The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Liberalism is a Sin

Don Felix Sarda

In 1886 a Spanish priest, Don Felix Sarda, wrote a diatribe against liberalism entitled Liberalism is a Sin. The book was published in English in 1899 and is still available today in one form or another.

Many people think conservative religionists oppose liberalism in “its modern form” because of what they call “pink think,” “social engineering,” or “political correctness.” All this is false. Such people opposed liberalism right from the start. They opposed it in its classical form and they oppose it in its modern “progressive” form.

The term liberal actually comes to us from Spanish. The liberals of Spain proposed individual freedom, free markets and free minds. They were opposed by the Church, which allied itself with the autocratic feudal lords who ruled the land. The Church was wedded to the idea that all authority comes from God and individual freedom destroys this authoritarian structure. Individual conscience meant diffused political power with each man using his own rational faculties to rule his own life. The Church saw life as a hierarchy and at the top of that pyramid of power was God with his representatives on earth just one step lower.

In France the great free market liberals such as Frederic Bastiat sat on the “Left” in opposition to the “Right” which, as usual, was a union of authoritarian religion and feudalistic hierarchies. At this time the West was torn between conservatives who clung to authoritarianism and those who adopted liberalism. There was an attempt to compromise, which was lead by the so-called “socialists.” Liberalism, the socialists realized, held out the promise of prosperity. The old feudal orders were not conducive to economic development or to individual prosperity. Liberalism promised people the right to pursue their highest values, whatever that might be.

The socialists, who dreamed of power for themselves, saw that proper liberalism appealed to workers, entrepreneurs, and the poor. It threatened those who clung to power on the premise that God has granted them the right to rule others. While the socialist Left found the promises of liberalism appealing they much preferred the old conservative method of ruling. They attempted (and failed) to seek liberal goals via conservative means. They thought authoritarian state control, the methods used by the feudal lords and the Church, could be adopted to achieve the liberal goals of peace, economic prosperity and progress.

From the start the Church opposed liberalism because liberalism opposed state control. The Church desired to merge church and state into one monolithic center of authority. For the Church, power was something granted by God to the ruling elite. It did not, and could not reside in the people themselves — particularly in individuals.

Sarda carefully laid out the conservative critique of liberalism in his book over a century ago. First he argued liberalism was “religious anarchy.” Why? Because it allowed people to commit the sin of following doctrines other than those proposed by the Holy Roman Church, which alone represented God on earth. Religious freedom, he argued, is the root of liberalism because it creates a “heretical and infidel population.” Even worse, said the priest, these heretics were allowed to express their opinions:

It is natural that Protestantism and infidelity should find public expression. What our sixty million non-Catholic population think in these matters naturally seeks and finds open expression. They have their organs and their literature, where we find their current opinions publicly uttered. Their views upon religion, morality, politics, and the constitution of society are perpetually marshalled before us. In the pulpit and the press they are reiterated day after day. In magazine and newspaper they constantly speak from every line. Our literature is permeated and saturated with non-Catholic dogmatism. On all sides do we find this opposing spirit? We cannot escape from it. It enfolds and embraces us. Its breath is perpetually in our faces. It enters in by eye and ear. It enswathes us in its offensive garments from birth to death. It now soothes and flatters; now hates and curses, now threatens and now praises. But it is most dangerous when it comes to us under the form of “liberality.” It is especially powerful for seduction in this guise. It is under this aspect we wish to consider it. For it is as Liberalism that Protestantism and Infidelity make their most devastating inroads upon the domain of the Faith.

Sarda wrote: “Out of these unCatholic and anti-Catholic conditions, thus predominating amongst us, springs this monster of our times, Liberalism.”

At its core liberalism is about liberty and liberty means the right of the individual to make choices. This “gives birth to endless differences and contradiction” says the priest. People may choose to live according to values others find abhorrent. But, in a liberal society, unless those values directly violate the life, liberty or property of another person they are allowed. Father Sarda laments that “the dictates of private judgement” replaced divine authority as represented by the Church. He’s unhappy because “Belief is not imposed by a legitimately and divinely constituted authority, but springs directly and freely from the unrestricted exercise of the individual’s reason or caprice upon the subject matter of revelation. The individual or sect interprets as it pleases, rejecting or accepting what it chooses. This is popularly called liberty of conscience.”

