29 January 2019

Liberty: The God that Failed

Mr Ferrara takes on the libertarians who claim that it is the State that crushes liberty, and shows that their false politics is based on an equally false anthropology, denying the spiritual.

by Christopher Ferrara

The renowned Anglican covert to Catholicism, Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, once observed that “All human differences are ultimately religious ones.”[i] This is a truth even secular reason is forced to recognize. As the Satan-worshiping anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon admitted in his Confessions of a Revolutionary: “It is surprising to observe how constantly we find that all our political questions involve theological ones.” In reply, the renowned Catholic counter-revolutionary of the mid-nineteenth century, Don Juan Donoso Cortés, wrote: “There is nothing in this to cause surprise, except it be the surprise of Proudhon. Theology, being the science of God, is the ocean which contains all the sciences, as God is the ocean in which all things are contained.”[ii]

The history of Western civilization over the past 250 years is a chronicle of the decline of men and nations in consequence of a theological decision with profound political effects. That decision was the definitive refusal to conduct the art of politics according to the fundamental theological premise that an almighty and eternal God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. What confronts us now is the prospect of life in a terminal civilization that has rejected the ancient dictum, in force throughout the West for more than a thousand years, that “Christianity is the law of the land.”[iii] We are the victims of what Christopher Dawson described as “the reversal of the spiritual revolution which gave birth to Western culture and a return to the psychological situation of the old pagan world…”[iv]

More particularly, the collapsing societies of the West groan under the consequences of what one liberal commentator has characterized as “a fundamental orientation toward politics chosen by early-modern Europeans in order to free themselves from the intellectual and spiritual influence of the Catholic Church…”[v] That is, the condition of contemporary Western civilization reflects the final destruction of the Catholic social order that endured in one form or another from Imperial Rome under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century until the fall of the Imperial House of Hapsburg under the Emperor Charles I at the dawn of the 20th century.

By Catholic social order is meant a society with its organs of government, traditionally referred to collectively as the State[vi], which recognizes the Catholic Church at its summit and is responsive to her teaching. Such a State orders its laws and institutions (however imperfectly) to the Christian moral code and the final end of man as a creature of God, destined for either eternal beatitude or eternal punishment. This State may be monarchical, democratic or republican in its political constitution, and we have seen examples of all three forms of government (or mixtures thereof) within the dominant Western mode of Catholic social order. What was essential to this social order, known as Christendom, was the presence of an organic link between the Catholic Church and the State in virtue of which the Church was the conscience of the State. It is that link which was broken, and the result has aptly been likened to the decomposition of a human body from which the soul has departed.

One of the great triumphs of the new “fundamental orientation,” otherwise known as “classical liberalism,” is to have banished from the mind of contemporary Western man the memory that Christendom was the form and pattern of our civilization for most of its history. Classical liberalism is the system of thought which progressively divorces the art of politics from divine law and man’s final end in God, leaving the approach to God strictly to the individual members of civil society, artificially severed from its organs of government to allow for the fiction of the “private” believer. The liberal disjunction between civil society and the State, reducing the latter to merely value-neutral organs of government, was a radical break with the Western tradition that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Christendom, which combined the inspiration of supernatural grace with the natural truths of the Philosophers, was the historical fulfillment of man’s divine ordination to life in the State, producing nothing less than all of the greatest achievements of Western culture in an alliance (by no means without its own peculiar problems) between the Church and political authority.

In place of a great civilization ordered to Christ, the forces of liberalism­—quite suddenly in historical terms, and by force of arms at each critical juncture—established a new order whose god is “Liberty.” We ought to call Liberty a god because, like any idol that man sets up for himself, its claims are deemed to supersede those of man’s Creator. Whereas Christ declared that His apostles were to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” and teaching them “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,”[vii] the god of Liberty declared the age-old baptism of nations to be annulled and the Christian commonwealth to be abolished. Whereas Christ taught that political authority descends to man from God, even in the case of the procurator who unjustly sentenced Him to death, Liberty decreed that political authority ascends from the “sovereign will” of the people, so that even God’s law could be subjected to popular repeal.

Whereas Christ taught that His truth will make men free, Liberty insisted upon a previously unknown conception of freedom in society: the mere absence of constraint on human action by the State, save for that necessary to prevent violence and to protect the right to the ownership, use and enjoyment of private property in the pursuit of whatever thing each individual deems to constitute happiness. Without the conformity of human law to the law of the Gospel, the term violence inevitably contracted, while the terms property and happiness expanded in proportion to what unrestrained human weakness and popular consensus demanded. Hence today human life in utero may, at the option of its “owner,” be destroyed and disposed of as waste, or extracted and inventoried at the embryonic stage for sale as a consumer good. And not even the political opponents of these crimes against humanity are willing to oppose them on any ground but an appeal to the same sovereign popular will that put Liberty on its pedestal.

