November 2018 Print

A History of Catholic Liberalism

Conference by Prof. Luis Roldán, given at La Reja Seminary, Translation by Inés de Erausquin

With this conference, we are talking about a type of liberalism which has really become a concrete enemy: Catholic Liberalism. We can say that liberalism in general, as a position in the metaphysical order, is founded mainly on nominalism—the idea that the only reality comes from the individual; which gives its adherents a fundamental problem with understanding a different reality, for example, that of societal groups. But most liberals do not reach a particularly developed understanding of this matter; because they always get stuck in what we can call the primary question, which is the problem of knowledge. Liberalism in general always presents itself as skeptical when it comes to the problem of truth; the proto-liberal is Pilate, who at the trial of Our Lord asked Him, “What is truth?” and then walked away without listening to the answer. The liberal does not believe that man is capable of knowing what things really are. Another challenge comes from relativists, who believe that there is no reality; that reality changes, varies, and is constantly modifying itself. And thus, he who believes that he understands or has a true conception of essential reality, deep down ends up deforming reality. A third variant of liberalism is subjectivity. A subjectivist believes that reality varies according to the individual and what he recognizes, and not the object itself. From this comes the saying, “Each person has his own reality,” or “It all depends on your point of view.”

From this fundamental denial of reality and of the idea that man can truly know what things are, liberal anthropology becomes fundamentally individualist. The individual is the only reality. And naturally, when the problem of ethics arises, if there are no objective norms to guide human conduct, the decision of the individual is absolutely the only rule that must be followed. Now in principle, this idea can clearly be sustained as a false theory, but it has great problems when society needs to be built on it. If every man lived like Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, he could do whatever he likes, up to a certain point; but when there is a lot of free, autonomous and sovereign individuals that have to live together, the problem begins to get more complicated. Because of this, in general, political doctrines based on liberalism try to solve this riddle: how men, created free, sovereign and autonomous, can live together. And in truth, they have not yet found the solution to this problem. They have gone from Hobbes’ ideal, in which every man totally renounces his sovereignty into the hands of Leviathan, to the famous “squaring-the-circle” in the Social Contract of Rousseau, in which—by way of the myth of a general will—every man obeys the general will but ends up only obeying himself, enforcing an obligatory freedom. There is also the scheme of Kant, which is a bit more complicated, in which one has to admit that there are limits to liberty because otherwise we cannot even exercise the freedom we have.

But these liberal theories, which have been spreading across the world practically since the 17th century, have had a very great influence within the Church, especially since the fundamental happenings of the French Revolution. Until that moment, we can say that the liberal and Catholic positions were clearly separated. This terrible affair, which profoundly affected not only France but Europe and America with its echoes and repercussions, was the first attempt to create a state that directly dispensed with God and religion. Any previous attempts had had quite a few problems. We could say that the first attempts at forming a liberal State came along with Protestantism. But the Protestant attempts—for example, in England—simply consisted of separating the English Church from the Roman Church, and to transform it into a State religion. The King became the supreme authority of the church in England, which is still the case today. In the German states, principally, Protestantism also favored these State religions, not only because of a matter of opportunity, but because of a need that we may say came from Protestantism’s very logic. Protestantism, at the moment that it affirms free interpretation of the Bible as a fundamental point, makes every Protestant, at heart, a follower of his own different religion. They have no Magisterium; there is no authority. Such a state of affairs is all very well in religious matters; but when one has to build a Protestant society, the question becomes more difficult. And so it turned out that in each of these Protestant countries the king would found his own Protestant church, to impede the division of the country into innumerable sects. The United States is the exception to this, but for other reasons. This has happened in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, etcetera etcetera...It was the French Revolution, however, that brought in the new element of liberalism.

Civil Religion

A few years later Pius VII signed his famous Concordat with Napoleon. I have already written a great deal about this, and we can’t go over all the details, but basically the first intent of the Revolution was to follow the letter of the Social Contract and create a civil religion. There’s a chapter in Rousseau’s book which goes by very quickly—and in fact in Argentina, in the first translation of his work, printed by Mario Moreno in the Buenos Aires Gazette a little after the 1810 May Revolution (the establishment of the first local government in South America) this chapter on a civil religion is omitted. Moreno said that he suppressed this chapter because “at this point, the author is delirious!” (Really, Rousseau’s entire work is delirious, but well…it was most evident in this chapter, and Moreno suppressed it.)

But what exactly does Rousseau say in this chapter? Rousseau has the problem that for the “general will” to work, he has to eliminate every other type of group association among his citizens, other than the State—and why? Because if this does not happen, when people have to vote to determine the content of the general will, they will prefer the ideas of their corporation, of their family, of their group—of their Church. Rousseau saw that in France, at the time, aside from Catholicism there was a Protestant sect of relative importance. So his idea was just this: to create a civil religion that would replace Christianity as the public orthodoxy. This is what was attempted in France firstly by way of the famous Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which failed: an attempt to “organize” the Church, since Catholicism could not be directly suppressed, but in a way that could be directly controlled by the government. This ended up dividing the Church in France; a significant part of the clergy rejected the Constitution, refusing to swear to it; and from this sprang the epic War of the Vendée, in which a great part of the French population sprang to the defense of its priests and bishops who had refused to swear the oath to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and carried on a war against the Revolution for many years. When Napoleon Bonaparte saw how complicated the matter had become, he imposed a change, saying “We must make an accord directly with Rome,” and signed the Concordat with the Pope. This Concordat, though it brought the advantage of the reopening of the churches and the return of public worship in France, nevertheless set the condition that the bishops who had sworn the oath to uphold the Civil Constitution should be recognized by the Holy See. This situation remained after the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Monarchy; and when there was an attempt to return to a stronger Catholic orthodoxy, in the 19th century, it caused a fundamental opposition from the many elements who had accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. And here, for the first time, Catholic Liberalism came to light. At this point arose an important player, a Catholic priest named Felicité de Lamennais, who in many of his works and writings sustained the concept that he summed up in one phrase: “A free State, a free Church.” This is to say, separation of Church and State, but that the Church should have absolute freedom to preach, to give the Sacraments, to assign its ministers, with no intervention from political powers. Lamennais set forth his doctrine; and of course, in his era in which the Popes did their work well, he found himself condemned by Pope Gregory XVI—in the encyclical Mirari Vos, published in 1834. Nevertheless, despite this condemnation, the ideas of Lamennais went on circulating through Europe and all the rest of the world.

