Anti-Liberal

Read in your language:

Terry Eagleton in Sidecar [h/t: Leonard Benardo]: A well-known member of the British left once discovered to his surprise that several of his socialist friends, including myself, had all attended the same school. We weren’t, however, public schoolboys in flight from our privileged backgrounds; nor was the school the kind of place where you call the teachers Nick and Maggie and are encouraged to have sex on the floor of the assembly hall. It was a Roman Catholic grammar school in Manchester, run by an obscure order of clerics, and like most Catholic schools in Britain its pupils were almost all descendants of Irish working-class immigrants.

There have been a number of prominent Catholics on the British left, most of them what the church would call ‘lapsed’. To be lapsed is less a matter of ceasing to be a Catholic than a particular way of being one – a fairly honorific way, in fact, which includes such luminaries as Graham Greene and Seamus Heaney. The result is that nobody can ever leave the Catholic church; instead, they are simply shuttled from one category to another, rather as a retired Brigadier is still a Brigadier. The political philosopher Raymond Geuss confesses in his latest book, Not Thinking like a Liberal, that his religious upbringing failed to make him even a bad Catholic; yet bad Catholics are what the lapsed really are, often productively so. They can be heretics in the truth, to use John Milton’s phrase. Geuss may not go along with the church on such minor matters as the existence of God, but he insists that none of his fundamental attitudes have changes since his schooldays, which the clerics who taught him would no doubt be delighted to hear. As a staunch anti-liberal, he remains a bad Catholic to the end.

Catholics who become leftists don’t tend to do so simply by way of reaction to a right-wing, deeply authoritarian set up. Nor is it that they are predisposed by their upbringing to left-wing sects which like the church believe themselves to be the sole proprietors of truth, and which have their own secular version of schisms, heresies and even popes. It is rather that you can move from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. To be raised a Catholic is to have no feel for liberal individualism. Catholics are not impressed by the sovereign autonomous subject. In fact, like Geuss, they are far too little impressed by it. They think instead in corporate terms, and are instinctively ill at ease with Protestant inwardness and solitude. The more positive side of ritual observances is that what matters is what you do, not some inner angst or ecstasy. Catholics also hold that human existence is an institutional affair, and is thus inherently social. Nor are they rattled by the idea of doctrine, or even of dogma, which they understand in its original sense as meaning whatever is taught. Reason has its limits; but it is not an inherently corrupt facility, as radical Protestantism claims, and within its constraints one must argue and analyze as precisely as possible. Endless open-mindedness is to be admonished rather than admired. The truth will set you free. The late left-wing theologian Herbert McCabe once told an Anglican bishop that the difference between the two of them on a certain issue was not a matter of emphasis, but that he, McCabe, was right and the bishop was wrong. Or, he added, if he is right, then I am wrong. It is an authentically Catholic note.

To be a Catholic in Britain is to grow up aware that you are a semi-outsider, and thus to be slightly wary of social orthodoxy. An Irish heritage is likely to intensify this sense of exclusion. The Catholic church in this country still has a lively sense of a history of persecution, though more as the object of such bigotry than the subject of it. Some Catholics refer to themselves jocularly as Papists, in the same way that gay men and women may call themselves Queer. All this, too, can shift some of its members leftwards, not least because they will have absorbed at school something of the church’s social teaching. This is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it is scarcely pro-capitalist either. On the contrary, a series of papal encyclicals have denounced the unbridled pursuit of profit and the injustices of class-society. It is probably no accident that Bono and Bob Geldof are both Irish ex-Catholics. They would have heard a good deal about overseas missions to the poor in their most impressionable years. Like socialists, Catholics are internationally-minded. There is a sense in which a Catholic from Canada speaks the same language as one from Korea. More here.

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