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Opinion: Woke Locke and the origins of anti-Catholic discrimination

It’s as if those who have condemned Archbishop Cordileone for his intolerance of Nancy Pelosi’s position on abortion could be quoting Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

Detail from 1697 portrait of John Locke, painted by Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)

The secret is out: the Catholic Church is now the number one enemy of American liberalism. This is confirmed both by the increasing volume of public opinion and by the growing track record of intolerance towards the Church that the U.S. ruling class is racking up, especially around the contentious issue of abortion.

Some authors have pegged the Church as one of the leading sources of funding for anti-abortion activism, with the insinuation that such activity runs counter to the liberal principle of “separation of church and state.” Others have tweeted angrily that the Catholic Church in the U.S. bears all the blame for the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson. In a column for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd laments that, after Dobbs, the Catholic Church now has more influence in the U.S. than it does in Ireland.

More tellingly, James Carroll writes in the New Yorker that the Dobbs decision aligns with the Catholic Church’s historical opposition to the liberal values of Americanism. The Biden Administration’s continued persecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor for their refusal to provide coverage for contraceptives begs to be mentioned as another striking example, this time on the part of the government itself.

But perhaps the most telling case is the response which liberals directed toward San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, after his decision to block Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Holy Communion. Back in May, Cordileone publicly declared that Pelosi’s position on abortion makes it immoral and scandalous for her to receive the Eucharist, according to Catholic discipline. Subsequently, liberals everywhere have reacted by calling out Cordileone’s un-Christian intolerance and obvious political motives. An editorial at the San Francisco Examiner, published before the final Dobbs ruling was released, stated that “Many women will die if the court goes through with this decision. That will apparently be just fine with Cordileone, who prefers to pick partisan fights rather than make the church a place that welcomes people of all political backgrounds and all faiths.”

The editorial also asserts:

It is Nancy Pelosi, not Archbishop Cordileone, who reflects the true spirit of Christian care in the City of St. Francis. For the Catholic Church to continue to thrive here, we need a leader who opens the church’s doors to all, not a small-minded man who locks out his political adversaries.

What are the origins of these and so many other examples of anti-Catholic discrimination, which seem to be reaching new heights of fervor in recent years? The common conservative narrative, that America is falling prey to a radical Marxist aberration from the founding principles of American classical liberalism, is an attractive explanation, to be sure. Yet today, on the 390th birthday of John Locke, I suggest we need only look as far as John Locke himself, one of the foremost defenders of the type of society that “welcomes people of all political backgrounds and all faiths.”

In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke puts forward his picture of the ideal liberal society — nay, the ideal Church: “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” He hues on to condemn all who lay claim to orthodoxy in their religious beliefs, since all such claims entail intolerance of the beliefs of others; and moreover, all such claims signify no more than an underlying desire for power:

For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith — for everyone is orthodox to himself — these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ.

Locke’s stipulations about the chief characteristics of the true Christian Church contain many such not-so-subtle hints about which churches do not meet his requirements: i.e. the Catholic Church. With the same censorious tone that one recognizes in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner, Locke ruthlessly condemns those churches who teach “that faith is not to be kept with heretics,” or “that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms”; or “who upon pretence of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion.”

Then comes the startling assertion, which might not have been expected from that much-lauded defender of religious freedom: “I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion.” In other words, Locke sees no place for the toleration of the Catholic Church, or any church that claims for itself the right to censor and excommunicate those who do not adhere to its teachings; nor any church that claims the right to question or undermine the authority of public leaders who do not adhere to its teachings. In a tolerant liberal society, there can be no tolerance for such intolerance!

It’s as if those who have condemned Archbishop Cordileone for his intolerance of Nancy Pelosi’s position on abortion could be quoting Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. In any case, they are operating straight out of his playbook. The anti-Catholicism of the current “woke” regime and its propagandists in the media is not some Marxist aberration from the original classical liberalism that is supposed to be embodied in the American founding.

On the contrary, it is the exact consequence of classical liberalism, as expressed clearly in the words of Woke John Locke. Happy birthday, Locke! You got what you wished for.

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About Jonathan Culbreath 4 Articles
Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, a site dedicated to the recovery of Catholic social teaching.


  1. Ironically, the Catholic Church is not the “enemy” of American liberalism, but virtually its sole remaining advocate — if we understand “democracy in America” as described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century.

    De Tocqueville identified three forms of liberal democracy prevalent in the 1830s. There was “French” or collectivist liberal democracy in which the abstraction of humanity is sovereign, and whoever controls the state does so in the name of the People. Then there was “English” or individualist liberal democracy, in which every person was nominally sovereign, but only an elite had an extra something that made sovereignty effective. Some thought it was “blood” or heredity, while others thought it was wealth.

    Finally there was “American” or personalist liberal democracy, in which the human person was sovereign and recognized as such. This is what do Tocqueville saw in the United States, although in a flawed application due to slavery and treatment of native peoples. This is the type of sovereignty Pope Pius IX, who appears to have been familiar with de Tocqueville’s work and may have corresponded with him, embodied in “the Fundamental Statute,” his constitution for the Papal States . . . which was overthrown by the radical, collectivist liberals in the revolutions of 1848, and obliterated by the individualist liberals when Sardinia conquered the Papal States.

