Pope Leo XIII in Libertas artfully lays out a definition of human liberty which needs no amendment for direct application to today.
At the root of the errors of free marketers is a conception of human liberty that often assumes a Newtonian perfection as the result of aggregate human action; that is, it assumes that without crystallized, centralized authority thwarting it, human action is self-correcting and leads to continuous progress and growth. If no mafias form (here I am crudely including the state as a “mafia” in the libertarian way) and we all simply trade peacefully, economic problems do not arise.
The seeds of utopian thinking are evident from the first sentence. If there is no centralized authority directing a group of people, one will by nature form, for good or ill. Hierarchies present themselves naturally, and in an ironic way, rejecting the need for hierarchies and governments produces the very worst kinds of governments, since the least moral will be the only ones seeking to gain control of the state’s monopoly on the threat of force and its use.
Further, this conception of human action is atomizing, and denies the role of the family, the community, and the state in inclining individuals to good, even insisting that individuals who fall into the bondage of error or sin must have done so by their own deliberate act of will, and so this represents liberty at work. This is also the root of the concept of absolute right of contract. Some contracts should be outside the realm of possibility; individuals may not give themselves into every variety of slavery and vice. Contracts are not micromanaged, so a “grey” area remains, but payday loans and many other vices should be completely banned. Similarly, certain economic arrangements and transactions should be completely banned as they only tend to vice and societal decline.
Many argue that laws that prohibit certain sins represent a curtailing of liberty, which they consider a sort of “neutral” configuration the ideal. They go as far as to say that to restrict freedom of action is actually to harm freedom, since it removes the opportunity of the individual to choose the good by preventing this exercise of will.
They might point to the garden in Eden, and show that Adam and Eve were given freedom and allowed to fall into sin, and God’s prevention of that act would have represented a curtailing of the will. But surely this is a shallow interpretation of the responsibility of authorities God places in power after the fall; the commands of the Law and the history of the Church in prohibiting a whole range of economic and social actions cries out against this highly strange eisegesis of Genesis.
Liberty cannot be to choose evil, because choosing evil wounds the ability of the individual to choose good the next time around. It is like liberty to sink one’s own ship; Adam and Eve’s respective sins were not acts of Liberty, because indeed they actually wounded their ability to choose the good, as all sin does, meaning they were acts of “anti-liberty.” Real Liberty is as our Lord described it; real liberty is to follow after the path he has given to us and to dwell in his truths.
Certainly, God often does not prevent individuals from falling into error, even grave error, and allows the sanction of choice and delayed consequence to work. But in each covenant interaction with man, he gives man responsibilities to safeguard, protect, and to be a “father” to his family and to his wider community, and sets in place authorities whose responsibility it is to teach, correct, and positively frame the operations of society. This has been the case in every dispensation since Adam. The fact that the authority has been rejected and corrupted in each iteration is no excuse.
In Cain and Abel we see an interesting comparison; Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God, and pleased him, while Cain’s did not. Abel’s sacrifice was in line with a permanent pattern – that of the necessity of blood. Cain’s sacrifice was a product of his own creation; a rejection of the permanent need for death to pay for sin. In this we see the seeds of a “Protestant” understanding of sacrifice: Cain thought the efforts of the sweat of his brow, the beauty of what he had grown in its harmony with the natural order of things was a sufficient sacrifice. I hear the echoes of those who thought they could maintain the concept of natural law without the real sacrifice of the mass. The “real presence” concept was expunged from every protestant denomination very quickly.
Upon the rejection of this sacrifice, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Likewise, the notion of atomized individuality was a natural consequence of the reformation. Magisterial Protestantism couldn’t survive its own ideas; the peasants’ revolt of 1524 was a foreshock of what the ideas of the Reformation truly contained. It was a destruction of the natural hierarchies and authorities as derived from the sacred tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
Similarly, Esau’s rejection of the authority of his parents in choosing foreign spouses who were a grief to them was emblematic of how he despised his own birthright. The concept of the birthright is a fascinating one – my untested reading of the concept is the obligation of a primogeniture to carry on the beauty and traditions of the family. Protestants, being the first modernists, decided the inheritance of Christendom was trash, and created a new-old system virtually out of whole cloth, and each protestant wave, generation by generation, returns the favor by doing the same to the last wave and the last generation. Protestants despise the birthright of 1500 years of Christendom, and end up losing the blessing that goes with it.
The connection between a distorted concept of liberty and the concept of the birthright are more direct than one might imagine. Cain wanted freedom – freedom even from being “his brother’s keeper.” Esau wanted freedom from the constraints of his lineage and the obligations of his birth. But certain kinds of “freedom” actually destroy one’s freedom of action in choosing the good – Cain wanted the freedom to offer what he thought was a “better” sacrifice, one that honored his skill and sweat. But God has, in ever era, called for a specific type of sacrifice, and in our era, the best of all – the participation in the sacrifice of Christ through its re-presentation in the mass. He has not called for a ministry of the word, instrumental music, eloquent speech.
Some might argue that the Lord Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts.” He does so in two passages, Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7.
To interpret those passages as saying that the sacrifice itself was unimportant would be silly. Even in the context of Lord Jesus of those statements against the Pharisees, he was not rejecting the necessity of sacrifices; he was saying what the sacrifice was intended to lead to. Honest faith in the heart of man should lead him to seek God and complete his faith by performing the work God has commanded.
This is why James write one of the most clear statements that could be uttered; without Abraham’s offering of Isaac on the altar, his faith would have been worthless.
[Jas 2:20-24 ESV] 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Without the commensurate act of obedience inspired by faith, faith remains unconsummated, and as James says later, is as a body without a spirit. The obedience of faith leads us to sacrifice, and the sacrifice completes our faith.
Without the faith inspiring the act, the act itself is also worse than worthless, even sacrilegious and harmful to our souls. Without the belief in the true presence and the faith, the Eucharist itself brings damnation and harm to us. Just as Cain’s sacrifice was an act of self-aggrandizing pride, worshiping God without the sacrifice inspired by genuine faith is an incomplete act which fails to fully surrender the will to God. It leads to individuals choosing their own way, and is emblematic of Samaria after their break with the temple – one self-interested ruler after the other, creating their own “new way” of fulfilling the law.