Comparing (and Contrasting) Catholic and Jewish Reactions to the Modern Liberal Order

For traditional Jews and Catholics alike, liberalism has presented parallel but different dangers; so has anti-liberalism.



March 12 2018
About the author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

Nathan Shields’s essay on the misguided review in First Things of a book on the Mortara affair brilliantly places not only the affair itself but also the recent controversy about it in a larger and exceptionally helpful perspective. Others, especially my colleague Kevin Madigan, have amply demonstrated the grave flaws, even from the vantage point of Catholic doctrine, of Father Romanus Cessario’s apparent attempt in his review to justify the seizure of young Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family. For his part, Shields explores our own cultural situation in a way that complicates the discussion and suggests that both a defense of the review’s evident anti-liberalism and a univocal condemnation of it can be misleading.

As Shields shows, the deeper issue beneath both the kidnapping and the latest controversy about it has to do with the foundations of the liberal democratic order that in modern times has increasingly come to dominate the West and much of the rest of the world as well. The difference between this relatively new way of thinking and traditional Catholic teaching can best be seen in their respective views of liberty.

“In liberal thought,” Shields writes, “liberty means primarily freedom to choose, freedom from constraint, freedom from coercion. It is thus morally neutral: since the purpose of the state is, at bottom, to guarantee the liberty of its subjects, the state must remain agnostic regarding competing conceptions of the good life.” In Catholic thinking, by contrast, “liberty is not simply freedom from constraint but a real moral and metaphysical quality, with which we were endowed at our creation but of which we have been deprived by sin.” For that reason, in this latter perspective “to act wickedly is the same thing as to lack liberty; I cannot have the liberty to sin, because liberty and sin are mutually exclusive.”

A second difference has to do with the locus of judgment. Whereas, for a liberal political philosopher like John Stuart Mill, “liberty applies to the individual,” Shields observes, “to the Catholic Church the moral life is inescapably corporate, and no line can be drawn, as Mill wants to draw it, between the good of one person and that of society. The moral harm we do to ourselves is also visited on others.” In other words, the individualism central to the modern liberal project (in its classical version) is at odds with the concern with “collective salvation” typical of Catholic theology. This focus on the collectivity partly explains the recent revival of the political thinking known as “Catholic integralism,” which, Shields points out, “finds in the Papal States its last historical exemplar.” This is important because the kidnapping of little Edgardo took place in Bologna, one of the last Papal States, in 1858—at the very end of the period in which popes held temporal power.


The non-liberal elements in Catholic thinking limned by Shields actually have close parallels in traditional Judaism—closer ones, I think, than many Jews would like to believe. Like most and perhaps all premodern thinking, traditional Judaism prioritizes duties over rights and thus objective obligation over subjective preference. The freedom to choose is real, even indispensable, but it is dangerously abused when we do not choose to fulfill the will of God.

One talmudic sage made this point by playing on the word in rabbinic Hebrew for “freedom” (ḥerut) in the biblical report that the tablets of the Decalogue were “engraved” (ḥarut) with the writing of God Himself: “For only one who is involved in Torah study is free.” Any philosophy that (like liberalism) is “agnostic regarding competing conceptions of the good life,” relegating to private judgment the decision of whether to observe the divine commandments, is thus fraught with danger. It opens the door to transgression.

In traditional Judaism, too, as in the Catholic Church, “the moral life,” to quote Shields again, “is inescapably corporate.” In the classical theology, the Jew takes his or her stand not as a disconnected, autonomous individual but as a member of klal yisra’el, “the community of Israel”: the Jewish people as a collective, trans-historical entity. Hence the oft-noted prominence of the first-person plural pronoun “we” in the traditional liturgy, including liturgies of confession. Here again, any effort to draw a bright line “between the good of one person and that of society” cannot but be misguided.

There are, to be sure, important differences between Roman Catholic and traditional Jewish thinking on these points. In Judaism, to name an obvious difference, there is nothing that corresponds closely to the Vatican and its traditional role in uniquely formulating definitive teaching, or to the Papal States where government was ultimately in the hands of a religious establishment. And, of course, the specific theological claims of the two religious systems vary dramatically and sometimes diametrically.

Perhaps the most salient difference, as Shields’s essay shows, is the status of the “community of Israel” in the eyes of God. Are the Jews God’s beloved and chosen people, or have they surrendered that unparalleled role to the Church? Inextricably associated with this question is another momentous one: is the Torah still in effect, or has it been superseded by the gospel? To outsiders, these may seem like petty details; but to believing, practicing Jews and Christians, this is a case where the familiar adage is surely apt: God is in the details.


