« Libellatici, Libelli Liberalism Libera Me »



A free way of thinking and acting in private and public life.


The word liberal is derived from the Latin liber, free, and up to the end of the eighteenth century signified only "worthy of a free man", so that people spoke of "liberal arts", "liberal occupations". Later the term was applied also to those qualities of intellect and of character, which were considered an ornament becoming those who occupied a higher social position on account of their wealth and education. Thus liberal got the meaning of intellectually independent, broad-minded, magnanimous, frank, open, and genial. Again Liberalism may also mean a political system or tendency opposed to centralization and absolutism. In this sense Liberalism is not at variance with the spirit and teaching of the Catholic Church. Since the end of the eighteenth century, however, the word has been applied more and more to certain tendencies in the intellectual, religious, political, and economical life, which implied a partial or total emancipation of man from the supernatural, moral, and Divine order. Usually, the principles of 1789, that is of the French Revolution, are considered as the Magna Charta of this new form of Liberalism. The most fundamental principle asserts an absolute and unrestrained freedom of thought, religion, conscience, creed, speech, press, and politics. The necessary consequences of this are, on the one hand, the abolition of the Divine right and of every kind of authority derived from God; the relegation of religion from the public life into the private domain of one's individual conscience; the absolute ignoring of Christianity and the Church as public, legal, and social institutions; on the other hand, the putting into practice of the absolute autonomy of every man and citizen, along all lines of human activity, and the concentration of all public authority in one "sovereignty of the people". This sovereignty of the people in all branches of public life as legislation, administration, and jurisdiction, is to be exercised in the name and by order of all the citizens, in such a way, that all should have share in and a control over it. A fundamental principle of Liberalism is the proposition: "It is contrary to the natural, innate, and inalienable right and liberty and dignity of man, to subject himself to an authority, the root, rule, measure, and sanction of which is not in himself". This principle implies the denial of all true authority; for authority necessarily presupposes a power outside and above man to bind him morally.

These tendencies, however, were more or less active long before 1789; indeed, they are coeval with the human race. Modern Liberalism adopts and propagates them under the deceiving mask of Liberalism in the true sense. As a direct offspring of Humanism and the Reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, modern Liberalism was further developed by the philosophers and literati of England especially Locke and Hume, by Rousseau and the Encyclopedists in France, and by Lessing and Kant in Germany. Its real cradle, however, was the drawing-rooms of the moderately free-thinking French nobility (1730-1789), especially those of Mme Necker and her daughter, Mme de Staël. The latter was more than anybody else the connecting link between the free-thinking elements before and after the Revolution and the centre of the modern Liberal movement both in France and Switzerland. In her politico-religious views she is intimately connected with Mirabeau and the Constitutional party of the Revolution. These views find their clearest exposition in her work "ConsidÈrations sur les principaux ÈvÈnements de la RÈvolution française". She pleads for the greatest possible individual liberty, and denounces as absurd the derivation of human authority from God. The legal position of the Church, according to her, both as a public institution and as a property-owner is a national arrangement and therefore entirely subject to the will of the nation; ecclesiastical property belongs not to the church but to the nation; the abolition of ecclesiastical privileges is entirely justified, since the clergy is the natural enemy of the principles of Revolution. The ideal form of government is in smaller states the republic, in larger ones the constitutional monarchy after the model of England. The entire art of government in modern times, consists, according to Mme de Staël, in the art of directing public opinion and of yielding to it at the right moment.


