Restricting Reasons, Attenuating Discourse: Rawls, Habermas, and the Catholic Problem

In Daniel N. Robinson, Gladys M. Sweeney, and Richard Gill (eds.), Human Nature and Its Wholeness (Catholic University of America Press, 2006). Reprinted with abridgments and additions as “Public Morality, Public Reason,” First Things, November, 2006.

A contest of worldviews in our time pits devout Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and other believers against secularist liberals and those who, while remaining within the religious denominations, have adopted essentially secularist liberal ideas about personal and political morality. The contest manifests itself in disputes over abortion, embryo-destructive research, and euthanasia, as well as in issues of sex, marriage, and family life. Underlying these specific conflicts are profound differences about the nature of morality and the proper relation of moral judgment to law and public policy.

I am hardly the first to recognize the existence of this conflict of worldviews. People on both sides have noticed it, commented on it, and proposed ideas about how an essentially democratically constituted polity ought to come to terms with it. The trouble is that the issues dividing the two camps are of such profound moral significance”on either side’s account”that merely procedural solutions are not good enough. Neither side will be happy to agree on decision procedures for resolving the key differences of opinion at the level of public policy where the procedures do not guarantee victory for the substantive policies they favor. This is not a matter of people being irrationally stubborn; rather, it reflects the considered judgment of people on both sides that fundamental and therefore nonnegotiable issues of justice are at stake.

Jurgen Habermas in Europe and the late John Rawls in the United States are perhaps the premier examples of secular thinkers who have taken the measure of the problem and proposed terms of engagement that, they believe, can be affirmed by reasonable people across the spectrum of opinion. Both single out Catholicism as an example of a non-liberal “comprehensive doctrine” that may nevertheless affirm essentially liberal terms of engagement with competing comprehensive doctrines. Indeed, they argue, one needn’t be a secular person, much less a secularist, to endorse their teachings. There is plenty of room, they say, for religious people of various stripes to affirm the secular principles and norms that should govern political life in contemporary pluralistic democratic societies. Indeed, their goal is to identify principles and norms that can reasonably be accepted by believers and unbelievers alike, and affirmed by people irrespective of their convictions about human nature, dignity, and destiny.

From the First Things essay.

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