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On the Table

Pushing and pulling to political extremes

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On the Table April 1, 2013  |  By Tim McCauley
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As the debate unfolds within these pages about conservative or liberal interpretations of our common life, we must be careful not to slide into extremes, in society and in the churches, of libertines and reactionaries. The more the libertines push, the more conservatives will become reactionary, tribal, intolerant and closed—not exactly a recipe for common life. Uncovering some of the philosophical underpinnings of the extremes might assist both sides in conversion to a deeper commitment to our life together.

There should always be common ground between liberals and conservatives. But when liberals become libertines and conservatives, reactionaries, we are in danger of a radical polarization that will make our common life increasingly precarious. Consider one brief example. Last fall, Ontario’s then minister of education, Laurel Broten, announced that under Bill 13, the “anti-bullying law,” the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion could be construed as a form of “bullying” that should not be tolerated. The ramifications of Ms. Broten’s ill-conceived statement are far-reaching, suggesting that the aims of Church and State are irreconcilable opposites and that people must choose sides in far distant corners.

The truth is that there is much common ground between liberals and conservatives, who generally agree on the essentials of classical liberalism: freedom of speech, of the press, of association. But what about abortion on demand, no-fault divorce, gay marriage? Are these examples of positive freedoms or moral libertinism?

A liberal might prefer the current state of affairs to a former “dark age” of 50 years ago, of women overly dependent on men, people trapped in abusive or unhappy marriages, unwanted children, the ostracism of homosexuals etc. A conservative might point out that the dissolution of marriage and family has both social and economic consequences. Is it a mere coincidence that our society is witnessing a sharp increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders that directly affect people’s ability to work and contribute to society? The possible “demographic winter” of population decline and a lack of children in our culture would shrink the labour pool and could contract the economy as well.

When do the freedoms sought by liberals become excessive and unreasonable, and indisputably libertine, to the point of threatening the very cohesion and stability of our society? Should we legalize prostitution and marijuana? Should we continue to expand casinos? Should we allow cross-dressing persons to use the public washroom of their chosen gender? Should we pay for transgenders’ desire to radically redefine their biological identity?

Recalling that ideas have consequences, that unspoken philosophies inform many public and political decisions, it might prove helpful to consider what drives libertines and reactionaries. For many liberals, freedom is interpreted as the autonomy of individual will. A liberal fears the loss of identity through imposed, external authority much as a seedling choked by thorns withers instead of flourishing. As a priest, I have encountered a few “liberal” Catholics with a visceral hostility to any claim of authority. I grew up post-Vatican II, outside the Catholic Church, a curious onlooker at best. But because many “liberal” Catholics report bad experiences of Church in the past, they suspect all authority and can’t seem to grasp how it is possible to both enjoy individual liberty and practice obedience in a hierarchically ordered Church.

A legitimate desire for individual liberty becomes libertine when freedom becomes absolute, detached from love and truth. A libertine seeks his identity and security primarily in the freedom and sovereignty of his own will, a will to power. The libertine can tend to see even human nature as a limit to freedom. The sovereign, shape-shifting self must be able, through radical freedom, to rise above the limits of nature. The self is essentially its own freedom. Accordingly, all commitment is questioned, and even marriage and children can be perceived negatively, as a limit to individual freedom. This stance can degenerate into a rejection of love, of interdependence among human beings. It can end in the hell of solipsism, hardly a pathway to a common life.

For those liberals tempted by the excess of libertinism, we might invite them to reexamine the meaning of freedom. “Man desires love more than freedom,” John Paul II wrote. Perhaps people in our culture would be much happier putting more effort and energy into love, marriage and family rather than evolving ever more sophisticated and superfluous freedoms. The libertine needs a conversion to see the self and human nature not as a limit but as a gift, and a call to love. It is good to be a human being, even though we are creatures with limits.

The opposite of a libertine is a reactionary. We might say that conservatives become reactionary when they seek their identity in a Pharisaical preoccupation with externals. A conservative fears the loss of identity through chaos, erosion and assimilation much as a river without clearly defined borders would simply disappear into a stagnant swamp—the neo-pagan morass of modernity. This fear can drive the reactionary into seeking security in rules and structures that end in a closed system that excludes anything “other.”

Is there a danger in Canadian society of a reactionary response to the excesses of liberalism that we have witnessed in the last 50 years? In society as a whole, I sincerely doubt it, but there are definitely reactionary tendencies that should be noted in the Catholic and Evangelical churches.

I sympathize with the concerns of reactionaries, but I do not share their conclusions. As an “evangelical” Catholic priest, I agree fully with the teachings of the Catholic Church on all the moral issues mentioned. But reactionaries lacking either in common sense or in mercy do not help promote the common good of our society. Biblical fundamentalists who believe the earth was created in six days make Christianity a laughingstock in secular circles, suggesting that faith is irrational and Christianity has no place in reasoned debates in the public square.

I also notice a minor but significant trend in the Catholic Church of “canonical” correctness that smells of the Pharisaism that Jesus so sharply rebuked in the Gospels. It follows all the rules irreproachably, in matters both moral and liturgical, but with a hardened attitude that lacks the warmth ofmercy. It fails to attract people to the truth of Christ, and it despairs of dialogue with secular society, preferring a reversion to tribalism or the Catholic ghetto. This reactionary movement can often spring from a fragile sense of self that is desperate to find safety and security in external structures. The reactionary needs a conversion, not like the libertine—to see the self and human nature as a gift—but to rediscover the call of Jesus to lose oneself in order to find oneself. Security cannot be found ultimately in rules and regulations but only in the gift of self, since human beings are created not in the image of a singular and insular God but in the image of the Holy Trinity, a loving communion of Persons.

The common good depends on this conversion of libertines, yes, but also of reactionaries, since they are usually people of good will, high ideals and energetic commitment. But they have been waylaid by a philosophy of security in isolation, which does not serve them well and also deprives the wider culture of the gifts they might bring were they more open to engaging in dialogue, without compromising their identity.

Is there common ground between libertines and reactionaries? Well, no. Therefore, both conservatives and liberals must guard against drifting into extremes. With a little conversion on both sides, it is still possible for us to join hands across the divide and walk together into a hope-filled future.

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