Illiberal Catholicism

Catholics used to be open to the lessons of freedom from the American experience. Are we forgetting those lessons?

31.12.2013 // PRINT


In the 20th century, the paternalist tumor metastasized.  It grew into full-blown totalitarianism, as leaders like Hitler and Stalin (who scoffed at Enlightenment liberties) engineered genocides, ruthless wars of conquest, and the violent persecution of various believers.  The clash of opposing paternalisms in World War II culminated in communist dictatorships controlling half the countries on earth. It took all these monstrous evils for the Church to get over the French Revolution and really assimilate the moral truth that liberty, especially religious liberty, is a non-negotiable demand for any decent politics. Those of us who consider ourselves “Tea Party Catholics” take this insight further, noting that without economic and political liberty, religious liberty is moot.  If the government can close your business or censor your speech, or tax away so much of your income that you can’t spend money or time building up civil society, you are hardly free in any meaningful sense. You are, as Bastiat warned, a potted plant awaiting the state and its pruning shears.  You are topiary.  You are toast.

Of course, it is possible for liberty to degenerate into license. Catholics advocates of liberty are fully aware that the Enlightenment concept of freedom is partial and incomplete, which is precisely why men like John Courtney Murray, Michael Novak, Robert George, and others have tried to supplement and perfect it.  The “pursuit of happiness” of which Thomas Jefferson spoke could be read as empty hedonism, the utilitarian quest for the greatest number of happy moments for the greatest number of people.  (And I’ve written here before, the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey made a travesty out of both “life” and “liberty.”)

But most of the Founders who signed the Declaration of Independence, and the vast majority of Americans over the centuries, did not embrace Hugh Hefner’s understanding of freedom. It is possible to understand the “happiness” of which Jefferson spoke in Aristotle’s sense — as the happiness proper to a human being whose virtuous life allows him to flourish.  That is the argument Catholics ought to be making to our non-Catholic neighbors, while making it clear that we reject utterly the paternalism of the past and treasure their religious, political, and economic freedom as much as we treasure our own. We must also reject the paternalism of the future, the omnicompetent secular state that crushes civil society and replaces everything from the family to the private school with some agency of the government.  Whether such a regime is openly dictatorial like Cuba or Venezuela, or an oligarchy that holds empty elections, like most of the European Union, matters little in the end.  When the state controls 70 or 80 percent of a nation’s wealth, it dominates most of your life.  You’re an ant riding an elephant, with one of your tiny feelers clutching the reins.

We ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment — because the American anti-Catholics of the 19th and 20th century were dead right about one thing: Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition.  Do I exaggerate?  Consider the fact that during the Spanish occupation of New Orleans, before the Louisiana Purchase, an officer of the Inquisition was interrogating heretics and collecting torture equipment — which he never got the chance to use, thank God. (The Inquisition did take root in Florida, and continued in Cuba until 1818.)  Protestants in Spain were subject to legal restrictions as late as the 1970s. The great defender of Pius IX and Vatican I, Louis Veuillot, summed up what was for centuries the dominant Catholic view of religious liberty:

"When you are the stronger I ask you for my freedom, for that is your principle; when I am the stronger I take away your freedom, for that is my principle."

As Americans, too, we must be self-critical, and acknowledge that in their reaction against the paternalism of the past, men like John Locke made grave philosophical errors — and unwittingly poisoned the ground of human dignity where the roots of freedom must rest.  Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker do an excellent job of explaining Enlightened errors in Politicizing the Bible, as does Edward Feser in his classic The Last Superstition.  In Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg shows in detail how freedom-loving Catholics can reintroduce the critical truths about human nature that our Founding Fathers overlooked.  Such constructive criticism of the Enlightenment project, which we might call “reparative patriotism,” is essential to preserving the lives of the unborn and the integrity of marriage, among many other things.  

It is one thing to say that John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had flawed views of human flourishing.  It is quite another for Catholics — given our long, unhappy heritage of paternalism and intolerance — to reject the Enlightenment wholesale; to pretend that religious, political, and economic freedom are the natural state of man, which we can take for granted like the sea, the sun, and the sky.  These freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our ancestors were fighting on the wrong side.  If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society, we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too.  Denouncing the Enlightenment a mere fifty years after our Church belatedly renounced intolerance, at the very moment when men as level-headed as Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Burke are warning that Catholics face the risk of persecution, and we desperately need allies among our Protestant neighbors… can anyone really be this reckless?


John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.

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