“The state of Maryland was the first experiment in religious freedom in human history. Lord Baltimore and his Catholics were a long march ahead of William Penn and his Quakers on what is now called the path of progress. That the first religious toleration ever granted in the world was granted by Roman Catholics is one of those little informing details with which our Victorian histories did not exactly teem.” — G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America
“Where society is so organized as to reduce arbitrarily or even suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline.” — Bl. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 25.
“But freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.” — Bl. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 46.
Today is Independence Day in the United States, a day marked by celebrations large and loud, festive and familial. The word of the day, the defining characteristic of the celebration of the signing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, is “freedom”. Today also marks the conclusion of the second “Fortnight of Freedom”, which commenced on June 21st, the vigil of the Feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. It should give pause, if for only a moment, that the “Fortnight” began on the feast day of two English martyrs and then ends on the National Day commemorating the 237th anniversary of a declaration of independence from the rule of Great Britain. Among other things, it speaks to the fact that while religious freedom has a special place in the history of the United States—see the quote above from Chesterton—that freedom is catholic, something that all men and women should enjoy, even though so many throughout the world do not. It also speaks to the special relationship between Catholicism and freedom, a relationship little understood and rarely acknowledged in a country whose historical and cultural foundation was largely Protestant in nature.
And what of today? In thinking of today, specifically and in the broader sense of the current age, it is notable that Pope Francis will tomorrow release his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), which is reported to be the joint work of Francis and Benedict XVI. Rather than coincidental, the timing is fortuitous. That fact hit home when, in the process of cleaning my office yesterday, I re-discovered a book about the relationship between freedom and faith, written by an English scholar (my office usually has several stacks of books, each with 20 or 30 books, so such “discoveries” are hardly unusual). Several passages caught my attention, but I’ll share just a couple of them. Bypassing the context for a moment, here’s the first passage:
The confidence in state action, the glorification of technology, the unlimited faith in science, the centralization of decision, and the subordination of low to so-called mass interests—all these … have helped in the West to create communities in which the individual citizens feels overwhelmed, isolated, and helpless before the anonymities of public and private bureaucracy. We are right to fear these vast distortions of tendencies already at work in our society.
It is a fine summation of the broad (and deep) problems faced today, yet it is not original. Except that it was written, not in the past few years, but over sixty years ago, in the the early 1950s. The book is Faith and Freedom, the author was Barbara Ward, and the publisher was Image; the subhead is: “A stimulating inquiry into the history and relationship of political freedom and religious faith.” It is a book worth tracking down for many reasons, among them Ward’s beautiful and learned writing, the historical perspective presented, and the philosophical insights, which are just as meaningful today, if not more so, than there were when the book was first published in England in 1954.
Ward has some interesting things to say about the War for Independence and the founding of the United States, but I am more interested here in her thoughts on dealing with and fighting against tyranny. In writing of the Nazi and the Soviet regimes—the former recently defeated and the latter very much alive when Faith and Freedom was published—Ward notes they are “dread reminders that in the twentieth century, the line of least resistance in politics tends toward the full apparatus of totalitarian rule. It is not wrong to fear such warnings. It is the beginning of wisdom.” But, she writes, fear is not enough; it is “poor counsellor because it is essentially negative.” Those who are guided by fear alone will find themselves flailing about defensively and ineffectively.” What is necessary, she argues, is “a positive goal and a persistent aim.” Man lives by a vision of the future; the question is: what sort of vision? The twentieth century, Ward said, was a century in which the nightmare of totalitarianism challenged the proper vision and “good dreams” of the Western world.
Part of Ward’s argument (drawing upon Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, and others), is that a culture build upon the Christian Faith led to the many remarkable achievements of the past couple of centuries. But as man conquered nature and mastered it, he began to believe his press clippings. As his material powers grew, his spiritual vision diminished. One paradox is that this movement from assured mastery based on faith and reason has led, by crooked but fairly clear lines, to an assured questioning of reason and a confident rejection of faith. As both are undermined, in ways obvious and subtle, man is unmoored from both the past and the future:
Man is lonely. He is not self-sufficient. He rebels against the meaninglessness of life. … He needs to feel himself part of a wider whole and he has unassuageable powers of dedication and devotion which must fine expression in worship and service. If, therefore, there is no other outlet for these powers, then the community in which he lives, the tribe, the state, Caesar, the dictator, becomes the natural and inevitable objects of his religious zeal. Religion is not abolished by the “abolition” of God; the religion of Caesar takes its place. And since, for a few men, the need to worship is satisfied in hubris, in the worship of the self, the multitudes who look for a god can nearly always be certain of finding a willing candidate.
She then writes of “the hunger for godlike leadership” and observes that “a merging of the self in the security of the whole becomes irresistible.” When religious faith weakens and vanishes, “all the energies of the soul are poured into the one channel of political faith.” The timelessness of Ward’s observations are, I trust, obvious.
What can be done? More specifically, who has the ability to stand up against a State that oversteps its bounds and becomes, in the words of Benedict XVI, a State “which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself”? The lone citizen is incapable to doing so. “He needs counter-institutions, above all the counter-institution of the Church, which of all organized bodies alone can look Caesar in the face and claim a higher loyalty.” Yet faith must never be a mere tool or a safeguard.
Faith is not a matter of convenience or even—save indirectly—a matter of sociology. It is a question of conviction and dedication and both spring from one source only—from the belief in God as a fact, as the supreme Fact of existence. Faith will not be recovered in the West because people believe it is useful. It will return only when they find that is it true.
And that basic point, I suspect, will come through loud and clear in the Holy Father’s encyclical. Faith and freedom go together, not because it is convenient, but because true freedom flows from true faith, and true faith informs and upholds true freedom. More on that tomorrow. Happy Independence Day!
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