to be as passionate a defender of liberty of conscience as Thomas Jefferson. He defines his favorite concept, “solidarity,” in terms of freedom of conscience. He has issued through Cardinal Ratzinger two long letters on Christian liberation and Christian liberty. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis he has linked the right to religious liberty to the right to personal economic enterprise. And this right, he says, flows directly from the creative subjectivity of the human person, made in the image of the Creator. Pope John Paul II asks human beings today to contribute new chapters to the history of liberty. In Chile and elsewhere, he has said that democratic institutions and democratic habits are the sole worldly guarantors of human rights.

Yet even before Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Whig tradition had a long history. As Friedrich von Hayek remarks in The Constitution of Liberty, Lord Acton was not being altogether paradoxical when he called St. Thomas Aquinas “the first Whig.” By that designation, Lord Acton intended to emphasize the importance of St. Thomas in the history of liberty. Among others who may be counted as model figures in this long history are Robert Bellarmine, Richard Hooker, the Jesuits of Salamanca, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Acton himself. Among recent exponents have been Don Luigi Sturzo, Jacques Maritain, Yves R. Simon, John Courtney Murray, S.J., and others.

All such thinkers manifested the characteristics proper to Whigs. They had a social vision. They were concerned with the shape that whole societies should assume, in order to do justice to the moral personality of human persons. All had a sharp sense of the contingencies, ironies, and tragedies of human history. They saw probabilities (but not certainties) of human social progress. They respected the durability of existing habits, customs, laws, and traditions, but this respect did not prevent them from thinking of newer and better levels of achievement. The Catholic Whigs had unusually clear ideas about the dignity of the human person and the inviolable depths of human conscience. But they also emphasized the primacy of community, and they meant by community not a mere collective, not a kinship network, not a herd or hive. They meant a community of free persons.

When the Whigs define themselves as “The Party of Liberty,” furthermore, they define liberty in a special way. They do not mean libertinism or any other disordered form of liberty, such as a supposed “liberty to do whatever one feels like doing.” For them, a liberty undirected by reflection and choice is slavery. For them, liberty must be achieved through that self-mastery that nourishes reflection and choice.

Such self-mastery is won by slowly gaining dominion over appetite, passion, ignorance, and whim. For them, the enabling agent and protector of liberty is virtue—indeed, a full quiver of virtues, one against each of the vices that commonly deprive human persons of their liberty. In every age, there are many ways in which persons may suffer from a disordered loss of liberty. In our day, drug addiction, alcoholism, and even “temporary insanity” are widely seen to deprive normal persons of their liberty. But so do passion, ignorance, and whim. For our fathers, therefore, it sufficed to sing in the old American hymn:

Confirm thy soul in self-control

Thy liberty in law.

Again, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor stands as a symbol of the Whig conception of liberty. It is a lady, not a warrior—Lady Philosophy, Wisdom. In one hand she holds the torch of reflection, dispelling the darkness of ignorance, passion, and whim. In the other hand, she holds a book or the tablets of the law. Sobrious and dignified is the Whig model of liberty: the virtuous woman, the virtuous conception, common to America and to the Whigs, of “ordered liberty.” Exactly right. Its sources lie in Genesis, Aristotle, and Cicero: In Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.

It is also characteristic of the Catholic Whigs to reject abstract utopias, rationalism, and what Pascal referred to as “geometric thinking.” Instead, they emphasize the crucial role of practical intellect, which Aristotle called “practical wisdom” and the medievals were prone to calling “prudence.” These are concepts closely related to the choice of Providence as a favorite name of God, described at great length by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Third Book of the Summa Contra Gentiles. For Whigs it makes a great difference that God should be conceived of as concerned with singulars, contingents, and individual agents who are free, rather than as a Geometer God, interested solely in necessities, general commands, logic, and irresistible laws.

Catholic Whigs share with all other progressives a certain hope in the capacities of human beings for approaching ever more closely to “the building up in history of the kingdom of God.” They share with traditionalists a sharp sense of limits and a sense of sin. They believe that by God’s grace and promises, through a fuller exercise of charity and practical intellect, human beings can make steady progress in arriving at more just societies; but also that, through sin, such progress is reversible and may descend even to the gates of hell—as in our century it has.

In a balanced way, the Whigs value deeply all that the human race has learned and embodied, often in tacit ways, in existing habits, institutions, and traditions. They do not think that their grandparents were less wise than they. They spend much effort learning from the past, trying to put into words its often tacit wisdom. They think of themselves as part of a living tradition, and therefore are as much future-oriented as they are respectful of the past. They are wary of ideology, which they regard as a form of rationalism untutored by experience. They are not afraid to dream, and yet they have a special regard for things tried, tested, and found to be true. They think it foolish not to learn from the hard-won lessons of the past, and foolish, too, to ignore the new needs of the human pilgrimage barely discernible in the near future.

In this respect, the classic Whig vision is rooted in the “cautious optimism” that springs from reflection on human experience in the light of “original sin.” Their caution makes Whigs seem to utopians too pessimistic. Their optimism makes them seem to traditionalists too visionary. Nonetheless, the Whig vision represents rather well the wisdom of Judaism, Christianity, and the best among the Greeks and Romans, concerning human nature and human sin. Whigs hold that every human being sometimes sins. Therefore, they conclude, no man should be trusted with total power. They hold simultaneously that most people most of the time (but not always) act with generosity, decency, compassion, and creativity. The first of these beliefs makes checks and balances necessary. The second makes realistic human progress possible.

Whether or not this brief evocation of a living Catholic Whig tradition is fully acceptable, it does define with some accuracy the intellectual horizon within which an increasing number of intelligent Catholics are moving these days.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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