In our last post we had a little political discussion describing what economist and conservative intellectual Thomas Sowell has described as the two “visions” that animate a liberal versus a conservative approach to politics. These are the “unconstrained vision”, which tends to see most social problems as a result of inadequate social structures. Man is inherently good. This leads those with the unconstrained vision to want to correct the social structures. More importantly human nature is not a fixed given; it is not just good but malleable and thus perfectible. The “perfecting” can be done by benevolent policy makers. Government then is the tool to remake society and even individuals aided by input from “experts”.
Conservatives share what is best described as the “constrained vision”, which sees government as a necessary but dangerous tool, and thus seeks to limit the range and scope of governmental power. It views social problems as more amenable to solutions by non governmental entities, social and civic groups, and private individuals. Human nature is fixed and flawed (“fallen” one might say…) and therefore inherently limited. While science and technology have their role in improving the human condition, it is always with a view to the trade offs and limitations of technological solutions. The trade offs are inherent to the human condition. The motto of those who hold the constrained vision is that power corrupts, allied to the belief that there is no free lunch.
This post will look at how these visions might be reflected in one’s approach to religion, and particularly Catholicism.
Before we do this however, it would be useful to remember what we mean by a “vision”. A vision is more or less a bias. It is not necessarily true or false since as a tendency it can be neither until it is applied to a given set of facts. It is a basic approach or framework a given individual acquires and through which they tend to view the world. There are times when large governmental actions might be useful; a good example might be President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative which supplied African countries with life saving anti-retroviral drugs. On the other hand as mentioned previously the unconstrained vision tends to ultimately lend itself to hubris. Those who think themselves particularly enlightened might enact policies and embark on massive interventions without fully realizing the secondary harms that might occur. Again we come to President Bush’s policies and the initiation of the Iraq war, which arguably has resulted in turning Saddam Hussein’s brutal authoritarian dictatorship into an Islamic state that is a client of Iran. Not necessarily a good outcome. Many would say the entire enterprise was filled with the hubris of thinking one could remake a country that has never known Western institutions into an American style democracy. In any case, I note in passing that President Bush in his big initiatives shows evidence of holding the “unconstrained vision”. He is certainly not a “conservative” in his approach to government. Perhaps he is one relative to the current resident of the White House… but I digress. The point is the bias can result in different outcomes depending on how it is applied. As will become clear however I view the unconstrained vision as ultimately more dangerous, but let us see why…
What does the unconstrained vision mean in terms of religious belief in general and Catholicism in particular? A plausible theory would be that someone with the “unconstrained vision” favors a view that humanity is very exalted; it is after all “unconstrained”, without intrinsic limits. Since human nature is without limits it is not a fixed “given”. It stands to reason the religious beliefs suitable for man must change as well, as his nature is perfected. He might outgrow more primitive religious beliefs in favor of more enlightened and scientific ones. One might imagine that religious truth then is quite dependent on man’s subjective experience, rather than imposed from outside him in the form of a Church with fixed and formal dogmas. Since mankind is destined to progress, there is a focus on human achievement. In that case technical experts are really the seat of wisdom, that theologians and biblical scholars with “scientific training” in the historical critical method of scriptural analysis are the road to truth rather than someone who might be the custodian of revealed truth such as a Bishop or Pope. One might also tend to the view that since human beings are inherently good; the natural trend in history would be toward greater wisdom. In fact one might think this is supported by the advances in science and technology. As such, newer philosophic ideas would be sounder than older ones. We already know that people with the unconstrained view tend to favor the power of government as something oriented toward fixing the flaws in society; as such they tend to favor more expansionist government. Historically the Church was in opposition to the power of the state. This kind of constraint might seem particularly inappropriate to someone with the unconstrained vision, the Church and State must be completely separate, not in the sense that individuals must have freedom of conscience, but in a more fundamental sense. Values that might be seen as “religious” are ultimately divisive and the state should be neutral to them, or better yet reject them in favor of more “rationally” determined values. In fact on some level they can divide individuals so even religion should not obsess over specific values that generate specific moral rules. Rather we should be united in love and brotherhood. ( Although it is rather vague as to what this union looks like in the absence of specific moral rules.)
Now what does this unconstrained ” vision” sound like? Is there any particular unifying historical phenomena that it resembles?
The answer of course is modernism. Space does not allow a full exposition of modernism, but a piece by the Neo- Thomistic philosopher Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P. which discusses modernism, makes the connection pretty clear. It can be read here .
Just as modernism favors a view towards agnosticism or even atheism in its fullest manifestations, so does the unconstrained vision, Just as the left likes a large unlimited state, so the modernist does not like constraints on the state applied by the Church. Just as the political left tends to see government by technical experts as the ideal, so modernists believe that science should never be limited by something outside itself. It tends to religious indifferentism seeing religion at some level as a subjective truth, and to obsess over differences in subjective experience is wrong, even tyrannical. It sees mankind as inherently good and thus the need for a savior is less clear. Christ did not die to redeem us from sin but to share in our humanity, and in a more vague sense become our brother. So at the end of the day the liberal vision or unconstrained vision lends itself to the modernist heresy. In and of itself it is not necessarily heretical, but it is a bias that can lead one to heresy.
