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Of Law and Liberty

By Fr. Thomas Crean

It becomes ever clearer that the Church in England and Wales is caught in a pincer movement launched by the militant secularists now in control of the British state and their paradoxical ally – resurgent Islam. It is important, therefore, to understand the basis of Catholic claims about the ‘good society’. Father Thomas Crean OP discusses Pope Leo XIII’s teaching on this issue.

What would a Catholic society be like? The brief furore caused by Dr Rowan Williams’ remarks on ‘Sharia law’ leads us to raise the question. Correctly or not, the Anglican primate was thought to have proposed that Muslims might be exempted from some provisions of English law in order to be governed by the principles of Islam. Some critics remarked, justly enough, that a piece of land where two sets of laws are in force contains two societies, not one. But others protested against the proposal in the name of cherished ‘Western values’. Our laws on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, they said, or the principles of majority vote as the source of law, and of equal rights for all religions, are incompatible with Islam. And so they are: but what is less often noted is that they are also incompatible with the traditional teaching of the Church.

The Church’s teaching on law and liberty was masterfully delineated by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Libertas Humana, which is one hundred and twenty years old this year. It begins with the ringing declaration that freedom is “the highest of natural endowments” (LH 1), which the Church has always defended against fatalists of every kind (LH 4). Defined as “the faculty of choosing means fitted for the end proposed” (LH 5), and especially for happiness, which all naturally desire, freedom separates man from the other animals. But to reach its goal, insists the pontiff, our freedom must be enlightened, so that it may choose what is truly good, and not what merely seems so. Hence the need for law (LH 7).

Already a great gulf has opened up between Pope Leo – who is doing no more than summarise the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas, among others – and the makers of the modern world. For these latter, law is the foe of liberty, though needed lest rival freedoms turn the world to chaos. For the Pope, law is the friend of liberty: good laws teach us how to use our freedom well, so that we may become good.

Natural law

This is true, first of all, of natural law. The echo of God’s voice within us, natural law lays down the route that will lead us, with the help of grace, back to Him. But it is also true of human law. God has created us as social animals, and since God’s plan is consistent with itself, He must intend that civil society help us attain our final goal of union with Him. So the task of the human legislator is to second and support the law written on our hearts. He makes natural law public and visible, and hence easier to follow. As Pope Leo declares: “the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion and bring on the ruin of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of civil law, all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law" (LH 10).

The legislator may therefore forbid murder and suicide and adultery and other actions not simply when “the current consensus of public opinion finds them unacceptable” but because they are wrong. Immoral actions wound the society that Divine Providence has entrusted to his care, and which he should desire to be good and healthy. More important still, such actions are obstacles to the eternal salvation of the citizens. And though the civil ruler is not a priest or bishop, yet he must take thought like them for “the welfare of men’s souls” (LH 18). Without being an ecclesiastic, he is, as St Paul himself declares, “the minister of God for good” (Rom. 13:4).

This is not to say that all mortal sins should be criminal offences. St Thomas Aquinas remarks that the laws intend to bring men to virtue “not all at once, but step-by-step”. The prudent legislator will thus forbid only those sins which most men can avoid, lest by imposing too heavy a burden he bring the law itself into contempt and worse evils result. Still, to be a good ruler he must keep before his eyes the goal for which his citizens were created. Writing, perhaps to the heir to the kingdom of Cyprus, St Thomas warns: “Since heavenly blessedness is the ultimate end of the life by which we live well here in the present, it belongs to the office of a king [or president, or prime minister…] to promote the good life of the multitude in such a way as to make it suited for the attainment of heavenly blessedness, so that he commands the things that lead to heavenly blessedness, and forbids their contraries, insofar as this is possible.”

A law, then, is not just because it expresses the will of the people or of the majority, but because it conforms to the unchanging law of God. A Muslim is not wrong to desire a society where man’s law is subject to God’s; though we shall disagree with him, in some respects, about what this latter enjoins. To throw off the law of God, on the other hand, notes Pope Leo, is “a road leading straight to tyranny” (LH 16). Why is this? When those in power, whether this means the politicians or the very wealthy, acknowledge no law above themselves, they will necessarily govern in their own interests, if it is true that everyone loves either God or himself most of all. But a government that exists for the benefit of the rulers and not for the common good is the very definition of a tyranny.

We can think, for instance, of the recent legislation commanding all adoption agencies to yield their children into the care not only of married couples but also of two unmarried men. The legislator here has first renounced the law of God as it pertains to marriage; he then seeks popularity by satisfying the unjust demand of a powerful lobby; he ends with an act of astonishing tyranny against those who work for the good of children, and against children themselves.

Catholic society

A Catholic society, then, will honour God by embodying the natural law in its legislation. It will also honour God directly and by name, acknowledging Him, as Pope Leo notes, “as its Founder and Parent” (LH 21). God is the founder of society not only because He created us as naturally social beings, but also because He is the source of all authority. Whether rulers are elected, born, or chosen by lot, their authority derives from on high. “There is no power but from God”, writes St Paul (Rom. 13:1). That is why not only men taken individually, but also societies as such, have a duty to honour God.

But a Catholic society would also pay heed to Revelation. The natural law itself requires us to believe all that God may have revealed. That is why every sin against the Faith is indirectly a sin against natural law. To be wholly faithful to natural law, therefore, a human society must also seek to foster and protect the True Faith. And Catholic societies have traditionally done this, checking the spread of heresy where possible. So gentle a saint as Francis de Sales reckoned this a solemn duty for those who ruled over Catholic nations. “Alas, Sire”, he said to the Duke of Savoy when he learned of the latter’s plans to allow Calvinist ministers in his territory, “that would be to lose your dominions and Paradise besides, of which the span of one foot is worth more than all the world.

