This book is concerned with the relationship of the Catholic Church to contemporary liberal societies. It seeks to explore the meaning of secularity as a shared space for all citizens and to ask how the Church can contribute to sensitivity to and respect for human dignity within liberal societies. In particular, it considers the ambivalence of human freedom in those societies and explores how the Church can assist in the expression of freedom as the wellspring of the common good rather than as a self-assertion that degrades communal and social relationships.
In a liberal society, all individuals are accorded certain rights, but the laws and institutions of society are agnostic about the transcendental foundations of those rights. They are simply an ethical given—the ethical premise of laws and political procedures, without any shared transcendental foundation of their own. There are good reasons for this, since liberal societies are secular and pluralist societies. To give such shared transcendental foundations a politically established status might privilege a particular religious tradition and threaten the religious freedom that is essential to a liberal society. It would also be harmful to the Church itself, since such privileges undermine the free appeal that evangelization makes to conscience.
Yet it is also true that this “givenness” is limited and fragile. The claim that every human being has worth and dignity is controversial in a host of ways: in its scope, in its limits, and in its application. In particular, the freedom that is at the core of human dignity is interpreted in crucially different ways, especially in terms of the tension between conceptions of individual autonomy and a willingness to support the common good. Its sheer “givenness”—its lack of transcendental