The problem with this, said Sarda, is it means each individual is in control of their own life, making decisions for themselves and Sarda believes that he, as a representative of God on earth, should make those decisions on behalf of the people. Instead of using the edicts of Rome to guide legislation there was “the absolute sovereignty of the individual” which means the “sovereignty of human reason. Here human reason is made the measure and sum of truth. Hence we have individual, social and political Rationalism, the corrupt fountainhead of liberal principles…”

If people are allowed to think for themselves the result would be “secularization,” “which denies religion any active intervention in the concerns of public and of private life.” This exclusion of Church control of public and private life “is the world of Lucifer, disguised in our times under the name of Liberalism, in radical opposition and in perpetual warfare against that society composed of the Children of God, the Church of Jesus Christ.”

This must mean liberalism, and Farther Sarda meant classical liberalism, “is a sin… a mortal sin against faith. In the practical order it is a sin against the commandments of God and of the Church…” The result of this sin is liberalism “admits or supposes the equality of any or all religious cults; it denies the sanctity of marriage, when it sanctions so-called civil marriages; it denies the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, when it refuses to accept as laws his official commands and teachings, and subjects them to the scrutiny of its own intellect, not to assure itself of their authenticity, as is legitimate, but to sit in defiant judgement upon their contents.”

Remember it was well over 100 years ago that Father Sarda wrote his condemnation of liberalism. He could not be referring to the corrupted version of “liberalism” which the Left created since Sarda wrote his treatise. The problem Father Sarda had with liberalism is it allowed for individual freedom, which undermines the authority of the Church.

What does the obscure writings of a long dead priest have to do with us today? Well, the priest may be dead but his ideas are not. In fact these ideas were Catholic doctrine for sometime. It is no surprise to hear similar rants from Cardinal Tom Williams, the head of New Zealand’s Roman Catholic Church.

One thing Williams gets right is he abhors liberalism consistently. He hates both social and economic liberalism. One could say he supports the authoritarian perspective across the board. That’s more consistent than some self-proclaimed liberals ever get it.

Father Sarda claimed that Liberals are sinners. Cardinal Williams called them “barbarians.” Odd comment considering that real liberals have never even come close to an Inquisition except, perhaps, as victims.

According to Williams liberals “tear down existing standards” and “debase ideals that have come to characterise a society built on sound moral principles.” Exactly the same codswallop Father Sarda was spouting over a century ago.

Williams, according to the New Zealand Herald attacked “bankrupt liberalism” for leading to a free market economy. The Herald said his view was markets “had been pursued at the cost of hardship and poverty for families, television and the media were dumbed down, Sundays were secularised and doctors conspired to legitimise abortions by writing spurious medical certificates for mothers who did not wish to keep their babies.”

Williams demanded people stop thinking as individuals. In fact, they must attack the very idea of what he called “exaggerated individualism” and herd themselves in flocks once again.

At least Williams see liberalism is about freedom in the economic realm and the social realm. He attacks both with equal vigor; unlike pseudo liberals who believe you can embrace half a package.

Williams is basically a liar. Though I suspect he does not intentionally lie. My experience is men such as himself are so steeped in theology they know next to nothing about economics. As one saying puts it, “They are so heavenly minded, they are no earthly good.” They hate freedom for the very reasons Father Sarda explained a century ago. Freedom undermines the authoritarian nature of the church. Cardinal Williams believes priests and Catholics (and in his heart he knows only Catholics are true Christians) must obey him as he must obey the Pope. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth and Christ is, well, they say he’s God. If Christ is God and the Pope his Vicar on Earth then what the Pope says is coming straight from God. There is no room to weasel out of that. The conclusion follows the premise.

This whole thing about individual freedom of conscience is a problem to the orthodox Catholic. If you think for yourself you might disagree with the Church and then what will happen? The orthodox Catholic will tell you that means complete moral relativism. The poor fundamentalist Protestant is even is a bigger bind and Father Sarda was quick to point out the contradictions in the Protestant faith.

Protestants have the problem of arguing the Bible is the final authority on all issues of morality but each individual is free to interpret the Bible as God leads. That, of course, leads to literally thousands of positions on the same issue, including positions that mutually exclude each other. The Biblical Left argues from premises of equality, fairness, social justice or other vague principles. The Biblical Right argues strict laws, punishment and control. The Biblical Left will demand the Church side with the oppressed and outcasts and the Biblical Right will demand the Church punish the same groups.

The Catholics, at least, argue when a conflict in the faith arises the final authority is Church tradition especially when announced ex cathedra by the Pope himself. In the end it means the Pope has the final say. So change, if any, is slow. It can take centuries to move the monolithic bureaucratic monster that is modern Catholicism.

