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Debating the Actual Crisis of Liberalism

January 23rd, 2018 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

Now that the dust has settled a bit on the Mortara debate prompted by Fr. Cessario at First Things, I want to ask a more general question about the state of play between the more radical anti-liberals in the religious conservative world and the more traditional conservatives—the young Catholics of the northeast vs the old Weigelite Catholics, mostly, though obviously there are others interested in this debate as well, some of whom are not members of the Roman church.

One of the problems with much of the debate is that we’re talking about the wrong things: we leap straight to political economy or straight to a complicated edge case like that of Montara. And this ends rather predictably—with the radicals feeling like the conservatives aren’t actually following the full logical implications of Christian thought and the conservatives thinking the radicals are imprudent and impractical.

So: Let’s get practical. Specifically let’s consider this quote from T. S. Eliot:

That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

The argument Eliot is making here is not a narrow argument about the obligations of the magistrate to the poor or the specific policies that should be used to fulfill those obligations. Indeed, that question is not on Eliot’s radar at all. Nor is it an argument about what approach to politics is practical or prudent. That is, similarly, not really of interest to Eliot.

What does concern the great poet and critic is that he does not see within liberal democracy the means for creating citizens that can sustain liberal democracies. Rather, he sees a system that negates itself by relying on something it cannot itself produce.

Eliot is not the only one who saw this problem and anticipated it getting worse as time passed. Lewis famously said of modern education in the Abolition of Man that “we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” In other words, we create people incapable of producing certain goods and then expect them to produce those goods. Liberalism, in this reading, is simply the incoherent social order that results when such a thing is normal and done en masse.

This, it seems to me is the inescapable problem with late modern liberalism. It’s not that it as a system despises both the poor and the natural family, although I think both of those things are true. It’s that the system cannot be sustained long-term because it devours itself.

If that is true, then the charge that the folks at the Josias or the Tradinistas are “imprudent” is radically short-sighted because it assumes that “prudence” means “attempting to find conciliatory ways of relating to the liberal social order.” The problem is not that the trads are destabilizing a basically stable relationship between religious orthodoxy and social life and creating problems that don’t necessarily need to exist, though that is what one might think if you read their critics.

Rather, the problem is actually that the Weigelites, by which I mean the pro-market, pro-liberalism conservative Catholics, are attempting to shore up the foundations of a fundamentally disordered polity that, in any event, is showing significant signs of weakness and may well be already in an entirely predictable terminal decline.

Certainly, there is room for criticism of the positive proposals coming from the radicals. As a Protestant, I basically break out in hives every time I read Unam Sanctam or Pink’s “Conscience and Coercion”  essay I linked last week. Moreover, I think any polity as dependent as theirs is on the integrity and even the orthodoxy of the Roman bishop is foolish and I can imagine fewer things that prove my point better than the current occupant of St. Peter’s chair. (Michael Brendan Dougherty made the same point on Twitter: The Trads arguing for a Young Pope-style approach to the papacy don’t know what they’re asking for because if Francis did take such an approach the first people he targeted would be… the trads.) A Protestant social order is less centralized than a Roman order, which makes it harder to establish and even to define in narrow ways, but it is also less susceptible to the abuses of the clerical class.

In any event, the point here is that the way to hit the radtrads is not on grounds of prudence or practicality. That is simply the respectable Catholic version of the prog Christian response to Dreher’s BenOp: It’s brushing aside reasonable concerns without explaining why those concerns are wrong. Counseling caution and pragmatism at a time when marriage has been redefined, the Supreme Court has defeated state-level abortion regulations, and the poor are quite literally dying of despair is absurd for the same reason that the prog response to Rod’s book was absurd: Things really are this bad and we really do need to come up with radical proposals.

The ideas put forward by the trads might be bad. I think they are. But they are something that is pervasive enough to actually reckon with the scale of our social crisis, which is why I enjoy interacting with them and thinking about their work. They’re taking the historical moment we’re in seriously. If the conservative Catholics were to put forward a similar proposal, then that would give us something to discuss. But at present what I see is simply variations on the end of Peters’ response to the Mortara affair:

Catholics need not think that our current political and economic order is heaven on earth. Liberal states and free economies have their own dangers and coercive power. We need not parrot old arguments, but when it comes to theories of Church and state that allow for the kidnapping of Jewish children, we should readily say, “non possumus.”

This is not an argument. It’s conceding that liberalism isn’t perfect, without actually saying anything substantive about why it isn’t perfect or what to do about it.

What is frustrating is that I think that Peters and others of similar mind have the chops to say something more substantive about social order in response to the radtrad critique. They can, I am reasonably confident, address the formation problem raised by Eliot: How do you make liberal democracy sustainable when liberal democracy is bad at forming and producing liberal democrats? And the answer, I hope, is something that retains some of the goods of the liberal order while correcting the aimlessness of it and its hostility to non-governmental forms of community. But that isn’t the argument I see the conservatives making so far. Let’s hope they start to make it soon.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).