Liberalism is the child of Christianity. So why are Catholics turning against it?

Blessed Pope Paul VI opens the second session of Vatican II in 1963 (Getty)

An increasing number of Catholics are turning against liberalism – as you will know if you have read the recent essays on this site from Adrian Vermeule and CC Pecknold. I think I can claim to have spotted this trend earlier than most: Back in 2013, I noticed a fashion among Catholics to lump together the whole of the liberal tradition, and tar it all with the brush of contemporary progressivism. My essay “Illiberal Catholicism” coined a term that many opponents of liberalism gladly embraced.

This illiberalism takes different forms. Critics of the Anglo-American tradition, such as Patrick Deneen, have argued that the intolerant progressivism that rules in American courts and British and Canadian social welfare agencies is the logical, proper outcome of that tradition, whose origins they trace not to the Magna Carta, but to Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, some in this faction view John Locke’s writings as little more than a fig leaf applied to Hobbes’ social atomism. (Robert Reilly, a Catholic scholar of the US founding, has made detailed rebuttals of these claims.)

Hence the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage were not a perversion but the correct application of the principles of the U.S. Constitution – and of Anglo-American liberalism. Aborting children and prosecuting Christians who won’t make gay wedding cakes is the final flower of the tree nurtured by Simon de Montfort, John Milton, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Some forms of Catholic illiberalism go even further. The philosopher Thomas Pink has argued that Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae only forbade the state to use violent coercion to suppress heresy. That left the Church free to use such coercion itself, against any baptised Christian, if it so chooses.

This has alarming implications. It could mean that the seizure of non-Catholics’ baptised children by the government is the logical implication of illiberal Catholicism. Louis XIV thought so, which is why he seized Huguenot children to rear them as Catholics. (The pope of his day, to his credit, objected.)  This isn’t an antiquarian point: As late as the 1940s, Franciscans in Croatia used violence to forcibly convert Orthodox Serbs. They were presumably under the Catholic Church’s jurisdiction, being baptised. Was this persecution right in principle, if perhaps too harsh in practice? Should it have just stuck to seizing children? Or was the whole effort intrinsically evil, as Catholics who accept religious liberty would insist?

For us, Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom did not overturn apostolic Catholic tradition. It reversed a fourth-century innovation, one that came in the wake of Constantine, which never formed part of the Deposit of Faith. The pretexts for religious persecution are natural law arguments, none of which have ever been affirmed infallibly. They don’t go back to the apostles, so they’re not part of the Church’s oral Tradition. That’s why the Church could reject them, as it did. Not just in the words of the Council itself, but in the teaching of every pope who spoke on the matter since the Council, and of the Church’s Catechism. Does a single reigning bishop anywhere in the world affirm the idea that the Church can use coercion against baptised Christians? I’d like to hear from him.

There are many political arrangements that can guarantee religious freedom, including tolerant confessional states such as Austria-Hungary and Great Britain in the 19th century. And tolerant, de facto Protestant regimes with no established church, like the U.S. for most of its history. (Those who want to whine about isolated instances of anti-Catholicism in America need to read how Mexico, Spain, and the Papal States treated Protestants at that time – far worse.)

But we live in age of miserable extremes. Many Catholics seem to assume that, if you reject the rampant secularism of judicial activists who pervert the principles of liberalism, you must embrace Joseph de Maistre’s ultramontanism – itself a thoroughly modern ideology.

There isn’t space to fully make the crucial point in any depth, but the liberal tradition is the legitimate child of Christian personalism. As St John Paul II wrote in Memory and Identity, our awareness of individual rights is a real and much belated incarnation in politics of the Incarnation of Christ. The person for a Christian is never what it would have been for Aristotle. Nor, much later, for Marx. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger made the same point in greater depth before the Bundestag in 1981.

A century before these popes, the great French Catholic classical liberal Frederic Bastiat had made the very same point. In The Law, he bemoaned the attraction exerted on Christians of pagan writers who approved of slavery but not of commerce; who saw themselves as gardeners, and their fellow men as topiary. Bastiat viewed both the integralists and the socialists of his day as effectively neo-pagans. In our own age, when Islamist rage and secularist bigotry threaten the rights of Christians as citizens and parents around the world, we’d be mad to surrender the finest fruit of Anglo-American history and Christian anthropology: the human person, radiant with inalienable rights, as the image and likeness of God.

John Zmirak is author most recently of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.