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Seeing the Forest

October 3, 2019 (773 words)

There’s nothing better than a good epiphany. And one of the best I’ve had in recent years occurred to me in December 2013.

It came via the unexpected backlash to Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the apostolic exhortation that had just been issued by Pope Francis the previous month, from the conservative Catholic intelligentsia in this country.

Their objections centered on a mere 9 paragraphs of insightful economic commentary, located early in a most comprehensive 288-paragraph papal document.

And the noise they made represented an about-face on their part. When Francis was elevated to the papacy in March 2013, conservative opinion-makers were generally enamored of the humble Argentinian Archbishop who rode the bus with common folk in Buenos Aires, and lived in a modest apartment there.

But once this seemingly gentle, easy-going old man – a Jesuit who graduated secondary school with a chemical technician’s diploma, and worked as a bouncer and janitor sweeping floors before entering the seminary – turned a wary eye on the unfettered capitalism practiced throughout the West, and perfected here in the States, the gloves came off.

It was the journalist Kevin Williamson, then writing for National Review Online, who was single-handedly responsible for my special ah-ha moment. His scathing piece took Francis to task for resurrecting “ancient Catholic criticisms of market liberalism.”


having not the slightest clue…


I had absolutely no idea what Mr. Williamson was talking about. Up to that point I assumed liberalism was the work of liberals, and formed the opposite of what conservatives would do. But “market liberalism” – what on earth was that, and how long had the Church been critical of it?

To learn more, I did what any red-blooded baby-boomer hopelessly lacking in tech savvy would do – I went on the internet and did a Google search, of course.

One of the results that popped up came from the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, and featured a long essay on “classical liberalism.” It proved to be a veritable master class in the cultural anthropology of the last 500 years

This DIY crash course has helped me see how classical liberalism has defined the modern era, in the sense that today’s liberals and conservatives are both, in their own way, exemplars of the broad ideology known as classical liberalism.

That ideology is defined by its insistence on the emancipation of the individual in every field of human endeavor, from any and all authority, law, or tradition.

Applying this knowledge to the everyday squabbles that characterize our public discourse has freed me from the liberal/conservative dialectic that traps most every prominent commentator – on both the left and right – that one can name.

So to Kevin Williamson – wherever you are – I am forever in your debt, sir.

By way of a thumbnail sketch, “classical liberalism” came to prominence some 500 years ago, and gradually replaced Christianity (aka, Catholicism) as the preferred operating system for Western society.


the reason everybody takes issue with the Catholic Church…


This is why both liberals and conservatives take issue with the Catholic Church. They do so for different reasons, of course, because they each practice their own unique version of classical liberalism.

Observant Catholics who identify as conservative politically may be surprised to learn it was “conservatives” who were actually the original “classical liberals.” The full emancipation of the individual from authority, law, and tradition first expressed itself in the realm of economic behavior.

These folks believed in the pursuit of their own material advancement, to the exclusion of any consideration for the common good. A few centuries into the program, when it came time for a hardy band of colonists to break away from Protestant England, our Enlightenment founders cleverly codified this preference as an individual “pursuit of happiness.”

To sum up, then, what the journalist Kevin Williamson described as “market liberalism” in December 2013 is just the conservative version of “classical liberalism.” And yes, the Catholic Church has steadfastly maintained its criticism , regardless of the label being applied at any given point in time.

And note “steadfastly” is the operative word in that last sentence. Pope Francis did not say anything new in his November 2013 exhortation, nor has he said anything new since. He is merely echoing the thought and teaching of his predecessors on this subject.

Francis does, however, use language that makes it harder for the conservative Catholic intelligentsia to “spin” Church teaching on economic matters beyond all recognition. A project they have been artfully executing since at least the Reagan administration.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
October 3, 2019

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