On 19th Century “Liberalism” As An Enemy of Faith

Owen Chadwick has described the idea of liberalism which dominated the 19th century as “more a motto than a word, more a programme of what might be than a description of what was; a protean word, which some claimed to rest upon coherent philosophies and economic theory and others saw as the destruction of the stable structure of a reasonable society.”[1] The word “liberal,” of course, originally meant only “free from restraint.” This was not always thought of as a bad thing, since “restraint” itself might not always be a good thing.[2]

Chadwick relates that “In the age of the later Reformation [the word “liberal”] was often used to mean such freedom as led to immorality, or to illegality.”[3] Much later, in the 19th century, “liberal” again came to connote a dire attack upon the legal and moral foundations of society, and therefore, because society as a whole had not yet fully shaken free of the influences of Christendom, a dire attack upon supernatural religion. Initially, even 19th century “liberals” agreed that “freedom” could not be an absolute quality; they just thought that men needed “more room to act and think than they were allowed by established laws and conventions in European society.” Indeed, “To limit the powers of government, or to weaken the conventions of society if they are seen to be obsolete, is not at first sight an irreligious plan.”[4] Yet, throughout the 19th century, the forces of “conservative” religion, both Catholic and Protestant, increasingly came to stand against “liberalism” as a great evil.

It is impossible to adequately explain how this happened in a blog post–Chadwick himself takes a whole chapter discussing the problem, and that chapter is set in a larger book-length treatment on the general “secularization” of Europe. It will have to suffice to say that on Chadwick’s reading, the 19th century problem of “liberalism” connects profoundly with the larger issues of “tolerance” and their relationship to post-Reformation attempts to maintain societies on the basis of enforced external conformity to a collective consensus. Chadwick traces the the rise of the Modern “tolerance” view through several centuries of development. First he connects it with Luther’s “Here I stand, I can do no other” speech at Worms, calling it a “so Christ-like a Christian attitude that…[it] must in time destroy the ideal of conformity to rites or to faith by social pressure or by law.”[5]

Second, he notes Locke’s doctrine that the right of the individual to dissent from anything which he himself does not consider correct is a “natural right,” and therefore transcends all attempts to externally regulate it. This doctrine, based firmly in reaction to the horrific religious divisions of the 17th century, connected “freedom” with the individual man for the first time in history.[6] It aided what Chadwick had earlier described as a progressive confusion between the “toleration of a minority” with “equality before the law between opinions.”[7] And as this confusion grew, and more and more opinions came to be considered “equal before the law,” the State itself became “wholly detached from religious (or irreligious) teaching or practice.”[8]

Third, Chadwick discusses John Stuart Mill’s incoherent, and essentially excessively intellectualized, understanding of freedom in his 1859 essay On Liberty. Mill was, it seems, even more radical than Locke: “Mill rose up to his lovely and lyrical hymn of praise for the individual human being; no man’s copy; cultivating his faculties of sensibility and discrimination; seeking truth; contemptuous of convention; diversifying human life; becoming at last a noble object of contemplation, risen above the mediocrity which surrounds him.”[9] Thus was the way paved for drastic attacks on the concept of society as built on a consensus. Chadwick thinks that Mill’s “liberalism,” whatever his more salutary intentions, results in “the destruction of consensus, not the substitution of another consensus.” Eccentricity is the ultimate value, for “the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach.”[10] Every individual is to be his own truth-seeker, autonomously disconnected from external regulation. This is the meaning of “liberty.”

The press, increasingly popularized and democratic throughout the century, appears as a major disseminator of these assumptions about “freedom.” Freedom of the press, in fact, as construed during this age of unrestrained individualism, only increased the illusions of the developing “liberalism” concerning its self-evident superiority to traditional modes of thinking and living. The press articulated popular opinion, and by its dominion far and wide, impassioned it in slogans couched in the language of moral indignation against this or that “evil.”[11] As it demolished established conventions, it drove change and drove out preservation, both expressing and following ever-shifting vulgar tastes and prejudices. A veneer of Christian respectability was, of course, maintained, since the broader culture was still powerfully, if only nominally, Christian. The papers “served as the pulpit served three hundred years before; confirming the faithful, rebuking vice, controverting opponents, at once followers and leaders of public opinion.”[12]

