The word “liberal” in today’s common parlance does not enjoy a precise definition. For example, if we were to apply the word as a descriptive for persons, we could find ourselves using it as a denotation for everyone from Nancy Pelosi, to Thomas Jefferson, to Robespierre, to GK Chesterton (more on Chesterton later). All of these persons could be classified as a shade of “liberal” in some fashion, and of course they all have very little in common… Although perhaps Pelosi and Robespierre are more similar than different.
For many of us when we think of a liberal or Liberalism, we think of leftism or socialism, thus Nancy Pelosi. For others, Liberalism is primarily the Enlightenment movement that was most notable in France under the French Revolutionaries, such as Robespierre. Jefferson personifies for many the Classic Liberalism of the founding of the United States, which is seen as principled and reasonable, rather than blood-thirsty like the contemporary French movement. And, even Chesterton – of course nothing like a leftist – used the word liberal liberally when describing himself and his views.
Given the differences between the aforementioned characters, if the term liberal is applied in some fashion to all of them, then it is either applied wrongly, the word has no meaning, or, like many words, it means different things to different people.
At the heart of the notion of Liberalism is the fundamental human reality of liberty. The French Revolution cried for liberty as it destroyed Catholic society in France. The American founders appealed to liberty as the foundational principle upon which the new nation would exist. Chesterton said that “Christianity is on the side of humanity and liberty and love.” The anti-Catholic madmen of France, the Deist Liberals of America, and the Catholic hero from England all appeal to liberty as fundamental to what is most important to them.
So, what is true liberty?
Pope Leo XIII in Libertas states at the outset: “Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity – that he is “in the hand of his counsel” and has power over his actions.”
The pope calls liberty the “highest of natural endowments.” Thus, we can say that liberty or “freedom” is at the heart of human behaviour. The drama of salvation is in many ways a story told about characters given the freedom to choose God or to choose something else. The crux of human existence finds itself in that struggle between the liberty a man has to say “yes” or “no” to the Almighty.
We know this from our daily lives, as we freely make decisions each moment to do or not do a specific action. The first dramatic scene recorded in Sacred Scripture is the harrowing tale of our First Parents who face the intersection of the freedom to follow the will of God, or the temptation of Satan. We all know how that ended. Thus, liberty is at the heart of being itself, and God has ordained it to be known to the human race that we do in fact enjoy freedom as a foundational reality of our conscious existence.
But, what is the point of liberty?
It is all well and good to hypothesize about freedom or liberty as a concept that undergirds human behaviour and moral decisions, but all things in God’s creation have a purpose, an ultimate end. What then, is the point of this freedom to act that God has given us?
Ultimately, we were created with God as our final end, even if we have the freedom to choose otherwise. Thus, we must consider this primordial gift of volitional liberty as it pertains to our desired finality in the Beatific Vision.
We are at liberty to choose things, reject things, do things and not do things. We might appeal to various rights as inherent to our liberty, and we also desire to be free from certain things; as is the case with government overreach.
It is not enough for us to look at liberty as simply being free from. What I mean is that if our desire is to merely be free to do whatever we want, then we cannot say this is liberty in the full sense; this is licentiousness. Pope Leo XIII adds:
This great gift of nature has ever been, and always will be, deservingly cherished by the Catholic Church, for to her alone has been committed the charge of handing down to all ages the benefits purchased for us by Jesus Christ. Yet there are many who imagine that the Church is hostile to human liberty. Having a false and absurd notion as to what liberty is, either they pervert the very idea of freedom, or they extend it at their pleasure to many things in respect of which man cannot rightly be regarded as free.
There is a true and good liberty, and there is a perverted and false notion.
This false and perverted notion of liberty that the pope condemns is at the heart of what is condemned as philosophical and theological Liberalism.
A useful definition of modern Liberalism can be found in Liberalism is a Sin, the author defines it as follows: “Liberalism is the dogmatic affirmation of the absolute independence of the individual and the social reason.” This is in contrast with Catholicity, which the author describes as, “the dogma of the absolute subjection of the individual and of the social order to the revealed law of God.” In essence, Liberalism in this sense is an extension of the non serviam of Satan – a “no” to God and a “yes” to self.
Throughout the book, the error of Liberalism in the realm of theology and philosophy is rightly described as a heresy that is in a way at the root of all modern heresies, as it is primarily a prideful subjection of God and Reason to our own judgement. It is true that a man who professes to be a disciple of Liberalism may be a believer, but the first principles are off.
Although not officially a magisterial work, Liberalism is a Sin certainly contains a wealth of magisterial knowledge, including citations from Pope Pius IX Syllabus of Errors. (When the book was condemned by a Liberal bishop, it was a sent to the Vatican which responded in 1887 saying the author “merits great praise for his exposition and defense of sound doctrine.”)
