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Catholic social teachings from the standpoint of a liberal

Lesedauer: 12 Minuten

Lecture given in Lublin, Nov 11, 1992

I’ve been observing the processes of transformation and rebuilding in Poland with excitement and much interest. This is the second time that I’ve been able to speak and debate in this country, and I’d like to thank the organisers and those attending for giving me the opportunity to do so.

The subject is a major challenge for me, and my preparations were an intellectual adventure of unforeseen proportions.

As a licentiate of law, I am neither an expert in moral theology or social philosophy or politics or economics, nor am I one of those speakers from western Europe who go to the former Eastern bloc to hand out advice they don’t follow at home, which is why people there no longer believe them. I see my role here primarily as someone who seeks answers, asks questions and learns, but also as someone who provokes constructive engagement.

My aim is to explore the common ground shared by Catholicism and liberalism without ignoring the differences and divergences between them. Not coincidentally, I found a nice motto in the works of Aristotle, which reads as follows:

“Unity and harmony among things and people that are different can be achieved only by maintaining their diversity and singularity.”

I have called my examination of the subject an adventure, and I trust you will allow me to recount one key experience in advance. By being limited to a sub-subject, i.e. ‘Catholic social theory’, I was confronted with the three principles of this theory (personalism, subsidiarity and solidarity). In the source material and commentaries I then read that it isn’t a closed system (in the works of Cardinal König, for example). The Catholic concept of man and the Christian concept of man in general stand in an open relationship with the living God and the story of his incarnation and cannot therefore be dogmatically fixed once and for all.

Via the alternate route of social thought, which I by all means view sceptically, I advanced to the works of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, which, for all their temporal limitations, still and increasingly contain much of importance, also for liberalism, such as the distinction between actus and potentia, the distinction between knowledge and belief in the works of Thomas Aquinas and the distinction between civitas dei and civitas terrena in the works of Augustine.

But to return to the subject: in historical terms, the three principles of Catholic social theory are arguably a critique, a specification and a concretisation of the tripartite slogan of the French revolution. Instead of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality, fraternity), it is ‘personalism’, ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘solidarity’. This Jacobin battle cry, which incidentally is said to have been coined by a Catholic priest, also allows itself to be specified, concretised and updated from a liberal viewpoint. Here is my personal proposal:

Instead of liberty: openness. Instead of equality: diversity. Instead of fraternity and sisterhood: voluntariness in the sense of personal autonomy.

In this form this still sounds very abstract, and so I would like to make it more concrete and thus more attackable:

Openness is the principle of anti-totalitarianism and anti-dogmatism. The belief that man is constantly searching for the truth and the good – and that while there are convictions about this, there is no definitive proof and no conclusive knowledge.

Diversity is the belief in pluralism (not in relativism and nihilism). The diversity of mankind is part of the order of creation. It is risk and opportunity at one and the same time. Diversity also means – and I will come back to this later – a diversity of order systems in society, a coexistence of economics, politics and ethics, which though they are related to each other, don’t form a universal hierarchical system. Man is homo oeconomicus when he maximises benefit, homo politicus when he makes and applies law, and homo religious when he believes, hopes and loves; he’s always the same person, but the challenges posed by the three order systems are to be distinguished.

Voluntariness: this refers to autonomy, and in particular personal autonomy. When I wish to explain the liberal standpoint to someone, I ask them to pick up a code of private law and read the categories – just the categories:

Person, family, inheritance, property, contract/liability, companies, securities and back to person.

This, in a manner of speaking, is a ‘list of agenda items’ for personal autonomy, as it has been discovered – not invented – in the course of cultural history.

I’d now like to compare the three principles of Catholic social theory with the three aforementioned principles of liberalism.

The principle of personalism ties in with the dignity of the human person, which is modelled on God’s likeness and presupposes free will. In Gaudium et spes it says: “Hence a human being’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.” The principle of personalism is based on natural law, and natural law is an important root of both liberalism and Catholicism, despite the fact that it is open to interpretation, and despite the fact that there are liberals who are sceptical of all forms of natural law. The majority of classical liberals were, however, staunch advocates of a natural law. And the principle of personalism does not stand in fundamental contradiction to the core liberal content in the categories of our private law, which is rooted in Roman law and remains a handed down, Christianity-tinged cultural asset of the highest order (comparable, perhaps, with the fund of classical scientific knowledge).

