What will our world look like when this experiment in liberalism comes to an end? I am not asking this hypothetically. The reality is that once-democratic societies around the globe are increasingly eschewing the principles of liberalism in order to support demagogic totalitarian leaders and regimes that channel latent fears and anxieties about the future against the “other.” This is certainly not the first time in history that this has happened, but in an era when these powers have access to nearly real-time data on social behavior and remarkable influence over mass media, one is forced to consider the possibility that this time the shift will be permanent. The fact remains, however, that neither liberalism or totalitarianism is equipped to provide lasting justice. Consequently, the current pandemic is revealing a urgent need to raise our collective consciousness about the other, while at the same time rejecting the statist arguments of the autocrat and the individualist arguments of the libertarian.
As Patrick Deneen argues in his book Why Liberalism Failed, the rules of liberalism’s defeat are written into its own code. What began as only a social agreement regarding behavior and how we relate to one another (“let no one say what another must believe or do”) has become a social agreement regarding beliefs and truth itself (“there are no universal truths governing belief or behavior”). Consider it a bug that can never be programmed out of the system. It is a virus that infects institutions and other systems of belief, ruthlessly gutting them of their own uniqueness while assuming them into its liberal order.
That Catholicism has persisted against this threat of infection is a testament to the grace of God, primarily, but also to the Apostolic Tradition that God upholds through the work of the Holy Spirit. One could cite Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae, which defended religious freedom, as a sort of coup for liberalism, a sign that perhaps we have more in common with liberalism than we think. But no liberal society would ever sign off on the notion that, “The Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself” (14).
Moreover, as Deneen argues, the liberal order eventually (and inevitably) gives way to an authoritarian order, as society imprints upon itself a new set of universal truths, however far from Truth they might be. These “truths” are not merely offered; they are enforced, often aggressively, under the pretext of liberty. And this brings us to today, stuck between various competing systems of “universal truth” that pave the way for a new style of “post-truth” politics that subjugates truth to power.
There is a certain naivety in those who continue to insist that there is room for Catholics within liberal democratic societies. With respect to my fellow contributor, David Lafferty, his recent essay is characteristic of the unfounded optimism of some Catholics regarding the receptivity of liberalism to the message of the Gospel. Christians are exiles in this strange land — in the world but not of the world. We engage authentically with liberalism only to the extent that we work to save it from itself and, through the Gospel of mercy, provide a safe refuge from the stormy seas of relativism and agnosticism.
The coronavirus pandemic is revealing the need for mercy today. It has become apparent, perhaps more than ever before, that our responsibility toward those we have shirked did not simply go away, as if the poor and vulnerable would tolerate being cast aside and left behind. This responsibility has been assumed by the state, which has used it to expand its influence and increase its power. On one hand, there are the arguments of the libertarians, who see “the good” as nothing other than the good of the individual: the right to shop, to go to work, and provide for their families. On the other hand, there is the state, which continues its march to subsume increasingly more of our lives into its system of control, in the name of collective happiness and human flourishing.
In contrast, the Church’s message of mercy teaches that there is no individual flourishing without the flourishing of others, and that in grace-filled ways, we share in both the happiness and the suffering of others. In other words, we can never be truly happy alone, nor can we truly suffer alone. Recently, the Pontifical Academy for Life published a statement on the coronavirus pandemic. It said,
This situation makes more immediately evident what we knew but did not adequately internalize: for better or worse, the consequences of our actions always fall on others as well as on ourselves. There are no individual acts without social consequences. This applies to each individual, and to each community, society and population center.
Mercy ensures that the actions we take are always ordered to the good of the other as well as ourselves, and that we respect the limits and frailties of others while working collectively to overcome them. Mercy does not guarantee a good outcome, but it does orient societies toward the other and establishes processes that bear fruit in time (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 222-225).
At the same time, mercy is fully realized in Christ who is Truth. Truth ensures that the mercy we share with each other is authentic and life-giving, and that it is devoid of selfishness and delusions of grandeur. Adherence to truth frees communities from oppression and those who pervert the Gospel of Mercy for their own benefit. As Pope Benedict wrote in Caritas in Veritate,
Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present. (5)
Truth, to the extent that it has influence in our hearts, orders people and societies to what is inherently good. It reveals the substance of things as well as our individual and collective responsibilities. In truth, the Church has developed important social principles such as subsidiarity and solidarity.
Among Catholics, both on social media and in intellectual circles, we continue squabbling over what the common good means and what it requires us to believe–with arguments rooted in integralism, liberalism, or anything in between. But as ever, reality is greater than ideas, and we must confront the fact that our post-truth politics has no need for Christianity anymore, much less our esoteric debates. Whatever convenient marriage there was between Catholicism and liberalism has come to an end, as well as our power and influence in society. People are dying, the market economy is exacerbating inequality, and more and more people are cast aside in order that the interests of the few are served. I recall the words of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium,
Let us ask the Lord to help us understand the law of love. How good it is to have this law! How much good it does us to love one another, in spite of everything. Yes, in spite of everything! (101)
Mercy must be at the forefront of everything we do because in this post-truth, post-democratic society, the greatest power that we have is to relinquish our pursuit of power. Instead, by washing the feet of others, as Christ did, we will find that we are joined to his Kingdom of Mercy and exercise true divine authority. Granted, this often requires work within our political systems as well as outside them, but especially today, the law of love (not power) must be operative in the hearts of all Christians, so that, in time, God’s kingdom might reign even on Earth.
Image: Jim Linwood Creative Commons. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).