(Incidentally, the Second Vatican Council, in its decree on religious liberty, states that it maintains intact the traditional teaching on the duties of the State to the Church. When it speaks of a “natural right to religious liberty”, we must understand it to mean a right to use liberty well in religious matters; not a right to be allowed to draw Catholics away from the True Faith.)

But what right have you to force your religion on me?’ That is a reproach commonly made against legislators who seek, in however small a way, to be guided by Catholic principles. The answer, of course, is that they have no such right, and that they are not doing so. To forbid abortion, say, or the sale of contraceptives, is not to seek to convert others to Catholicism by force. It is to promote the natural law, by which all human beings are already bound, whether or not they have yet come to faith. And to seek to check the spread of heresy in a Catholic country would not be to force Catholicism on the small number of citizens who were of a different persuasion. Unlike a totalitarian regime, the Catholic ruler claims no dominion over the consciences of the people. He cannot oblige anyone to abandon his maternal religion: his writ does not run in the households of non-believers: but he must protect those who are already within Christ’s fold.

What does this mean in practice for the freedoms dear to those “who, usurping the name of liberty, style themselves Liberals” (LH 14)? In a Catholic society, these freedoms would not be destroyed, but rather baptised and civilised. There need not be only one newspaper, for example, in a Catholic country, nor would all the printing-presses be controlled by ecclesiastics. The papers, and the other media, would be free to discuss the vast number of things which form no part of the Creed: whether taxes should be raised or lowered or abolished; whether farmers or academics or artists should be subsidised; whether all adults should have the vote, or only heads of households, or only the rich, or only the poor… But they would not be free to blaspheme, or to deny the Incarnation or the Sacraments, or to promote astrology, or to display pornography. Nor would people have the right to publish books promoting non-Catholic religions, or attacking natural law or the family.

Yet isn’t this sort of thing counter-productive?’ someone might protest. ‘Isn’t it better to allow all religions and philosophies to compete on equal terms? After all, if you call in the law to protect your faith, you don’t seem to have much confidence in its power. Isn’t truth stronger than falsehood?

This objection is not without nobility. St Augustine himself began by accepting it, more or less. But experience convinced him otherwise, for indeed it rests on too optimistic a view of human nature. Pope Leo explains: “By far the greater part of the community is either absolutely unable, or able only with great difficulty, to escape from illusions and deceitful subtleties, especially such as flatter the passions” (LH 23). Catholicism certainly satisfies the deepest aspirations of human nature, but it is not the easiest of all religions, let alone the easiest of all philosophies of life. Required to compete ‘on equal terms’, it will in reality be disadvantaged, like an honest tradesman competing with less scrupulous rivals. Truth in itself is certainly stronger than error, since God is truth. But truth in man is a treasure in a fragile vessel, and unless we are saints, we find some admixture, at least, of error congenial.

What’s more, this objection forgets that we should wish to establish true religion not only for its own protection, but for the honour of God. If a State refuses to take sides between religious truth and religious error, how is it honouring its transcendent Founder?

Genuine values

Some journalists and politicians, when attempting to persuade the recalcitrant of the excellence of ‘British values’, give first place to tolerance or diversity. This seems like a mark of desperation, for it is as much as to say, ‘we have no common values, and we agree to have none.’ One could claim that tolerance and diversity were good in themselves only if one supposed that all uses of liberty were good, even the thief’s or the murderer’s. In reality, no society tolerates all activities, and those which it does not tolerate reveal what its true values are: for example pleasure, or money, or national glory. In a Catholic society true to its principles, the highest values will be the Catholic Faith and supernatural charity. Nothing opposed to these can claim any rights in the public forum, that is, wherever the citizens relate to one another. And if the legislator tolerates, for example, a non-Catholic place of worship, it will not be because he values diversity of creeds, but rather to prevent some evil, such as sedition, or to promote some good, such as drawing non-Catholics by charity towards the truth (LH 33). Pope Leo was more clear-headed, or perhaps more honest, than some apologists for ‘British values’ when he wrote: “We must acknowledge that the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further it is from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires" (LH 34).

Some of these ideas may seem strange or even repellent to many modern readers, Catholics not excepted. Most of us have been plunged from an early age into the liberalism decried by Pope Leo. Perhaps some of us would even feel uncomfortable if by a miracle we woke up tomorrow in a Catholic world; having lost for so long, we might find ourselves unused to winning… (this is in fact the premise of R.H. Benson’s interesting novel, Dawn of All.) But our inclinations must be bent to match the truth, not vice versa. The city is not meant to be the enemy of the Church, but its friend, as the body is the friend of the soul. And Christ’s reign extends by right over all earthly things, temporal as well as spiritual.

Is this merely an academic discussion? No: history has not come to an end; it is still unfolding. And while we should, like the Jews in Babylon, “pray for the peace of the city to which we have been exiled” (cf. Jer. 29:7), we should also hope, in some form, for the restoration of Christendom. After all, if secularists and Muslims have an idea, consistent with their beliefs, of the society they desire, shall Catholics be without one?

Libertas Humana may be consulted on-line at www.papalencyclicals.net

[Taken from "Mass of Ages" May 2008, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine] Used with permission

Version: 8th February 2009

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