Liberal Church

This kind of fundamentally impotent liberalism has become a dominant mode of thinking in the renewal which is now going on in the Catholic Church, and an awareness of its limitations is therefore all the more urgent for catholics.  On the part of the hierarchy, liberalism takes its usual anti-political form — the form of an appeal not to use political “labels” in reference to the church, an assertion that the church is independent of politics.  The appeal, in other words, is still to a specious disinterestedness, for in capitalist society, as we have seen in our first discussion, to stand still or aloof is to ratify the status quo, and thus, objectively, to support capitalism; this kind of independence is itself a political attitude, in mystified form.  On the part of the progressives, lay and clerical, there appears a great drive towards change and reform, but always within liberal limits, and within, largely, the limits of the church itself; the reformist energy is spent on minor abuses, or on interior matters (ecumenism, liturgical reform, etc.).  Of course a matter like ecumenical reform is never wholly interior, in the sense that it has general consequences in the world; but it, and other topics, have absorbed a great deal of self-consciously “progressive” energies which have often stopped short of seeing the consequences of renewed Christianity as a revolutionised society, except in a vague and ill-defined way.  The inherently self-defeating nature of the liberal position and the anguished sense of failure are perfectly exemplified in the debates on the morality of war: these are either conducted with great energy in the abstract realms of natural law and just war theory, or, as a slight advance on this, in terms of international institutions like the UN or personal protest and “change of heart”.  The point is that all these attitudes completely evade the social issues involved in war, and the necessity of political action within, as well as between, states.  The interrelation of war and a permanent war-economy, and, ultimately, of exploitation, violence, and divisiveness in war and in the structures of capitalism, is frequently missed. (41-42)

Adrian Cunningham and Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left


Fog of Hesitation

Liberal values operate in an area of freedom and leisure, behind the nasty reality of capitalism, and the indirectness of the link — private incomes, investments, privileged education, the old-boy network, university posts — conceals the fact that the liberal, leisured class is dependent on the exclusion from these things of the vast majority of people.  The one thing upon which disinterestedness  cannot play is the economic-exploitative basis of disinterestedness — its own very definite interest, its socially biassed position.  As Robert Frost ironically put it, a real liberal would have to be too liberal to be a liberal.

This is the basic contradiction of liberalism: that its intellectual independence is the product of social exploitation; its disinterestedness is blind to its own nature, and its posture of continual worried introspection is not allowed to probe beyond values to facts.  Because of this contradiction there must always be a “crisis” of liberal culture, for part of the liberal stance is a diffusion of its own values throughout society as a whole, and this is a self-defeating project; the values themselves can only exist within a leisured class.  This is the root of the liberal dilemma from Arnold to the “more means less” school of educational thought; liberal values must reach their limit in a fog of hesitation and self-searching, for to push any further would be to undercut their own basis. (39-40)

Adrian Cunningham and Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left