An interview with Dr. Michael Hanby about his recent First Things article


Editor’s note: Michael Hanby is an Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy of Science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.  He will be on campus Friday, February 27, to take part in several faculty colloquia and meet with students.  Recently, his article entitled “The Civic Project of American Christianity: How the Public Significance of Christianity is Changing” appeared in First Things.  The following are a series of questions that focus on this article.

Irish Rover: You write that “John Locke … remarked that law enlarges the scope of freedom [but] does not appear to have considered the converse.”  How, then, does “freedom [enlarge] the scope of law”?

We Americans conceive of freedom in terms of rights, either negatively as immunity from coercion or positively as some form of entitlement.  Either way, every assertion or discovery of a right extends the power of the state to secure and enforce those rights, either by protecting me from some harm—say, discrimination—in which case the power of protection increases with the proliferation of possible harms—or by providing the thing to which I am entitled, say access to healthcare.  To point this out is not to say that this is always bad, just that it is the logic a liberal understanding of freedom and the state that individual freedom and state power are not opposites.

By writing “liberalism refuses integration into any more comprehensive order over which it is not finally arbiter and judge,” you claim that liberalism can be a “peculiar absolutism.”  How exactly does assuring rights for individuals result in absolutism?

Actually, there are a couple of different aspects to this.  One aspect I’ve already described.  By “assuring rights for individuals” as you put it, the liberal state increasingly asserts itself as the mediator of relationships between individuals and between individuals and their associations within civil society.  The other aspect is implied in the line which you quote, that “liberalism refuses integration into any more comprehensive order over which it is not finally arbiter and judge.”  Though there is a plurality of private options within liberal order, there is within liberal society and the liberal imagination no outside of liberal order.  So these private options only have space to flourish insofar as they become liberal.  This is one of the things that I lament in my First Things piece, that the horizons of liberal order increasingly define the limits of our thought and imagination.

For in its enforcement of the sexual revolution, the state is effectively codifying ontological and anthropological presuppositions.”  What are some of these presuppositions that should be reconsidered or overturned?

The sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding.  It presupposes the technological conquest of procreation which has not only separated sex from procreation but has separated procreation both from sex and, increasingly, motherhood and fatherhood.  The deep assumption here is that the human body is essentially a meaningless and manipulable machine, while ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ ‘mother,’ and ‘father’ are merely social conventions, incidental to human identity, that can be replaced by functionally equivalent roles without loss.  The consequences are enormous for human identity and self-understanding and for the future of the human family.

You set up a contrast between the “ultimate horizon” that liberalism establishes and the “transcendent horizon of Christ’s resurrection.”  In a pluralistic society, how does one go about establishing the latter horizon in the consciousness of the citizenry?  Is this possible through the action of the state, or must it be left to the Church?

Well I don’t accept that ours is really a pluralistic society.  Rather it is a liberal society that permits a plurality of private options only so long as they understand themselves in liberal terms—as merely private options.  This is why I say that liberalism re-creates everything within its horizon in its own image.  So no, the liberal state cannot acknowledge any genuine alternatives to liberalism without ceasing to be what it is.  It falls to the Church, then, to limit the liberal state, but she can only do this if she is true to her nature and if she can see beyond this horizon.  This is going to require a lot of thought and a lot of courage in the days ahead.

We have to break away from this liberalism that you describe as absolutist, especially through “an internal renewal of theology and philosophy—not merely as academic disciplines, but as ways of life.”  How does a university play a role in this?  Does a Catholic university have a special responsibility?

Yes, Catholic universities ought to play a crucial role, but the obstacles are enormous and the trends are not good.  The crisis of faith in modern culture is really a crisis of reason.  As a result, the pervasive understanding of truth and knowledge is reductive and pragmatic.  We have lost all sense of an order of knowledge and/or even the aspiration to the traditional sense of wisdom which philosophy and theology used to provide—a comprehensive understanding knowledge of the order of things.  Theology and philosophy have accepted their status as minority disciplines within a university curriculum which is no longer an integrated whole, a negotiated settlement among competing research interests vying to be the key to the whole, and so even in Catholic universities where theology and philosophy persist, it is no longer clear what role, if any, they ought to have within an overall curriculum that is otherwise indistinguishable from that of the secular university.  And because we no longer see how Catholic principles bear on the intellectual substance of the curriculum, responsibility for maintaining ‘Catholic identity’ increasingly falls to Student Life, and takes an increasingly pietistic or therapeutic form.

John VanBerkum is a junior studying philosophy.  He only recently found out that he likes goat cheese without having tried any.  To find out how this is possible, email him at