To speak of freedom as something more than immunity from coercion, to speak of nature as something other than so many accidental aggregations of malleable matter at our disposal, to speak of truth as something other than pragmatic function, is to place oneself outside the rule of public reason and to risk becoming a stranger to the public square. To undertake this labor, in other words, is to risk becoming what liberal absolutism would make of each of us anyway: a man without a country.
Even so, to see and to think are not without political effect. We have seen that the liberal state cannot really limit itself; its act of self-abnegation is the very act by which it refuses integration into an order of nature or grace that precedes and exceeds it. Only the Church can really limit the state, which is why the existence of the Church is a perennial problem for it. Ultimately, the Church’s limitation of the state depends on our ability to recover a genuine understanding of the Church’s true nature and to regard ourselves not simply as a so-called intermediate association within the state and civil society but as the true whole, the heavenly city, that precedes and transcends them. This contradicts the implicit ecclesiology of liberalism, which recognizes no universality but itself. Knowing only “denominations,” it can acknowledge no truly catholic Christianity. And yet, to see the truth of God and the human person, even through a glass darkly, is already to begin to live in accord with something greater than liberal absolutism. It is already to limit the state in some measure, for it is already to see beyond liberalism’s immanent horizons.
Sustaining this vision will require disciplined reflection, and this labor is daunting enough. Yet it will also require a countercultural way of life, a deep faith in the goodness of God and in the intelligibility of creation, and real hope in the transcendent vantage, beyond our immanent success or failure, opened up by the Resurrection. It will take a great deal of courage and not a little imagination to risk failure, powerlessness, and cultural and political irrelevance—to be, in Pope Francis’s words, a less “worldly” Church—for the sake of the truth.
I have long thought the civic project of American Christianity an implausible enterprise that underestimates the imperial ambition of liberalism’s metaphysical conceits. However, as the civic project of American Christianity and its hopes of providing moral and metaphysical ballast to our liberal polity come to an end, let us not allow liberal absolutism to control our sense of what is possible. Yes, liberalism today refuses to license the conviction that human beings have a natural end, and to speak in this way puts one in violation of the canons of public reason. Yet to live in witness to the truth simply because it is true is already to have exercised religious freedom in its deepest form, a freedom that passeth liberal understanding. It is already to have done something when there is nothing else that can be done. This freedom cannot be taken away; indeed, it often grows in proportion to the attempts to suppress it. But it can be given away, through failures of courage and poverty of thought and imagination. It is this freedom that will be the ground for a new Christian mode of serving the common good in the “post-human” dispensation in which liberalism is all we’re allowed to have in common. Weigel alludes to it, perhaps, when he laments our misunderstanding of freedom, and George gestures toward it more directly when he prophesies the end of Christian comfort. This is the freedom that the truth itself gives and that the Church in our society will increasingly be called to exercise as the revolution overseen by liberal absolutism proceeds along its present course: the freedom to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.
Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.