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Liberty: The God That Failed

February 6, 2007

From an adaptation of the book Liberty: The God That Failed by Christopher A. Ferrara:

The history of Western civilization over the past 250 years is a chronicle of the decline of men and nations in consequence of a theological decision with profound political effects. That decision was the definitive refusal to conduct the art of politics according to the fundamental theological premise that an almighty and eternal God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. What confronts us now is the prospect of life in a terminal civilization that has rejected the ancient dictum, in force throughout the West for more than a thousand years, that “Christianity is the law of the land.”[iii] We are the victims of what Christopher Dawson described as “the reversal of the spiritual revolution which gave birth to Western culture and a return to the psychological situation of the old pagan world…”[iv]

More particularly, the collapsing societies of the West groan under the consequences of what one liberal commentator has characterized as “a fundamental orientation toward politics chosen by early-modern Europeans in order to free themselves from the intellectual and spiritual influence of the Catholic Church…”[v] That is, the condition of contemporary Western civilization reflects the final destruction of the Catholic social order that endured in one form or another from Imperial Rome under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century until the fall of the Imperial House of Hapsburg under the Emperor Charles I at the dawn of the 20th century.

By Catholic social order is meant a society with its organs of government, traditionally referred to collectively as the State[vi], which recognizes the Catholic Church at its summit and is responsive to her teaching. Such a State orders its laws and institutions (however imperfectly) to the Christian moral code and the final end of man as a creature of God, destined for either eternal beatitude or eternal punishment. This State may be monarchical, democratic or republican in its political constitution, and we have seen examples of all three forms of government (or mixtures thereof) within the dominant Western mode of Catholic social order. What was essential to this social order, known as Christendom, was the presence of an organic link between the Catholic Church and the State in virtue of which the Church was the conscience of the State. It is that link which was broken, and the result has aptly been likened to the decomposition of a human body from which the soul has departed.

One of the great triumphs of the new “fundamental orientation,” otherwise known as “classical liberalism,” is to have banished from the mind of contemporary Western man the memory that Christendom was the form and pattern of our civilization for most of its history. Classical liberalism is the system of thought which progressively divorces the art of politics from divine law and man’s final end in God, leaving the approach to God strictly to the individual members of civil society, artificially severed from its organs of government to allow for the fiction of the “private” believer. The liberal disjunction between civil society and the State, reducing the latter to merely value-neutral organs of government, was a radical break with the Western tradition that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Christendom, which combined the inspiration of supernatural grace with the natural truths of the Philosophers, was the historical fulfillment of man’s divine ordination to life in the State, producing nothing less than all of the greatest achievements of Western culture in an alliance (by no means without its own peculiar problems) between the Church and political authority.

(…)

Liberty makes certain we remain deprived of the hope that ensures success by convincing us that the overthrow of Catholic social order was inevitable and is now quite irreversible: There will be faction and violence if any effort is made to topple me, Liberty warns us. For only Liberty can control the chaos that Liberty has unleashed. Our entire civilization has fallen prey to an ideological protection racket. But we are not protected. In fear of violence we pay tribute to violence. Each year abortion alone claims more victims for Liberty than all of the major wars in world history combined. And now ultimate violence approaches.

It is not as if our deliverance from this predicament were inconceivable. Another triumph of the new orientation is that it has blinded us to the political significance of the spiritual reality that, even today, the great preponderance of the population of the Western world consists of baptized Christians, with the overwhelming Western popular majority[xviii] remaining at least nominally Catholic. If this majority were to be aroused from its silent apostasy by the leaders of a Catholic Church returned to militancy, the world would certainly change again. As Dawson observed of our situation: “However secularized our modern civilization may have become, this sacred tradition remains like a river in the desert, and a genuine religious education can still use it to irrigate the thirsty lands and to change the face of the world with the promise of new life.”[xix] The leaders of the new order themselves, who erupt in nearly hysterical outrage at any sign of effective Catholic opposition to secular orthodoxy, evince an acute awareness of the immense spiritual power that lies dormant under the desert they have created. They know how easily an awakened fraternity of the baptized could topple the god of Liberty.

And topple Liberty we must, in the name of true freedom—the freedom that comes from the idea that we are the children of a loving God, who bestows upon us both temporal blessings and eternal happiness, if only men and nations will follow His counsels. But beyond a simple plea for a return to faith, Catholics must be prepared to argue that reason itself suffices to demonstrate that only a reconstruction of Christendom, or something approaching it as an interim step in the revival of the West, can avert the coming catastrophe, and that otherwise we are at the end of history. As the currently reigning Pope remarked when he was Cardinal Ratzinger: “[N]o society will long survive if in its public structure it is built agnostically and materialistically and wishes to permit anything else to exist only below the threshold of the public.”[xx] The Anglican scholar John Milbank, who represents the growing intellectual trend toward a radically Christian critique of secular social order, has expressed this conviction in a startling way: “Only a global liturgical polity can save us now from literal violence.”[xxi]

What of the objection that we are advocating the “impossibility” of a reconversion of the Western world to Roman Catholicism? I reply that this “impossibility” ought really to be seen as nothing less than the only reasonable course of action to save a dying civilization, which, after all, is still predominantly composed of baptized Catholics. At this point in the civilizational debacle, anyone who calls himself a Christian should at least be willing to make an effort to examine our situation from the traditional Catholic perspective, standing outside the framework of liberal premises whose adoption was no less an act of the will than the common faith that sustained Christendom for century upon century.

Full adaptation (including footnotes) here.

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From → Books, On Christendom

3 Comments
  1. Matthew H permalink

    I agree whole-heartedly. The Holy See needs to show the world that it is a force to be reckoned with. If we as a church are to survive we need to start flexing our muscles. The Pope should get out on the balcony of St. Peters Basillica and publicly denounce secularinism, abortion, homosexuality etc etc. Its only a pity Holy Mother Church has lost its teeth, I wonder if Pope Saint Gregory the Great would have sat idly by if he were Pope today

  2. Loyola permalink

    I’m still waiting for the book to come out.

    Does anyone know when it will be published?

  3. This book was released in June 2012. It’s available on Amazon or angelicopress.com.

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