Christianity, Enlightenment Liberalism, and the Quest for Freedom

Article excerpt

  The profoundest and most wideseeing minds of Greece and Rome never
  managed to grasp ... the likeness of all men and ... the equal right
  of all to liberty.... Jesus Christ had to come down to earth to make
  all members of the human race understand that they were naturally ...
  --Alexis de Tocqueville (1)

  The whole of liberal thought in the nineteenth century had
  unremittingly labored to create an indissoluble union between a divine
  perfection, freedom, and a false philosophy, liberalism. To accept in
  all its confusion the bond created by liberal philosophy, and to
  blaspheme the divine name at the same time that one condemned the
  false philosophy, was the easiest course to pursue, the course which
  demanded the least mental effort and the least courage.
  --Yves R. Simon (2)

"THE ERA WE CALL MODERN TIMES," Joseph Ratzinger has written, "has been determined from the beginning by the theme of freedom." Indeed, it is precisely "the striving for new forms of freedom" that defines modernity as a distinct historical epoch. (3) The modern quest for freedom, in turn, is closely connected with the "turn to the human," the exaltation of the worth and dignity of the human person that is among the defining features of modern culture. If the ideas of freedom and human dignity are not discoveries of the modern world, it is nevertheless undeniable that with the rise of modernity, they come to assume a new importance and new prominence.

Politically, this quest finds expression in the ideal of "democracy." Institutionally, this means a system of government in which the state is limited in its scope, subject in its operations to the rule of law, and responsible to those it governs, and which incorporates in its public law guarantees of the rights of individuals and social groups. Yet, for "modern peoples," as Jacques Maritain observes, "the word democracy ... has a wider meaning than in the classical treatises on the science of government" designating not just a form of government but "first and foremost a general philosophy of human and social life." (4) At the heart of this philosophy is an affirmation of the dignity and the inalienable rights of the human person; and an insistence that social and political life must advance the good of the whole community and not just some privileged segment of it.


This essay seeks to explore Christianity's relationship to the modern quest for freedom. To grasp this relationship it is essential to recall that the rise of Christianity precipitated a revolution in human self-understanding. Here it will suffice to mention two aspects of this revolution that are indispensable to an understanding of the topic at hand. To begin with, Christianity effected a dramatic break with the monistic understanding of the structure of social life characteristic of the classical world. "It is an historical commonplace," as John Courtney Murray has written,

  to say that the essential political effect of Christianity is to
  destroy the classical view of society as a single homogeneous
  structure, within which the political power stood forth as the
  representative of society both in its religious and political aspects.
  Augustus was both Summus Imperator and Pontifex Maximus; the ius
  divinum was simply part of the ius civile.... "Two there are, August
  Emperor, by whom the world is ruled on title of original and sovereign
  right--the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal
  power." In this celebrated sentence of Gelasius I ... the emphasis
  laid on the word "two" bespoke the revolutionary character of then
  Christian dispensation. (5)

Implicit in Christianity's distinction between Church and state introduced by Christianity and insistence on the freedom of the Church both to define itself and to discharge its divinely appointed mission, moreover, were a host of other political principles including the distinction between state and society; normative pluralism, the idea that our nature as social beings finds expression in a whole array of diverse institutions and communities that collectively constitute society; limited government, the idea that the jurisdiction of the state is "limited to the pursuit of certain enumerated secular purposes," that goals of government were not coextensive with the overall goals of human life; and the primacy of society over the state, the idea that the state possesses a service character and thus exists to serve, to assist, society rather than vice versa. …