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The dangers of Catholic anti-liberalism

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Korey D. Maas, associate professor of history at Hillsdale College, has written a timely warning to American Catholics at Public Discourse titled, ‘The Coming Anti-Catholicism.’

Maas begins his essay with a recounting of the early history of American anti-Catholicism, its mitigation in the 1960s, and its troubling resurgence in recent years:

The combined effects of Camelot and the Council were to make political anti-Catholicism gauche almost overnight. Nobody, therefore, is surprised today when conservative Catholics and liberal non-Catholics alike respond to any hint of it by insisting that “religion is not the issue. Fidelity to the rule of law is what matters,” or that one should only “criticize jurisprudence and ideas, not religious faith or practice.” Given this apparent consensus, suggestions that one’s “dogma” is a “concern” inevitably sound like an unfortunate throwback to an uglier era of American politics.

This reemerging anti-Catholicism is not merely the product of a resurgent and aggressive secularism but a new resurgence of Catholic anti-liberalism:

As in the nineteenth century, liberal anti-Catholicism and Catholic anti-liberalism are mutually exacerbating. But if the former typically remains, for the time being, in the realm of implication and insinuation, the latter is becoming much more explicit. Though by no means a majority opinion among contemporary Catholics, the conviction that liberalism has failed is emboldening an increasingly vocal minority to argue that it deserves to fail because it has been, from its very origins, incompatible with the Catholic faith.

Maas fears, and rightly so, that this resurgent Catholic anti-liberalism could lead to and embolden secularists in their anti-Catholicism,

Insofar as prominent and influential Catholics insist that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal tradition, liberals will feel increasingly justified in reaching the same conclusion. Attempts to convince fellow Catholics that the “teaching of the Catholic Church, always and everywhere,” idealizes the confessional state and sanctions religious coercion will inevitably convince many non-Catholics, liberal and otherwise, that this is indeed the case.

The entire essay is well worth reading.

There are however abundant resources within both the Catholic and broader Christian tradition which provide a framework to build a free and virtuous society sustained by religious principles. Liberalism itself is the product of a tradition running back as early as the teachings of Jesus Christ who admonished us to, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

Lord Acton places this teaching at the center of the tradition of moral and theological reflection which gave rise to the institutions, ethics, and law of Christian Europe (See Alejandro Chafuen’s Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics or any of the volumes in the first or second series of Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law). Korey Maas has recently contributed to the project of this tradition’s retrieval with his excellent contribution to the introduction to Neils Hemmingsen’s ‘On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method’.

There have certainly been tensions between faith, freedom, and modernity (See Jan Klos’s book of that title) but tensions need not lead to inevitable conflict. In order to ward off conflict and build a life together both secularists, Christians, and those of other religious traditions must respect each other’s intrinsic human dignity and especially their freedom of conscience. In other words, what our contemporary challenges call for most is a return to a Christian liberalism.

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.

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