Later in the 19th century, after the fall of the French monarchy in the revolution of 1848—an era in which there were many political revolutions all over Europe—there was a new resurgence of this Catholic liberalism, principally embodied in the figure of Montalembert, another French thinker. Once again the Chair of Peter challenged them with the magnificent document that was the encyclical Quanta Cura of Pope Pius IX; and with the Syllabus, a collection of modern errors condemned. From that moment, the Syllabus of Errors became the bête noire of Catholic liberalism. In many debates, including in Argentina in the latter half of the 19th century, a common accusation against Catholics was “They defend the Syllabus!”—an insult that few wished to endure.

Catholic Legislation

The 19th century rolled on and the new Pope, Leo XIII, began to carry out a policy, especially in France, but also in Spain and Argentina, of a certain alliance with the liberal Catholics. This has passed into history under the name of ralliement, a word that is hard to translate exactly but could be translated as “treaty” or “accord.” The idea of Leo XIII was that one must distinguish between the republic, as a political structure, or as a legislation. Thus, he asked Catholics in France to reject the idea of the monarchy as the only possible solution, and to accept in good faith the republican rule, but that they should keep fighting anti-Catholic legislation. This is clearly sophism; which is a confusion of the abstract with the concrete. In fact, in Catholic political doctrine, in principle, the form of government is a matter of indifference. There can be a Catholic monarchy, or aristocracy, or republic—or any of these things can be anti-Catholic. But this is purely abstract. Concretely, in each nation, at any definite point in history, there are certain definite political possibilities—and impossibilities. In France at that point of the 19th century, the only possible republic was the Masonic one. To look at a contrary example, in Ireland in the 19th century, the only possible monarchy was the English Protestant monarchy. This concept led, on one hand, to division among Catholics. There were those who continued to defend the Catholic monarchy as the only possible, practical, concrete solution; and those who supported the idea of the Republic. Nevertheless, this policy of Leo XIII was doomed to fail. After the fall of Napoleon III at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the strongest Jacobin elements—the most revolutionary, Masonic characters—took control of the establishment in France and began instituting a whole series of laws completely contrary to the Church, until in 1905 there finally came the well-known law of complete separation of Church and State. At this stage, St. Pius X was reigning as pope, and seeing the clear problems with the situation, he immediately cut off the policy of alliance and broke completely with the liberal faction. He also condemned the final version of Liberal Catholicism, a movement founded by a thinker named Marc Sagnier, who founded the “furrow” movement—le Sillon. This movement was condemned in a document by St. Pius X which had its hundredth anniversary last year: the document Notre Charge Apostolique, “Our Apostolic Mandate,” in which St. Pius X condemned in a very clear way the errors of liberal Catholicism, that Christian democracy that was so prominent in this era.

Moving on into the 20th century, in the 1920s two very important events occurred. In Mexico came the War of the Cristeros—in which the Papal intervention of Pius XI was quite deplorable, because he commanded the Catholics to desist from armed combat, and this led to their finally laying down their weapons and promptly being murdered—with no repercussions—by the Masonic government which had not laid down its weapons.

In France came another important event: the condemnation of Action Française and Charles Maurras. Maurras was an interesting thinker who had been a positivist and disciple of Comte; not a Catholic, but a man of good faith who loved his country and who loved truth. His objective study of social conditions convinced him that Catholicism was right. This produced an interesting paradox: at the end of the 19th century, this movement called Action Française, at a center for studies that they ran, there was a summit on the Syllabus, given by a priest whose work was teaching the Syllabus. Maurras commented on the Syllabus that “there is nothing in this document that opposes common sense.” This document, unacceptable to liberal Catholics, was accepted and defended, even promoted by an agnostic! A paradox of history, indeed.

Action Française was condemned by Pius XI, and this led to the disappearance, or at least loss of influence, of a political movement that fundamentally questioned the French Republic. This fact was very important because, above and beyond the purely political aspects of the condemnation of Action Française, a sort of internal purge in the Church developed at the same time, purging all those members of the Church that favored or even appeared to favor Action Française. This led to positions of influence in universities, dioceses etcetera, being taken over by those characters that had been, so to speak, in the background because they were suspected of modernism; characters like Henry de Lubac, for example, in the Society of Jesus, were promoted because they were willing to persecute and attack the members of the Action Française. Fr. Calderón lent me a book which I enjoyed very much, by a contemporary author named Philippe Prévost, called L’Eglise et le Ralliement; it gives a very detailed history of this whole process.

At this point appeared a very important person in our history, and I believe the most important character of the 20th century by whom to understand liberal Catholicism; this was Jacques Maritain. He is the man who would herald Catholic liberalism at the very heart of the Church and influence profoundly Vatican II. This will be the theme of another talk.