Since the so-called Liberal principles of 1789 are based upon a wrong notion of human liberty, and are and must forever be contradictory and indefinite in themselves, it is an impossibility in practical life to carry them into effect with much consistency. Consequently the most varying kinds and shades of Liberalism have been developed, all of which remained in fact more conservative than a logical application of Liberal principles would warrant. Liberalism was first formulated by the Protestant Genevese (Rousseau, Necker, Mme de Staël, Constant, Guizot); nevertheless it was from France, that it spread over the rest of the world, as did its different representative types. These developed in closest connection with the different Revolutions in Europe since 1789. The principal types are:—

(A) Anti-ecclesiastical Liberalism

(1) The old Liberalism, first advocated by Mme de Staël and Constant. It may be described as the drawing-room Liberalism of the free-thinking educated classes, who, however, did not condescend to become practical politicians or statesmen; they were superior observers, infallible critics, standing above all parties. In later days some few of these old Liberals, animated by a truly liberal chivalry, stood up for the rights of suppressed minorities against Jacobin majorities, for instance, LittrÈ and Laboulaye in France (1879-1880).

(2) Closely connected with this old Liberalism of Mme de Staël is doctrinaire Liberalism which originated in the lecture-hall of Royer-Collard and in the salon of the Duc de Broglie (1814-1830). It was the Liberalism of the practical politicians and statesmen, who intended to re-establish, maintain, and develop, in the different states, the constitutional form of government based upon the principles of 1789. The most prominent representatives of this body were, besides de Broglie, Royer-Collard, Guizot in France, Cavour in Italy, von Rotteck and his partisans in Germany.

(3) Bourgeois Liberalism, was the natural outgrowth of doctrinaire Liberalism. It adapted itself more to the interests of the propertied and moneyed classes; for the clergy and nobility having been dispossessed of their political power, these were the only classes which could make use of the new institutions, the people not being sufficiently instructed and organized to do so. The rich industrial classes, therefore, were from the very beginning and in all countries the mainstay of Liberalism, and Liberalism for its part was forced to further their interests. This kind of bourgeois Liberalism enjoyed its highest favour in France during the time of the citizen-king, Louis-Philippe (1830-40), who openly avowed his dependence upon it. It flourished in Germany, as "national Liberalism", in Austria, as "political Liberalism in general", in France, as the Liberalism of Gambetta's Opportunist party. Its characteristic traits are materialistic, sordid ideals, which care only for unrestrained enjoyment of life, egoism in exploiting the economically weak by means of tariffs which are for the interests of the classes, a systematic persecution of Christianity and especially of the Catholic Church and her institutions, a frivolous disregard and even a mocking contempt of the Divine moral order, a cynical indifference in the choice and use of means — slander, corruption, fraud, etc. — in fighting one's opponents and in acquiring an absolute mastery and control of everything.

(4) The Liberal "parties of progress" are in opposition to the Conservatives and the Liberals of the bourgeois classes, in so far as these, when once in power, usually care little or nothing for further improvements according to their Liberal principles, whereas the former lay more stress on the fundamental tenets of Liberalism themselves and fight against a cynical one-sided policy of self-interest; for this reason they appear to an outsider more fair-minded.

(5) Liberal Radicals are adherents of progressive modem ideas, which they try to realize without consideration for the existing order or for other people's rights, ideas, and feelings. Such was the first Liberal political party, the Spanish Jacobinos in 1810. This is the Radicalism, which under the mask of liberty is now annihilating the rights of Catholics in France.

(6) The Liberal Democrats want to make the masses of the common people the deciding factor in public affairs. They rely especially on the middle classes, whose interests they pretend to have at heart.

(7) Socialism is the Liberalism of self-interest nurtured by all classes of Liberals described above, and espoused by the members of the fourth estate and the proletariat. It is at the same time nothing but the natural reaction against a one-sided policy of self-interest. Its main branches are:

  • Communism, which tries to reorganize the social conditions by abolishing all private ownership;
  • Radical Social Democracy of Marx (founded 1848), common in Germany and Austria;
  • Moderate Socialism (Democratic Socialistic Federation in England, Possibilists in France, etc.);
  • Anarchist parties founded by Bakunin, Most, and Krapotkin, after 1868, for some periods allied to Social Democracy. Anarchism as a system is relatively the most logical and radical development of the Liberal principles.

