The Perils of Catholic Postliberalism

Catholic postliberalism fails to adequately analyze the relationship between capitalism and liberalism, leading to an ahistorical, reactionary, and ultimately repressive vision of political order.

RIGHT-WING Catholicism has always had a tempestuous relationship to liberal modernity, from Joseph de Maistre’s condemnation of modern philosophy as an “essentially destructive force,” to Pope Pius X’s condemnation of the errors of modernism, to Pope John Paul II’s vivid lamentation of the “tragedy being experienced by modern man” in the 1995 Evangelium Vitae. Ranging from ambivalence to tactical compromise to outright hostility, conservative Catholics’ basic suspicion of liberalism—and its corollaries of democracy and capitalism—has continued down into the 21st century. Recently, several self-described “postliberal” intellectuals have arisen to oppose both the failures and achievements of liberal modernity, with the most astute amongst them emerging from within conservative Catholic circles. Contemporary Catholic postliberalism is distinct from the theological movement of postliberalism that emerged out of Yale Divinity School in the 1970s, though there can be no doubt that this movement influenced a number of Catholic postliberals.

Despite the catchy neologism, as with many critical movements, it is not readily apparent what exactly this kind of postliberalism is intended to stand for. However, they are crystal clear about what they stand against: liberal and progressive modernity, in all its Luciferian glory. This is not to say that they refuse to recognize liberalism’s virtues, as traditionalists might. What is distinctive about the new Catholic postliberals is their conviction that liberalism is collapsing under the weight of its own accumulated victories—that it has been too successful in its project of emancipation, autonomy, and individualism. Patrick Deneen, a leading intellectual in the movement, states this clearly in his early essay “Unsustainable Liberalism,” published in the flagship journal of conservative Christianity, First Things:

“Liberalism can function only by the constant increase of available and consumable material goods and satisfactions, and thus by constantly expanding humanity’s conquest and mastery of nature. No matter the political program of today’s leaders, more is the incontestable program. No person can aspire to a position of political leadership through a call for limits and self-command. Liberalism was a wager of titanic proportions, a wager that ancient norms of behavior could be abolished in the name of a new form of liberation and that the conquest of nature would supply the fuel that would permit near-infinite choices. The twin outcomes of this effort, the depletion of moral self-command and the depletion of material resources, make inevitable an inquiry into what comes after liberalism.”

In the sections below, I’ll briefly describe some of the main features of postliberalism; discussing what it gets right, and more importantly, what it gets wrong. I’ll close with some analysis of why leftist Christians should be wary of the temptations it poses. Catholic postliberalism has its finger on an important tension within liberalism but fails to adequately analyze the relationship between capitalism and liberalism, leading to an ahistorical, reactionary, and ultimately repressive vision of political order.


What is Catholic Postliberalism?

Catholic postliberalism is difficult to define, in no small part because there is little constructive agreement between those who claim the label. Some, like Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, argue for the direct replacement of the basic fundamentals of the liberal state through a kind of reactionary Catholic integralism. Vermeule argues for a “common good constitutionalism,” which openly advances conservative Christian principles through law and is even willing to abandon right-wing commonplaces like constitutional originalism to usher in a political order in which the state is subordinated to the (Roman Catholic) church. Others, like Deneen, are more reluctant to embrace this wholesale integralism and instead take a more Tocquevillian line, waxing nostalgically about the lost goods of local government and communitarian solidarity while inveighing against the twin evils of individualism and statism.

Meanwhile, culture warriors like Sohrab Ahmari demand with a convert’s zeal that conservatives “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” By contrast, the late and self-described “post-modern conservative” Peter Lawler adopted the more genteel position that the alienation of liberal hyper-modernity would eventually lead (especially young) people away from liberalism’s expressivism−where life is about recreating reality according to our subjective wills−and back to Thomistic realism. Some postliberals are overtly ethnonationalist, like the Fidesz movement in authoritarian Hungary, a point which has become controversial for figures who schmooze with Victor Orban. Often, postliberals’ justify their congress with racist, authoritarian leaders in strategic terms: while these leaders may be distasteful, they demonstrate an admirable willingness to wield state power against liberal norms. Others who are sympathetic to postliberalism worry that its nationalist tendency conflicts with Christian respect for the human dignity of all.