In sum, the god of Liberty has imposed upon Western civilization what Pope Leo XIII succinctly denounced as “that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law.”[viii] This new conception of law expressed itself in utterly revolutionary principles which contemporary man, abysmally ignorant of his own Christian heritage, now unquestioningly accepts as the received wisdom of the ages:

[T]hat all are equal in the control of their life; that each one is so far his own master as to be in no sense under the rule of any other individual; that each is free to think on every subject just as he may choose, and to do whatever he may like to do; that no man has any right to rule over other men….that the judgment of each one's conscience is independent of all law; that the most unrestrained opinions may be openly expressed as to the practice or omission of divine worship; and that every one has unbounded license to think whatever he chooses and to publish abroad whatever he thinks…[ix]

That these principles would destroy the foundations of our civilization was self-evident. Only forty years after Leo, Pope Pius XI observed that “With God and Jesus Christ, excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.”[x] But perhaps not even Leo and Pius could have imagined the full extent of the civilizational debacle Liberty has wrought: not only the abortion holocaust, but an epidemic of divorce, the universal practice of contraception, the depopulation of Western nations, the relentless advance of homosexualism, the destruction of the family, the spread of orgiastic consumerism, the debasement of art, music and architecture, and finally the emergence of a veritable neo-pagan social order in which Christians increasingly face persecution for mere utterances against the orthodoxy of “liberty.”

In place of the Christian commonwealth, Liberty has erected a market-driven “culture of rights,” founded on the fiction of the isolated individual in a mythical pre-social, pre-religious state of nature, who is said to possess “rights” abstracted from any divine ordination to life in the State or any collective social duty to God. These “rights” are merely elaborate explications of Liberty’s one commandment: thou shalt not interfere in human action. Denying any ordination of the State to an objective common good conformable to Christ and eternal beatitude, the culture of rights has led to a tyranny of public opinion, enforced by despotic popular regimes which crush any attempt to secure true freedom through restoration of the Christian moral order, with its divinely ordained limits on human action and its positive duties in justice and charity toward one’s fellow man.

Under such conditions the pursuit of any common good in the State is impossible, and society becomes a mere arena for the pursuit of what each individual deems his proper good, without regard for the total impact of these individual pursuits on life in society as a whole. Thus Christians are forced to live in a global, free-market Gomorrah in which a trip to the supermarket invites an attack upon the innocence of their children, which is assaulted on every side. The culture of rights has produced a culture of death—physical, moral and spiritual—that oppresses not only the Christian life, but truth, beauty and goodness themselves.

The libertarian acolytes of Liberty argue that it is not Liberty but the State that oppresses us. Rejecting the entire Western tradition, they declare that life in the State is not natural to man. The State, they maintain, arises from the unnatural imposition of organs of government upon a naturally free civil society by an age-old conspiracy of nefarious ruling elites, who have somehow managed to persuade generation after generation, in virtually every place on earth, that government is necessary. If only the unnecessary organs of government—kings, parliaments, presidents, congresses, governors, public magistrates, and so forth—can be eliminated, the “monopoly of force” by which the elites have for so long oppressed the Western masses will be ended, and civil society will triumph in the freedom and prosperity of the “spontaneous order” that arises from voluntary human cooperation. The State will wither away, just as it does in the dreams of Marxists. It will be the Second Coming of Liberty, whose first coming in 1776 ended with Liberty’s crucifixion by the Federalists, who gave the world yet another State.

Mass democracy, the libertarians concede, is a god that failed, just as communism failed.[xi] Democracy failed not because of Liberty (so the argument goes) but because the State’s “monopoly of force” enabled one group to oppress another through taxation, regulation and the threat of force in violation of the “free-market principle” of untrammeled interpersonal exchange. The libertarians conveniently overlook the indispensable role of the “free” market itself in fostering democratic tyranny by destroying social adherence to the objective moral order–a role de-ethicized secular governments are only too happy to facilitate with judicial decisions that bar any substantial legal limitation on the market’s promotion of vice and corruption. Christians are pressed between what Wilhelm Röpke called the “bloated colossus of the State” and the “cult of the colossal” in the marketplace. Even the Protestant Röpke, one of the foremost free-market defenders of the 20th century, was constrained to issue the warning that market competition “must not be allowed to predominate and sway society in all its spheres, or it will poison men’s souls [and] destroy civilization…”[xii] In Catholic social order it was not possible for the market to have this effect, for both the law of the Gospel and civil law protected public morality. In liberal social order, however, that effect was inevitable.

The libertarians do not see, or will not acknowledge, that the god of Liberty reigns equally over secular government and free market, constantly maintaining a symbiotic adjustment between these two basic elements of de-ethicized liberal social order. The de-ethicized government exacts from the de-ethicized market a tribute of taxation and regulation which merely dampens a still immense and growing material prosperity, and in return the market receives from government legal protection against the moral claims of Christianity, so that profit may abound from the sale of anything and everything for which entrepreneurs can create a demand, including embryonic human beings. Röpke, who was no advocate of Catholic social order, observed this symbiosis in his own renowned critique of economic liberalism: “[T]he economic liberalism of the last two centuries has disastrously gone astray in a manner fully paralleling the mistakes of political liberalism and ultimately stemming from the same source.” [xiii]

The dreamers of the libertarian dream fail to perceive that it is not the State as such, which will exist as long as there is human society, but rather the theology of the State that has led to tyranny. The worst of the “absolute” monarchs of Christendom was a model of limited government compared with the presidents and prime ministers of modern secular regimes who owe no allegiance to Rome. Even a leading libertarian scholar has acknowledged, apparently without recognizing the significance of his admission, that “the historic transition from monarchy to democracy represents not progress but civilizational decline.”[xiv] The monarchies in question were Catholic states embodying Catholic social order—the very order overthrown in the name of Liberty.

The liberal political philosopher Pierre Manent candidly observed that “the distinction between civil society and the state, and their union through the idea of representation [i.e. democracy], sets off a natural oscillation between two extreme possibilities: the ‘withering away’ of the state on the one hand, and the absorption of civil society by the state on the other. It is a distinction that calls out for negation, a negation that can benefit only one of the two terms.”[xv] Yet both terms have been supplied by liberal political philosophy in service of its great project: “the radical discrediting of the Church’s political claims…”[xvi] Hence both terms are in line with liberalism’s fundamental movement away from the Church’s vision of Christocentric social order, which alone can preserve the State from the oscillation between absolutism and anarchy.

As “statist” and libertarian devotees of liberty debate the future of their idol, we live amidst the ruins of the Christocentric civilization Liberty has leveled to the ground. Narcotized by the material comforts an endlessly inventive marketplace provides, Christians in general and Catholics in particular (with a few noble historical exceptions) have offered little resistance to Liberty’s inexorable demolition of nearly everything that was good and holy in the commonweal. Today there is only the occasional verbal protest from among the few “fundamentalists” who actually understand what we have lost. But even the fundamentalists have been effectively converted by the new order. As the proto-libertarian Benjamin Constant observed with smug certitude concerning the Catholic reactionaries of post-revolutionary France: “in declaring themselves champions of earlier centuries… [they] are, in spite of themselves, men of our century [who] have neither the strength of their convictions nor the hope that ensures success.”[xvii]

Liberty makes certain we remain deprived of the hope that ensures success by convincing us that the overthrow of Catholic social order was inevitable and is now quite irreversible: There will be faction and violence if any effort is made to topple me, Liberty warns us. For only Liberty can control the chaos that Liberty has unleashed. Our entire civilization has fallen prey to an ideological protection racket. But we are not protected. In fear of violence we pay tribute to violence. Each year abortion alone claims more victims for Liberty than all of the major wars in world history combined. And now ultimate violence approaches.

It is not as if our deliverance from this predicament were inconceivable. Another triumph of the new orientation is that it has blinded us to the political significance of the spiritual reality that, even today, the great preponderance of the population of the Western world consists of baptized Christians, with the overwhelming Western popular majority[xviii] remaining at least nominally Catholic. If this majority were to be aroused from its silent apostasy by the leaders of a Catholic Church returned to militancy, the world would certainly change again. As Dawson observed of our situation: “However secularized our modern civilization may have become, this sacred tradition remains like a river in the desert, and a genuine religious education can still use it to irrigate the thirsty lands and to change the face of the world with the promise of new life.”[xix] The leaders of the new order themselves, who erupt in nearly hysterical outrage at any sign of effective Catholic opposition to secular orthodoxy, evince an acute awareness of the immense spiritual power that lies dormant under the desert they have created. They know how easily an awakened fraternity of the baptized could topple the god of Liberty.

