Acton Institute Powerblog

Catholic ‘anti-liberalism’ – a response to Dan Hugger

My colleague Dan Hugger’s latest post on the PowerBlog titled “The dangers of Catholic anti-liberalism” got me thinking about a subject that has always intrigued me: The relationship between the Catholic Church and liberalism.

In my view, there are at least two problems in the argument presented by Hugger in his article and the discussion developed by Korey D. Maas on anti-Catholicism—fully adopted by Hugger. In the first place, there is no precise definition of the nature of liberalism, and this, in my view, should be not only the initial step but the basis of the argument itself. My second objection is that Hugger writes about Christianity broadly speaking while seeming to be speaking about Catholics. I think it would be difficult for anyone to argue that liberalism is not inherently a Protestant political ideology, utterly alien to the Catholic mindset.

The consolidation of liberal political theory during the so-called Scottish Enlightenment marks not only a programmatic articulation of the free-market economy but also a deep split of the liberal movement. As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb writes, within the Enlightenment came two antagonistic schools, the first was represented by John Locke, who believed in the possibility of radical reform of the human being. The second, she asserts, was represented by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson who believed in a natural benevolence of man. Locke dominated the stage in continental Europe, while the moralist school was predominant in the Anglo-Saxon world. Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Mandeville were associated with the first school; on the other hand, Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke defended the ideas of the moralists.

The earliest liberalism was not called liberalism. Actually, it was labeled as such by its successors at a later moment when liberals sought political legitimacy. Adam Smith’s moral school had as its essence the defense of the free market economy. As wrote the Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho: “The arguments Smith presents are practical, technical, psychological and moral, but it is essential to understand that in its beginning liberalism was neither a proposal for action nor a political movement.”

Smith did not establish a political program but described a set of economic processes that had existed since the Middle Ages, explaining the reasons for its effectiveness, extolling its intrinsic morality and explaining some political and cultural conditions required for its continued success. Smith was not a partisan political ideologue, but a philosopher and social scientist.

Therefore, it should not be surprising to find that Smith’s ideas were widely accepted by Tories such as William Pitt the Younger, and that the father of modern conservatism, the Whig Edmund Burke, saw himself as Smith’s disciple.

According to the historian Guido de Ruggiero’s Storia del Liberalismo Europeo, “liberals” — in pejorative opposition to “serviles” — saw themselves as promoters of the Enlightenment’ s rationalistic ideas against faith and tradition. These proposals had little economic relevance, since the center of industrial and commercial progress at the time was precisely the country which most emphatically fought the ideas of the French Revolution and remained more attached to its monarchical and religious traditions: The United Kingdom.

Smith’s classical economic liberalism and the French and Spanish atheistic and anticlerical liberalism were not only independent of each other but opposed. Smith showed that the market economy would only progress inasmuch it could find a social environment based on the rule of the law and strong public moral assumptions. English traditionalism, not Franco-Spanish revolutionary liberalism, was the framework of a regime of natural freedom.

In France and Spain, the rise of the liberal revolutionaries led, on the contrary, to an expansion of bureaucratic authority, anticlerical policies, and a system of education based on atheism.

Liberalism as we know it owes nothing to Smith but to the French Jacobins. John Stuart Mill seems to be paradigmatic in this sense. Defender of the free-market economy and an unapologetic atheist, Mill ended his days as a social reformer close to the Fabian socialists. In Mill’s thought, we can find all the elements present in political liberalism: the cult of the individual as the center of political reality and the progressive view of history.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church has been against this conception of society. An institution based on the hierarchy and the transmission of apostolic authority over the centuries can only show disdain towards an ideology that rejects transcendence, worships the present and the future, and lowers the horizons of politics to individualism.

It seems contradictory to me to believe that the Catholic Church should be liberal. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Catholicism concerning other Christian denominations is precisely the unity of the interpretation of the sacred scriptures and the power of the Pope as guardian of the infallible magisterium of the Church. Among Catholics, freedom of interpretation is constrained by the teaching of the Church and authority is entrusted to the bishops and especially to the Bishop of Rome, not because of the judgment or will of the laity but rather the apostolic succession. This arrangement is the opposite of liberal individualism and its ontological sameness.

Catholic liberalism was an attempt to reconcile the Church with the ideals of the French Revolution and to make Rome the epicenter of a new revolution, not only political but one that aimed to destroy every institution that did not fit into the Jacobin creed.

However, what seems even more problematic is the belief that some society can be based on freedom and not on public morality. Freedom is an empty concept because it is not a principle but an outcome. The room for individual freedom is the result of institutional accommodation, unfolding of the distribution of power within a society. Historians such as Fustel de Coulanges, Jacob Burckhardt, and Christopher Dawson demonstrated how the social dimension is inseparable from the religious one, insofar as the former is defined by the latter. In summary, it is Christianity that says what freedom means and not the other way around.

The United States, for example, was conceived as a Protestant nation in which the individual freedoms guaranteed by the law were disciplined and controlled by a strong sense of public morality, a pure anathema of the liberal creed that the individual should be the ruler and sole judge of the right and the wrong. American decadence began precisely when this public morality, for various reasons, was eroded.

As of the 1960s, 80 percent of the American people agreed that children should pray in schools. In the 1962 landmark decision Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional schools to support praying, which was understood as a victory for liberals and their need to make every religious manifestation a matter of separation between church and state. Since then, one of the central promises of Conservatives and Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was to undo Engel — Reagan even fundraised on that subject in 1980. Dare to say the same nowadays and someone will call you a Christian fundamentalist.

Liberal political ideology condemns religion to play a minor role in the ordering of society, sometimes a wholly irrelevant one. However, when an engineer decides to knock down the main pillar of a building in the hope that the small beams will hold the structure together, he has actually choosing demolition over maintenance as a more acceptable option.


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Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.