This may seem like a grab-bag of positions with little in common beyond a shared object of visceral disdain and indeed, postliberalism is better understood by what it opposes than what it stands for. Ahmari’s latest book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in An Age of Chaos has plenty say about the lost virtues of ancient wisdom and plenty of insults to hurl at liberalism, but precious little else. On the specificities of what is to replace moribund liberalism, he is mum. In other words, postliberals often oppose liberal modernity by appealing to the past for inspiration in attacking it. However, they are determined to avoid being reactionaries who want to turn back the clock to some pre-liberal utopia (that never truly was). Contemporary Catholic postliberalism insists that liberal modernity has accomplished important reforms that need to be retained in and through a religious overcoming of liberalism’s metaphysical distortions and inherent immoralism.


What Postliberals Oppose

If postliberals cannot agree on the lineaments of a future “after liberalism,” neither is there much agreement on which of liberalism’s achievements should be maintained, which reformed, and which simply discarded. But there are some canonical targets on which postliberal intellectuals relentlessly focus their attack.

First, there is broad agreement that liberal modernity depends on a false metaphysics. As one might expect from a largely Catholic assembly, postliberals tend to adopt a broadly Thomistic metaphysics, often drawing heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre and conservative Catholic popes like Pope Benedict XVI. They usually advance a theologically loaded essentialist “realism”, seeing each created object as having an intrinsic nature with unique features that can be ascribed to it. This essentialist realism is foundational to their critique of modern metaphysics, which is variably traced back to Francis Bacon, John Locke, a late medieval theologian, or some other proto-modern boogeyman. For postliberals, what defines modern metaphysics is its skepticism of realism in favor of a rationalist, materialist philosophy, that sees the world as endlessly malleable matter in motion. On this account, nature, society, and morality can be manipulated in an infinite variety of ways. Inevitably, such a philosophy leads to a desacralized world, stripping humanity of theological significance and sundering human nature from action.

One of the most remarkable things about the postliberal critique of modern metaphysics is that it is not actually a critique of metaphysics. No alternative philosophical vision is advanced that unites nature, politics or society, or aspires to the sweep of radical orthodoxy’s philosophical theologyConsequently, there are few purely metaphysical arguments that are remotely like to convince anyone steeped in post-Cartesian rationalism. Rather, the criticisms of postliberals are invariably, even simplistically, moral: because modern metaphysics—as they interpret it—leads to bad outcomes, it should be rejected, and essentialist realism restored to pride of place. But none of this follows metaphysically. Even if it turned out they were right that modern metaphysics led to moral disaster, that would be no reason to reject it metaphysically; it might just turn out we live in a universe that leads to moral disaster. This kind of reasoning from strong conclusions to thinner historicist arguments is very characteristic of postliberalism. The attempt to draw a straight line from complicated, historical developments to the horrors of trans-inclusive bathrooms tells us much about its reactionary orientation. In the end, its coy, snide tone is often a cloak for a lack of deep, reasoned arguments about first philosophical principles.

Second, postliberals contend that liberal anthropology is fundamentally flawed. This is a slightly more convincing critique of liberal thought, particularly when it stresses the problems with “possessive individualism.” Postliberals reject the reduction of human beings to isolated individuals who are motivated primarily by self-interested desire and whose actions can be explained as rational forms of utility maximization. This notion is criticized because it “atomizes” human beings by abstracting them from their social and theological contexts and stripping them of their transcendent meaning. As an antidote to liberal atomization, figures like Ahmari call for an “anthropology of embodiment” or follow Deneen, MacIntyre and John Finnis in interpreting human beings along Thomistic-Aristotelian lines as communitarian animals circumscribed by the “natural” limits of family, tradition and nation.

