The Popes and Modern Liberalism

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2005

There has been a great deal of discussion over the past three weeks about the implications for the Catholic Church of the death of Pope John Paul II and the selection of a new Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. The topic is of obvious significance to the world’s one billion or more Roman Catholics, and is also of enormous social and even political importance in many parts of the world, including the United States. The discussion, however, offered more than a window into the future of the largest body of Christians in the world. It also offered a window into the character of modern liberalism.

Those who followed the discourse that developed in the mainstream media could not help but be struck by two observations. (Before proceeding, I should point out that I am not Catholic.) Neither were terribly surprising to those of us who have a close familiarity with the academy, but many other Americans may have witnessed the phenomena for the first time.

First, for all of their public obsession with "diversity," "multiculturalism," and "tolerance," the liberals who populate (and indeed dominate) the mainstream media have little use for tolerance or diversity when it comes to cultural values. The refrain was constant, and served as a not-too-subtle indictment of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Why can’t Catholics simply throw overboard their backward doctrines and join the "modern" (read: liberal) world? Don’t they understand that enlightened people (read: we) will never be able to respect them until they do? No diversity here. No tolerance for a policy that upholds Biblical sexual mores or that does not permit women priests. No concern for the probability that to allow ordination of women would be to endanger the doctrinal position of the Church across the board—for, by definition, the Catholic women most committed to traditional doctrine are not the ones who will want to become priests. No appreciation for the fact that no one is required to join the Catholic Church, or for the possibility that a voluntary association espousing its views might add to the rich fabric of American life. The message was clear: Diversity is fine, as long as it does not interfere with imposing a moral (or perhaps amoral) conformity on the human race by badgering into submission any remaining resistance to the nihilism that now passes for sophistication in elite circles. Those who have seen the American academy up close recognize well this tendency, but the death of John Paul II brought it into sharp relief for the nation at large.

Second, the whole episode exposed the great moral dilemma of modern liberalism, the reason it seems unable to produce heroic figures. Liberals love heroic men, but they dislike it intensely when those men confidently possess a strong moral compass. That is to say, they want most of all to have men of conviction who nevertheless have no convictions. Commentators could hardly say enough about John Paul II’s courageous stand against communism, his bravery when faced with an assassination attempt in 1981, or his steadfast attempts to promote reconciliation with Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and the Orthodox Church. These praises were invariably accompanied by a ubiquitous "but." The "but" always went something like this: But, of course, the Pope was also "controversial" because he refused to trim his sails to accommodate modern sensibilities on issues like homosexuality, the role of women in the church, or abortion. But, of course, the Pope was criticized by many for being "stubborn." But, of course, the Pope had a dark side: he actually dared to assert knowledge of an absolute truth.

But, of course, the problem with all of these "but, of courses" is that it was precisely the Pope’s stubbornness in defense of what he understood to be truth that constituted his courage. Had he not believed in the sanctity of life, in the God-given dignity of the individual soul, in the existence of a moral law that transcends human law or human fashion—had he not believed in these things as truth, rather than purely subjective value judgments—from where would he have summoned his courage? It is a question for which an army of commentators had no answer. In this sense, the media’s treatment of John Paul II parallels their treatment of George W. Bush, who excites the disdain of the left at least partly because his decisiveness is rooted in an uncompromising moral sense that they find at once frightening and incomprehensible.

Diversity without disagreement, heroism without convictions. This is the jumble that remains of post-modernist liberalism in America, and for three weeks in April, it was on full public display.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.