In the Syllabus, we find condemnations by the pope of various principles associated with the Liberalism of revolutionary societies, such as the amorphous notion of “religious liberty” as it is understood under the auspices of religious indifferentism. In addition, Pius IX condemns the notion that the Church ought to “move with the times” and become progressive.
Pius IX’s work is hardly the only magisterial document from a pope that condemns the errors of Liberalism. Pope Gregory XVI gave us Mirari Vos which condemns unadulterated “freedom to publish,” “liberty of conscience,” and an “unbridled lust for freedom.” He uses very strong language in the landmark encyclical, castigating the modern errors of Liberalism as sharply as anyone.
Archbishops Marcel Lefebvre’s book They Have Uncrowned Him is essentially a catalogue of teaching from popes about Liberalism, and against modern errors that have plagued society and the Church into ruin.
Notwithstanding the clear condemnation of modern Liberalism, we still find that true liberty is something to cherish. Pope Leo XIII describes “true liberty” as consisting of “all being free to live according to law and right reason.”
In addition, he harshly criticizes those who have perverted true liberty for the false Liberalism of our time:
If when men discuss the question of liberty they were careful to grasp its true and legitimate meaning, such as reason and reasoning have just explained, they would never venture to affix such a calumny on the Church as to assert that she is the foe of individual and public liberty. 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.
When he speaks of “that widely spread and powerful organization,” he is referring to the Freemasons.
The concept of true liberty and freedom from illicit government oppression is on the mind of many these days. Many of us are staring down the barrel of a proverbial gun as we are forced to navigate through two-tiered societies that have adopted veritable segregation by way of vaccine passports. It has been a bit strange for me as a Catholic to rub shoulders with fellow “freedom-fighters” at anti-lockdown rallies and political demonstrations.
I am always a bit hesitant as I understand full well there is a difference between desiring the sacred liberty that allows a man to live as he ought, as compared to the libertine liberalism that a man desires in order to do anything he wishes. Admittedly, the freedom movement in my nation – as well as others – is tainted by a mix of sensible love for liberty and the sentiments condemned as part of unfettered Liberalism.
So, how can we understand true freedom in our day?
GK Chesterton went as far as calling himself “liberal” in Orthodoxy, while at the same time castigating modern Liberalism with his signature wit. Appealing to the confusion surrounding the term “liberal,” he wrote:
A confusion quite as unmeaning as this has arisen in connection with the word ‘liberal’ as applied to religion and as applied to politics and society. It is often suggested that all Liberals ought to be freethinkers, because they ought to love everything that is free. You might just as well say that all idealists ought to be High Churchmen, because they ought to love everything that is high. You might as well say that Low Churchmen ought to like Low Mass, or that Broad Churchmen ought to like broad jokes.
A “freethinker” in his day almost always refers to an atheist or at least someone who rejects Christianity for some novel philosophy. I believe that when Chesterton styles himself a “liberal” he does so in contradiction of the truly illiberal context of his day. Any Chestertonian could tell you that freedom for Chesterton was true freedom. His entire corpus of political and economic thought was in essence concerned with the rights of a man to earn a living, support his family, and live a moral life. We also must assume that Chesterton was well aware of the writings of the popes on the subject of Liberalism, as his acumen for Catholic apologetics was second to none.
He comments about the confusion of the term “liberal” and the flawed modern concept of Liberalism:
The thing is a mere accident of words. In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas are definitely illiberal.
It really is hallmark of our topsy turvy era that we associate the term “liberal” with the faction of political and religious thought that works against everything God has revealed. I think Chesterton was trying to illuminate this hypocrisy in his trademark contrarian manner; if a man were truly “liberal” then he would believe in true liberty.
True liberty can only be found in God, as anything apart from him inevitably decays and withers away into obscurity. There can be no freedom in error because there can be no true freedom apart from the Truth.
We are at a moment in history where the very institutions that govern our civic and spiritual lives promote the very errors that could damn our souls. Perhaps, it is as good a time as ever to consider how to live as truly free men by choosing God over everything else.
Photo by Pierre Herman on Unsplash.
 This quote is taken from chapter 8 of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I have used an electronic copy that does not have the same pagination as a print version.
 Libertas, paragraph 1, emphasis mine.
 The classic book Liberalism is a Sin by Father Felix Sarda y Salvany provides what is likely the most concise collection of Church thought and teaching about the idea of Liberalism.
 Fr. Jerome Secheri, Letter from the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Index (Jan. 10, 1887) contained in Liberalism is a Sin (TAN: 2012), x.
 Libertas, paragraph 13.
 Libertas, paragraph 14.
Kennedy Hall is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author Terror of Demons: Reclaiming Traditional Catholic Masculinity and Lockdown with the Devil, a novel published by Our Lady of Victory Press. He is a writer at Catholic Family News, LifeSiteNews and is the host of the Conservative talk-radio show, The Kennedy Report. He is married with four children and lives in Ontario, Canada.