Friday, September 9, 2011

When Liberty Becomes License, the Federal Mandate is Near

“When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.”

-William Durant

“That Liberalism may be a tendency toward something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature…It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards something definite…

Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos “

-T.S. Eliot



Historian William Durant once said, “When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.” The habit of defining liberty as doing what you want i.e. license, instead of doing what you ought i.e. liberty, has been long touted by supporters of Secular-liberalism as the “freedom” upon which America was founded. But such liberty is not liberty at all. Rather, the so-called “right” or “liberty” to do what one wants without any reference to an objective moral standard or divine law, the very principles which orders and unifies a society, leads, in the end, to social disorder. And in turn, when people are confronted with social disorder and uncertainty, they turn to the State for help. Nevertheless, with such low moral standards having been absorbed by the people, the State, under the pretence of eliminating the social disorder and uncertainty, also eliminates the liberties of its citizenry in order to empower itself. Chief among the liberties politicians seek to eliminate is religious liberty.

Wisconsin Bishops Speak Up:

In recent decades the U.S. government has been content to limit religious liberty by way of prevention; that is, restricting religious practice under certain conditions and in certain places. In 1840, this is what Tocqueville called “soft despotism.” He said that under such despotism “men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses…” Currently, however, through the new federal health care mandate, courtesy of the Obama administration, the State is venturing into new territory. It is compelling citizens to act, to purchase a particular service and in the case we are considering, compelling Catholics to violate their conscience.

Under new federal health care regulations, the Obama administration is to mandate full coverage of sterilization, contraception, and related counseling services by private health plans. According to a recent press release from the Diocese of Green Bay, the Wisconsin Catholic bishops wrote a letter to United States Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius arguing that the regulations do not adequately protect the religious liberty of institutions, employers, insurance providers, and others. The letter takes the Obama administration to task by stating the mandate’s “effect is to so constrain religious activity as to diminish the religious liberty of Catholics in Wisconsin and the United States.”

The letter then goes on to remind the Obama administration about the very nature of religious liberty: “Ministry in the Catholic tradition is not limited to houses of worship. It finds full expression in service to others. The faith we profess and celebrate in the parish is taken into the world through our public ministries.” Religious liberty, understood in the proper Christian context, not only means the freedom to worship but it also guarantees the freedom to obey God’s law and one’s conscience. It is not only a matter of privacy but a matter of public expression and exercise. But with the new federal health care mandate this may not be possible.

Catholics Slow to Respond:

Admittedly, Catholics- both clergy and laity –have been slow in responding to the multiple encroachments by the State on the religious liberty of its citizens since the 1960’s. No doubt, when local municipalities and State governments began to divest the public square of religious symbols, Catholic bishops and politicians probably did not anticipate that such religious discrimination would affect the Church. However, anti-religious momentum has gathered strength. To be sure, it is difficult to stop once it reaches the doors of Catholic agencies and institutions. In hindsight, as we consider these unfavorable developments over the past five decades, it is clear that Catholics should have responded sooner and with greater force, denouncing such intrusions by the State. Instead, we find ourselves faced with State sponsored hostility towards religious liberty. But what we as Catholics should have done is water under the bridge now.

License Undermines Liberty: Enough blame to go around

Pressing forward it is important to recognize that the challenge to religious liberty did not start with the Obama administration or his federal mandate. It has long been the habit of Liberals, Conservatives and yes, even Christians, to view liberty- that freedom which has been heralded as America’s greatest gift to the world –as license pure and simple. Too often freedom is championed without a specific spiritual purpose or moral end in view; even by the most conservative of politicians and commentators. But this is precisely why Americans are being menaced with the federal health care mandate as well as the prospects of living under an all-powerful State. How often have we omitted from our public discourse that freedom can either be a blessing or curse, depending on how it is used. And as it applies to the immortal soul, it can lead to God or to Satan, to heaven or to hell, to life or to death. At the very least, license (the defense of doing what we want instead doing what we ought) has led to social insecurity.

Take for instance the last six decades: As late as the 1940’s, hitchhiking was considered a safe practice; as late as the 1950’s, the front or the back door to our homes remained unlocked at night; as late as the 1960’s, we were free to walk downtown Chicago, New York City or Los Angeles without fearing for our lives; as late as the 1970’s, parents could leave their children in their cars (with the windows rolled down) while they went shopping; as late as the 1980’s, seals for medication bottles were unnecessary; and as late as the 1990’s, school shootings were unheard of. In this decade, our children’s "playground" is much smaller than what ours were growing up just a few decades ago. We had the whole neighborhood, they have the front or the backyard; usually under the condition that one of the parents is on the lookout. Slowly but surely, over these last six decades, we have lost our social freedoms without even knowing it.

Leo's Prophetic Utterance on Liberty:

However, before the rise of the crime rate in America and prior to the age of dictatorships, gulags and concentration camps which preceded it in Europe, Pope Leo XIII had warned the world that confusing liberty with license is nothing short of perilous. He wrote in his encyclical On the Nature of Human Liberty that “license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint.” That's right. Undue tolerance of sin, immorality and injustice under the pretense of respecting people’s freedom ultimately leads to freedom’s own negation. And freedom’s own negation is slavery and despotism (not the soft kind either).

Leo XIII further elaborated that if “unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. “ We should keep his prophetic utterance in mind because they have proven to be true in the last one hundred and twenty years or so; and that is with unbridled license “nothing will remain sacred and inviolate,” not even religious liberty.

But here is the greatest of ironies. What Secular-liberalism demands for itself it invariably denies to the Catholic Church. “On the one hand,” he continued, “they demand for themselves and for the State a license which opens the way to every perversity of opinion; and on the other, they hamper the Church in diverse ways, restricting her liberty within narrowest limits…” No doubt this is where the Catholic Church in America is finding itself. As has been the case so many times throughout history, the State is once again “restricting her liberty within narrowest limits.”

T.S. Eliot's Definition of Liberalism:

In his book, Christianity and Culture, T. S. Eliot wrote something that was very telling about modern Secular-liberalism. He said, “That Liberalism may be a tendency toward something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature…It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards something definite.” Protesting, defying and retreating from the Christian religion and its moral absolutes is precisely what T. S. Eliot referred to when he said Liberalism moves “away from, rather than towards something definite.” Moving away from anything can be hazardous since we do not have eyes in the back of heads. We tend to stumble. And when we step backward or away from that which repels us, quite often we find ourselves in a much worse place than where we started.

As we consider the federal health care mandate, the war on terror and many other pressing issues, one gets the feeling that patrons of Secular-liberalism would rather be slaves of the State- or even of Islam –than be free in a Christian society. Perhaps this is why Eliot warns that liberty wrongly defined as unbridled license will inevitably lead to its opposite, namely, tyranny. Or, to use the words of the poet: “Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.”