2.4.4 ‘Liberalism’

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Unit 2 Contents

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The last of the 80 theses in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors, as quoted above, said that the Church could not reconcile itself with “liberalism and modern civilization”.  What is ‘liberalism’ and what did Pope Pius IX mean when rejecting it?

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Reflection

Before you read on, what is your reaction to the term ‘liberalism’?  What would you say if someone asked you to explain its meaning?

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Maybe you have already studied the twin CST module on ‘Living Life to the Full’.  If so, you will know that Unit 2 in that module also discusses liberalism.  As the subject matter there is mainly to do with economics and business, the focus is on the economic version of liberalism.  This is, as explained there, often called ‘laissez faire liberalism’ and is the view that, in our economic dealings, we all, as individuals, should have liberty to buy and sell in the ways we choose.  Markets should be as free from rules and regulations as possible.

In the nineteenth century, the term ‘liberalism’ certainly referred to this economic version, so Pope Pius IX no doubt had at least this in mind.  However he very probably intended a wider meaning than this.  There is a distinctively political meaning to the term ‘liberalism’ as well as an economic one, and it is this which was closely associated with the French Revolution and its aftermath.

As noted above, the French Revolution was deeply anti-Catholic and the Catholic Church came to see it as an attempt by men to declare independence of God.  The Revolutionaries were making the presumptuous claim that, freed from the shackles of the Church and authoritarian rule, men by themselves would be able to build a much better society.  (They were almost all men.)  The Church interpreted the Revolutionaries’ language of ‘the rights of man’ as conveying exactly this sort of arrogant claim – as rebellion even against God.

The language of the ‘rights of man’ was not new with the French Revolution.  Rather, the Revolutionaries had picked it up from two main sources, first, the writing of an English philosopher one century before, John Locke, and, second, the American Declaration of Independence of hardly more than a decade earlier, 1776.  These three together – Locke, the American Declaration, and the French Revolution – can be seen as representing the emergence of the political version of ‘liberalism’.

According to this political liberalism, individuals should be free to live their own lives, according to their own judgments about right and wrong.  No-one should have others’ views imposed on them.  Rather, government’s role is to safeguard, for everyone equally, such individual freedom.  This view was presented in terms of individuals’ rights.  There is an area around each individual which is sacrosanct and no-one, especially not government or Church, should interfere.

In summary, the Church’s sense was that this political liberalism was men declaring themselves to be independent of God – and therefore of the Church.  As Unit 2 of the twin CST module brings out, Catholic teaching rejected ‘economic’ or ‘laissez-faire liberalism’.  Thanks to conflict at the time of, and for a long time after, the French Revolution, it came to reject ‘political liberalism’ too.

Has this rejection been superseded by the much more constructive engagement with ‘modern civilization’ of the last 50 years?  We shall come to this question this shortly.

 

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End of 2.4.4

Go to 2.4.5 ‘Conservatism’ and ‘socialism’

Module B outline

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