Politics

Illiberal Catholicism

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

December 31, 2013
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December 31, 2013


The best brief analysis of this paternalism, which classical pagan thinkers deeded to modern socialists, was offered by Frederic Bastiat:
 
"Present-day writers — especially those of the socialist school of thought — base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: they divide mankind into two parts. People in general — with the exception of the writer himself — form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!
 
"In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment, no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms — at best, a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped by the will and hand of another person into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.

Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine that he himself — under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder — is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials — persons — into a society. These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees."

A personalist politics of liberty also arose from Christian sources, to match the exalted Christian idea of each human being, and was expressed in institutions like the English Common Law and Swiss democracy.  It co-existed with the older, pagan authoritarian strain, and in a few countries, such as England and Switzerland, the idea of liberty won out against its rival. In one of God’s little ironies, as Russell Kirk showed in The Roots of American Order, it was largely Protestants who championed the rights of Christians against the State, while Catholics endorsed old Roman, pagan conceptions of the State and its nearly limitless prerogatives.  After the Reformation destroyed the Church’s political independence, popes saw little choice but to baptize, and try to morally inform, the absolutism of monarchs. (The nadir was reached when Catholic kings — who already picked all the bishops in their countries — forced the pope to suppress the Jesuits, who had eluded their royal control.)  In the wake of the French Revolution, any talk of liberty seemed tainted by the blood of murdered priests, nuns, and Catholic peasants.  The fear of revolutionary violence was enough to make Pope Pius IX side with the tsar and his Cossacks against the freedom-loving Catholics of Poland, and with the British Crown against the Irish.

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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.
John Zmirak expert aleteia network
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