The return of Catholic anti-liberalism

Source: The Week

By Damon Linker

Catholic anti-liberalism is back.

Of course, it never really went away. The norms, practices, and beliefs that prevail and thrive in liberal democracies have never perfectly meshed with the dogma, doctrine, and theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Still, there has been an undeniable rapprochement between the two sides in recent decades — until now.

Back in the mid-19th century, popes furiously denounced liberalism, modernity, democracy, secularization, toleration of religious diversity, the separation of church and state, and even “Americanism.” But by the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the outright hostility to liberal modernity had softened. A reconciliation seemed possible, provided that liberal modernity was recast in broadly Catholic-Christian terms.

Thirteen years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II began his pontificate with the ambition of developing and applying the reconciliationist themes of the council. He and his successor (Benedict XVI) did this over the next 35 years with various papal pronouncements, and above all in a series of encyclicals (teaching documents) that reinterpreted liberalism, democracy, capitalism, and modernity in such a way that they seemed broadly (or at least potentially) harmonious with the church.

The monthly magazine First Things, founded by Richard John Neuhaus in 1990, quickly became the place where John Paul II’s reconciliationist ambitions would be championed and applied to questions of public life in the world’s most powerful democracy. In the pages of the magazine (which I edited for a time in the early 2000s), the pope was routinely described as a liberal, while the encyclicals were interpreted (with varying degrees of persuasiveness) as broad endorsements of the Republican Party’s center-right governing agenda.

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