John Zmirak’s Liberalism

In a piece written a number of years ago and in another more recent offering John Zmirak purports to explain the folly of integralism and to propound instead a doctrine fit for ‘patriotic Christians’ which reconciles liberalism in its true sense with the creed of Catholics. The first objection to Zmirak’s patriotic Christianity is his overt endorsement of liberalism. No Catholic is free to embrace liberalism. Zmirak does not mean by liberalism support for democratic institutions but he very explicitly means by the term precisely the error condemned by the Church’s magisterium. Liberalism purports to advocate a public sphere and constitutional order which prescinds from questions of revealed truth and rests solely upon reason. This posture is disingenuous and is firmly condemned as nothing less than Satanic by Leo XIII in his great encyclical Libertas. For, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains  “every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct.” In rejecting its obligations of public worship the liberal state becomes necessarily totalitarian in form and hedonistic in content. As St John Paul II observed “the rights of God and man stand or fall together” and as he said of the teaching of Leo XIII in Libertas it “called attention to the essential bond between human freedom and truth, so that freedom which refused to be bound to the truth would fall into arbitrariness and end up submitting itself to the vilest of passions, to the point of self-destruction.” This is the social order that reigns today and for which Zmirak insists, contrary to the teaching of John Paul II and Leo XIII, liberalism cannot be held accountable. Let there be no doubt it is the Satanic doctrine condemned in Libertas which John Zmirak expressly espouses.

The basis for the exclusion of divine revelation as a principle of public policy and public law is that it is inherently subjective and impossible to vindicate in the public sphere. It is therefore tyrannical to make it the principle of public action to the detriment of those who do not recognise it. This exclusion would not apply to policy built upon, say, a conviction that the square of the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Such a conviction would be based upon self-evident principles of natural reason that cannot be mentally denied. Nor would it apply to a conviction that global temperatures are climbing due to human action. This conviction would be based upon findings in the hypothetico-deductive sciences and therefore admissible as a basis for policy and law. The exclusion of divine revelation from public policy and public law is based on the assumption that it’s claims are essentially subjective like the claim that Beethoven is a superior composer to Mozart. This is expressly Zmirak’s doctrine. He writes: “Natural law is the only proper basis for legislation [n]ot the Bible, [n]or the teachings of the Church”.

The Church, in contrast teaches that, “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Thus our adherence to divine revelation is more absolute than our recognition not just that global temperatures are climbing due to human action but more even than our recognition that the interior angles of a plane triangle equal two right angles. Zmirak rightly points out that this degree of certainty is available only to those to whom God gives the gift of faith and that He gives this gift with sovereign freedom and no human agency not even the Church may seek to coerce it. This is true, but those to whom we know it has been given i.e. the baptised can be required even coercively by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to discharge the obligations they received in virtue of this gift. This is not simply a theological opinion it is a dogma of the Catholic Church.

“If any one shall say, that those who have been thus baptized when infants, are, when they have grown up, to be questioned whether they will ratify what their sponsors promised in their name when they were baptized; and that, in case that they answer they will not, they are to be left to their own will; and are not meanwhile to be compelled to a Christian life by any other penalty, save that they be excluded from the participation of the Eucharist, and of the other sacraments, until they repent; let him be anathema.”

Zmirak’s liberalism consists essentially in the rejection of this dogmatic canon of the nineteenth ecumenical council. Furthermore, this coercive power over her own children possessed by the Church and upheld by the 1983 Code of Canon Law [“Can. 1311 The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions.”] is, in ideal circumstances, applicable to the faithful by the Ecclesiastical authorities by means of the coercive power of the Temporal polity as an instrument. And this too is not a theological opinion but a dogma of the Catholic Church. For all the children of the Catholic Church are obliged to hold “as reprobated, proscribed and condemned” that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.”

Indeed, without the gift of faith none may know with greater certainty than the Pythagorean theorem the revealed truths of divine law but they may be known with much greater certainty than the existence of anthropogenic global warming. Thus, just as it would be outrageous for a state to demand on oath acceptance of anthropogenic global warming from its subjects and yet entirely reasonable for it to legislate on the basis that such a phenomenon exists, so a formally Catholic state may not impede the attempted worship of non-baptised persons who adhere to a form of monotheism which can certainly be known to be wrong only by the light of faith but it may take actions such as making Sunday a public holiday or banning the sale of meat on Fridays which are indirectly inconvenient to erring monotheists but not for the sake of inconveniencing them.

As Leo XIII explains, “the State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion—it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will.”

This is the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” which Vatican II expressly leaves “untouched”. This is the teaching upheld by John Paul II in section 2244 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Indeed the Catechism expressly teaches that societies failing to recognise divine revelation will become ‘totalitarian’ just as Pius XI taught in 1931: “Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and Bolshevism will be its heir.”

The idea that this doctrine is rejected by the Second Vatican Council or Paul VI or John Paul II is quite false. Nor is their maintenance of it ‘esoteric’. Paul VI was very famously a follower of the political theory of Jacques Maritain so much so that he personally penned the introduction to the Italian translation of Maritain’s central political treatise and entrusted the message of the Second Vatican Council to scholars like Maritain at the closing ceremony. He wept upon hearing of the Frenchman’s death and took the bulk of the text of his own Credo of the People of God from a draft drawn up by Maritain at the pope’s request. Maritain expressly held that the full range of those powers whose existence Zmirak denies belong essentially to the Church and held that they should not be used in the twentieth century, not because they have lapsed or are evil, but because it is imprudent to do so. Furthermore, he did not hold this transformation to be necessarily permanent or irreversible. The ‘New Christendom’ for which he hoped in which the Church did not make use of her right to employ the temporal power in the exercise of her coercive power over the baptised could certainly, he held, be succeeded by another in which she did:

“The fecundity of analogy in this domain is, moreover, clearly not exhausted by the historical ideal whose main outlines I have tried to sketch. Others still could arise, under historical climates of which we have no idea. And there is even nothing to prevent minds attached to a Christian sacral conception from admitting the hypothesis of an eventual cycle of culture in which it would prevail anew, under conditions and with characteristics which we cannot foresee.”

Far from this doctrine being esoteric what has happened instead is that Zmirak and others like him consumed with a superfluous, parochial and futile desperation to reconcile the enlightenment doctrines of Thomas Jefferson and John Locke with the teaching of the Church have attempted to foist a liberal account of the religious obligations of the state onto the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and thereby to set up an irresolvable conflict between it and the solemnly defined teaching of previous popes and councils. Whether Maritain and Paul VI’s prudential judgments were sound or not, their clear and declared intention was to reject any such conflict and work within the infallibly defined doctrine of the Church to imagine “some way of uniting what is free in the new structure of society with what is authoritative in the old, without any base compromise with ‘Progress’ and ‘Liberalism’.”

It is clear that Zmirak is a liberal in both the theological and the political sense (two halves of the same coin) for he holds both that the “Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization” and that “Modern Catholicism can be reconciled with true science only if it is transformed into a non-dogmatic Christianity; that is to say, into a broad and liberal Protestantism.”