Confronted with the modern political and social arrangement that, following Shields, we can call liberalism, Roman Catholics and Jews alike have manifested a broad range of responses. In the Catholic case, what comes immediately to mind is the Syllabus of Errors issued in 1864 by Pius IX, the pope involved in the Mortara affair. As Shields points out, it condemned outright such mainstays of the liberal order as “political liberalism, religious pluralism, and the separation of church and state.” But the controversies continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and now echo in Cessario’s review and the responses it has evoked. Whereas some have reasonably thought that the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) resolved these issues and did so mostly on the side of the new, liberal dispensation and against the thinking underlying the Syllabus, it is now clear that the issues are much more complex and not likely to disappear any time soon.

Socially, however, as opposed to doctrinally, it would surely seem that liberalism has won, at least for now—as indicated by the widespread and oft-remarked violation of Church teaching (concerning, for example, artificial birth control) on the part of Catholic populations. Very much in view today are the medium-term effects of what Shields calls “the vertiginous pace of the Church’s demographic implosion by the late 1960s.”

In the Jewish case, similarly, large numbers of erstwhile traditionalists, eager to accept their new enfranchisement in the post-Enlightenment, post-Emancipation West, became westernized culturally and, in many cases, geographically as well. The burgeoning of a middle class gave Jews a new social address, simultaneously calling into question the social and religious arrangements that characterized their older, intensely discriminatory premodern situation. Here again, Jewish responses were many and diverse, ranging from outright assimilation into Gentile society to a robust reaffirmation of rabbinic authority, with many other creative attempts to reformulate Judaism in the picture as well. Overall, though, and interesting countertrends notwithstanding, one would have to acknowledge that in modern times the decline of religious observance, along with the corollary increase in intermarriage, has proven to be characteristic of Judaism everywhere in the West.

The liberal arrangement not only provided the opportunity for material advancement; it also proved empowering for anyone who in the premodern world had felt constricted and marginalized—or, worse, physically endangered—as Jews obviously did. The choice of how to be religious, if at all, now lay to a much greater degree with the individual: religion became a matter of private choice. The mediating institutions of papal, episcopal, rabbinical, or other clerical authority lost power to the state, which in turn became increasingly neutral on questions of religion, de jure or de facto.

To be sure, actual social practice often contradicted this lofty ideal. And prejudice, sometimes murderous, survived and sometimes throve even in supposedly advanced Western countries. But, over the centuries, the “freedom to choose, freedom from constraint, freedom from coercion” that Shields rightly associates with liberalism has won the day in democratic societies.


And yet, no sooner had the new order come into power than anxieties about it were voiced—and voiced, notably, not only by reactionaries longing for a romanticized ancien régime. In the American case, our first two presidents, writing in the aftermath of the savagely anti-clerical and anti-religious French Revolution, cautioned against the perception that the new republic could survive without a religious grounding. In his celebrated farewell address, George Washington (no theocrat, he) thus warned:

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington’s successor, John Adams, delivered a similar admonition. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” he wrote. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In both cases, the underlying anxiety derives from the conviction that a democratic republic presupposes a citizenry composed of individuals restrained by virtuous character—which, on its own, the state cannot inculcate. That being so, a societal order that sets the individual’s freedom so high depends, paradoxically, on habits of the heart that are more primal, more communal, more tradition-based, and more given and less chosen than liberty in the modern mode suggests. For even as the liberal order expands the role of personal choice dramatically, it gives little or no guidance on what should be chosen and what should not or, for that matter, about the highest reality in reference to which such decisions can be made.

Compared with the early republic, the state in America today is vastly larger and more pervasive, and the mediating institutions (the bodies that stand between the state and the individual) correspondingly weaker. And this brings us to one of the most astute observations in Shields’s article. Differing with the social theorist Max Weber’s notion of the “‘disenchantment of the world,’ that slow, fitful, uneven process by which God and the gods came to be banished from the cosmos, leaving us a universe empty save for our selves,’” Shields sides with Weber’s critics. “A disenchanted cosmos never remains disenchanted,” he writes; “it must be filled up again with new gods.”

This strikes me as especially the case with religious institutions in what Shields refers to as “the increasingly post-Christian West.” One result of the growth of the secular state is that many religious communities have, wittingly or not, jettisoned their own internal moral compass and become overtly politicized, viewing political activism as a principal or even the principal implementation of their community’s theology.

Often, however, and especially in the realm of sexual ethics (to which Shields draws attention), it is extremely difficult to reconcile the foundational texts and traditions of religious bodies with their present-day social activism. Instead, personal choice is treated as the sovereign and inviolable reality before which all religious norms must yield. Nor do the ironies stop there. To invert Adams on the Constitutions’s being suitable only for a people already “moral and religious,” the populace itself becomes a moral and religious people through its allegiance to the supremacy of personal choice—now taken, at least in progressivist circles, to be the guiding principle of the U.S. Constitution.

