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How the West Embraced Freedom

How Did the West Embrace Freedom?


Jason Jones and John Zmirak - published on 09/17/13 - updated on 06/07/17

While the Church has sometimes found it necessary to side with lesser evils against greater evils, the Church has in fact been a liberating force, standing as an important center of power against centralized government.

Last week, we looked into the Marxist charge that religion is the opium of the people, and asked whether the Church was in fact the ally of tyrants. This week, we examine the historical rise of individual freedom, and its complex connection with Christian faith.

What neither Augustine nor any political or theological thinker came up with before the 17th century was a theoretical basis for citizens’ organizing to resist the demands of the state. Intellectuals don’t like to admit it, but most theories we ponder in history books emerged from historical practice – not the other way around. It’s not so much ideas that have consequences as institutions, which generate their political ideas post facto to explain, improve, and defend their practices. Ideas on their own are frail and forgettable things; the constitutions of Latin American nations that followed the American example and threw off their colonial masters were full of the same rhetoric of liberty as the documents crafted in Philadelphia in 1776. What the Latin Americans lacked were the institutions and precedents of limited, decentralized government that could have made such ideas effective. So they ended up as empty rhetoric, and most of those liberated nations descended into dictatorships not much different from the colonial governments they had replaced.

Institutions have consequences, and the fact that one institution in the West – the Church – outlived a collapsing Roman empire guaranteed a certain practical independence for the Church. (Compare this with the Church in the Christian east, which was quickly subordinated to the power of the Byzantine emperors and the Russian tsars.) As Montesquieu pointed out, it was crucial that Rome was conquered by mostly Germanic invaders; unlike the suffocatingly centralized and authoritarian Empire, the German tribes had deep-seated customs that limited the powers of their kings and granted extensive rights of resistance to noblemen. These rights of resistance and limits of royal power were periodically asserted in the form of revolts against kings – one of which resulted in the English Magna Carta. The common law tradition emerged from this milieu of leftover Roman law, long-standing tribal custom, and weak kings dependent on the cooperation of their nobles, to give real, concrete power to Parliament in England, to the electors in the Holy Roman Empire, and to imperial “free cities” all through Germany and Italy.

As Russell Kirk explains, it is in these medieval political realities – not Enlightenment pamphlets – that we find the seeds of modern, Anglo-American liberties. The result of historical accidents and cultural conditions, these rebellions and refusals aimed at kings laid the groundwork in reality for rights that would later be defended philosophically, using Christian and classical arguments that went beyond tribal custom to ground liberties in the dignity of the human person, and extend the rights of noblemen to every citizen. In countries where centralizing kings succeeded in quashing the nobles and imposing royal rule – such as Russia, Spain, and France – we still see a much higher degree of centralization, and a higher value placed on order than liberty.

Sadly, the Church did become dependent on the good auspices of kings, at much the same time that many rebels against the injustices of those kings began to embrace the new, secular arguments that emerged from the pens of men like Machiavelli and Hobbes. So for several centuries after the Reformation, and especially in the wake of the brutally anti-Christian, implicitly totalitarian French Revolution, Christian leaders (Catholic and Protestant alike) ranged themselves almost exclusively on the side of authority, rather than liberty. The biggest exception can be found in England, where the ecclesiastical compromise that was Anglicanism used the power of the state to persecute both Catholics and ultra-Protestant “dissenters” and Puritans. The Catholics would draw on the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, who refuted the “divine right of kings” invented to bolster the Anglican throne, and argued for the right of citizens to overthrow a tyrannical ruler; the Protestants, with greater practical effect, would cite medieval and common law precedents and use the medieval institution that was Parliament to hamper and resist the attempts of the Stuart monarchs to impose in England an absolute, centralized monarchy. What few of us realize today is that in this the Puritans were acting as conservatives – clinging to ancient privileges that “modern” political thinkers of the day considered archaic holdovers from the dark days of feudalism. From a theological perspective, however, the Puritans were citing Christian precedents and practices against the revived, essentially pagan Roman law that modern monarchs were using to bolster their seizure of absolute power. When the American founders imitated their Whig ancestors, and cited “the rights of Englishmen” against the English parliament and king, they were likewise using a medieval weapon to resist a modern invention—the centralized state.

Sadly, in almost every Catholic country, such states had successfully subjugated the Church, granting monarchs the power to appoint every bishop in their country, control the Church’s finances, and even prevent the publication of encyclicals with which they disagreed. (The last such twinge of such throne and altar absolutism emerged in Franco’s Spain, where the Generalissimo disapproved of the liturgical changes after Vatican II, and forbade their implementation for several years.) The state “rewarded” the Church by repressing and even persecuting Protestants – sometimes over the protests of the popes. The Spanish Inquisition against the Jews and Louis XIV’s vicious assault on the Huguenots were both conducted in defiance of popes who disapproved. When dissenters arose against these unaccountable, inequitable regimes, they came not in the form of religious sects that cited medieval liberties for limitations on the state, but of philosophes who called for radical, often utopian schemes that would liquidate the Church, keep or even increase the power of the central state, and use that power in the service of “enlightened” ideals. The best example is, of course, Rousseau, who saw a renewed, revolutionary state as the tool for enforcing virtue and “freedom” on every citizen, replacing all the free institutions of church and community with agencies of the state.