The religious groups lament the lack of moral absolutism in modern society. They ally themselves to fight things like rights for gay people but the alliance includes Catholics and Protestants. Yet, the Protestants are inadvertently fighting the very principle on which the Reformation was based — the right of individuals to follow their own conscience. The modern fundamentalist who demands moral absolutism imposed by a centralized government is appealing to a pre-Reformation view of the world. If the principles he is proclaiming today had won out, his faith would have been extinguished stillborn. The Baptist could not exist. Neither could the Lutheran or the Methodist. Each required a society where individual conscience was allowed. Each sect must embrace some degree of liberalism in their own self-interest. Liberalism is, as Father Sarda argued, the enshrining of individual conscience and choice.

When Cardinal Williams attacks “relativism and permissiveness” he is attacking the idea individuals can make choices and should be free to do so, provided they do not violate the equal rights of others. Within a liberal society that will mean some people will make “wrong” choices. They may live a less than optimal existence. If they make the wrong choices they suffer the consequences.

But anti-liberal collectivists such as Cardinal Williams don’t want it to be that way. That implies individuals may live for their own sake (always with the proviso that no violation of the rights of others is allowed) and the Cardinal wants people to live to “serve” society. In his view individuals are cogs in the great machine called society — a view embraced by conservatives as well — and that means all choice must be regulated to guarantee individuals live properly in the interest of the greater good of the collective.

Alas, such doctrines have lead not to a greater good for all, but to tyranny for all. It manages to spread misery until all suffer horribly. It does not lift up the poor, though it always alludes to the poor, it merely manages to tear down the wealthy. It does not make us all equally well off, it merely promotes a rough form of equal suffering. It cannot lead to equality of power. In the end this authoritarianism demands a ruling elite has the right to decide what is the greater good.

Someone must determine this “social good” they are talking about. There is no obvious goal in mind and the methods of governance are many. So, some people must have the power to determine these things. Since we’ve ruled out the concept of equal rights — which implies each individual being free to make their own choices — then some group must be endowed with a right not given to others: that is the right to rule.

This gets back to the original problem Father Sarda had with freedom. Freedom means people make choices. It means they make different choices. It means the one absolute choice which Father Sarda’s religion tells him is the only right choice is not mandated. Therefore, since the only moral choice is not coercively enforced, no morality exists and there is moral anarchy. Because Catholic dogma is NOT the foundation for law in the West, Cardinal Williams claims that New Zealand and the West are becoming “a moral wasteland.”

There is an objective morality that is found in the nature of social interaction. But, there is virtually no debate about that realm of morality. That covers things like murder, rape, assault and theft. The debate is not about those clear issues. It is about the private realm and issues of vices, not crimes. The socialists of the soul want the State to enforce their morality in the private realm. Liberalism objects to that.

When Cardinal Williams laments the “moral wasteland” he is not lamenting that anyone has seriously proposed legalizing rape, murder, genocide or assault. This wasteland is entirely within the private realm. It is issues such as prostitution and homosexuality that bother Cardinal Williams. He wants to determine choices for pregnant women and determine how people will be allowed to die regardless of their own wishes. He wants Catholic dogma to be the root of all moral law. He has no choice. To take any other view is to abandon traditional Catholic teaching.

We can argue the public realm — the realm of crime — is properly the realm of the state. Laws exist to clarify when rights are being violated and a court system is established to deal with criminals who violate such rights. The private realm is another matter. That belongs to the individual — or if he is religious — that is the realm he gives to God. To quote someone who Cardinal Williams might remember, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The public realm, which deals with rights violations, is the realm of Caesar, or of the State. The private realm is private and for the religious it is the realm they give to God. That God is not ruling the realm of Caesar is not a moral wasteland. To put God in charge of that public realm is to establish an authoritarian system that will be destructive to all. That happens because, regardless of intent, in the end it is not and cannot be God who rules, but men. While these men may claim to speak on behalf of God, they are still men. It is very easy for a man to believe his desires are God’s desires and his will is God’s will. It has been so every time it has been attempted. Its endemic in the concentration of power that it always leads to destruction.

In a free society there may be no one “true” path of private morality which all embrace. There may be uncertainty. In the Gulag there is no uncertainty because there is no freedom. Whether or not Cardinal Williams desires it, his attack on “moral relativism” is fundamentally an attack on freedom itself.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.

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