Toward a New Liberty

The 1991 papal encyclical Centesimus Annus has been described as prompting a springtime in Christian social teaching because it makes it easier to see freedom, specifically economic freedom, as a moral mandate. The sad truth is that the two traditions that come together in Centesimus Annus–religious orthodoxy and classical liberal social theory–have appeared to be at odds with each other for the better part of three centuries.

Although the classical liberal tradition sprang out of a Christian humanism rooted in the scholastic tradition, some of the classical liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while keeping the scholastic’s habit of rigorous social thought, abandoned their high regard for ecclesiastical and social authority. And the Church, during certain periods, has strongly criticized what was construed to be the free society, partly because some social thinkers conflated the theories of economic liberalism with moral libertinism, viewing them as one in the same and as mutually reinforcing.

This was a great tragedy in the history of the relationship between church authority and the liberal tradition. As the tensions mounted in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the allegiances of men such as Lord Acton were torn as they came to believe that they had to choose between spiritual authority and the dictates of reason, a situation the late scholastics would have seen as a grave departure from teaching of their master, Saint Thomas.

Friedrich A. Hayek’s last book had the interesting title The Fatal Conceit. The conceit he speaks of is not something as simple as the suggestion that the government can run the economy or that all things can be owned in common, two errors that only the most dogmatic of intellectuals commit today. Instead, the conceit he wanted us to recognize is the idea that human reason is capable of designing a social order without taking into account the evolved patterns of human law, relationships, economy, and traditions. This conceit, he says, leads us to empower institutions such as the state to override the natural order of liberty in an attempt to impose a plan on society.

We find here in Hayek the potential for complementarity between an indispensable principle of Christian social teaching–namely, subsidiarity–and the classical liberal tradition. And if we are looking for the extent of this complementarity, we need look no further than Pope John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which accomplished the great task of repairing the damage done by centuries of unnecessary separation between these two great traditions. Because of the courage of John Paul II and his case in favor of the free society now that socialism is being discredited worldwide, we have entered into a new era of intellectual and social history. No longer do we feel compelled to speak of classical liberalism and religious orthodoxy as belonging to two separate intellectual worlds. We have begun to speak of them as one and to repair the split that was unnecessary and proved so dangerous to the cause of human liberty.

So our task is one of education and intellectual and social engagement. This engagement will be made all the more potent to the extent that the principle of subsidiarity is authentically observed, and the scope of the Church’s moral and evangelistic influence is broadened by taking back from secular political institutions its primary role of compassion and social service. It is an engagement we must all throw ourselves into completely, and not only because the stakes are so high for the future of civilization. We must also do so because it is our vocation and our duty to tell the truth to man. In doing so, may we continue to work to heal the scars left from the statist errors of this century. May the advent of the third millennium of the Church see us occupied with the construction of a civilization of love, meaningful and free human labor, and the vigorous embrace of a free and virtuous society.