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With Liberty and Justice for Catholics Only

With Liberty and Justice for Catholics Only Brian G Wilso

Brian G Wilson

Stephen Herreid - published on 01/06/14

A false idea of liberty is a common punching-bag among some of today's exasperated Catholics, who mistakenly burn true liberty in effigy by decrying the evils that the left perpetrates in its name.

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I remarked that many liberal Catholics have failed to champion the economic, civic, and religious liberties outlined in Catholic Social Teaching. It may further be remarked that there is a growing number of self-consciously traditional Catholics who reject liberty outright. They see liberty as nothing more than the hedonism of the left, and are baffled that any conservative would defend it. Catholics who mistakenly accept this false definition of liberty get their own special kind of reward: the warm glow of righteous opposition to the easily hated enemy that they call “modernity” or “the Enlightenment.” This enemy represents so much of modern life that rejecting it wholesale saves one the trouble of carefully and prudently navigating today's cultural battles — one can simply wave a disdainful hand at “the modern world” rather than define and defend true liberty from those who corrupt, misinterpret or destroy it. Even when the religious liberty of the Church is attacked, one may scoff, “Liberty? That's an Enlightenment construct — I'll have nothing to do with it, for I am loyal to the traditional Church against modernity!” Thus the Catholic may even abandon the persecuted Church herself, gaining more satisfaction from his enmity with “modernity” than out of any friendship with the Church in concrete and current terms.

St. Augustine once wrote that “Law cannot make men good, and without good men there can be no good society.” The reasons for the Catholic rejection of liberty today mostly rest on an assumption that law can make men good, and that the immorality of today's society is the result of the government failing to do its job. Catholics have fallen into the error of equating liberty with the abuse of liberty, the freedom of individual choice with the worst choices an individual can make. In other words, they have adopted the definition of freedom that is provided by the radical left in defense of the “right to choose” infanticide. This “freedom” is no freedom at all, but merely a ploy that takes on the alternating functions of a carrot dangled before the hungry progressive dupe, and a whip to keep those who attempt to defend true liberty in line.

This false idea of liberty is a common punching-bag among some of today's exasperated Catholics, who mistakenly burn true liberty in effigy by decrying the evils that the left perpetrates in its name. This ritual occurs daily in many corners of the Catholic blogosphere, and surfaced only one or two weeks ago here on Aleteia in an article by Mark Gordon. In his article, Gordon tied the thought of John Courtney Murray — father of the Church's teachings on religious liberty — directly to the abortive State that is presently at work crushing the religious liberty that Murray, the Pope and others outlined in Dignitatis Humanae. Under the oppressive shadow of the HHS mandate, it is difficult to imagine how Catholics would find the time to attack the defenders of religious liberty against the State rather than come to their aid.

Catholics who wish to reject the American (and with it the British) tradition of ordered liberty will have to do so with a blind eye to the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed the institutionalized liberty that is written into the American order. Indeed, with regard to liberty, some American Catholics have somehow managed to remain inwardly disloyal to both their country and their Church for more than half-a-century out of an apparent allergy to the liberty that our Founders asserted and our Holy Fathers have now blessed.

Like many Catholics, I believe that the Western political thought really took a blow with the ruptures surrounding the Enlightenment and Reformation. Particularly in the strand of the Enlightenment that is best characterized by the terrors of the French Revolution and later of the American leftist abortion State, the idea of “liberty” has been rhetorically instrumental in attacks against right morality and the Church herself. To whatever extent we moderns have returned to a political order that is in tune with natural law, it has been through the salvaging of English common law, its embodiment in the American order,and its maintenance by conscientious Americans from the Founding Fathers to John Courtney Murray, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Michael Novak, and Robert George today.

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This common law tradition was meticulously and reverently developed for centuries by devout Christians who took into account the works of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. The American Founders inherited this tradition. They “knew political philosophy, as well as history and law,” writes Russell Kirk. They were careful to unite “the authority of social custom with the authority of great books. They respected the wisdom of their ancestors. Especially they respected religious wisdom,” and “their political assumptions were compounded of Jewish religious doctrines, Christian teachings, classical philosophy, medieval learning, and English literature.” They also tested their politics by measuring it against “the historical experience of the ancient world, medieval society, English social development, and the American colonial experience … We are a modern nation only in a restricted sense.” We can find within the tradition of English common law a meticulously preserved conception of “ordered liberty” that was kept from the corrupting hands of the modern left, which would reduce it to license and weaponize it for totalitarian, eugenic, and anti-Christian use.