The cruelties, wars, and ideological extravagances of the French and related revolutions drove most churchmen even closer into the arms of authoritarian monarchies, even as thinkers who saw the legitimate Christian principles of moral equality and human dignity that lurked behind the Enlightenment rhetoric of some revolutionaries – for instance, Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais – were subject to condemnation by popes who feared the return of the anti-clerical mobs. The peoples of Catholic nations under foreign occupation – such as Poland and Ireland – were appalled when popes supported their “legitimate,” non-Catholic rulers against popular, national revolts.

But there were exceptions. Christian thinkers whom we’d place squarely in the classical liberal tradition – in modern American terms, we might call them “moderate libertarians” – did emerge and exert significant influence. Edmund Burke, whose family members were quasi-persecuted Catholics in Ireland, looked at the British constitutional tradition and saw in it rich resources for defending the freedom of individuals and non-state institutions against both grasping rulers and tyrannical majorities. His philosophy of slow, organic change that maintains the continuity of social institutions would become an important theme for moderate conservatives ever after.  Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, drew on his Thomist training to philosophically defend the nascent representative government in America, and to advocate the free market in terms strikingly close to those used by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. As Samuel Gregg notes in his new blockbuster, Tea Party Catholic, Carroll would set the tone for an American Catholicism that was vigorous, faithful, and apostolic – and all in a democratic and pluralist context. The success of the Church in America, and its almost entirely positive experience with liberty, would prove a major influence on the development of Catholic political thought; an American thinker, the great Jesuit John Courtney Murray, would provide much of the framework and most of the arguments supporting the Church’s (too long belated) embrace of religious liberty as a basic human right at Vatican II.

Most important among thinkers in the broadly Catholic tradition was Alexis de Tocqueville, who had seen the collapse of the autocratic Catholic monarchy restored after the French Revolution, and traveled to America to see how humane values might be preserved in the rough-and-tumble world of free elections and an untrammeled free market. Without noblemen and state-empowered churchmen, would there be anyone left to care for those goods – such as public charity, liberal education, and the preservation of culture – which have no native constituency in a market economy? Or would those goods be left neglected until a powerful state arose to organize them, on the Rousseauian or Jacobin model?

What Tocqueville found and recorded in Democracy in America was that Americans did not need a native aristocracy or an established Church to nurture these non-commercial values; civic-minded Americans, organized through their freely chosen churches or any of thousands of voluntary service organizations – such as, he noted, Americans were constantly founding – seemed eager to take on tasks of education, philanthropy, and civic improvement. So long as the urge persisted to organize freely into groups whose activities transcended their narrow self-interest, creating a unique and vigorous sphere that Tocqueville called “civil society.” The “intermediate institutions” that stand between the naked individual and the power of the state, the “little platoons” (as Burke called them) that range from the extended family to the parish to the philanthropic society – these are the barriers that protect freedom in the long run. They are institutions with consequences. To protect them from co-option and control by the state, the Church has embraced the principle of “subsidiarity,” which asserts that it is sin against justice for the state to absorb an activity that is possible for civil society to accomplish on its own. This principle, long inherent in Catholic political theory, was something that Pope Pius XI found it needful to enshrine in an encyclical, Quadrogesimo Anno, as a rebuke to the totalitarian governments all across Europe that were swallowing civil society and centralizing power over every level of culture through the use of the state’s coercive muscle.

It would shock the loyal reader of Karl Marx to realize how many of these institutions, whose actions belie mere selfishness or the will to power, found their origin in the churches. If we move beyond the narrow question of “how much did Christianity encourage political resistance” and look instead at how Christians responded to social and economic injustice, we see how blind and timebound Marx’s perspective really was. Christians began their social activism in the earliest days of the Church; it was Christians who went to the city walls to rescue the unwanted infants exposed and left to die; Christians organized the first real charities for the Roman poor; they asserted the equal spiritual dignity of slaves and masters. After the fall of Rome, Christian monks famously collected and painstakingly recopied the works of pagan literature, and opened schools to teach the neglected poor. Monks and nuns honeycombed Europe in the Dark and Middle ages opening schools at every level, organizing relief during famines and operating hospitals. Reforming friars emerged during the first days of budding capitalism to denounce those moneylenders who preyed on the poor, and to open low-interest credit unions for workingmen and peasants. It was only with the Reformation and its wars that much of this civic infrastructure was smashed as religious orders dissolved or were driven out, Church lands were seized by the state, or Church offices were co-opted by Catholic monarchs and used as means of exerting state power. Even then, in foreign missions and the new territories opened up after 1492, it was typically friars and sisters who ministered to natives abused or dispossessed by conquering Europeans, and who championed their rights against the greed of land-hungry colonists. In the eighteenth century, Methodist laymen in England would found the abolitionist movement, which would take fire with Christian preachers across America. In the twentieth century, we have seen the civil rights movement, the pro-life movement, and the Solidarity movement in Poland emerge from Christian milieus to challenge the consciences of the powerful through non-violent, moral witness.

In short, while there have been historical periods where clergymen found it necessary to counsel against the common people organizing revolts against their rulers, it is grossly false and misleading to portray Christianity as a force that favors repression and social stasis. Indeed, the rapid rate of social, political, and economic change in the West, compared to the much more stable and hierarchical societies that existed throughout Asia in the same centuries, suggests that Christianity is, if anything, a force for disruption and innovation. Its principles are so radical and its message so demanding that no status quo is ever safe.

Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood.  His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at

John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).

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