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This post was written with the help of my good friend The Catholic Professor.

“When it is all over, will ordinary people have any freedom left or will they have to fight for it, or will they be too tired to resist?”- J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

Pope Leo XIII called Liberty “the highest of natural endowments”¹, yet in these modern times there are those who claim to represent the Catholic Tradition who wholeheartedly reject that Liberty can have anything but a negative position in the political order, if even that. By subscribing to an artificial, indeed Leftist definition of Liberty, they defeat the own cause. In the following body of the post I hope to demonstrate the traditional Catholic and Intergralist understanding of Liberty and its place in government.

What is Freedom?

Before proceeding it is necessary to define Freedom or Liberty, especially Political Freedom, which certainly does not mean “absence of political constraint on individual choice” if rightly understood. The broadest definition of Freedom can be given in form which G.K. Chesterton gives it in The Poet and the Lunatics, “Liberty… is the ability of a thing to be itself,”  to act towards the end which it is ordered toward. Thus Liberty is not even in the broadest sense an absence of limits, but is itself a limit. So human Liberty is defined by Pope Leo XIII as a Man acting reasonably, that is, acting towards his ultimate end:

 When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty.²

And when a Man acts according to his God given reason he not only acts virtuously, but he also acts toward the Good. The promotion of these two concepts, Virtue and Good, form the basis of Government, and so Liberty or Freedom rightly understood forms a key element in any philosophy of Government ordered towards these concepts. Political Freedom therefore can be best defined in the terms used by the great Austrian writer Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn:

Freedom… means the greatest amount of self-determination which in a given situation is feasible, reasonable and possible. As a means to safeguarding man’s happiness and protecting his personality it is an intermediary end, and thus forms part of the common good. It is obvious that under these circumstances it cannot be brutally sacrificed to the demands of absolute efficiency nor to efforts towards a maximum of material welfare.³


Freedom and Authority

A key fallacy of the so-called “Reactionary” position is that Liberty is in conflict with Authority, indeed that Authority and Law restrict Liberty and that Liberty cannot logically be an end or purpose of Authority. This is indeed true, if one has the understanding of Liberty as “unhindered ability to do as one desires”, but to conflate Liberty solely with ability is to have a distorted understanding of freedom:

the truth is that we are bound to submit to law precisely because we are free by our very nature. For, law is the guide of man’s actions; it turns him toward good by its rewards, and deters him from evil by its punishments4

Just Law acts as a guide of men’s actions, administering justice and ordering towards an end- but what end? The end to which law guides is Virtue, action for the objective Good according to right reason- and acting according to right reason is the very definition of Liberty. By submitting to Just Law one is more truly free than one would be by rebelling against Just Law and suffering the consequences administered by Authority for the satisfaction of Justice. And all just law has its foundation in God himself:

For, since the force of law consists in the imposing of obligations and the granting of rights, authority is the one and only foundation of all law – the power, that is, of fixing duties and defining rights, as also of assigning the necessary sanctions of reward and chastisement to each and all of its commands. But all this, clearly, cannot be found in man, if, as his own supreme legislator, he is to be the rule of his own actions. It follows, therefore, that the law of nature is the same thing as the eternal law, implanted in rational creatures, and inclining them to their right action and end; and can be nothing else but the eternal reason of God, the Creator and Ruler of all the world.5

And so it is that:

so far from this most just authority of God over men diminishing, or even destroying their liberty, it protects and perfects it6

Contrary to the “Reactionary” position, Liberty is intrinsic to any understanding of Authority, indeed, Authority has no purpose which excludes Liberty, as the end of Authority is Good and Virtue, and Virtue is more ordered toward Good if it is practiced voluntarily, and if a man practices Virtue voluntarily he is truly free. And likewise, Authority is intrinsic to the understanding of Liberty, for without Authority is ceases to be Liberty at all, and without guidance men’s lower passion tend to usurp the place of their reason, whereas in true Freedom the Nobility of Man is cultivated and grown (contrary to the Calvinist or Jansenist view of the depravity of the human person, Man though fallen has an inner Nobility which can never be wholly destroyed. Grace builds upon Nature). As Chesterton rightly puts it, “Liberty cannot exist till it is declared by Authority.”

 Moreover, the highest duty is to respect authority, and obediently to submit to just law; and by this the members of a community are effectually protected from the wrong-doing of evil men. Lawful power is from God, “and whosoever resisteth authority resisteth the ordinance of God’ wherefore, obedience is greatly ennobled when subjected to an authority which is the most just and supreme of all. But where the power to command is wanting, or where a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest, while obeying man, we become disobedient to God. Thus, an effectual barrier being opposed to tyranny, the authority in the State will not have all its own way, but the interests and rights of all will be safeguarded – the rights of individuals, of domestic society, and of all the members of the commonwealth; all being free to live according to law and right reason; and in this, as We have shown, true liberty really consists.7

If the defense of rightful Liberty is integral to Authority, it is even more so to Governmental Authority. In the threefold role of Government in promoting the Common Good- Defense, the administration of Justice, and the maintenance and regulation of communication and commerce-rightful Liberty is owed in Justice and furthermore to be defended by the State as a safeguard against tyranny. The coercive powers of the State are secondary to this, they exist only for the defense of the whole and the administration of Justice, and when used otherwise are used unjustly. Indeed self-determination in matters of virtue have always been violated as part of the attack on the Common Good which is tyranny, as St. Thomas Aquinas relates to the King of Cyprus:

The tyrant, moreover, loses the surpassing beatitude which is due as a reward to kings and, which is still more serious, brings upon himself great suffering as a punishment. For if the man who despoils a single man, or casts him into slavery, or kills him, deserves the greatest punishment (death in the judgment of men, and in the judgment of God eternal damnation), how much worse tortures must we consider a tyrant deserves, who on all sides robs everybody, works against the common liberty of all, and kills whom he will at his merest whim?8

