Harvard’s Museum of Natural History was an unlikely place for the Catholic intellectual showdown of the winter. For decades, Catholics have argued over the compatibility of their faith with liberalism, a plastic term that can include thinkers from Machiavelli and Locke to F.A. Hayek and John Rawls. As American society becomes more hostile to traditional Christianity, more Christians have begun to question that compatibility.

So when Adrian Vermeule, the celebrated scholar of the administrative state at Harvard Law School and a recent convert to Catholicism, organized a conference on Christianity and liberalism, it struck a chord. Vermeule’s promotion of the event on Twitter and elsewhere helped, as did the recent controversy over Fr. Romanus Cessario’s review on the Mortara case in First Things. When the number of expected participants grew, the conference moved from Harvard Law to the lecture hall of the Natural History Museum.

Many came into the conference thinking it would be a contest between pro-liberal and anti-liberal Catholics. They guessed which speakers were lined up for each side, and some even proposed that participants bring different buttons or foam fingers to show their allegiance. In truth, the contest was more a joyous reunion of friends. In many respects, this atmosphere was typical of its hosts, the Thomistic Institute, and the “open Thomism” the institute seeks to cultivate. With a few exceptions, most speakers mixed their criticisms of liberalism with a defense of its positive elements, arguing for neither a retreat from the public square nor the creation of a Catholic state. The median tone was more in keeping with John Courtney Murray and Richard John Neuhaus than with their current detractors. Three sessions particularly stood out.

Rémi Brague: Liberalism and the Nature of Liberty

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The esteemed French philosopher Rémi Brague began the conference. Noting that the term liberalism is “dreadfully ambiguous,” Brague avoided the question of how freedom and Christianity are compatible in America. As in previous essays, Brague argued that the idea of liberty is present not only in Greek philosophy, but in the Bible as well; it did not arise out of the blue in the Enlightenment after skipping over centuries of darkness. In the Christian conception, freedom is the end result of the process of liberation brought about by the sacrificial life and death of Christ. As St. Paul puts it, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). The state of spiritual freedom is an end in itself; it is obtained objectively in history and worked out subjectively in the lives of individual persons.

Brague then identified the problem with liberalism not in liberty, per se, but in the “-ism,” the way in which liberty and the desire for it can become disjointed and ideological. This is frequently characterized as an inordinate focus on liberty, making it the highest end above other goods. But St. Paul seems to speak of liberty in the same way. Shall we have to admit that liberalism has its roots in the heart of Christianity?

No, Brague continued, for there is a distinction to be made between ancient and modern conceptions of liberty. In a thinker like Aristotle or Plotinus, all objects in the world desired their own good and used their freedom to pursue it. A stone falls to the place where it was meant to rest, fire rises to its proper place in the air, and human beings naturally desire their own perfection as human beings (despite the effects of sin and evil). This understanding of freedom is common to Christian thinkers as well. Even for modern authors such as Lord Acton, liberty is the highest end because its attainment means security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society and private life. It is not the power of doing what we like, but of doing what we ought.

For many modern thinkers, however, the world is not interwoven with inherent goods. For Spinoza, we do not desire things because they are good; we bestow value and a sense of goodness on things because we desire them. Our will becomes a kind of ontological principle, creating the goodness of things instead of responding to their natural goodness. The highest good becomes the process of liberating the will to make these determinations, instead of the will’s enjoyment of things that are naturally good. Liberty means the ever-expanding process of liberation, instead of serving as that process’s conclusion. It becomes a possibility ever to be realized, not an achievement to be enjoyed. Hobbes, for example, sees life as the perpetual and restless desire for power that ends only in death. For Brague, this explains why “we are indulging at present in some sort of freedom fad,” always looking for new areas of liberation, rights, and categories of beings to be set free.

The Source and Nature of Individual Rights

In many ways, the second day of the conference was a symposium on Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which argues that the liberal order, long taken for granted, has now failed—precisely because it has succeeded. The roots of liberalism’s destruction lie in its premises: specifically, in the way it brackets the question of the good and exalts unlimited autonomy and individual rights in a way foreign to earlier thought. As a remedy, Deneen prescribes more investment on the small, local level in the hopes that a more natural practice of community life might allow a better theory of human nature and community to arise.

To begin the day, Fr. Dominic Legge, the assistant director of the Thomistic Institute, argued that Thomas Aquinas did have a conception of individual rights, albeit one that was different in significant ways from that of Locke and other liberal thinkers. For Aquinas, the concept of justice always refers back to the reasoned order that God has inscribed in the world, which ultimately leads back to himself. Justice results from willing what will rightly order all things according to this design. For Aquinas, a right (ius, in Latin) is a function of justice and law, directed to the common good. Ius shows what an individual is due from others, in a way similar to a liberal conception of rights. But it delineates the freedoms that individuals need in order for the common good to be fulfilled and for them to be directed back to God.

In Legge’s account, the problem lies not in the Enlightenment, but in Ockham and Suarez, who see law as a function of God’s will and command—of individual power—not as a matter of reason—justice and teleological order. Our contemporary liberalism claims that it is neutral with respect to goods and ordering, but in practice this neutrality camouflages a strong commitment to real goods. Aquinas was right: Individual rights claims are necessarily and always a function of some ordering toward a good. The problem we face in our society is not that we have competing rights claims, but that we have radical disagreements about what the good is. The Enlightenment’s goal of excluding strong claims about the good is an impossible goal, for they will be smuggled in and leave us divided over the nature and purpose of human life.

What, then, should we do? First, Legge argued that we should remember that our rights are a function of the places we have in our particular historical order as children of our particular parents, in a particular community, under God. This is not an order we created or constituted by our choices. Pace social contract theory, our rights are not anterior to these relationships, but understood in light of them. Second, we should remember that our rights are not isolated and absolute, but ordered toward the common good. Since a just community composed of free, self-directing citizens is part of the common good, securing the rights of individuals is not an Enlightenment fiction. It is part of society’s ordering toward the common good. Third, we need to direct our public debate away from competing rights claims and toward our deeper disagreements about the common good. This will help us see what truly constitutes a right and how potentially competing rights claims can be ordered to the good of our society.

Catholic Integralism

Adrian Vermeule and Phillip Muñoz, a Notre Dame professor of political science, spoke next. Vermeule’s remarks were adapted from his review of Deneen in American Affairs, arguing that Why Liberalism Failed is “half a masterpiece.” While Vermeule agrees with Deneen’s diagnosis of liberalism and its self-defeating premises, he finds Deneen’s localist prescription insufficient. After all, the thick local communities Deneen advocates can exist only at the sufferance of the thick liberalism he describes—and that liberalism seems to suffer less and less. Rather than retreating, actors who do not share the liberal state’s premises should work to transform it from within, by populating its institutions and seizing opportunities to bring about their own vision through the mechanisms of that state. Then and only then will it be true that the liberal state becomes a victim of its own success.

Thus far Vermeule would seem to be of one mind with many conservative scholars and journalists, who for decades have urged young people to establish beachheads in the academy and other places of power and influence. But Vermeule has a different endgame in mind. He argues that we cannot distinguish today’s liberalism from an older, better version, and that hopes to revive liberalism are simply nostalgic. The only way out is forward. Vermeule’s models for action are biblical figures like Joseph and Mordechai, who act strategically within the bounds of their roles in the administrative state for the good of their communities and for the common good. Where others would only baptize liberalism from within without changing its outward forms, Vermeule advocates “strategic raillement”: Catholics working within the liberal order in order to eventually supersede it altogether with an integrally Catholic state.

Vermeule further underlined this distinction by quoting his fellow integralist, the Catholic lawyer, blogger, and First Things columnist P.J. Smith. According to Smith, neither Vermeule nor a more standard conservative like Ross Douthat wants retreat. But, Smith writes, “at a certain point Douthat says liberalism is itself again. Vermeule says we are well on our way to our goal.” In response to a question afterwards, Vermeule clarified that such a state would exercise coercion over baptized citizens in a manner different from non-baptized citizens. Likewise, Smith writes that there is little “at least at the outset” to concern evangelicals about the integralist vision, since the Catholic confessional state “would not emerge overnight.” Nonetheless, he would be surprised if evangelicals would “cheer Vermeule’s strategy all that enthusiastically.”

A Defense of the Founders

Phillip Muñoz took another tack entirely, arguing that Deneen and his supporters misunderstand the American Founders and their view of liberty. The radical Catholic critique that liberalism separates liberty from the good and conceives of human beings as autonomous unbounded individuals may be correct for some thinkers, but not for the Founders. Rather, the American Founders thought that the natural equality of men was found in the created order of nature, established by God and not our own will.

Their goal was not to deny that humans are relational beings, but to argue that coercive authority should be established on the basis of consent. Jurists like James Wilson saw freedom as made for virtue, not willfulness. Likewise, Alexander Hamilton, in The Farmer Refuted, argued that the natural law sets bounds to natural rights. Liberty is not the emancipation from all restraint but the freedom to pursue excellence. Thus, American liberalism should return to the vision of its founders if it is to succeed.

In the end, the showdown between liberalism and illiberalism was anything but. The conference’s speakers agreed that the liberalism dominant in our society has serious flaws and internal contradictions. None called for Christians to remove themselves from political engagement and focus on localist living. And except for Prof. Vermeule, those who plotted a way forward did so in a way that sought to live within the compromises our liberal order has made, conserving the goods it has given us.

The conference served as a model for charitable examination of present political realities in light of history, theology, and philosophy. Those who see goods to conserve in the liberal order were not marked as sell-outs or ostriches with their heads in the sand. Rather, there was generous, substantive debate over how to understand our times and the most prudent course for American Catholics to take—the sort of thing we will only need more of in the years to come.