Western Liberalism: The Water In Which We Swim

We are honored today to post a thoughtful reflection on “liberalism.”  Personally, I like his essay on it better than mine! 😉

Western Liberalism: The Water in Which We Swim

Dylan Pahman

In effort to offer a nuanced and fairly positive introduction to the Western context in which many Orthodox Christians now live, I offer here a brief look at an intramural, Roman Catholic conversation as a springboard for the question of a liberal, Orthodox engagement with Western liberalism.

In a recent American Conservative column, Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame University highlights “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching”:


On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley ArkesRobert Royal, and — if somewhat quirkier than these others — Peter Lawler.


He continues, a bit later:


On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism. Its main intellectual heroes are the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian David L. Schindler (brilliantly profiled in the pages of TAC by Jeremy Beer). These two figures write in arcane and sometimes impenetrable prose, and their position lacks comparably visible popularizers such as Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel. Its intellectual home—not surprisingly—is the less-accessible journal Communio. An occasional popularizer (though not always in strictly theological terms) has been TAC author Rod Dreher. A number of its sympathizers — less well-known — are theologians, some of whom have published in more popular outlets or accessible books, such as Michael Baxter, William T. Cavanaugh, and John Medaille. Among its rising stars include the theologian C.C. Pecknold of Catholic University and Andrew Haines, who founded its online home, Ethika Politika. From time to time I have been counted among its number.


Thus, he sets up the showdown as a meeting of two conservatisms. He does so after dismissing what he terms “liberal Catholicism,” identifying it with “elite circles of the Democratic Party” and predicting that it “has no future” and “is finished.” The real showdown is not liberal vs. conservative, to him, but conservative vs. radical conservative.

Deneen’s discussion is worth highlighting for Orthodox Christians in the West for a variety of reasons, a few of which I offer here. The people Deneen lists are important Roman Catholic intellectuals who seek to engage contemporary, Western culture from a perspective faithful to their own tradition. They are people from whom Orthodox Christians looking for guidance for how to thoughtfully engage Western culture can find inspiration.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that at least one Orthodox Christian made the list: Rod Dreher. As a contributing editor at Ethika Politika, one might also read the reference to it as including me as well, though it need not be read that way (and should not, given that I am neither Roman Catholic nor a radical conservative).

On the one hand, I think that Deneen offers an interesting introduction to an important discussion with value beyond Roman Catholic intellectual circles. But on the other hand, I don’t find his framing of the question to be helpful.

First of all, his dismissal of the vast majority of Roman Catholics in the United States as nearly irrelevant and doomed to certain disappearance within a generation seems unfair, to say the least. What about all the Roman Catholics who read neither Communio nor First Things but rather America Magazine or Commonweal?

Second, in his effort to avoid a liberal vs. conservative dichotomy, he seems to misrepresent the second group of Roman Catholics. I cannot fault him for this, however, as he is simply following the conventions of American definitions of conservative and liberal, and I do not doubt that he knows this.

That said, George Weigel et al. could be thought of, and often self-identify, as liberals as well. Indeed, one common thread uniting Deneen’s non-radical conservatives is their generally positive engagement with classical liberalism. The common thread for his radicals is their generally negative appraisal of the same.

Liberalism, historically, is a broad intellectual tradition including a large and disparate group of thinkers. The epistemological differences between John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant do not stop them all from being liberals. In economics the range extends from Friedrich Hayek to John Maynard Keynes. In political philosophy, from John Rawls to Robert Nozick. For that matter, both the American and French Revolutions have liberal foundations, though often (and rightly) contrasted.

As Rev. Oliver Herbel recently pointed out in the context of clarifying Red River Orthodox’s “liberal engagement” with the West, a basic definition of the word liberal need not be wedded to American “left” or “right.” Rather, liberalism rests on a fundamental commitment to the reality and value of human liberty and equality, something that, I believe, fits quite well with Orthodox theological anthropology and to which the Orthodox tradition has much to offer.

More to the point, however, liberalism, understood in this broader, historical way, is the water in which we Orthodox swim in the West. I would rather frame the discussion as asking, “Which liberalism (if any)?” Whatever the case, liberalism, in various forms, stands at the foundation of nearly all Western societies and no engagement with Western society can ignore it.

And yet, Western societies are not strictly limited to liberalism either. The West also includes some illiberalisms, which range from French Roman Catholic nationalism to Marxism to the radical conservatism highlighted by Deneen. These minority strains of thought may deserve our attention as well.

One thing, however, is certain: for a responsible, “liberal engagement” with the West from an Orthodox Christian perspective, it will not do to dismiss anything we don’t like as Western and liberal and, therefore, wrong. As Solzhenitsyn put, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” And if that is true, then both East and West, including Western liberalism, have plenty of good and evil to go around.


Dylan Pahman is a research associate at the Acton Institute where he serves as assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a contributing editor at Ethika Politika and a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for Eastern Christian Life and Culture. He writes regularly on Christian spirituality at www.everydayasceticism.com.