The Liberalism of Archbishop Rowan Williams
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  • Charles R. Williams

    The opposite of liberality is miserlinessnot not “austerity” in public expenditure. There is a serious confusion here. The “liberal” Catholic is not truly liberal unless he fasts so that another can eat. By that standard, based on what we know (and this is not a final judgment by any means) Mitt Romney is a far more liberal man than the liberal Catholics Joe Biden and John Kerry.

    So-called liberal religion, in all its forms, makes the fundamental mistake of projecting the struggle between good and evil away from its primary locus in the individual soul towards society.

    Social justice is another matter entirely from the liberality of the individual Christian. Here we have complex pragmatic questions. Much can be said about the politics of Catholic liberals but their preference for a large social welfare state collides with the principle of subsidiarity.

    One cannot be a Marxist or a Randian Objectivist and think with the mind of the Catholic Church but there is a very wide lattitude for varying positions on the social welfare state.

  • Jim.

    “In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to “the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving.” The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much.”

    So how does “the right people” square with “non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity”?

    And how in the world does a book that includes the directive, “He that does not work, neither shall he eat”, particularly as understood through Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents”, support a completely indiscriminate definition of virtuous giving?

  • Luke Lea

    But isn’t there a hint of noblesse oblige in this concept of liberalism — as though great inequalities of wealth are simply assumed? A more just society might require less liberality. Historically there were no just societies of course.

  • Luke Lea

    Hannah Arendt was a naive fool in her youth incidentally. Why she is now looked up to as a font of wisdom nowadays is a little strange. Eichmann in Jerusalem was provocative, I’ll hand you, though hardly the last word. Her other tomes are best (and will be) forgotten.

  • Luke Lea

    “Hannah Arendt is the leading thinker of politics and the humanities in the modern era.”

    Really? Sounds more like the banality of Arendt to me. I hate to be such a curmudgeon but sometimes you have to flag this kind of self-worship.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea-

    Is hospitality any less to be praised in the poor as it is in the rich? I’m surprised you don’t know the story of the Widow’s Mites.

    Incidentally, where did Arendt come into this discussion? Did she make some relevant point you’d like to dispute here?

  • Jim.

    As for “rationalization”…

    Consider a type of computer modelling process called a Kalman Filter. This process takes in data (which may or may not be accurate), compares it to an internal model, and adjusts its internal model based on that data, weighted by how accurate the process judges the data to be.

    The end product of a Kalman Filter without a model isn’t panic; it’s uncertainty, inaccuracy, and incoherence — acting at the whim of the most recent intellectual fad.

    There’s a verse from one of Paul’s letters about no longer being children, swept away by this or that teaching of the world, that would be well remembered here.

    Santayana once claimed that true skeptics would be deeply conservative, as they would not find any new theories to be particularly convincing.

    By the way, the fact that the Archbishop can write a phrase like this raised my opinion of him (and Robinson) several notches: “As she insists, the biblical record is distinctive in that it gives us the tools for its own spiritual and moral critique; it is a story not of triumphant obedience to the law, but of failure and dogged recovery through forgiveness.”

    Regarding “some of the forgotten history of the American Mid-West in its most creative period, the mid-19th century”… I would recommend to anyone who hasn’t come across it to read, “The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel”, and for those who have, read it again…

    This is absolutely “a product of [19th century Midwestern Protestant] legacy, formed by a serious, morally literate, imaginatively bold Protestant culture.”

    A taste:

    “In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.”

    “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”

  • john safranek

    Mead misconstrues McGurn’s piece. Nowhere does McGurn or his bishop imply that social justice is optional for Catholics. What they do claim is that the means to procure it will be based on prudence, not intrinsic principles of right and wrong. The quote that WJM cites from McGurn’s article in no way supports WJM’s claim that for McGurn or Ryan’s bishop, social justice is optional.

  • Thank-you for writing of my beloved Archbishop Rowan in this way. It is a great sadness to me that he is retreating from his Office to a more reclusive life.

  • Eurydice

    I’m sorry, Mr. Berkowitz, I tried to read your essay, but my brain stopped at “the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors” and then went on a search to see what Aristotle had to say about hubris.

    But thanks for the links to the original sources.

  • Boritz

    ***…the biblical record is distinctive in that it gives us the tools for its own spiritual and moral critique; it is a story not of triumphant obedience to the law, but of failure and dogged recovery through forgiveness.***

    This statement is breath-taking in its obsolescence. Since the New Testament The Bible (and the “biblical record”) is a story of one individual’s triumphant obedience to the law without which nobody’s forgiveness would be possible through any amount of dogged effort.

  • Jim.


    Good catch. I went straight from “distinctive in that it give us tools for” to “spiritual and moral critique”. Also, it is not the Bible itself that is “a story not of triumphant obedience to the law, but the failure and dogged recovery through forgiveness”, but the Christian life. And even that perhaps doesn’t give Grace enough credit.

    Thank you for pointing that out.

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