    Unfortunately, as the American economy shifted from small ownership to the wage system and the “free” land available under the Homestead Act of 1862 was taken, America began the shift from personalist liberal democracy into the individualist and then collectivist variety, just as Frederick Jackson Turner noted in his “Frontier Thesis.” As a result, today’s “American liberalism” has virtually nothing in common but the label with what de Tocqueville saw in the 1830s and that Pius IX attempted to emulate in the 1840s.

    Interestingly, some of John Locke’s anti-Catholicism may have been assumed for financial reasons. His patron was Lord Shaftsbury, the prime mover behind the Titus Oates “conspiracy,” and a violent anti-Catholic. Locke appears to have deliberately misrepresented Cardinal Bellarmine’s position on liberal democracy in his “First Treatise on Government.” Fortunately, America’s Founding Fathers were more heavily influenced by Algernon Sidney in his “Discourses Concerning Government” who, while he missed a key element in Bellarmine’s thought (that man is by nature in society), declared he agreed with Bellarmine in everything except his religion, which he also claimed was not relevant to the discussion. It was probably George Mason of Gunston Hall who was responsible for correcting Sidney and basing the American form of liberal democracy on the “Catholic” understanding.

    The natural law principles underlying American personalist liberal democracy are the same as those applied in Catholic social teaching, as we discuss in “The Greater Reset: Reclaiming Personal Sovereignty Under Natural Law.”

    • Austrian linguist, traveler and scholar-aristocrat Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909-1999) dissected “liberalism” much the same (de Tocqueville’s French, English, American), still centering on de Tocqueville (informal fireside address to the G.K. Chesterton Society of Seattle, November 1998):

      His four stages are (1) Pre-liberals (Adam Smith), (2) Early Liberals (de Tocqueville, Montalembert, Lord Acton), (3) Old Liberals (triggering the 1864 Syllabus of Errors; e.g., the later Hitler was elected!), and (4) Neo-Liberals (mostly economists reasserting personal freedom as opposed to the centralized “provider-state,” e.g., Von Mises, Hayak, A. Rustow, Roepke [member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences], and himself [von Kuehneldt-Leddihn]. These members, he remarked, favored the name de Tocqueville-Lord Acton Society, but wanted to avoid explicit reference to Catholic aristocrats (“the soil of the original ‘liberalism'”!), and looking out the window, settled on the Mont Pelerin Society.

      Ultimately resisting personal classification, the Catholic Eric identified himself as simultaneously a rationalist, a monarchist, a liberal, and even an anarchist (“small A”). He noted that in the Lord’s Prayer, in Greek, we ask to be delivered from not generic evil but “the evil one;” and from time to time, even at an advanced age, practiced the “black fast” (no food during the day, and limited diet after sundown).

  2. I think it is unfair to look at Locke outside of the historical context of the Enlightenment. A contemporary of Spinoza, and Pascal – suspicion of Religion in general was the great secret quandary of the contemporary intelligentsia. It is not coincidence that ‘The Ethics’ and ‘Pensees’ were published posthumously at the same time ‘Two Treatises of Government’ was published anonymously. For all the faults of our Modern period, freedom of thought and speech should not be considered anathema by faith.

  3. The views expressed in this article are misguided. The freedoms that this nation established in the 18th century allowed Chrisitan churches to prosper in the 19th and 20th century.

    It was civil rights legislation, and lawsuits initiated under state and federal civil rights acts in the 20th century, that drove a wedge between Christians in this country and public policy.

    Locke has nothing to do with it. He is, unwittingly, responsible for the success of Christianity for more than two centuries in this nation.

    • Yes, but apart from religion, is there a “loophole” in the natural law foundation of John Locke, such that the Hobbesean assertion of (civil) rights is free, after all and today, to prevail over the priority of natural-law duty? This, from the Witherspoon Institute (2011):

      • The big “loophole” in Locke as well as Sidney and Hobbes is the whole “state of nature” theory, which ironically neither Locke nor Sidney seemed to realize was one of their two big differences with Bellarmine. Both held that man’s natural state is outside society, and in this state of nature has full exercise of all rights. According to this “contract theory,” people agree to join together in society to gain certain advantages but surrender some of their rights to do so. This effectively means that natural law can only function in society to the extent that everyone agrees to it, thereby abolishing the concept of absolute natural rights even as they asserted it.

        For Bellarmine (and Aristotle, Aquinas, etc.) man is by nature a political animal, living naturally in a consciously organized and structured “polis.” This changes the understanding of the relation between natural law and human positive law. Where for Locke, Sidney, and Hobbes entering society means a loss or surrender of some natural rights, at least in part, for Bellarmine man is already in society and retains all natural rights. What society does is define the exercise of rights. Thus, natural rights remain absolute in their possession (natural law), but necessarily limited in their exercise (human positive law). For Locke, natural law and human law are in opposition, while for Bellarmine they are two halves of a whole.

        The other difference is that where Locke and Sidney held that man in his natural state has all natural rights, Bellarmine thought that God grants certain rights, such as taxation and waging war, directly to the collective . . . which is impossible in Thomist philosophy. Pope Pius XI corrected Bellarmine on this point with his theory of social virtue, i.e., there are rights that individuals have but that can only be exercised as members of a group on behalf of the group. After Pius XI corrected this flaw in Bellarmine’s thought, he beatified Bellarmine, canonized him, and named him a Doctor of the Church, all in less than a decade.

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  6. Giorgia Meloni Is the Latest Victim of Liberal Anti-Catholicism – The American Spectator

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