The Illiberality of Religious Liberalism

When speaking of liberalism, it is important to define our terms, for if we do not, certain assumptions will be made, with reference to the popular lexicon of American partisan politics. This would be a grave mistake, for much of what I shall say is liberal passes for conservative in that lexicon. And contrariwise, some ideas considered “liberal” in the popular lexicon are indeed traditional points of Catholic social teaching, which is intrinsically conservative, as it “conserves” Christian standards of public morals and the common good.

According to the Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Liberalism is “A doctrinal current, quite complex and changeable, which has had various interpretations and practical applications, not easily definable. The basic concept of liberalism is liberty, taken as emancipation and independence of man, society, and State, from God and His Church.

“[W]ith the French Revolution it enters the sociopolitical field and manifests itself as exaggerated democracy (sovereign people), as separatism with respect to the relations between Church and State (‘A free church in a free State’), as indifferentism in matters of religion and worship, and as abstentionism (noninterference) of the State in economics (‘Leave everything to private initiative’). [This last form of liberalism is known as “libertarianism” in American politics.]” (Parente, Pietro; Piolanti, Antonio; and Garofalo, Salvatore, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology. Translated by Emmanuel Doronzo, O.M.I., S.T.D., Ph.D. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951. My bold emphasis.)

I presently lack the space to expand on that definition point-by-point, but reread it slowly to see how it affirms what I noted in my introductory paragraph regarding the inadequacy of our American political terminology in explaining what liberalism really is.

The word “illiberal” is defined as follows:

1 opposed to liberal principles; restricting freedom of thought or behavior: illiberal and anti-democratic policies.

2 [rare] uncultured or unrefined.

3 [rare] not generous; mean.

I would contend that the liberal, inasmuch as he emancipates man, society, and State, from God and His Church, is niggardly or pusillanimous with God. That is to say, the liberal is “not generous; mean,” as in the third sense of “illiberal,” above, because he would deny God’s rights over the individual conscience, the family, economics, and the entire social order.

Further, and more relevant to my point here, is that the liberal generally fits into the first definition of “illiberal,” namely, “opposed to liberal principles; restricting freedom of thought or behavior.” At first blush, this sounds contradictory, so let us consider the claim more closely.

Various social and political commentators (e.g., James Kalb, author of the book The Tyranny of Liberalism; and Israel Shamir, who authored an article by the same name) recognize that the intrinsic dynamism of liberalism is toward a certain contrived equality, one that ideologically equalizes everyone and everything. But if one tries to equate, for instance, the institution of matrimony with sodomitical concubinage, there will be many people who object to such an effort. These people, who advance a conservative or traditional view of marriage, must somehow be neutralized if genuine equality is to take place. Hence, the numerous cases of governmental bodies penalizing — and criminalizing — those who choose not to provide products or services that will promote this agenda, their Christian consciences be damned. (The examples of this are many and alarming.) This is what Kalb refers to, in the subtitle of his book, as “Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command.”

The liberal illusion of a freedom not tethered to God’s law (natural and revealed) produces many more such conflicting rights claims: Various feminist “rights” conflict with the natural rights of the husband as head of the family; the “freedom of expression” of the pornographer conflicts not only with God’s law, but with the human dignity of the prostitutes being exploited for base gain (pornē, in Greek, means prostitute); the right claimed by two lesbians to adopt a child conflicts with that child’s need of familial normalcy; etc. And guess who is the loser in these rights wars? He who defends the genuine right, founded on the nature of things, because such a person is considered an enemy of progress and the liberal ideal. Thus does liberalism descend into tyranny.

To be sure, there also exists the real possibility of two liberals battling in court over their false rights claims: Just imagine PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) defending the (non-extant) rights of a lamb from being sacrificed by the “Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye,” a real pagan sect that practices animal sacrifice, and which won a major “religious liberty” case against the City of Hialeah, Florida. Such a prospect heightens our sense of the absurdity of liberal progressivism.

Who cannot see that the gigantic Nanny State that multiplies and enforces such nonsensical rights has become despotic? One need only glance at the news headlines. All the while, the monied interests get richer, the oligarchs get more powerful, and the liberties of the Church get trampled upon — regardless of whether (liberal) capitalists or (liberal) communists pull the levers of power.

In light of all this, the words of the stodgy old Bl. Pio Nono look prophetical:

“And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests?” (Quanta Cura, Encyclical of Pope Pius IX promulgated on December 8, 1864.)

And who, after God, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints of heaven, will save the common man from such liberal illiberalism? In the words of Pope Saint Pius X: “Indeed, the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.” (Notre Charge Apostolique, Encyclical of Pope Pius X to the French Bishops August 15, 1910.)