It is easy to see how this matrix of “liberal” thought would appear very rapidly as a dire threat to the remnants of Christendom struggling for survival in the 19th century, and how it would, given a little more time and skeptical development, become the full-blown capital-letter cultural movement of “Liberalism” of the 20th century against which both Catholicism and Protestantism valiantly fought, each in their own unique ways. As socially-destructive notions about “liberty” grew in power and strength throughout the 19th century, almost paradoxically came the result that “wise and good men were more disagreed about truth…than any time since the sixteenth century.”[13] Skepticism flourished, and everywhere the “certain” doctrines of traditional religion came under fire. Add Marx and Darwin into the mix, and observe the recipe for cultural explosion.

On the Catholic front, liberal ideals at times seemed beneficial and at other times detrimental. Against liberal governments, for instance, which tried to attack the “tyranny” of the old religion, Catholics in the France and Germany of the 1870s and 1890s could appeal to the liberal ideas of “right of meeting, and opinion, and free expression, right to proselytize or to hold property.” On this basis, Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholic participation in democratic elections. Yet, a few decades earlier, the papacy had raged against the rising tide of liberalism in the encyclical Mirari vos (1832) and in the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and its accompanying encyclical Quanta cura.[14] I am beginning to see from other readings (which I will hopefully summarize soon) that the story of Catholicism’s engagement with 19th century liberalism is a good bit more complicated–and also a good bit more to Catholicism’s credit–than much of Protestant polemics makes it out to be.[15]

Chadwick closes his chapter “On Liberalism” by noting that in the 1860s and 70s, liberals began to shift their emphasis back toward collectivist goals. As they increasingly realized that the mere existence of states openly run on politically liberal principles did not actually guarantee liberty “for all,” as they realized that “A doctrine which ended in the slums of great cities could hardly contain all truth,” they turned more and more toward the goal of curing social evils through the power of enlightened, liberal, tradition-bashing Modern Education and Government.[16] By this means, across every front of culture, and combined with various Christian retreats from lost cultural battlegrounds, a more generic Faith-compatible 19th century liberalism would gradually transform itself into the monster of Faith-revisioning 20th century Liberalism.


  1. The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century [Cambridge University Press, 1975], pg. 21.
  2. In other words, the flipside of “liberal,” namely, “conservative,” is not a simple given, since the rightness or goodness of “conservatism” largely depends on what is being conserved. Bad things can be conserved just as easily, if not more easily, than good things.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., pg. 22.
  5. Ibid., pg. 23. Whether Chadwick would press this point or not, I do not agree with this assessment of Luther. I do not believe that Luther, when taken in his own natural context, can legitimately function as a prototypical Modern individualist.
  6. Ibid., pp. 25-27.
  7. Ibid., pg. 21.
  8. Ibid., pg. 27.
  9. Ibid., pg. 29.
  10. Ibid., pp. 32-33.
  11. Ibid., pg. 38
  12. Ibid., pg. 42.
  13. Ibid., pg. 36, summarizing James Fitzjames Stephen.
  14. See Roger Aubert, “Religious Liberty from ‘Mirari Vos’ to the ‘Syllabus,’ in Concilium Vol. 7: Historical Problems of Church Renewal [New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1965], pp. 89-105. Aubert argues, convincingly I think, that once one works through the cumbersome and “exceedingly swollen” rhetoric of curial Latin, the papal condemnations apply only to immoderate liberties [immoderata libertas], not to liberties generically speaking.
  15. Consider that in America, anyway, Protestantism’s 19th century leaders were busy constructing a dumbed-down Baconian inductivist, and essentially quasi-positivist, appeal to “plain facts” in order to fight the rationalism and transcendentalism that were taking the intellectual world by storm, oblivious to how they were aiding the triumph of secularism, and the papacy’s fairly nuanced attack on perversions of liberal ideals doesn’t look quite so bad anymore. Putting two and two together, one begins to understand the vehemence of certain seemingly rigid Catholic approaches to Protestantism. It is not entirely undeserved, whatever excesses it may be guilty of committing.
  16. Chadwick, pp. 46-47.
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