- This remarkable teaching pontificate has barely begun to penetrate the Church, especially in Western countries. The post-Vatican II reformers have largely missed the excitement of this pontificate. It will be for the next generation to appreciate what John Paul II has accomplished.
- John Paul II's legacy has the potential to revive the liberal democratic project. This is a moment of extraordinary opportunity in the life of the Church.
- The Pope's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum) is often described as an encyclical on economics. This is a misrepresentation. It is not merely about economics but about a just and free society. That is, it is about politics in an Aristotelian sense: free people deliberating on the question, "How ought we to live together?" The encyclical turns very much on our understanding of what it means to be a free people.
- The Pope has produced a large body of written work, not only during his papacy but before it, as Karol Wojtyla. Key to his thought is the notion of the person. One of his earliest books is The Acting Person, first published in Polish in 1969 (an English version, translated by Andrezej Potocki, appeared in 1979).
- To be frank, I must acknowledge that many serious and deeply faithful thinkers in the Catholic community do not share my view that John Paul II's thinking can revivify the Church. I am considered a "neo-conservative", a member of a school that believes Catholicism to be compatible with the American system. An example of one who disagrees with me is Dr. David Schindler, professer of fundamental theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. He believes that I have misinterpreted the writings of the Holy Father. In many cases this position is a reaction against the thinking of John Courtney Murray, who developed an approach to Catholicism very much at home in the liberal democratic system. Murray was silenced by the Church for a period, and as an obedient Catholic he submitted to this.
- I personally believe that both Murray's thought and Vatican II are the work of the Holy Spirit. Schindler considers Catholicism is incompatible with American liberal democracy, because that political system is inherently incompatible with the notion of an objective truth.
- One of the problems with Schindler's argument is that he accepts a very negative description of liberal democracy in which radical autonomy is the norm. The philosophy of radical autonomy is one of strict moral relativism; there is no place for a transcendent truth that can be publicly recognized. It is a position that is very seriously argued today, and indeed, it comes close to dominating elite social discourse.
- However, why should we hand over liberal democracy to this view? There are different forms of liberalism. Discussion can be attuned to the liberalism of the American, rather than the French, Revolution. This is the case with Centesimus Annus, a document which focuses on 1776, not 1789. Prior to its appearance, Catholic doctrinal statements were essentially a reaction against the liberalism of 1789.
- It can thus be said that Centesimus Annus represents a doctrinal development. It is not an uncritical endorsement of the American experiment, but it does affirm our basic constitutive ideas.
- American democracy is more than simply a procedural phenomenon. Our political deliberation requires that people bring all their deepest convictions, including those shaped by religious beliefs and revelation. At the root of the crisis today is the attempt to divorce people's deepest convictions from the arena of political deliberation. It is based on a perverse notion of the separation of Church and State.
- For the majority of Americans, their political convictions are inextricably, if confusedly, tied to their religion. This is becoming more rather than less the case today. Americans are becoming more religious. This is not the way things were supposed to turn out in the Enlightenment project! What is happening today is a desecularization of world history. Precisely the opposite of what men like Voltaire and Marx predicted. Malraux, on the other hand, said, "If the twentieth century will be at all, it will be religious."
- The Catholic Church is clearly at the vanguard of world historical change.
- The "American experiment" is just that, a human contrivance, but it is held accountable to a transcendental truth. It attempts to develop a Novus Ordo Saeculorum. This human venture is based on a notion of the human person that ties in very well with the social and political teachings of the Church. Moreover, it is this liberal tradition that is now the model for the world.
- However, this tradition is now in deep trouble: it is being radically challenged from within. The traditional liberalism of Martin Luther King began to go off the beaten track in the late 1960's, and is epitomized by the Roe v. Wade decision that identified the liberal tradition with unrestricted access to abortion.
- Liberalism ought to be inclusive of all, including the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, etc. The new, perverted form of liberalism is on the side of the powerful, who decide who gets rights and who doesn't. The question is, for whom do we accept responsibility?
- The measurement that has been established by modern liberal thought is the "quality of life". This is reserved for those who are able to make the case for the quality of their lives.