What of the constrained vision? Its primary feature is that mankind is inherently flawed, and some problems we will always have. In theology then it is quite in keeping with the idea that there is original sin, and we need a remedy for original sin, a savior a Church that mediates grace via sacrements, etc. In the constrained vision power is dangerous and it would be ideal then if dispersed among many individuals. This can best be done if more power is in the hands of local, more immediate institutions, and if government is cautious to avoid overreaching and encourages the function of these” little platoons of society” as described by Edmund Burke. In fact this is very similar to the principle of subsidiarity as described by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. As a matter of fact the whole encyclical might suggest someone with the “constrained vision, as indicated by Pope Leo XIII’s statement that:
………. the other pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must accompany man so long as life lasts. To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If any there are who pretend differently – who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment – they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as we have said, for the solace to its troubles.
The entire encyclical can be read here .
So the point is if someone is a “liberal” they will typically show evidence of sharing the unconstrained vision. There are strains of the unconstrained vision in the documents of Vatican II. Let’s take a little piece out of Gaudium et Spes shall we ?
“This scientific spirit has a new kind of impact on the cultural sphere and on modes of thought. Technology is now transforming the face of the earth, and is already trying to master outer space. To a certain extent, the human intellect is also broadening its dominion over time: over the past by means of historical knowledge; over the future, by the art of projecting and by planning.
Advances in biology, psychology, and the social sciences not only bring men hope of improved self-knowledge; in conjunction with technical methods, they are helping men exert direct influence on the life of social groups.
At the same time, the human race is giving steadily-increasing thought to forecasting and regulating its own population growth. History itself speeds along on so rapid a course that an individual person can scarcely keep abreast of it. The destiny of the human community has become all of a piece, where once the various groups of men had a kind of private history of their own.
Thus, the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems, a series as numerous as can be, calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis.”
I don’t know, it sounds a little “unconstrained” don’t you think? I would argue that some of the texts are influenced by theologians who had a little bit of a modernist sympathy. This does not mean that Vatican II is a modernist heresy! As we have pointed out earlier a Church council cannot be heretical. Still a council can have passages that are ambiguous, or if a statement is peripheral to its central teaching that particular statement can even be wrong. Clearly Vatican II is unique in that it is the only council in church history which was followed by such a complete implosion of Catholic practice and belief. (I challenge the reader to demonstrate something similar with another council.) One must ask what about Vatican II was different.
So we now arrive at my central point, the terms liberal and conservative as commonly used by commentators have limited use when used to describe religious belief on a superficial level. One might, as a Catholic favor higher or lower marginal tax rates or “bigger or smaller” government and still believe everything the Catholic Church teaches, and thus not be a heretic, and be a very devout holy individual either way. In fact I think the vast majority of individuals do not have an explicit political philosophy, the react to political issues in an ad hoc manner, often not encumbered with either a command of the relevant facts or an underlying political philosophy. They do not really have a political or religious “vision”. In that sense the average Catholic in the pew next to you may be neither consistently “liberal” or “conservative”. If they are one or the other, chances are they could not give a coherent explanation as to why.
Ah… but there are those who do have a very consistent vision, and their allegiance to their vision tends to drive the culture. Within the Church they have driven many of the changes post Vatican II and the rejection of much of the Church’s patrimony. They are the group now cheering the idea that Pope Francis will finally usher them into a new period of dominance. These individual are better characterized as modernists, to separate them from mere political liberals. Still I would bet their secular politics is pretty liberal, because the modernist heresy and political liberalism stem ultimately from a deeper underlying vision. This is not really a vision about government at all. In reality it is a vision about man. It exists uneasily with religion however, since ultimately modernism tends to agnosticism, and political liberalism becomes ever more statist and utopian it becomes more tyrannical, until ultimately it becomes what Whittaker Chambers called the oldest sin of pride, a vision of man without God. As he puts it
It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world”
It is interesting that Blessed John Paul II was deeply concerned about a proper theology of “man” as he viewed a proper anthropology as the necessary solution to our current crisis. Indeed much of his writings such as his seminal philosophical work “the Acting Person”, his “theology of the body”, and so forth, focus on articulating a specifically Christian vision of man. One wonders if this was because like Whittaker Chambers, he observed the “unconstrained vision” in its full manifestation, having lived under communism, and saw clearly that the root of this path to tyranny is this intrinsically flawed conception of mankind.
Seen in this fashion, it should be obvious that Pope Francis is not a liberal in the classic sense and would not be terribly sympathetic to a modernist interpretation of the world. For God’s sake the man believes in the devil! What self respecting modernist says he believes in a literal devil? Still at times the he surely seems to make sound “liberal”. More in our last post on this topic, but in the meantime let’s ask once again ask that saintly foe of modernism for his prayers: