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v2.1 Reference

Catholicism and Liberal Democracy

Forgotten Roots and Future Prospects

Catholicism and Liberal Democracy seeks to clarify if there is a place for Catholicism in the public discourse of modern liberal democracy, bringing secular liberalism, as articulated by Jürgen Habermas, into conversation with the Catholic tradition.

James Martin Carr explores three aspects of the Catholic tradition relevant to this debate: the Church's response to democracy from the nineteenth century up until the eve of the Second Vatican Council; the Council's engagement with modernity, in particular through Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae; and Joseph Ratzinger's theology of politics as a particularly incisive (and influential) articulation of the Catholic tradition in this area.

Jürgen Habermas's theorization of the place of religion in modern democracy, both in his earlier secularist phase and after his 'post-secular' turn, is evaluated. The adequacy of Habermas's recent attempts to accommodate religious citizens are critically examined and it is argued that developments in his later thought logically require a more thoroughgoing revision of his earlier theory. These developments, it is argued, create tantalizing openings for fruitful dialogue between Habermas and the Catholic tradition.

Using analytical tools drawn from communications theory, the debates on same-sex marriage at Westminster and in the Irish referendum campaign are analyzed, assessing whether Catholic contributions to these debates comply with Habermasian rules of civic discourse. In light of this analysis, the prospects of, and impediments to, Catholic participation in public discourse are appraised.

Carr concludes by proposing a Ratzingerian critique of contemporary attempts to redefine marriage within a broader, more fundamental critique of the modern democratic state as currently configured. A political system founded upon secularist monism cannot but regard Christian Gelasianism, and its Catholic variant in particular, as an existential threat. Thus, Catholics, however Habermasian their political behavior, can never be more than uneasy bedfellows with modern liberal democracy.

About the Author

James Martin Carr received his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol in 2018 and his writings have appeared in the International Journal of Public Theology and Communio. He works as a hospital pharmacist and lectures part-time on the MA programme in Catholic Applied Theology at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham (England). Tracey J. Rowland is St. John Paul II Chair of Theology, Notre Dame University of Australia.


"Offers a significant contribution to the theological debate on pluralism and natural law...will certainly have a prominent but also contested place in the academic debate."—Peter Jonkers, Tilburg University

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March 3, 2023
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