- Ironically, the inclusive thinkers today are the conservatives. The task of restoring American liberal democracy falls to them. Judeo-Christian ethics have a legitimate place in the American dialogue.
- By definition, of course, experiments can fail. It is not un-American to think this way, to realize that the American experiment may fail. What might cause it to fail?
1. Many people feel that they are excluded from having a public voice on account of their religious convictions.
2. Our judiciary has excluded religious conviction from the public square. This is evident in the Romer decision in which the Supreme Court overturned Colorado's democratic decision not to extend special privileges to homosexuals. The Court attributed Colorado's position to "irrational animus". This is to say that 3,000 years of thinking regarding the right ordering of human sexuality are merely the result of "irrational animus".
- According to Centesimus Annus, "a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." I think that this can happen here, and perhaps it is happening.
Question and Answer Session:
Q: Suppose the abortion question had been democratically decided, and the American people had voted for its legalization?
A: Majority opinion should not necessarily be established as law. Equal protection and due process must clearly include the rights of the unborn.
Your question also presupposes a circumstance radically different from the reality of the time. If the American people had been that accepting of abortion, all bets are off. The jig would be up, as far as the American experiment is concerned. The Constitution is only fit for a moral people, as Washington said. One of the liberal illusions is that the Constitution is a machine that runs by itself. It isn't.
Q: Isn't the consent of the minority needed for just decision-making?
A: 'Consent of the minority' is a problematic phrase. There are all kinds of minority rights built into the Constitution, but the rights of the minority will only be respected to the extent that the majority believes they should be.
However, our problem today is very different. We have today a very self-conscious minority who have decided to drive the country in a direction that the majority has not assented to. Tocqueville foresaw the possibility of this occurring.
Q: I think that liberalism went off the track in this country not in the 1960's but in the 1890's when the elite began to accept the values of the French Revolution rather than the Constitution. It was this elite that eventually took over the country.
A: I think that the American Revolution was more radical than some conservatives believe. For the first time, a state denied any attempt to control what people believed. As to whether liberalism was betrayed in the 1890's, well, it has been betrayed every day of our history in myriad ways. What is new today, I think, is the cultural and academic elite's using the judiciary so effectively and explicitly to undermine Constitutional principles. In the Casey case, the Court called on the people to end the debate on the question of abortion. All of a sudden, the people are accountable to the government, rather than the government to the people. In recent years, however, the Court has become more cautious in the exercise of its usurped power.
Q: We have in many ways had a tyranny of the majority, for example, in the New Deal when government told business owners how to run their businesses.
A: I am not a big fan of F.D.R. However, I don't think the New Deal Supreme Court attempted to entrench judiciary power as is the case today, though it certainly set the stage for it. The F.D.R. Court left those questions in the political arena, whereas today very important decisions are being removed from the political process.
Q: Your thinking boils down to a belief in the supremacy of the person.
A: Yes, theologically. But I do not think the State should adopt this teaching. We do not want a confessional State, but we do want a State that acknowledges a sovereignty that transcends its own.
The Church's view should not be imposed, but argued in the public square. It is necessary to establish an intellectual basis for Christian values. Pontius Pilate's question ("What is truth?") is today considered sophisticated, rather than pusillanimous and muddleheaded. For most American intellectuals today, the phrase "moral truth" is an oxymoron. For a good discussion of this modern state of affairs, I recommend Alistair MacIntyre's After Virtue. Another good book is Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Integrity. Writing in the early 1960's, Trilling foresaw the development of our present-day emotivism.
Q: We can't say that the Supreme Court did all of this on its own.
A: No, this could not have happened without many changes taking place in our culture. Legislators have handed the difficult questions to the Court. There have been many changes in popular culture, American religion, etc. Religion in particular has become deeply complicit in modern emotivism.
Why then focus on the courts? Because they are the point at which this basic philosophy is given legal effect, with lethal consequences. It is also the courts that have the power to remove these questions from public debate.
Notes by Sara Frear
Fr. Neuhaus's talk comments on an encyclical by the Pope,
On the Hundreth Anniversary (Centesimus Annus).