In summary, there are no fundamental tensions or problems between the principle of personalism in Catholic social theory and basic liberal values. On the contrary, the principle of personalism corresponds extensively to the liberal concept of the responsible individual and his integration in the community on the basis of personal autonomy.

Now to the second principle of Catholic social theory, the central principle of subsidiarity. It forms a link between personalism and solidarity and establishes a kind of correspondence between the natural law ‘physics’ of the personality and the ideological ‘metaphysics’ of solidarity. Subsidiarity also assumes a relative independence of areas within society (state, economy, socio-culture) and even establishes a hierarchy at the expense of politics. Politics which imposes coercion is always to remain subsidiary to economics on the one hand and ethics on the other. Politics should step in only where necessary. But what is necessary? Herein lies the practical weakness and the political popularity of the principle. It becomes arbitrarily applicable. Who decides who is unable to cope and to what extent? Who decides what constitutes need in a specific case, need which demands a helping or punitive intervention?

The political and practical significance of the principle of subsidiarity is highly dependent on three factors: the instances applying it in each case, the premises that are presupposed (concept of man) and the competing principles with which it’s combined. Those who view the principle with the greatest possible scepticism and intellectual distrust will be appalled by how little content there is in this. But doesn’t this apply – more or less – to all principles? They are an aid to deliberation and decision making, but offer no guarantee of correctness. Those who approach the subsidiarity principle with a little goodwill and trust and endeavour to take it radically serious enough in terms of the history of meaning and ideas will perhaps arrive at the political structures and processes which optimise its use and prevent abuse.

To summarise, from the liberal point of view there is formal agreement with the principle of subsidiarity, but also a substantial need for interpretation that is open for both sides.

The profoundest problems between liberalism and Catholic social theory are raised by the principle of solidarity. Solidare means to join together firmly. On a voluntary basis as a free, humanitarian option vis-à-vis our fellow man, liberals, too, can subscribe to the principle of solidarity. But fraternity has been a problem ever since the time of Cain and Abel. It’s no coincidence that during the French Revolution the lack of fraternity was punished with the guillotine, and there is a saying that goes: “Be my brother, or I will kill you”. Solidarity, if it isn’t combined with voluntariness, embodies all the tensions between contrasting notions of justice that lie at the root of envy and hate: Cain and Abel…

All other principal concerns of Catholic social theory which are derived from the three main principles are nothing more than concretisations of notions of justice in light of the principle of solidarity. They combine relatively unchangeable and unprovable faith convictions with the latest social scientific knowledge and error.

  • Linkage of the religious and social dimensions
  • Option for the poor
  • Linkage of love and justice
  • Promotion of the common good
  • Political and economic co-determination
  • Economic justice
  • Social obligation of property
  • Solidarity with poor nations

In summary, from the liberal viewpoint there can be no objection to the faith-based desirability of these postulates and the objectives of solidarity, as long as they appeal to the individual person rather than being addressed to the state with a claim to universal validity.

When it’s a question of linking knowledge and faith, some scepticism is called for in relation to knowledge, which is always imperfect. This was recognised long ago by Thomas Aquinas, but the Catholic Church has not always adhered to it. Do we know what the common good is? Do we know what really and effectively helps the poor? Do we know where the boundary is between what is “well meant” in terms of the ethics of conviction and what is counterproductive in terms of the ethics of responsibility, say in the area of foreign aid or the welfare state? Isn’t it true that precisely the welfare state has sometimes destroyed more than it has created in the social realm? From the liberal standpoint the principal weakness of Catholic social theory is not its reliance on the certitudes of Catholic faith, but the uncritical incorporation of time-bound scientific and ideological trends.

This brings me to the final and most important point: the relationship between justice and peace. This is perhaps where the subtlest, yet most profound tensions between liberalism and Catholic social theory are to be found.

