A modest defense of the “liberal world order”

George Weigel
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Some preliminaries:

I quite agree that the United Nations is a sad, and sometimes malicious, joke. I understand that some people have been the victims of a globalized world economy and that the “Davos people” who run that economy have (like most of the rest of us) paid them too little heed. Fifteen years ago, in The Cube and the Cathedral, I warned that the European Union risked becoming the overbearing bureaucratic Leviathan it is today; and it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the EU’s embrace of a sterile secularism, which accelerated Europe’s detachment from its cultural roots, helped destroy a reverence for particularity and for what Edmund Burke called society’s small platoons.

I get it that the American people are tired of wars, that many Poles and Hungarians don’t want their social policy dictated by Brussels, and that Italians and Greeks are tired of having their pleasures disrupted by steely-eyed German accountants. I agree that NATO member states should stop riding American coattails in their laggardly defense spending. I think a visceral defense of British sovereignty was the primary reason for the Brexit “yes” vote, and I find the contemptuous response to that vote by European Union mandarins a signal that, like the Bourbons, those riding the EU gravy train have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Moreover, and to end this throat-clearing, I think liberal democracy is in grave danger from the ideology of Me and the notion that “freedom” is just willfulness – which is, among many other things, reducing higher education in the U.S. and Canada to a playpen for mini-brownshirts who get violently disruptive when their silly certainties about the plasticity of the human condition are challenged.

And yet I think there are things that can and must be said for the “liberal world order” and for liberal democracy.

The political and economic system created by the United States and its allies after World War II – a system built around common defense measures and free trade – rescued Europe from the self-inflicted catastrophe of 1914- 1945, prevented nuclear war, preserved the peace until the collapse of the Soviet empire, and allowed once-captive nations to reclaim their liberties. It didn’t do too badly by the rest of the world, either. Over the past several decades, more than a billion people lifted themselves out of abject poverty by becoming participants in a system of free trade and the free movement of capital and labor – even as those economic successes helped create conditions for the possibility of free and decent governance in places like Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, and India.

So might it not be the case that the “liberal world order” needs fixing rather than dismantling, as some “populists” propose today? Surely those dismantlers don’t propose a return to the beggar-thy-neighbor economic autarky and myopic nationalism that intensified the Great Depression and helped bring on World War II. As for the security side of the equation, doesn’t the catastrophic condition of the Middle East, after eight years of an American-led withdrawal of western power from the region, demonstrate what happens when those committed to a “liberal world order” retreat from history in history’s most volatile regions? Given Vladimir Putin’s evident determination to reverse history’s verdict in the Cold War, would order be maintained in Europe over the next decade absent a robust NATO?

As for the failings of liberal democracy itself, the lesson to be learned is surely not that efficient authoritarianism makes for better national governance; the lesson is that the democratic project is not a machine that can run by itself. The hardware of democracy cannot run by any software. Rather, democracy depends on a moral-cultural foundation that has been seriously eroded by the Culture of Me. So if the democratic project is not to decay into either chaos or a dictatorship of relativism, a great work of moral and cultural renewal must be undertaken throughout the West: something akin to a new Great Awakening.

Sympathetic as I am to many of their complaints, I don’t see that Awakening arising from the most vociferous of today’s angry and inward-looking new populists. Thus far, the new populism, whether European or American, is much better at identifying what’s broken than in defining how to fix it.

COMING UP: Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, all over again

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In April 2016, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, England, issued a pastoral letter on the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on marriage) and re-affirmed the Church’s long-settled teaching: the divorced and civilly remarried, while members of the Christian community, are not living in full communion with that community, and thus should not present themselves for Holy Communion until their manner of life changes or their irregular marriage has been regularized under Church law. Last month, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech of Malta also issued a pastoral letter on Amoris Laetitia and invited divorced and civilly remarried couples to present themselves for Holy Communion if they were, in conscience, at peace with God.

It happens that a woman in the Portsmouth diocese has vacation property on Malta. She’s divorced and civilly remarried and seems to understand the Church’s longstanding teaching about what her situation means for the worthy reception of Holy Communion. Shortly after the Malta bishops’ statement, she ran into the local priest on his village rounds and asked, “When it comes to Communion, do I follow Bishop Egan or Archbishop Scicluna?” As the priest in question put it in an e-mail, “What could I say, ‘Egan when you’re here, Scicluna when you’re there…’?”

At the very beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul lamented that his fractious converts in rowdy Corinth were divided: “For it has been reported to me…that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’….” These divisions were not simply a matter of who-got-converted-by-whom, Paul insisted. They were misunderstandings fracturing the body of Christ: “Is Christ divided?” [1 Cor. 1.11-13].

Such Corinthian-type divisions once seemed far removed from our contemporary Catholic situation. But as that brief conversation in a Hampshire village suggests, we are living, today, the crisis of division that caused St. Paul such grief.

And as the Church is universal, so is the crisis. Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa is one of Catholicism’s more robust practitioners of the tweet. After the Malta bishops’ directive, Napier tweeted, “If Westerners in irregular situations can receive Communion, are we to tell our polygamists….that they, too, are allowed?” The archbishop of Durban was not being glib or snarky; Cardinal Napier was describing a real pastoral problem in Africa that has now been made worse.

Media stereotypes notwithstanding, Catholicism is not monolithic; there’s ample room for legitimate diversity in the Catholic Church. The Vatican yearbook lists almost two dozen liturgical rites recognized in the Catholic Church. (For extra credit, identify the principle differences between the Malankarese Rite of the Antiochene tradition and the Malabarese Rite of the Syro-Oriental tradition.) That same yearbook catalogues hundreds of men’s religious institutes and even more women’s religious orders. The Church’s governance structures include dioceses and archdioceses, territorial prelatures and territorial abbacies, vicariates and prefectures apostolic, patriarchal exarchates, archiepiscopal exarchates, and one personal prelature. Catholicism is a luxuriantly and colorfully diverse communion, and that rich spiritual and human plurality is one of the Church’s glories, a reflection of the abundance of divine grace poured into the world by the Holy Spirit.

Yet as St. Paul explained to his paleo-Christians in Corinth two millennia ago, legitimate diversity does not and cannot touch on fundamental questions of Christian truth. Whether they claimed spiritual descent from Paul, Cephas, or Apollos, that human connection was subordinate to the truth that they had been baptized into Christ, who is indivisible. And as Christ is one, so must the Church, his mystical body, be.

Writing during Synod-2015, I was but one of many who made what seemed to us an obvious point: it cannot be the case that a grave sin in Poland is a source of grace two kilometers across the border in Germany. None of us then had thought of Portsmouth and Malta, but the same principle applies: Christ is not divisible and neither is his truth. We do not “belong to Egan” nor do we “belong to Scicluna.” We belong to Christ. And authentic pastoral accompaniment must always be along “the way” of the One who is also “the truth and the life” [John 14.6].