Liberalism when it's liberal

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 32 - Jan 2009

The current debate about women priests and bishops has generated renewed accusations against liberals. One of the more persistent is that liberals can be quite illiberal about their beliefs. Is this a fair criticism? Are liberals inclined to be just as dogmatic as their dogmatising opponents?

Certainly liberals, like everybody else, often fail to understand the logic of beliefs they do not share. Much of the opposition to women priests and bishops has its conceptual roots in a particular view of sacramental validity, according to which priests are only priests if they are both validly ordained and also the correct kind of person – i.e. male. Bread and wine consecrated by a woman priest is invalidly consecrated and is not therefore the Eucharist, but at least the faithful can work that out by looking at the shape of the priest’s body. Women bishops, on the other hand, raise the spectre of a male priest invalidly ordained because the ordaining bishop was female. Unless his stole is embroidered with the words ‘I was ordained by a woman’, the Resolution C faithful have no way to distinguish between valid and invalid Eucharists.

Liberals often find this argument so contrary to their understanding of reality that they find it difficult to take it seriously. It can be argued that ‘the liberals are being intolerant’ because once the church has women bishops, opponents can no longer take their male priests at face value and are thereby put at a disadvantage.

The obvious liberal reply is that the pot seems to be calling the kettle black. Those who refuse to tolerate women priests can hardly complain when their own views are not tolerated by others. But this is not enough. Those who make no claim to be liberal may trumpet their intolerance without any inconsistency; but are not liberals being untrue to their beliefs when they are equally intolerant?

It depends on the type of liberalism. People often describe themselves as liberals with respect to a particular issue; they may, for example, consider themselves liberals on the matter of human rights but not sex before marriage, or the other way round. Even those who hold liberal positions on a wide range of issues may do so for reasons nothing to do with liberalism as such.

One may expect more from people who claim to be liberals as a matter of principle. In current religious debate the key liberal principle is freedom to question every truth claim. Enlightenment leaders opposed the appeals by church leaders to reason-defying divine revelation, insisting instead that if we are to believe anything we must have good reason for so doing. Truth is uncovered not by looking for statements which come directly from God, but by public dialogue as people in society examine, challenge and build on each other’s ideas. The spirit of Enlightenment liberalism is well expressed by the words Voltaire is reputed to have said to Rousseau: ‘I do not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it’.

This then is the core of liberal truth-seeking. On the one hand everybody’s opinion is to be heard and respected; on the other, its truth-value is to be assessed by public rational examination. Elsewhere this principle is so well established that it is no longer controversial. Nobody would entrust their health care to a self-appointed doctor who had studied no medicine except for a few personally selected ancient near eastern texts, or buy an electrical machine made by someone who claimed to have worked out the laws of electricity from first principles purely by listening to voices in his or her head. On the contrary the ‘liberal’ framework for developing hypotheses and accepting knowledge claims is accepted right across the sciences and humanities. One of the most distinctive features of the twentieth century, the astonishing mushrooming of knowledge, would have been impossible without it. Many features of modern society, like democracy, depend on it. Even the postmodernists most opposed to ‘Enlightenment liberalism’ work within its parameters.

With one exception. In religion, and only in religion, the legitimacy of this framework continues to be debated. Those who make simple appeals to biblical texts and papal statements as a way of riding roughshod over all other opinions are still granted far more respect than they deserve. In this sense liberalism in religion only wants religion to catch up with everything else. It is a modest aim, and the fact that it has not been achieved perhaps shows how little modern society cares whether its religious beliefs are actually true. Religious leaders often enough collude, when they are more concerned to protect the stability of their institution than to examine the truth of its doctrines.

What we might call ‘principled religious liberalism’ therefore has a modest aim: it is merely affirming in religion a method which is accepted as essential everywhere else. How then does it respond to the accusation of illiberalism?

It does not claim that all opinions are true, as the ‘anything goes’ theory would have it. This view, though often described as liberalism, usually indicates the stance of people who are not really interested in questions of religious truth at all.

Nor does it mean that ‘you can do whatever you like’. Political liberalism values the freedom of individuals to do what they like provided they do not harm others as part of an egalitarian philosophy, but the condition is significant. If an independent church teaches that women cannot be priests or bishops, not only is it being inegalitarian but it is at least arguable that it harms women. When a minority lobby within a larger church does the same, intending to frustrate the egalitarian intentions of the majority, there is even less justification in claiming that liberals should allow them to do whatever they want.

Liberalism does mean that we should respect the opinions of others, however illiberal; they are children of God with minds similar to ours, potentially part of that social network needed to analyse and debate the controversies of the day in the search for truth.

But it does not mean that other people’s opinions are to be treated like brass ornaments, put on a mantlepiece, admired, occasionally polished, and eventually bequeathed unchanged to our grandchildren. It means the exact opposite: that other people’s opinions, as well as our own, are to be taken to bits and examined to see how they work and whether we can improve on them. Opponents of liberalism often do believe that their opinions are universal and eternal revelations and ought never to be doubted; but liberals deny that any opinion should be granted that status.

The illiberal therefore have no right to be left undisturbed in their illiberalism, still less to be granted a veto in matters of religion. On the contrary, anybody who wants their opinion to carry weight in public decision-making should be obliged to do more than merely cite biblical texts or church tradition. They must take part in public debate, presenting their evidence and arguments for inspection by those who disagree. If the opponents of women’s ministry believe God has revealed something to them about the nature of priesthood and episcopacy, they must convince the rest of us that it really was a revelation and that it came from God. If they cannot, perhaps they are mistaken.

When critics accuse liberals of being illiberal, they are usually playing one version of liberalism against another. Those committed to liberal principles will respect the opinions of the illiberal and allow them to be heard; but not treat every opinion as equally valid, let alone equally true. In religion, as in science, we achieve nothing when we block our ears to our opponents and spend our time in coteries of the like-minded. Truth is served when divergent voices listen respectfully to each other, express their traditions and the reasons for them as honestly as they can, and cooperate in the attempt to resolve disagreements. The search for truth about God, like the search for truth about the physical universe, is best served by the liberal method whose hallmark is honest, patient public debate.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.