Here St. Thomas uses the phrase “omnium libertatem,”  “the freedom of all,”  as a synonym for the Common Good, so closely related are the two terms. Similarly Pope Leo remarks:

Never opposed to honest liberty, the Church has always detested a tyrant’s rule. This custom which the Church has ever had of deserving well of mankind is notably expressed by St. Augustine when he says that “the Church teaches kings to study the welfare of their people, and people to submit to their kings, showing what is due to all: and that to all is due charity and to no one injustice.”9



Freedom and the Common Good

However, our friends opposed to Liberty have a second objection. Liberty, they say, is contrary to the Common Good, and that every society which has promoted Freedom has attacked the Common Good. Now I have already stated above that:

Civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general, albeit with individual interests also in their due place and degree.10

And yet what is the Common Good? This is a difficult question to answer, for though it exists objectively the Common Good is not easily defined or perceived. However, it can be said with certainty that the Common is the Good of all the individuals in the Community. It includes the material wellbeing of the Community, yet is not limited to it, and the Good of the individual is not to be sacrificed to the material wellbeing of the many, especially not at the expense of Spiritual wellbeing. Now having shown that Liberty rightly understood is an Individual Good which is intrinsically bound to the end or purpose of Authority, in so far as it is such it forms a part of the Common Good which it is the purpose of Government to promote and protect:

We have said that the State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammelled action so far as is consistent with the common good and the interest of others. Rulers should, nevertheless, anxiously safeguard the community and all its members; the community, because the conservation thereof is so emphatically the business of the supreme power, that the safety of the commonwealth is not only the first law, but it is a government’s whole reason of existence; and the members, because both philosophy and the Gospel concur in laying down that the object of the government of the State should be, not the advantage of the ruler, but the benefit of those over whom he is placed.11

Now it is true that Reason, Justice, and the Common Good restrict the self determination and choice of action which form an integral part of Liberty, but these qualifiers do not in anyway restrict Liberty but rather form an equally integral part of it. Rightful Liberty is due in justice in so far as it is reasonable and is guided by just Law to the Common Good, and is thus a Good to the individual which in turn forms part of the Common Good. As stated by Pope Pius XI:

Just freedom of action must, of course, be left both to individual citizens and to families, yet only on condition that the common good be preserved and wrong to any individual be abolished. The function of the rulers of the State, moreover, is to watch over the community and its parts; but in protecting private individuals in their rights, chief consideration ought to be given to the weak and the poor.12

Once more we see that the protection and promotion of the Common Good is united with the promotion and defense of Freedom which form the basis of subsidiarity, contrary to the “Reactionary” position, and such being so all societies which have promoted the Common Good have striven for true Liberty as far as was reasonable. The Catholic Church herself, whose purpose is the Common Good of all mankind, has always fought to assure that where Catholic Civilization arose,

the interests and rights of all will be safeguarded – the rights of individuals, of domestic society, and of all the members of the commonwealth; all being free to live according to law and right reason; and in this, as We have shown, true liberty really consists… Thus, the powerful influence of the Church has ever been manifested in the custody and protection of the civil and political liberty of the people.13


Liberalism and License

Still, those who still reject Liberty have one last objection to offer. Was it not the Church herself who condemned Liberalism, and what else is Liberalism but the promotion of Liberty? And yet it is precisely here that their argument falls apart. It is their “Liberal” (one might say Leftist) definition of Liberty which the Church rejects even more wholeheartedly than they themselves do, but the Church rejects it not as a false idea, but as a false definition. What self-styled Liberals describe as Freedom, uninhibited choice of action, is not Liberty, but more correctly License, and immoral License: 

If when men discuss the question of liberty they were careful to grasp its true and legitimate meaning, such as reason and reasoning have just explained, they would never venture to affix such a calumny on the Church as to assert that she is the foe of individual and public liberty. But many there are who follow in the footsteps of Lucifer, and adopt as their own his rebellious cry, “I will not serve”; and consequently substitute for true liberty what is sheer and most foolish license. Such, for instance, are the men belonging to that widely spread and powerful organization, who, usurping the name of liberty, style themselves liberals.14

Thus the Church does not, has not, and will never denounce or condemn the promotion of true Liberty, as it would be contrary to the very Apostolic mission which our Lord Christ Himself gave her. And it is for the very fulfillment of this mission that Church condemns in the strongest terms immoral license, even license of speech and writing in so far as it threatens the Common Good:

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. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint. In regard, however, to all matter of opinion which God leaves to man’s free discussion, full liberty of thought and of speech is naturally within the right of everyone; for such liberty never leads men to suppress the truth, but often to discover it and make it known.15

Indeed, Liberalism itself has well earned the special condemnation of the Church, for  it has also had as its goal the use and enslavement of others for mere material profits, and it has spawned many movements and philosophies contrary to Man’s wellbeing:

 Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir.16

The end of all License is nothing more than tyranny, moral, spiritual, and political, while the Tradition of the Church has always taught that Freedom is the surest safeguard against tyranny, and that “upright governments have liberty in their aim.”17 Man is ennobled by Good and Virtue which are both integrally bound with Liberty, and Freedom is the greatest of Natural gifts which God has bestowed on us. Such is the Tradition of the Catholic Church and so it always has been and so it shall remain.





1 Pope Leo XIII, Libertas


3Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality

4Pope Leo XIII, Libertas




8St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regno

9Leo XIII, Diuturnum Illud

10Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum


12Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno

13Pope Leo XIII, Libertas



16Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno

17Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia