Last month, the Acton Institute hosted the first of eight Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conferences we will conduct this year. At each of these conferences, we introduce future religious leaders to the principles that animate the free society. Of these principles, perhaps the most important is, as John Courtney Murray puts it, “Only a virtuous people can be free.”
What does this mean? According to Murray, it means that the free society is not inevitable, only possible, and that “its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law.” Murray comes to this conclusion by pairing two insights from Lord Acton: not only that “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization” but also that “liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
In other words, one's claim to freedom is morally authoritative only insofar as that claim conforms to the moral order that God has woven into the fabric of creation. As Murray explains, the free society is based upon “the free obedience to the restraints and imperatives that stem from inwardly possessed moral principle.” In this way, the free society becomes not only a “political experiment” but also a “spiritual and moral enterprise.”
Put another way, true freedom must be oriented toward the truth about human persons and the world in which they live. This is what the Acton Institute means when we say that the good society must be both free and virtuous. Thank you for the support that allows us to present the seriousness of this spiritual and moral enterprise to our future religious leaders.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico