In his book The Future of Liberalism Alan Wolfe posits that in addition to philosophic and procedural liberalism, there is such a thing as a liberal temperament, an openness to debate, an inquisitiveness and curiosity about the world, a horror of bigotry and an optimistic appraisal of human possibilities. He argues that many who consider themselves political conservatives share this temperament, and indeed they do. But, yesterday, at two events sponsored by the Catholic University of America, it was the absence of this temperament that was striking.
CUA had an all day symposium marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and the Holy See. Later, the University sponsored a discussion on life issues and the Obama administration at the National Press Club. At both events, Princeton Professor Robert George was a principal and at both events he provided a series of assertions, unsupported by argument, some of which were simply wrong, some arguable, but all presented as if his chair at Princeton, not the Chair of Peter, has the promise of infallibility. He claimed Obama is the most pro-abortion president in history, but did not really explain why that is so. He asserted Obama will relentlessly pursue federal funding for abortions but the President has indicated no such thing. The bishops have competence to address abortion that they lack with virtually every other issue, he demonstrated failing to note that it is not the morality of abortion but the political approach to the issue that is the heart of the matter.
Professor Patrick Brennan of Villanova gave a somewhat bizarre presentation on how the Church as Church should have certain constitutional protections different from that enumerated in the First Amendment. At least I think that is what he was arguing. There is, no doubt, some truth to the belief that contemporary jurisprudence on religious freedom is almost a subset of the jurisprudence on free speech and free association. But, there is also no doubt that there are no guards at the airport so it is not like the Church is oppressed in America either. His speech was so strident, the first question asked of him was whether his demand for such guarantees would be extended to other churches or just to Catholics. I had intended to ask his thoughts on Lepanto, but we ran out of time. For good measure, Brennan launched a gratuitous attack on Notre Dame for its decision to invite President Obama to its commencement.
These are smart men. Yet spending a day with them and their rantings, I wondered if there was a rabid dog that had gotten loose. It is one thing to encounter such attitudes on EWTN but quite another to hear it from a university rostrum. Others at the sessions were balanced, thoughtful, and temperamentally liberal, such as the three former Ambassadors to the Holy See- all Republican appointees. Archbishop Dolan was positively funny as well as incisive in his recounting of the history of US-Vatican relations before 1984.
But, there is a group of conservative thinkers for whom Obama’s win has made them unhinged. I heard jaws drop when Archbishop Sambi extend his congratulations to Miguel Diaz and there were audible moans of disgust when former State Department official Nicholas Burns said he held out great promise for US-Holy See bi-lateral relations in the next few years. The good news for those of us who generally support the President is that these unhinged conservatives do not even try and persuade anyone of the truth of their positions. It is all "my way or the highway." That is not really how democracy works.