Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Freedom and Law: Pope Leo XIII's Libertas praestantissimum, Part 4

A LIBERAL WILL SUFFER HEARTBURN at the next paragraphs in Leo XIII's encyclical Libertas praestantissimum. Indeed, the disquiet one may feel as one reads these parts of the encyclical dealing with liberalism may be a good indicator as to how much we have absorbed, and internalized, the liberal conventions of the day without even knowing it. (Another document that serves this salutory purpose may be the Syllabus of Errors issued during the pontificate of Pius IX.) These conventions have drawn us, as it were, away from the natural law main stream into a liberal distributary. Modern Westerners--Americans in particular--have a sort of liberalism as part of their civil religion, since there is more than a seed of liberalism, at least in its Lockean form, in the foundational documents and theories of the American revolution which began the American experiment. We have come to view liberalism as normal.

There is a certain freshness, boldness in Leo XIII's language, a "calling a spade a spade" type of style, a style more akin to the Jewish prophet than a Greek philosopher, or an unctuous diplomat, a style which is less circumspect, less reserved, and more biting than the more judicious language we have come to expect from papal encyclicals modernly. And yet, when it comes down to it, is it any less true?
But many there are who follow in the footsteps of Lucifer, and adopt as their own his rebellious cry, "I will not serve"; and consequently substitute for true liberty what is sheer and most foolish license. Such, for instance, are the men belonging to that widely spread and powerful organization, who, usurping the name of liberty, style themselves liberals.

Sed iam permulti Luciferum imitati, cuius est illa nefaria vox non serviam, libertatis nomine absurdam quamdam consectantur et meracam licentiam. Cuiusmodi sunt ex illa tam late fusa tamque pollenti disciplina homines, qui se, ducto a libertate nomine, Liberales appellari volunt.
LP, 14.

For Leo XIII, liberalism is rationalist or naturalist philosophy brought into the moral and political domain. "The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth." LP, 15. With a similar shrug and dismissal of the divine and eternal law, the liberals apply the same principle to the practical realm. Liberals ultimately "proclaim that every man is the law to himself," sibi quemque esse legem, thereby advance an ethical system that is essentially autonomous, "and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license." LP, 15. If this principle is applied to the political realm, we have entered into what Pope Benedict XVI would later call the tyranny of relativism, where the will of the majority determines right and wrong:
For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man's individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority.

Hoc enim fixo et persuaso, homini antistare neminem, consequitur caussam efficientem conciliationis civilis et societatis non in principio aliquo extra aut supra hominem posito, sed in libera voluntate singulorum esse quaerendam: potestatem publicam a multitudine velut a primo fonte repetendam, praetereaque, sicut ratio singulorum sola dux et norma agendi privatim est singulis, ita universorum esse oportere universis in rerum genere publicarum. Hinc plurimum posse plurimos: partemque populi maiorem universi iuris esse officiique effectricem.
LP, 15.

It is clear that the will of the majority does not define right. In a democratic form of government the majority, no less than one individual, is bound by the natural and eternal law, which alone determines right. A liberal democracy founded on relativism is a recipe for disaster for the very simple reason that it is repugnant to reason:
To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.

Nullum siquidem velle homini aut societati civili cum Deo creatore ac proinde supremo omnium legislatore intercedere vinclum, omnino naturae repugnat, nec naturae hominis tantum, sed rerum omnium procreatarum: quia res omnes effectas cum caussa, a qua effectae sunt, aliquo esse aptas nexu necesse est: omnibusque naturis hoc convenit, hoc ad perfectionem singularum pertinet, eo se continere loco et gradu, quem naturalis ordo postulat, scilicet ut ei quod superius est, id quod est inferius subiiciatur et pareat.
LP, 15. It matters not what form of government a society finds itself under--democratic, aristocratic, regal--civil law, however engendered, remains subordinate to and must remain informed by, the natural law, that is to say, the eternal law.

The Upshot of Leo XIII's
Libertas praestantissimum

Rejection of any principle of law outside man himself is a recipe for the corruption of both individual and society and it leads to eventual tyranny, for if man is the measure of all things, then man is the measure of what is right and wrong, and there is no appeal to reality itself: to nature, that is creation, and to God. Law has nothing to do with essence or form, but law becomes existential and formless. Law thing springs forth from the subjective, arbitrary will of man himself, to be formed as he sees fit. Usually, the form comes from an overruling and disordered passion: greed, lust, pride, power. Not ratio but libido is the principle of such law. Ultimately, the will that carries the most power determines what is most right. And this is no longer law.

Listen to the warnings which Leo XIII proclaimed in 1888 where the rejection of natural law would lead individuals vis-à-vis individual morality.
For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion and judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption.

Sane reiecto ad humanam rationem et solam et unam veri bonique arbitrio, proprium tollitur boni et mali discrimen; turpia ab honestis non re, sed opinione iudicioque singulorum differunt: quod libeat, idem licebit ; constitutaque morum disciplina, cuius ad coercendos sedandosque motus animi turbidos nulla fere vis est, sponte fiet ad omnem vitae corruptelam aditus.
LP, 16.

The effect of such doctrines would have equally deleterious effect on public mores:
With reference also to public affairs: authority is severed from the true and natural principle whence it derives all its efficacy for the common good; and the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority. Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny.

In rebus autem publicis, potestas imperandi separatur a vero naturalique principio, unde omnem haurit virtutem efficientem boni communis: lex, de iis quae facienda fugiendave sunt statuens, maioris multitudinis permittitur arbitrio, quod quidem est iter ad tyrannicam dominationem proclive.
LP, 16.

It follows as the night the day, that once natural law is rejected, so will the public role of religion, which will be the last bastion against the tyrants. Neither natural law nor religion forming the characters of the citizens will require something other than conscience to hold them in check: "there will be nothing to hold them back but force, which of itself alone is powerless to keep their covetousness in check." LP, 16.

This may, perhaps, be the view of the more extreme liberals, and there are liberals who are more conservative or moderate in their views, and attempt to temper them, as it were, with some tie to natural and eternal law. Pope Leo XIII acknowledges that there are liberals that would seem more moderate or circumspect in their opinions, and it is to these theories that Leo XIII next turns in his encyclical Libertas praestantissimum.



  1. I want to underline with bold emphasis this:

    and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.

    Democracy has no caste. It has no order.
    "A man should, whatever happens, keep his own caste, race and breed." ~ Rudyard Kipling

    You forgot to mention in your article "Classical republicanism" which is mixed government. Monarchy, Aristocracy, and classical republicanism all obey the Laws of Nature. Democracy does not at all. Democracy denies the existence of difference. Democracy is based on equality and in no way can obey the Laws of Nature. No Catholic or Orthodox can accept democracy or its other manifestations, modern republicanism such as America.

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