University of Notre Dame

Catholic Liberalism and the Liberal Tradition

June 16, 2023

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Kathleen A. Brady*


Criticisms of liberalism are nothing new.  All political traditions have their detractors, and as in the past, today’s critics of liberalism include those on the left and right as well as religious believers and those without religious affiliations.1  However, in very recent years, far-reaching and deepening critiques have been emerging from an unlikely source.  Throughout American history, the nation’s religious communities have been among the strongest defenders of religious freedom as well as other fundamental liberal values such as limited government, democratic institutions, civic equality, and other civil freedoms. Conservative Christians have been no exception.2  With other Americans, they have disagreed about how to understand fundamental liberal commitments and how far to take liberal rights and principles.3  They have also voiced concerns about tendencies within liberalism that have troubled others as well, including narrowly individualistic understandings of human freedom.4  However, until recently, most of the debates about liberalism within America’s conservative Christian communities have been internal to liberalism broadly understood.  They have been about how to understand widely shared liberal values and realize their demands and promise rather than abandon them.5

In very recent years, however, this landscape has changed quickly and dramatically as new strains of deeper criticism have emerged and gained traction within many of America’s conservative Christian communities.  These new strains have moved from internal critiques to challenges to liberalism itself, with some of liberalism’s strongest detractors abandoning liberalism in favor of postliberal or antiliberal visions of the state that reject and even invert liberal values.  For example, among liberalism’s most radical Catholic critics, complaints about insufficient protections for religious freedom and the exclusion of traditional believers from public life have morphed into the advocacy of a confessional state that favors and promotes a specific understanding of religious truth.6  Liberalism’s Christian critics, especially the most radical, remain few in number, but their influence inside and outside the academy has grown as discontents with liberalism have accelerated and spilled over into the rough and tumble of American politics.  Regardless of whether one believes that their influence is dangerous or beneficial or somewhere in between, it is important to engage these critics, and this paper does that.  I begin with an overview of the most common criticisms of liberalism followed by an examination of the merits of these assessments.  I argue that most of these criticisms attack a caricatured version of liberalism or at least versions that not all of liberalism’s defenders share.  However, underlying many Christian critiques of liberalism is a natural longing for the integration of religious and political values.  But integration can be understood in many different ways, and it matters very much what integration looks like.  At this point, I will turn my focus to Catholic integralism, which includes some of liberalism’s strongest critics and most developed visions for a postliberal state.  Where Catholic integralism goes most deeply wrong is in its understanding of the religious authority it purports to rely upon.  However, these flaws invite consideration of what the Catholic Church does say about the relationship between human freedom, truth and political power.  What one encounters in the Church’s social doctrine is a version of liberalism, though one with a much richer and more nuanced understanding of liberal values than more familiar conventional versions.  Indeed, Catholic social teaching also contains insights that can point the way to the renewal and revitalization of the liberal tradition.

©2023 Kathleen A. Brady.  Individuals and nonprofit institutions may reproduce and distribute copies of this Essay in any format at or below cost, for educational purposes, so long as each copy identifies the author, provides a citation to the Notre Dame Law Review, and includes this provision in the copyright notice.

*Senior Fellow and McDonald Distinguished Fellow, Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.  I am deeply grateful to the McDonald Agape Foundation, the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Notre Dame Law School’s Program on Church, State & Society, and the editors of the Notre Dame Law Review for making this Symposium possible.  Many thanks to Steven J. Heyman and the Symposium’s participants for insightful comments and feedback on this Essay.

1For a recent discussion of contemporary critiques of liberalism and their evolution, see Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents (2022).

2For example, the role of evangelical Christian groups in shaping America’s commitment to religious freedom in the Founding era and early American republic has been well-documented.  For a short summary, see John Witte, Jr., Joel A. Nichols & Richard W. Garnett, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment 36–37, 42–46 (5th ed. 2022).

3For example, in recent decades, religious believers with traditional understandings of marriage, family, and human sexuality have sparred with proponents of LGBTQ rights over the scope of religious exemptions from rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Similar fights have also arisen over exemptions from expanding policies to facilitate reproductive choice.  I have discussed both of these conflicts in previous work.  See, e.g., Kathleen A. Brady, The Disappearance of Religion from Debates About Religious Accommodation, 20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1093 (2017); Kathleen A. Brady, Religious Accommodations and Third-Party Harms: Constitutional Values and Limits, 106 Ky. L.J. 717 (2017–18).

4For example, beginning several decades ago, legal scholars from a variety of religious traditions have voiced concern that narrowly individualistic understandings of religious faith overlook the essential role of religious communities in supporting and expressing religious belief and practice.  See, e.g., Carl H. Esbeck, Establishment Clause Limits on Governmental Interference with Religious Organizations, 41 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 347, 350–71, 374 (1984); Frederick Mark Gedicks, Toward a Constitutional Jurisprudence of Religious Group Rights, 1989 Wis. L. Rev. 99, 100, 106–07; Richard W. Garnett, Do Churches Matter?  Towards an Institutional Understanding of the Religion Clauses, 53 Vill. L. Rev. 273, 273–74 (2008).  Related defenses of robust institutional religious freedom have drawn on insights that also began to appear in broader communitarian critiques of liberalism during the 1980s.  See generally Stephen Mulhall & Adam Swift, Liberals and Communitarians (2d ed. 1996).

5Sudden interest in postliberal political visions has surprised even their advocates.  See Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed xi, xxiii (2019) (describing surprise at the widespread interest in ideas that he had been developing for over a decade).  The title of the manifesto Against the Dead Consensus, published in First Things in 2019, captures this dramatic shift.  Against the Dead Consensus, First Things (Mar. 21, 2019), https://‌‌/web-exclusives‌/2019‌/03‌/against-the-dead-consensus [https://‌‌/DNC8-35PZ].

6See discussion infra Part III.