When this happens, the high regard for the realm of private judgment that was characteristic of classical liberalism collapses. Now all associations, not just governmental ones, must conform to the progressivist assumptions. With the latter as the new gods, those who dare invoke the old morality cannot but become the new sinners. Thus do erstwhile liberal organizations, such as colleges and universities, move a step or two closer to what historians of the High Middle Ages call “persecuting societies.” For all the sanctimonious prattle about “diversity,” dissenters in such institutions, as articles in the press now regularly report, have become increasingly vulnerable.


Given this turn of events, it comes as no surprise that, as Shields puts it, “A kind of anti-liberalism has therefore become a defining political impulse of the current moment, common in various centers of opinion across the left-right spectrum but taken up with particular fervor by some Catholic intellectuals.”

In the United States, and on the rightward side of the spectrum, First Things, the magazine in which Cessario’s review appeared, is in some ways a premier locus of that new turn. Still, as one who has subscribed to and regularly read the magazine since it began in 1990, I would not feel comfortable characterizing it as “anti-liberal” overall, though some of its articles over the years can fairly be categorized as such. Certainly, if anti-liberalism correlates with anti-Semitism, as it often does, then one would have to wonder why First Things has published a fair number of pieces by Jewish authors and on Jewish subjects and, more pointedly, why the current editor, R. R. Reno, initiated a regular column by an Orthodox rabbi, Shalom Carmy.

Needless to say, one would not have found such authors in Civiltà Cattolica, the (then) intensely anti-Semitic Jesuit publication to which Shields refers in connection with the Mortara affair. In carrying these Judaism-focused articles, First Things clearly reflects and benefits from the modern liberal order, whatever abuses and wrongheadedness the editors may otherwise find in that order, rightly or wrongly. It is also worthy of note that as a predominately Catholic voice in a country in which Catholics are a minority (and conservative Catholics a smaller minority), the magazine’s ability to long for a pre-Enlightenment arrangement, in which states established particular religions, is inherently restricted, whatever literary gestures to the contrary it may make.

My sense is that, rather than being generally anti-liberal or anti-Semitic, First Things seeks to marshal a broad array of religious traditionalists to provide an intellectually credible counterstatement to the increasingly dominant progressivist moral and philosophical vision. But precisely here a huge problem arises: the religious traditions do not speak with one voice, at least not on theological matters. In their classical articulations, they are all, to one degree or another, averse to the new progressivism; but their own theological visions and ethical ideals (though the latter to a lesser extent) are different in important ways.

And so, when Shields astutely notices that Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, combined “philo-Semitism . . . with a curious defensiveness on the subject of Christian anti-Judaism, which his successors at First Things have inherited,” the reason, I think, is that nothing would faster destroy the convenient illusion that Judaism and Christianity speak with one voice than openly and honestly acknowledging the long and bloody history of Christian anti-Judaism and its deep roots in Christian scripture and tradition.

Given that, as Shields goes on to observe, “almost every significant study of the subject [of Christian anti-Judaism] written in the past twenty years (including [David] Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews, David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, and Jeremy Cohen’s Christ-Killers) has been savaged in the pages [of First Things],” it is not so surprising that the same blind spot would surface again in the decision to publish Cessario’s review. But here I think another factor is at work as well—namely, a certain resistance, common among religious traditionalists of various sorts, to acknowledging the historical fact that substantive change has taken place in their traditions.

In this instance, the key change is that, on the subject of the Jews, the Roman Catholic Church has dramatically reversed itself over the past half-century or so, not only narrowing markedly the scope of the supersessionist theology that underlay the old anti-Judaism and the violence against the Jews that, willy-nilly, it encouraged, but also speaking positively about the Torah, the chosenness of Israel, and even about the ongoing Jewish messianic expectation—all of which would have been inconceivable in the pontificate of Pius IX. To many Catholic conservatives, it is more convenient either to ignore the existence of the new reality or to see the documents authorizing it as nothing more than restatements of the old teaching in a new situation or as a smooth, organic development out of the older position.

Such unrealistic attitudes, unfortunately, keep the door open to the old thinking, now renounced. It is dangerous to be more Catholic than the pope.

One simple response to the Cessario review would be to uphold it as normative Roman Catholic theology. But, as Kevin Madigan in particular has shown, it is not that. Another response, almost as simple, would be to condemn it as illiberal and, in the manner of the contemporary cultural left, to stress the hurt it inflicts on Jews—as if its offensiveness were proof of its error. The more satisfactory approach is the one that, following Nathan Shields, acknowledges the vulnerabilities and self-defeating character of theological liberalism (and, in my view, other versions of liberalism as well) but also the contradictions and blind spots of the anti-liberal movement. For both Jews and Catholics, dangers come from both of these directions, but they are dangers that can be overcome.

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