And topple Liberty we must, in the name of true freedom—the freedom that comes from the idea that we are the children of a loving God, who bestows upon us both temporal blessings and eternal happiness, if only men and nations will follow His counsels. But beyond a simple plea for a return to faith, Catholics must be prepared to argue that reason itself suffices to demonstrate that only a reconstruction of Christendom, or something approaching it as an interim step in the revival of the West, can avert the coming catastrophe, and that otherwise we are at the end of history. As the currently reigning Pope remarked when he was Cardinal Ratzinger: “[N]o society will long survive if in its public structure it is built agnostically and materialistically and wishes to permit anything else to exist only below the threshold of the public.”[xx] The Anglican scholar John Milbank, who represents the growing intellectual trend toward a radically Christian critique of secular social order, has expressed this conviction in a startling way: “Only a global liturgical polity can save us now from literal violence.”[xxi]

What of the objection that we are advocating the “impossibility” of a reconversion of the Western world to Roman Catholicism? I reply that this “impossibility” ought really to be seen as nothing less than the only reasonable course of action to save a dying civilization, which, after all, is still predominantly composed of baptized Catholics. At this point in the civilizational debacle, anyone who calls himself a Christian should at least be willing to make an effort to examine our situation from the traditional Catholic perspective, standing outside the framework of liberal premises whose adoption was no less an act of the will than the common faith that sustained Christendom for century upon century. As Milbank has observed, the governing assumptions of secular social theory “are bound up with the modification or the rejection of orthodox Christian positions. These fundamental intellectual shifts are… no more rationally ‘justifiable’ than the Christian positions themselves.”[xxii]

Let us argue, then, on the ground of reason in the hope that, for the skeptical, faith will follow. Even in the absence of faith, however, reason alone ought to impel the thoughtful man to rise up against Liberty, the failed god whose reign has brutalized and degraded us all in one way or another.


[i] Cited in Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy (South Bend:Gateway Editions), 1958), pp. 4, 75.

[ii] Don Juan Donoso Cortes, Essay on Catholicism, Authority and Order, (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1925), p. 1.

[iii] Christopher Dawson, Understanding Europe (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952), p. 18.

[iv] Ibid, p. 14.

[v] Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. viii (preface by Jerrold Siegel).

[vi] I use the term “State” in the classical sense of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which recognizes the indispensable organic relation between civil society and government. In libertarian thought, on the other hand, “State” means merely the organs of government, especially in the nations of the post-Christian West, whose varying absolutism is actually a departure from Catholic teaching on the nature of the just State.

[vii] Matthew 28: 19-20.

[viii] Immortale Dei, n. 23.

[ix] Ibid., n. 24.

[x] Quas Primas (1925).

[xi]Cfr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004). The author rejects both democracy and monarchy, advocating instead a never-before-seen society governed by private contractual agencies, thus correcting classical liberalism’s “error” in accepting the concept of public authority—i.e., government. Ibid., p. 229.

[xii] Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, (South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1958), p. 128.

[xiii] Wilhem Röpke, The Social Crisis of Our Time (New Brunswick: Transacation Publishers, orig. pub. 1942), p. 48.

[xiv]Ibid., p. 69.

[xv]Manent, op. cit., p. 27.

[xvi]Ibid, p. 12.

[xvii]Cited in Manent, p. 91.

[xviii]I employ here and throughout the classical definition of the Western world: Western Europe and all the territory settled by Catholic Europeans in North America, Latin America (the countries of the Western hemisphere south of the United States) and Oceania, and the Eurocentric Christian culture and laws resulting from the vast Catholic expansion of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

[xix]Dawson, Understanding Europe, p. 255.

[xx] Cited in Thomas Storck, “John Locke, Liberal Totalitarianism, and the Trivialization of Religion,” Faith and Reason, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Autumn 2001).

[xxi]John Milbank, “The Gift of Ruling: Secularization and Political Authority” (Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2004) (reprinted essay), p. 238. Millbank and others of the school of “Radical Orthodoxy” fail to appreciate that the answer they seek to the civilizational crisis is contained entirely within the traditional social doctrine of the Catholic Church, which needs only to be reasserted by the Church’s teaching authority. The Church has not “failed,” as Millbank suggests. Rather, her human element has failed to defend what even Vatican II called the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” thus allowing the impression to arise that the Magisterium has reversed itself, which is impossible.

[xxii]John Milbank, Theology and Social History: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 1.

©2005 The Remnant

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