Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 June 2005

Liberalism, pluralism and secularism

I must say that I am truly flattered by all the attention the pseudonymous Fr. Gassalasca Jape (whose surname I've been pronouncing in my head as "HAHpay") has been giving me. Checking out his blog, The Japery (which I shall not attempt to pronounce!), I see that he has twice commented on something I've written in recent weeks. I am not altogether certain I am worth this much attention, but given that he has thrown down the gauntlet, I suppose I owe him the courtesy of more than just a cursory response. Here goes.

I should begin by correcting a couple of errors in his account of my spiritual pilgrimage. I did not suffer "a narrow escape from fundamentalism while studying at Notre Dame." Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't know where he picked this up, but it doesn't correspond to anything that happened to me at the time. I do not even like the contemporary use of fundamentalism, which has become a general term of opprobrium in the media and the academy. But let that pass.

As for my "Byzantine-rite Calvinist" label, it is no less tongue-in-cheek than his "Fr. Jape" monicker, which may not even belong to a genuine Roman Catholic, much less to a priest, judging from the list of names and bios in the tNP masthead. (Thanks to Jim Rovira for setting me on to this.) The Byzantine part of this is a reference to my paternal roots in the Greek community of Cyprus, as "Fr. Jape" probably already knows if he has investigated me as thoroughly as he appears to have done. I did not choose this tradition; it chose me. As for how an Orthodox Christian ended up in the Reformed tradition, he might ask his colleague, Caleb Stegall (assuming Stegall is not "Jape"), whose parents taught at the institution that educated my father six decades ago. Is any of this a source of confusion for me? Not in the least.

The crux of the disagreement between us would appear to revolve around the respective identities of liberalism, pluralism and secularism. According to Jape, assuming I am reading him correctly, if I claim to favour a political order which refrains from extending official preferences to one religious faith over all others, I am ipso facto in favour of liberalism. If I believe it possible, along with the Center for Public Justice and the Work Research Foundation, to maintain a constitutional framework in which government co-operates with private organizations for public purposes without discriminating on the basis of their undergirding confessional visions, then that makes me simply one more contributor to liberal hegemony in the public square. If I believe that government should not be in the business of educating directly but ought to respect the parents' primary responsibility over their own children's education, that is, if I favour school choice (there's that awful word), then that presumably makes me a liberal. Yet these are among the implications of the principled pluralism of the Center and the WRF, both of which explicitly repudiate liberal individualism. I can do no better than to quote from the Center's website:

The Center’s philosophy of principled pluralism flows directly from its conviction that governments have not been ordained by God for the purpose of separating believers from unbelievers, giving privilege to Christians and the church, or serving the interests of one nation over others. This is a religious conviction that mandates publicly established religious freedom for all. Governments have the high calling to uphold public justice for all people living within their territories. States are not churches or families; public officials are not national theologians or clergy. States are public-legal communities that exist for the protection and enhancement of the common good.

The word "pluralism" in this context means at least three things. First, it means recognizing that the state itself is but one institutional community among others in society. The American republic, as a political community, is part of a diverse social landscape that includes families, businesses, schools and colleges, social-service organizations, and much more. The jurisdiction of American federal and state governments is (or should be) limited to the making, executing, and adjudicating of public laws for everyone who lives under the jurisdiction of those governments. The authority of government is not limitless. Governments may not ignore or displace other kinds of human responsibility in other institutions.

The word "pluralism" also means, therefore, that government should recognize and uphold the diverse organizational structure of civil society. Government should not treat human beings merely as individual citizens; human beings also exist as family members, faith-community members, economically organized employers and employees, and in dozens of other capacities and relationships. "Principled pluralism" means that government is obligated to do justice to society’s nongovernmental organizations and institutions as a matter of principle. This is why the Center for Public Justice is concerned with the order of society and the proper relation of government to the many different kinds of human relationships and organizations in society.