(B) Ecclesiastical Liberalism (Liberal Catholicism)

(1) The prevailing political form of modern Liberal Catholicism, is that which would regulate the relations of the Church to the State and modern society in accordance with the Liberal principles as expounded by Benjamin Constant. It had its predecessors and patterns in Gallicanism, Febronianism, and Josephinism. Founded 1828 by Lamennais, the system was later defended in some respects by Lacordaire, Montalembert, Parisis, Dupanloup, and Falloux.

(2) The more theological and religious form of Liberal Catholicism had its predecessors in Jansenism and Josephinism; it aims at certain reforms in ecclesiastical doctrine and discipline in accordance with the anti-ecclesiastical liberal Protestant theory and atheistical "science and enlightenment" prevailing at the time. The newest phases of this Liberalism were condemned by Pius X as Modernism. In general it advocates latitude in interpreting dogma, oversight or disregard of the disciplinary and doctrinal decrees of the Roman Congregations, sympathy with the State even in its enactments against the liberty of the Church, in the action of her bishops, clergy, religious orders and congregations, and a disposition to regard as clericalism the efforts of the Church to protect the rights of the family and of individuals to the free exercise of religion.


By proclaiming man's absolute autonomy in the intellectual, moral and social order, Liberalism denies, at least practically, God and supernatural religion. If carried out logically, it leads even to a theoretical denial of God, by putting deified mankind in place of God. It has been censured in the condemnations of Rationalism and Naturalism. The most solemn condemnation of Naturalism and Rationalism was contained in the Constitution "De Fide" of the Vatican Council (1870); the most explicit and detailed condemnation, however, was administered to modern Liberalism by Pius IX in the Encyclical "Quanta cura" of 8 December, 1864 and the attached Syllabus. Pius X condemned it again in his allocution of 17 April, 1907, and in the Decree of the Congregation of the Inquisition of 3 July, 1907, in which the principal errors of Modernism were rejected and censured in sixty-five propositions. The older and principally political form of false Liberal Catholicism had been condemned by the Encyclical of Gregory XVI, "Mirari Vos", of 15 August, 1832 and by many briefs of Pius IX (see SÈgur, "Hommage aux Catholiques LibÈraux", Paris, 1875). The definition of the papal infallibility by the Vatican council was virtually a condemnation of Liberalism. Besides this many recent decisions concern the principal errors of Liberalism. Of great importance in this respect are the allocutions and encyclicals of Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X. (Cf., Recueil des allocutions consistorales encycliques . . . citÈes dans le Syllabus", Paris, 1865) and the encyclicals of Leo XIII of 20 January, 1888, "On Human Liberty"; of 21 April, 1878, "On the Evils of Modern Society"; of 28 December, 1878, "On the Sects of the Socialists, Communists, and Nihilists"; of 4 August, 1879, "On Christian Philosophy"; of 10 February, 1880, "On Matrimony"; of 29 July, 1881, "On the Origin of Civil Power"; of 20 April, 1884, "On Freemasonry"; of 1 November, 1885, "On the Christian State"; of 25 December, 1888, "On the Christian Life"; of 10 January, 1890, "On the Chief Duties of a Christian Citizen"; of 15 May, 1891, "On the Social Question"; of 20 January, 1894, "On the Importance of Unity in Faith and Union with the Church for the Preservation of the Moral Foundations of the State"; of 19 March, 1902, "On the Persecution of the Church all over the World". Full information about the relation of the Church towards Liberalism in the different countries may be gathered from the transactions and decisions of the various provincial councils. These can be found in the "Collectio Lacensis" under the headings of the index: Fides, Ecclesia, Educatio, Francomuratores.

