Sunday, April 10, 2005

Reconcilable differences

Rebecca, my wife, wants us to go and hear Father Richard Neuhaus when he comes to Vancouver for a fundraising event. I'm willing to go, even more so now, having read this old 1997 article of his about John Paul taking steps to find reconciliation between Catholicism and the American experiment with liberal capitalism. It is an interesting rejoinder to those who think the two are irreconcilable. Neuhaus writes:
I am confident that we as Americans make no mistake when we think that the American experiment is a very major presence in Centesimus Annus. After all, the Western democracies, and the United States most particularly, are the historically available alternatives to the socialism that so miserably failed. I think it true to say that in this pontificate, for the first time, magisterial teaching about modernity, democracy, and human freedom has a stronger reference to the Revolution of 1776 than to the French Revolution of 1789. It is, then, neither chauvinistic nor parochial to read Centesimus Annus with particular reference to the American experiment. On the contrary, it is the course of fidelity, made imperative by the duty to appropriate magisterial teaching to our own circumstance, and by the powerful awareness of the American experiment in the mind of the encyclicals author. There is no more common criticism of the liberal tradition than that it is premised upon unbridled "individualism." CA speaks of the "individual" and even of the "autonomous subject" (13), but most typically refers to the "person." Citing the earlier encyclical Redemptor Hominis, John Paul writes that "this human person is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission . . . the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption." He then adds the remarkable statement, "This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church'ss social doctrine." (53) This, and this alone. He writes, "The Church has gradually developed that doctrine in a systematic way," above all in the past century. Very gradually, we might add without disrespect. In the later encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul pays fulsome tribute to modernity and its development of the understanding of the dignity of the individual and of individual freedom. Individualism is one of the signal achievements of modernity or, if you will, of the liberal tradition. Nor should we deny that this achievement was effected in frequent tension with, and even conflict with, the Catholic Church. One important reason for such conflict, of course, was that the cause of freedom was perceived as marching under the radically anticlerical and anti-Christian banners of 1789. It is a signal achievement of this pontificate that it has so clearly replanted the idea of the individual and of freedom in the rich soil of Christian truth from which, in its convoluted and conflicted development, it had been uprooted. Only as it is deeply rooted in the truth about the human person will the flower of freedom flourish in the future. It is a mistake to pit, as some do pit, modern individualism against a more organic Catholic understanding of community. Rather should we enter into a sympathetic liaison with the modern achievement of the idea of the individual, grounding it more firmly and richly in the understanding of the person destined from eternity to eternity for communion with God. The danger of rejecting individualism is that the real-world alternative is not a Catholic understanding of communio but a falling back into the collectivisms that are the great enemy of the freedom to which we are called. As CA reminds us, "We are not dealing here with humanity in the ˜abstract, but with the real, concrete, ˜historical person." The problem with the contemporary distortion of the individual as the autonomous, unencumbered, sovereign Self is not that it is wrong about the awesome dignity of the individual, but that it cuts the self off from the source of that dignity.
Earlier in that article Neuhaus admits that:
In the 1960s I was very much a man of the left. Not the left of countercultural drug-tripping and generalized hedonism, but the left exemplified by, for instance, the civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the latter half of the 1960s this began to change with the advent of the debate over what was then called "liberalized" abortion law. By 1967 I was writing about the "two liberalisms" one, like that earlier civil rights movement, inclusive of the vulnerable and driven by a transcendent order of justice, the other exclusive and recognizing no law higher than individual willfulness. My argument was that, by embracing the cause of abortion, liberals were abandoning the first liberalism that has sustained all that is hopeful in the American experiment.
Definitely an interesting man.

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