To illustrate these abstract considerations I would like to begin with a striking depiction that I found on a coin. This coin originates from Gdansk and was struck in the sixteenth century. It shows a scene from Psalm 85: “Justice and peace will kiss”.

My thesis is that the principles put on a par with each other in Psalm 85 (the kiss as a symbol of affinity, harmony and exchange with no hierarchy) are applied with the priority on justice in Catholic social theory and with the priority on peace in liberalism.

Catholic social theory strives to come closer to peace through the guarantee of justice. Liberalism strives to come closer to justice through the guarantee of peace. Or put in even shorter terms: first justice, then, as a consequence, peace – peace with the proviso of justice on the one hand. On the other, first peace, then, as a consequence, justice through equalisation in infinitely diverse, spontaneous exchange processes.

But the picture says even more. The citizens of Gdansk were good liberals as long ago as the fifteenth century. The inscription reads not lustitia et pax, but rather Pax cum iustitia, coronat fora, templa et rura. Peace with justice crowns marketplaces and courts (symbol of the state), templa (churches) and fields (symbol of economic production).

Here, the philosopher will discover the three Aristotelian categories of politics, ethics and economics (the just, the virtuous and the useful), the historian the three medieval estates (the nobility, the clergy and the peasants), and the political scientist perhaps the three crises of post-socialism – the political, the socio-cultural and the economic.

The socio-cultural crisis is the most severe, and it’s also to the credit of the Catholic Church that a total vacuum did not occur here. The damage in the social realm is, after all, extraordinarily severe. It is one of the tragedies and paradoxes of history that, of all ideologies, it was the one which aspired to make people more social that left behind the largest “social desert”, the greatest mutual distrust and the crassest individual egoism: socialism.

Whether and how new trust can form in this ‘desert’, and on what prerequisites it is based, is an open question. It poses itself in different ways in different political and economic environments and can be answered only in a differentiated way. The mutual contingency of constitutional order, private property, contract and market, in particular, is of central importance. And once again, the picture on the coin harbours something striking:

Fora, templa, rura: the church stands between the state and the economy. Can and should it influence political and economic powers by linking itself to them? From the liberal point of view the answer is no. The church lives on the collective faith of its members, faith which is based on voluntariness. It has an impact on people who are homines religiosi and on those who as homines religiosi become active in politics and business voluntarily and on a contractual basis. This is an enhancement, not a devaluation of faith, which the liberal differentiation of subsystems prevents from being relativised and compromised by the political idea of coercion and the economic idea of benefit.

The postulate of a differentiation between rather than a separation of politics, economics and ethics is not just a liberal one, incidentally. We also find it in the thinking of Catholic social ethicists such as Oswald Nell-Breuning. State and business should not spend too much “ethical energy” in maintaining their order systems, energy which people need and should use in their social environment… The basic values of the Catholic Church are rooted in faith convictions and are compatible with liberal convictions when the Catholic Church refrains from universally enforcing them via the political system with statutory norms.

Genuine faith can survive only as a freely chosen personal belief, a belief that permits and seeks competition with other beliefs. This is also my personal liberal interpretation of the Great Commission. The ‘glad tidings’ are to be spread across the world to allow the message they bring, in competition with other messages, to permeate among those willing to accept it… Here, it isn’t a question of political competition as to which ethical-religious precepts are to be dogmatised by the democratic route and placed on the statute book. It’s a question of competition between human role models, a competition in ethical practice. Here, you also have to be prepared to suffer short-term defeats in exchange for long-term survival.

The spiritual power of Christian convictions should be immediately recognisable in society and in business by its fruits, and it has to avoid taking the wrong path via the political system and the constraints of binding law.

What survives and develops is not hierarchies and organisations, but convictions. The Polish Church made huge and admirable sacrifices in the struggle against National Socialism and Bolshevik socialism – precisely because it refused to let itself become fully integrated in the state order system. It should also maintain its distance from secular, pluralist democracy.

The realisation and development of basic religious values and convictions requires neither a coalition with the state bureaucracy nor money from the public purse. In the long term, both become a hindrance rather than a help.

