Catholics & Muslims: shared concerns over liberalism

Prominent Catholic philosophers and theologians are currently involved in an ongoing debate over the compatibility of Catholicism with modern liberalism. 1 A prominent figure in this debate is the Marxist-turned-Thomist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s two prominent works are After Virtue and Whose Justice, Which Rationality, which from what I understand examine how Western moral discourse has since the Enlightenment become disconnected from its rootedness in Aristotelian teleology, culminating in the fragmentation of clashing and incompatible traditions and the prevailing attitudes of emotivism and relativism. I’ve only read bits and pieces of MacIntyre’s books back in college, so I’ll refrain from attempting further explication — Edward T. Oakes, a scholar of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, has written an article on “Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre” for First Things (August/September 1996).

It was just recently Cardinal James Francis Stafford, president of Pontifical Council for the Laity, recommended MacIntyre in an interview with the Zenit news service:


Q: Growing conflicts between contemporary culture and faith seem to be keeping many Catholics from accepting the teachings of the Church on moral issues. How can that gap between the magisterium and contemporary culture be healed?

Cardinal Stafford: I think the lay people have much to teach us in this. I am thinking of such lay persons as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, David Schindler, Tracey Rowland in Australia — a great woman theologian — some lay theologians in Great Britain. They are indicating to us that we have to better our understanding of the theology of culture. I understand them to say that the Vatican Council was too optimistic in its assessment — “Gaudium et Spes” especially — of the compatibility between postmodern culture and the Catholic faith. I am in full agreement with that judgment. 2

Yesterday I came across two articles on the Internet that made use of Alasdair MacIntyre which came from disparate sources, but are actually connected at a deeper level. The first is an article by Thaddeus J. Kozinski, making use of MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism to address the “blind spot” inherent in Jacques Maritain’s “democratic faith,” arguing as a solution the establishment of the temporal Kingship of Christ. 3.

The “social kingship” of Christ — that is to say the temporal unification of Church and State — is espoused by some Catholic traditionalist circles, such as The Remnant and the Society of Saint Pius X. They hold this to be an essential teaching of the Catholic Church neglected and contradicated by Vatican II in a victory of John Courtney Murray and the forces of modernism. Michael Davies makes the case in The Remnant for the traditionalist position in “The Reign of Christ The King” in The Remnant; Cardinal Avery Dulles examines the evolution of the Church’s teaching on such matters in Religious Freedom: Innovation and Development (First Things 118, December 2001).

It was in researching the web for a blog on the first article that I came across the second — a review of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Dr. Legenhausen, for an Iranian scholarly journal. 4 What immediately struck me upon reading the first several pages was the way in which Dr. Legenhausen and his colleagues were clearly involved in a similar debate on the compatibility of Islam with Western liberal tradition and culture:

One of the most important issues in Islamic social and political thought since the nineteenth century has been the confrontation of traditional Muslim societies with European modernism, and one of the most important facets of modernism about which Muslim thinkers are concerned is that of political liberalism. Muslims who argue that liberal ideals and institutions are compatible with Islam are usually classified as modernists. At the other extreme are those who would claim that liberal and Islamic thought agree on nothing. The vast majority of Muslim intellectuals and scholars, however, fall somewhere between these extremes. The interesting discussion in contemporary Muslim social thought is not over whether modernists or conservatives hold a more defensible position, but what aspects of liberal thought may be accommodated and what aspects must be rejected. . . .

Muslim liberals who await a repetition of the European Enlightenment in Islamic culture would also be well advised to read MacIntyre, who has declared the Enlightenment project to be a failure and ultimately incoherent. Perhaps if Muslim modernists would read MacIntyre they would become more critical of the claims made on behalf of liberalism, and would come to recognize the need to examine the intellectual history of their own traditions, as well as those of the West, to find the way forward. Perhaps MacIntyre’s books can serve as a kind of vaccination against the infatuation with Western culture which Persians call gharbzadigi.

The concern of Dr. Legenhausen and other Muslim scholars regarding the corrupting effects of modern liberalism and Western culture mirrors the arguments made by Christian scholars like Dr. Schindler, Stanley Hauerwas, Tracey Rowland, et al. While most Catholics will probably refrain from proposing the marriage of Church and State as a solution to the present moral crisis, we can recognize that these concerns are mutually held by Catholics and Muslims and are a potential source for dialogue between our two faiths. This possibility was mentioned by Cardinal Ratzinger in an interview with Zenit.org last year, when the question was raised of the “superiority” of Judeo-Christian culture to Islam post 9/11:

Q: The confrontation with Islam is a burning issue. In your opinion, can one speak of the superiority of the Judeo-Christian culture?

Cardinal Ratzinger: It is a minefield, but I don´t want to avoid the question. When we speak of culture, we must distinguish the values of its historic realizations. The truth of the Christian faith appears to us in all its depth, but we mustn´t forget that, sadly, it has been darkened many times by the concrete behavior of those who called themselves Christians. Islam has also had moments of great splendor and decadence in the course of its history.

Q: Hence, one cannot speak of the superiority of one culture over another?

Cardinal Ratzinger: Naturally, we can and must say, for example, that the values of monogamous marriage, of the dignity of woman, etc., undoubtedly demonstrate a cultural superiority.

It is true that the Muslim world is not totally mistaken when it reproaches the West of Christian tradition of moral decadence and the manipulation of human life. … This imposes on us a serious examination of conscience. What is important is to go to the roots of the values proclaimed by the different religions. It is here where a real interreligious dialogue can begin.

I was curious as to how a Muslim like Dr. Legenhausen would develop an interest in a philosopher like Alasdair MacIntyre. Turns out that he was educated at a Catholic high school in Queens, New York. A number of his articles are published in the Al Tawhid journal, including the study of Islamic philosophy, the relationship between philosophy and theology, and the confrontation of Islam with religious pluralism (with particular attention to John Hick), with which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently occupied.

  1. See John Allen Jr.’s overview “Is John Paul II Too Liberal?” (National Catholic Reporter August 22, 2003. I have devoted a separate website and blog to coverage of this specific issue.
  2. Cardinal Stafford on the Church Crisis. Interview w/ EWTN. August 24, 2003.
  3. Jacques Maritain’s “Democratic Faith”: Heretical or Orthodox?, by Thaddeus J. Kozinski. Catholic University of America. As I also discovered, Kozinski briefly tangled with Fr. Neuhaus on this topic in the pages of First Things. Fr. Neuhaus’s responds to Kozinski on “the distinction between the ideal and what is prudentially judged to be possible or desirable.”
  4. Whose Justice, Which Rationality?, reviewed by Dr. Muhammad Legenhausen al Tawhid Islamic Journal, vol. 14 No. 2 Qum, The Islamic Republic of Iran.
  5. “Ratzinger Highlights Christian Challenge Following September 11”. Interview with Zenit.Org. March 3, 2002.
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