The American founding was a laborious process of transplanting this concept of ordered, virtuous liberty onto our continent. Modern totalitarianism, on the other hand, is a skipping of this careful process in its concrete reality and an impulsive thrust to create a mock state that superficially resembles the medieval paternalist Catholic order, a modern Frankenstein politics which leans heavily against the proper aims of even medieval Catholic political rule. Communism, for instance, is essentially overly ordered; it leaves out the connection of rule with its hard purposes among the people, disconnects it from its meaning in the lives of the ruled, and makes it simply an exercise of power for its own sake.

Not all of the anti-Catholicism that existed so long in America was merely an easily caricatured religious intolerance on the part of American Protestants. Few influential American anti-Catholics were simply motivated by a modernist distrust of the past. Rather, the main drive against Roman Catholicism in America was born of a suspicion that Catholics might be more sympathetic to the totalitarian strand of modern political practices than to the essentially conservative English tradition of ordered liberty. The first Continental Congress even published its worry that Canadian Roman Catholics “might become formidable to us, and on occasion, be fit instruments in the hands of power, to reduce the ancient free Protestant Colonies to the same state of slavery with themselves.”

This anti-Catholic paranoia was largely groundless, and in the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville was able to write, “I never met an English Catholic who did not value, as much as any Protestant, the free institutions of his country.” The loyalty of these Catholics to the American institution of ordered liberty did not require that they abandon their loyalty to Rome. Rather, Rome in the end vindicated the American Catholic position praised by de Tocqueville by promulgating it with all the authority of a Church Council:

“Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.

“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

“The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”

While anti-Catholicism in America was mostly misguided, there is no mistaking the fact that there did exist among some Catholics a religious intolerance that would justify the means of robbing men of their moral agency (liberty) by citing the end of “The Good” as conceived in Catholic teachings. While the Church has never sanctioned this intolerance among Catholics, and those who nevertheless adhere to it have never made up a majority, there seems to be a resurgence of it today. I've met and read the writings of not a few Catholics who exhibit a naïve trust in the divinely appointed authority of states. They even admire the power of the modern secularist state that superficially resembles the coercive “paternalism” that Benedict XVI could only refer to derogatorily as “demeaning.”

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While these Catholics still entertain a conspiratorial hope of some miraculous coup by which “modernity” (including, it would seem, the Church's “Modern” teachings on human dignity and religious freedom) will be undone in one blow, we must stand by the Church that presently stands to lose its liberty in our country. The business of promulgating natural virtues and the tenets of Christian morality is properly the role of the Church. This does not mean we should all turn against our country and await orders from Rome — the Church has always been a body made up of far more lay than clerical evangelists — but that the maintenance of public virtue is a duty especially to be impressed in the Christian conscience. The Founders of this country understood — and articulated almost ad nauseam — that without the free and right exercise of the Christian conscience, public morality would fall, and, as in the last days of the Roman Empire, take with it the political order.

Any limited government that serves to protect the liberty of its citizens rather than impose morality on them is a government that allows for evil. Just as God allows for the devil to roam the world seeking the ruin of souls, our Founders established a political order that left the door open to corruption. They also did everything in their rhetorical power to exhort us to stand — armed and ready — at that door. God also exhorts us to be vigilant against evil, arming us with both revelation and natural law, which our Founders were humble enough to commend to American citizens but not hubristic enough to interpret and enforce at gun-point.

Today we stare down the gun barrel of an administration that is bent on undoing what our Founding Fathers gave us and our Holy Fathers told us to preserve. Whether we succeed or not, engaging in the war on liberty that our President has declared is both a patriotic and a Christian duty. In 1997, Blessed Pope John Paul II reminded us of the “weighty and far-reaching responsibility” that the United States bears to its own citizens and to the rest of the world. He praised our Founders’ “commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all,” and warned that this commitment “must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their ‘lives . . . fortunes . . . and sacred honor.’” He praised America's protection of human rights, particularly “the fundamental human right of religious freedom, which is the guarantee of every other human right.” The blessed pontiff understood that this fundamental right is not the product of a Catholic State, dependent on a Catholic monarch or based on a medieval political blueprint. Instead, he quoted John Dickinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who said in 1776: “Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are only the declaration of preexisting rights. They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.”

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