The consequences of destroying liberty

July 22, 2010

This passage from the encyclical Libertas praestantissimum of Pope Leo XIII explains what is wrong with our society: liberty has been “perverted and destroyed.”  See in particular if the last three paragraphs have any relevance today …

“The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason.  This refuses due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth.  Hence, these followers of Liberalism [rationalists], who usurp the name of liberty, deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is a law to himself.  From this arises that ethical system which they call independent morality, which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license.

The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question.  For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that [1] 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 [2] the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that [3] 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.

But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction 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.

Moreover, besides this, a doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State.  For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, the real distinction between good and evil is instantly 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 tendencies of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption.

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 to avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority.  Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny … When duty and conscience cease to appeal to the people, there will be nothing to hold them back but force, which of itself alone is powerless to keep their covetousness in check.  Of this we have almost daily evidence …

It is for those, then, who are capable of forming a just estimate of things to decide whether such doctrines promote that true liberty which alone is worthy of man, or rather, pervert and destroy it.”

Libertas praestantissimum, 1888, 15-16.

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