Talk-radio host Michael Savage, who is something of an authority on political labels, said recently that Pope John Paul II “may be the last true liberal.” Like Avery Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus before him, Savage offered that speculation as a compliment.
The fact that it came from a man better known for asserting that “liberalism is a mental disorder” made it all the more poignant.
So what's going on here? Mental illness hardly seems a fair thing to ascribe to a worldview that once fueled the anti-slavery, suffragette, and civil rights movements. The Magna Carta was a liberal document. Saint Thomas More was a liberal. One suspects that Savage knows all that, and you can be sure that the pope does.
What happened, then, to liberalism? How did a once-enlightened ideology become the piñata at a birthday party for conservatives who don't even speak Spanish? And what does the pope remember that many of those who work the phones for pledge drives at public television stations seem to have forgotten?
Most people locate the metamorphosis from classical to modern liberalism in the late sixties, when the ideology originally grounded in human dignity and natural law became a shadow of its former self as a result of hanging around efforts to broaden the definition of victimhood.
The success of the civil rights movement taught advocates for less reputable causes to seek shelter under the same umbrella. When continued failure to persuade a majority of their fellow citizens to vote the way they did on a host of issues made the legislative branch of government a disappointment to various activists, they learned to present their skinned knees and bruised feelings to surrogate parents in judicial robes. The courts, for their part, were happy to kiss the boo-boos and make them all better.
Eventually, judges reading what they said were the tea leaves of intent left to us by the Founding Fathers discovered such previously unknown constitutional “rights” as the right to abortion and the right to curtail the free exercise of religion if it happens in public.
We now expect as much creativity from our judges as we do from our legislators. Yet wise judges remain as rare as Latin names for household pets. Meanwhile, judicial help, however misguided, gives modern liberalism one luxury that classical liberalism never had: the freedom to spend time “wasting away in Margaritaville,” searching for lost shakers of salt, while laws created in its name attempt to remake society along more utopian lines. As a result of this arrangement, the buoys that mark the channel of ethical behavior are increasingly placed there by legal decree rather than by cultural stigma, and the few people alarmed by an increasingly cavalier judiciary are treated like harbor seals even when, like Antonin Scalia, they're judges themselves.
Mark Levin is one of the people barking from a perch on the nearest buoy. The tell-all subtitle of his new book, Men in Black promises a look at “How the Supreme Court is Destroying America.”
With less time to spend on the same thesis, Richard Kirk explains the rise of the judiciary in an article for the “One Republic” web site:
A corollary to this shift in ethical emphasis [from cultural stigma to law] is the tendency to view the Supreme Court as a deus ex machina an institution whose statutory authority keeps things from falling apart while putting its stamp of approval on acts that, absent such endorsement, would generate debilitating pangs of conscience.
Kirk said that in an essay about the amorality of TV lawyers, but his larger point is that legal support for the pursuit of pleasure can drown out the voice of conscience.
What I would add is that there is no better way to shout over the “still small voice” that the Prophet Elijah heard than by insisting on following your heart. Where old-school liberalism was rooted in natural law, its wastrel progeny bounces from one whim to another. When the Supreme Court decides that feelings trump thoughts and sometimes even actions, then faithful Catholic citizens have an especially tough time.
Fortunately, the season of Lent is countercultural in all the right ways. By admitting that we have sinned through our own fault, we consciously abandon the “devil made me do it” excuse that has been a favorite of victim-class thinking since Adam and Eve. By repenting before God, we acknowledge that He exists outside of how we feel about things.
Lent reminds us that there is no future in trying to drive a wedge between “reality-based” policy and “faith-based” policy, because God, the subject of faith, is also the ground of all reality.
A lay Catholic theologian named Mark Price recently showed me another way to affirm this truth. Price drew from John's story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, reminding his audience that the woman had been ostracized by and from her neighbors. After encountering Jesus, however, she left her jar at the well to seek out the very people whom she had been avoiding. The same thing happened to Peter, who abandoned his fishing, and to the Magi, who returned to their country by a different route.
See where this is going? Of course you do: Jesus is so real that meeting Him always forces us to change both our plans and ourselves. When the imperfect meets the perfect, one yields because the other cannot.
Modern liberalism has been slow to recognize that a faith-based life is not a fantasy-based life, but sooner or later, with or without conservative help, it will realize just that and in so doing, recover the greatness it once had. In this as in so many other things, the classically liberal John Paul II points the way. As the pope wrote in The Rapid Development, personal encounter with Jesus “does not leave one indifferent, but stimulates imitation.”
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Patrick O'Hannigan is a technical writer and self-described “paragraph farmer” in California. His commentary has appeared in LewRockwell.com, CanticaNova.com, New Oxford Review, and New Times (San Luis Obispo), among other places.