Is all this liberalism? Hardly. It is the peculiarity of the various secular ideologies, including liberalism, that they attempt to flatten out this diversity of communities and responsibilities into a single form. Liberalism's unique role in this is to reduce communities to voluntary contracts among the component individuals. It thus has difficulty accounting for genuine differences among what I would label the pluriformity of human communities and responsibilities. Let's take the somewhat shopworn case of church and state.

The divine mandate of the church — the institutional church as distinct from the corpus Christi, which is manifested throughout the pluriform structures of society — includes among other things the preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments and the exercise of discipline over its members. Church members are bound by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Those who do not make this confession exclude themselves from the ecclesial body. Those who do are subject to its legitimate authority.

Citizenship in the state, however, is not based on a common religious confession, although the religions of the citizens will certainly impact the larger political culture which nourishes the constitutional framework. The state normatively mandates obedience to the laws but not uniformity of religious belief, the encouragement of which lies beyond its mandate as a limited differentiated institution. Government's task is an intrinsically jural one, which is irreducible to the wills of contracting individuals. This is something liberalism cannot bring itself to comprehend. Government properly does public justice, which calls among other things for (1) caring for the commons; (2) protecting the diverse responsibilities of individuals and communities within its territory; and (3) justly adjudicating the interrelations among the same, including possible conflicts. This stands in stark contrast to the liberal individualist account, with its roots in John Locke's political philosophy.

Now here is where matters admittedly get tricky, and this points to one of the practical, if not theoretical, difficulties with the principled pluralist position. What if liberal secularism remains hegemonic and refuses to allow a place for serious Christians, observant Jews, &c., within the public square? What if its followers continue, based on their monopoly of public educational funding, to assume the right to educate everyone's children irrespective of their religious beliefs? What if they continue to assume that basic social institutions can be redefined at will simply by passing a law to that effect? What, in other words, if they refuse to acknowledge the sort of pluriformity recognized by the Center and the WRF, as well as by the tradition of Catholic social teachings? These are the sorts of practical considerations that have had me cautiously and tentatively re-evaluating my previous stance in favour of Canadian unity. As I indicated in the haloscan comments (whose numbering appears to have gone a bit haywire), this is by no means a settled position. It's more of a trial balloon. In fact, I would prefer to be shown to be wrong in this judgement.

I am pleased to hear that there is a glimmer of hope for the church's witness in Québec outside the Montréal region (although the article to which "Fr. Jape" pointed us is by now a dead link; we'll have to take his word for it). But will it be enough to carry the province as a whole? Perhaps we need to say to those new Christians, much as Québec's separatists have told New Brunswick's Acadiens and franco-Manitobans: come to ROC ("Rest of Canada"), find a new home with us and help us to fight the good fight for public justice for all of our fellow citizens, whatever their ultimate beliefs.

My ongoing differences with "Fr. Jape" were anticipated already last year, when I published my tNP article on liberalism. I argued therein for exercising spiritual discernment, while "Jape" argued for obedience, as if these two were somehow opposed principles. I make no argument for the expansion of freedom of choice for its own sake, as anyone who has read my book will readily attest. But in a world filled with competing worldviews and the claims made on their behalf, and where so many have been uprooted from their nurturing traditions, we need to know whom and what to obey. Spiritual discernment necessarily precedes obedience. Otherwise we risk falling prey to the first voice to reach our ears.

In recent weeks I have been in the thick of working on my second book, under the provisional title, We Answer to Another: authority, human personhood and the imago Dei. I will be continuing with this and will thus not be posting as frequently as in the past for the next little while. The subject of my book obviously has relevance to the current dialogue, and I may be posting some of my ideas and findings at various times.

In the meantime it is worth asking "Fr. Jape" the following: If not principled pluralism, then what? What would he prefer? A nonliberal order, to be sure, but what would this look like? Would it mandate a state establishment of Christianity, or even Catholicism? If he really is a Catholic, what does he think of Dignitatis Humanae? Is this a "liberal" document? If he judges it thus, and rejects it accordingly, one might have reason to doubt his claimed obedience to the Roman magisterium which endorses it.

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