Leftists can find some agreement with this critique of liberal anthropology. From Marx onwards, leftists have noted how capitalism inevitably upends traditional forms of life and replaces them with an increasingly alienating and hyper-competitive mode of production. The fact that capitalism is remarkably efficient at generating wealth relative to its predecessors can’t disguise its tendency to dissolve stable forms of community and deracinate individuals. While postliberals rarely frame their critiques in terms of radical political economy there is noticeable overlap between their critique of the practical consequences of liberal anthropology and leftist critiques of capitalist alienation. Leftists could also agree with postliberals that the liberal emphasis on self-interest as the primary basis of action is misguided and abstracts us from our embeddedness in thick determinants of material relations and broader culture.

 Nevertheless, many of the postliberal claims about liberal anthropology are themselves derived, often abstractly, from the actual history and praxis of liberal society. It is no coincidence that most postliberals lean almost exclusively on theoretical critiques of the modern subject in early liberal thought. In this respect postliberalism comes close to liberalism’s own preference for idealism, which understands ideas to be the primary source of change and progress in the world, rather than material and social factors. The desolate liberal subjects who are conjured in postliberal literature are drawn exclusively from a one-sided reading of major liberal authors, and little attention is paid to liberalism “on the ground” beyond the typical complaints about the shallowness and alienation of society. To the extent postliberals descend from the abstract to the concrete by moving from an analysis of liberal theory to the actual practices of liberal states, it is typically to rail about how some contemporary development—for instance, social acceptance of gay marriage or legal allowances for transgender individuals—constitutes a perversion of human nature and consequence must be a mere symptom of corruption by liberalism.

Nowhere do these problems become clearer than with postliberals’ lack of interest in political economy. Little thought is given to the possibility that other material factors may be at play in generating a sense of alienation and shallowness, beyond a failure to adopt their moral viewpoint. They never acknowledge that their essentialist vision of human anthropology may simply be wrong or one sided. A more complex alternative is provided by Karl Marx, who followed Hegel in his conception of human nature as a dynamic “ensemble of social relations” rather than static metaphysical category. Certain permanent features of human nature are relatively constant, but they can change dramatically depending on one’s historical epoch and the ideologies and tendencies present within a mode of production. Long ago Marxists pointed out that many of the things postliberals claim to reject—shallowness, alienation, a lack of communal attachment—are the consequences of an economic system that reshapes the world and human cognition in its image. The failure to seriously engage leftist political economy limits postliberalism’s capacity to launch a genuinely novel analysis of human alienation, since it can’t conceive of alienation along anything but moralistic and hyper-idealist lines. Thus, at best their critique of liberal capitalism is peppered with a few angry references to “woke capital” and consumer culture, often on the assumption that liberalism and capitalism are intrinsically linked.

Last, postliberals insists on a social conservative “glue” to overcome the limitations of liberalism. While postliberals disagree widely on the best successor to liberalism, they all agree that it will be bound by a stronger social conservative glue than is currently possible under progressive liberalism, given what they see as the proto-totalitarian tendency of liberal permissiveness. Here, postliberals’ affinity for the political theology of Carl Schmitt becomes clear. Liberalism, the argument goes, claims to be neutral and tolerant, but in fact discriminates against conservative Christians by preventing them from enacting their preferred moral and political policies. Since liberalism is no more tolerant than its competitors, we have no reason to suppose a kind of postliberal moralism would be more authoritarian. But this is far too crude, a parody of liberalism that fails to recognize the substantial gradations of freedom that exist in different political systems. It is absolutely true that the liberal state maintains limits on the political freedom of conservative Christians to impose their views on society. However, the price to conservative Christians is comparatively minimal, relative to that which would be paid by other minoritized groups who would be compelled to live inauthentic lives in the postliberal state. Within a liberal society conservative Christians can still commune voluntarily. But other religious (or non-religious) groups would find it very difficult to do the same in the postliberal state as it is now conceived. Not only is this pseudo-Schmittian objection weak, it is positively frightening in its implications for anyone who does not or would not conform to the dictates of the postliberal state.