What it needs is convinced and convincing believers and an environment in which doubt and scepticism can be freely expressed and practised. Embedded in a spontaneous order system that leaves open the individual and collective search for eternal truth and life’s meaning, any conviction whose ideas and people base is sustainable and future-oriented can survive and grow. In matters of faith, state coercion of any kind should be avoided, not primarily because this impairs the state, but because coercion undermines free will as a basis of faith.

Since Thomas Aquinas we have understood the huge significance of separating knowledge from faith. In the search for truth, we need the liberal spirit of openness; in our choice of conviction, we need the liberal spirit of voluntariness; and as a permanent challenge to succeed, we need the liberal spirit of diversity.

In an environment of ethical relativism and nihilism, a liberal society loses its powers of survival.

Ultimately, openness, diversity and voluntariness are formal principles that should be filled with content and convictions that we have chosen ourselves.

Liberalism doesn’t have a problem with convinced and convincing Catholics if they fully accept the boundaries of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Whether Catholicism has a problem with convinced liberals, I cannot say from a liberal point of view.

I have talked about the various tripartite principles. In the interest of provoking a discussion, I would like to conclude by commenting on another triplet. In former eastern bloc countries I often come across a tendency to search for a ‘third way’ between socialism on the one hand and individualistic capitalism on the other. From this point of view the third way is the ‘Christian-social-liberal way’…

I contrast this seductive model with an alternative. On the left-hand side we have materialistic totalitarianism and on the right dogmatic totalitarianism, which blends knowledge and faith and consolidates them in nationalistic and religious dogmas. Socialists and nationalists are attractive, yet dangerous coalition partners for convinced Christians. They sometimes want similar things, but have different motives and methods.

Liberals are often uncomfortable partners for convinced Christians because they refuse to take the attractive path to good via collective coercion, though they are dependable and safe. Midway between left- and-right-wing totalitarianism stands radical liberalism, with its open, diverse and voluntary-based state order system, which offers room for strong faith-based convictions, including those based in the Catholic faith.

My yardstick when I apply my three liberal principles – openness, diversity and voluntariness – is a sentence by Augustine: in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. “In certain things unity; in doubtful things liberty; in all things love”.

Love of God, love of one’s neighbour and love of self

In the debate between humanist agnostics and convinced Christians (both can be convinced liberals), the question of the relationship between love of one’s neighbour and love of God plays a central role. The agnostic develops an ethics based on the harmony between love of one’s neighbour and love of self, the Christian draws from the love of God the power for the love of one’s neighbour according to the yardstick of love of self.

The illustration on the Gdansk peace coin I referred to earlier contains a clue to this question, too. The two commandments ‘love of one’s neighbour’ and ‘love of God’ are shown as tablets of the law on which rest peace and justice, peace on the love of one’s neighbour and justice on the love of God.

Can there be love of one’s neighbour by the yardstick of love of self without love of God? Can a Christian accept that God’s spirit of love can take effect in people who don’t know God or reject Him? Can a Christian foster a community with non Christians on the basis of the ‘second last’ of peaceful cooperation, which combines self-interest and sympathy, or is it his first duty to convince and convert his counterpart prior to cooperation? The question poses itself not only for Catholics in Poland, but also for Christians all over the world.

As a liberal I placed the principle of openness in first place, and I put personal openness before conversion. For me the basis of faith is openness for the living God and for engagement which is repeatedly surprising (and rationally not fully comprehensible) and interrupted by periods of doubt. In periods of doubt the Christian is also attached to people of no faith or of other faiths. The ‘openness for God’, for a God who doubtless knows him, but whom he never fully recognises, is also the basis for openness vis-à-vis our fellow man. You most certainly can have a personal conviction and a willingness to believe, yet refrain from describing yourself as ‘orthodox’ and considering your own path to God the universally valid one.

The claims to orthodoxy and universal validity are both the strengths and the weaknesses of Catholicism in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, and its ability to cooperate with those who think differently stands and falls with the prudent handling of these claims.


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