FERRAZ, Spiritualisme et libÈralisme (Paris, 1887); IDEM, Traditionalisme et ultramontanisme (Paris, 1880); D'HAUSSONVILLE, Le salon de Mme Necker (Paris, 1882); LADY BLENNERHASSET, Frau von Staël (1887-89); LABOULAYE, Le parti libÈral (Paris, 1864); IDEM in the Introduction to his edition of Cours de politique constitutionelle de Benj. Constant (Paris, 1872); CONSTANT, De la religion (Paris, 1824-31); BLUNTSCHLI, Allgemeine Staatslehre (Stuttgart, 1875), 472; SAMUEL, Liberalism (1902); DEVAS, Political Economy (London, 1901), 122, 531, 650 seq.; VILLIERS, Opportunity of Liberalism (1904); RUDEL, Geschichte des Liberalismus und der deutschen Reichsverfassung (1891); DEBIDOUR, Histoire des rapports de l'Èglise et de l'Ètat 1789-1905 (Paris, 1898-1906); BRÜCK, Die Geheimen Gesellschaften in Spanien (1881); Handworterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, I, 296-327, s. v. Anarchismus; Ferrer im Lichte der Wahrheit in Germania (Berlin, 1909); MEFFERT, Die Ferrer-Bewegung als Selbstentlarvung des Freidenkertums (1909).

Works concerning ecclesiastical Liberalism:— (A) Protestant Churches:— GOYAU, L'Allemagne religieuse, le protestantisme (Paris, 1898); SABATIER, Religions of Authority and the Religion of the Spirit; POLLOCK, Religious Equality (London, 1890); REVILLE, Liberal Christianity (London, 1903); IDEM, Anglican Liberalism (London, 1908). (B) Concerning Catholic Liberalism:— WEILL, Histoire de Catholicisme libÈral en France, 1828-1908 (Paris, 1909). (C) Concerning Modernism: SCHELL, Katholizismus als Prinzip des Fortschritts (1897); IDEM, Die neue Zeit und der neue Glaube (1898); MÜLLER, Reformkatholizismus (these three works are on the Index); STUFLER, Die heiligkeit Gottes in Zeit. für kath. Theol. (Innsbruck, 1908), 100-114; 364-368.

Critique and condemnation of Liberalism:— FAGUET, Le LibÈralisme (Paris, 1906); FRANTZ, Die Religion des National-liberalismus (1872). From the Catholic standpoint:— DONAT, Die Freiheit der Wissenschaft (1910); VON KETTELER, Freiheit Autorität und Kirche (Mainz, 1862); IDEM, Die Arbeiterfrage und das Christenthum (Mainz, 1864); DECHAMPS, Le libÈralisme (1878); DONOSO CORTÉS, Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism (tr. Philadelphia, 1862); H. PESCH, Liberalismus, Sozialismus und christliche Gesellschaftsordnung (Freiburg, 1893-99); CATHREIN, Der Sozialismus (Freiburg, 1906); PALLEN, What is Liberalism? (St. Louis, 1889); MOREL, Somme contre le catholicisme libÈral (Paris, 1876); Die Encyklika Pius IX. vom 8 Dez. 1864 in Stimmen aus Maria-Laach; CHR. PESCH, Theologische Zeitfragen, IV (1908); HEINER, Der Syllabus (Pius IX.) (1905); Der Syllabus Pius X. und das Dekret des hl. Offiziums "Lamentabili" vom 3 Juli, 1907 (1908); BROWNSON, Conversations on Liberalism and the Church (New York, 1869), reprinted in his Works, VII (Detroit, 1883-87), 305; MING, Data of Modern Ethics Examined (New York, 1897), x, xi; MANNING, Liberty of the Press in Essays, third series (London, 1892); BALMES, European Civilization (London, 1855), xxxiv, xxxv, lxvii; IDEM, Letters to a Sceptic (tr. Dublin, 1875), letter 7; GIBBONS, Faith of Our Fathers (Baltimore, 1871), xvii, xviii; The Church and Liberal Catholicism, pastoral letter of the English bishops, reprinted in Messenger of the Sacred Heart XXXVI (New York, 1901). 180-93; cf. also Dublin Review, new series, XVIII, 1, 285; XXV, 202; XXVI, 204, 487; third series XV, 58.


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