Their more substantial argument is that without such a socially conservative glue to bind individuals together, we will not only fail to live meaningful lives but also induce the downfall of liberalism’s best achievements. Here Deneen’s argument in Why Liberalism Failed is emblematic. Liberals, he contends, place a strong emphasis on the atomized subject pursuing its desire as the sole source of meaning in life. They also insist that the best way to achieve this is by granting maximal freedom through emancipating humankind from religion and tradition and establishing a minimally intrusive state. But these two goals cannot co-exist, since individuals will always feel that their desire is inhibited by unacceptable limitations or direct constraint. This will lead them to demand that the state interfere ever more dramatically in peoples’ lives by tearing down institutions and practices that limit freedom—never acknowledging the contradiction that they can only achieve this through creating an ever more tyrannical state.

But even here, postliberals are weak in their empirical proofs. There is no doubt that the modern state can be exceptionally tyrannical; from separating migrant children from their parents to fulfill the wild fantasies of racist nationalists, to imprisoning millions to serve as its cheap workforce, the examples are abundant. A richer analysis of the state, like the one found in David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, reveals that major neoliberal corporations rely on the state in their attempts to both destroy old, and inhibit the formation of new, kinds of democratic and social life. Among the most prominent examples are the severe rollback of labor unions and workers associations by major heads of state, such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This dynamic continues: as I write, the European Union is busy disciplining radical solidarity movements across the continent because of the threat they pose to capital. But postliberals rarely direct their attention to these issues, instead focusing on the old cherries of political correctness, the policing of speech by social justice activists and “Big Tech,” and the fact that John Finnis can’t compare the gay lifestyle to bestiality anymore without facing a backlash. At best there are some occasionally interesting ruminations about biopolitics and potentially dystopian futures, but these hardly constitute an original or persuasive analysis.

The notion that there is a propensity toward tyranny baked into liberal doctrine only makes sense from a very insular perspective. Relative to most other societies—including the bastions of freedom admired by postliberals like Orban’s Hungary and Law and Justice’s Poland—liberal democracies are comparatively open and free. This doesn’t mean that actually-existing liberal democracies are the pinnacle of human flourishing. Indeed, socialists have long claimed that the standard package of liberal freedoms needs to be radically expanded through further democratization of the state and economy. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that if postliberals had their way, we’d see a swift retreat toward a less free society in the name of what Ahmari calls the “Highest Good,” with socially conservative measures gleefully imposed and enforced by a theopolitical state. This darker possibility is perhaps why the most thoughtful postliberals, like Deneen, tend to be ambivalent about what political system should replace liberalism and how it will preserve the freedoms millions gave their lives to win in the struggle against aristocratic rule.


Beyond Liberalism or Beyond Capitalism?

The most fundamental weakness ofCatholic postliberalism is that, despite the prefix, most of its proponents are reactionaries at heart. Far from just conserving the achievements of liberalism and going beyond them, they want to turn back the clock to a preliberal era where Aristotelian-Thomism sorted individuals according to divine hierarchies and the state took punitive measures against sexual deviants, intellectual dissidents and heretics without hesitation. More importantly, they are reactionary in their undialectical framing of liberalism as a profound break with Christian, and particularly Catholic, doctrine. This is in stark contrast to their usual attempt to have it both ways, purchasing credibility for Catholic Christianity by framing it as a precursor to everything about modernity that they like, or is of unquestionable value. But you can’t claim that modern science owes an unpayable debt to Christian thought while denying the positive patrimony of liberalism and liberal rationalism, as though it was some unwanted bastard child.

As I’ve highlighted elsewhere, this ahistorical and ideological approach to liberal modernity is distinct from more nuanced interpreters of modernity like Charles Taylor and Slavoj Zizek, who recognize that liberal modernity has deep roots within the Christian tradition itself. In many respects liberalism’s normative principles of freedom and equality are an organic outgrowth of this religious tradition. However, these principles remain incompletely realized in the context of neoliberal capitalism, where both freedom and equality are structurally subordinated to the imperatives of the market and capital accumulation. An authentic postliberalism, therefore, would necessitate the radicalization of the liberal project by extending its moral principles to spheres of life that remain subject to idolatrous forms of power and domination. 


Matt McManus is a visiting professor of politics at Whitman College. He is the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism and Myth and the coauthor of Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson.


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