The Urgently Relevant Pope Leo XIII



By the patrons of liberalism, however, who make the State absolute and omnipotent, and proclaim that man should live altogether independently of God, the liberty of which We speak, which goes hand in hand with virtue and religion, is not admitted; and whatever is done for its preservation is accounted an injury and an offense against the State. Indeed, if what they say were really true, there would be no tyranny, no matter how monstrous, which we should not be bound to endure and submit to.

                                             Pope Leo XIII, Libertas

In his great encyclical Libertas (1888), examining the nature of liberty, Pope Leo XIII gives present day American Catholics much food for thought.   A few selections:



13. 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’ ;(6) 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.

29. From all this may be understood the nature and character of that liberty which the followers of liberalism so eagerly advocate and proclaim. On the one hand, they demand for themselves and for the State a license which opens the way to every perversity of opinion; and on the other, they hamper the Church in divers ways, restricting her liberty within narrowest limits, although from her teaching not only is there nothing to be feared, but in every respect very much to be gained.

35. And as to tolerance, it is surprising how far removed from the equity and prudence of the Church are those who profess what is called liberalism. For, in allowing that boundless license of which We have spoken, they exceed all limits, and end at last by making no apparent distinction between truth and error, honesty and dishonesty. And because the Church, the pillar and ground of truth, and the unerring teacher of morals, is forced utterly to reprobate and condemn tolerance of such an abandoned and criminal character, they calumniate her as being wanting in patience and gentleness, and thus fail to see that, in so doing, they impute to her as a fault what is in reality a matter for commendation. But, in spite of all this show of tolerance, it very often happens that, while they profess themselves ready to lavish liberty on all in the greatest profusion, they are utterly intolerant toward the Catholic Church, by refusing to allow her the liberty of being herself free.

41. Lastly, there remain those who, while they do not approve the separation of Church and State, think nevertheless that the Church ought to adapt herself to the times and conform to what is required by the modern system of government. Such an opinion is sound, if it is to be understood of some equitable adjustment consistent with truth and justice; in so far, namely, that the Church, in the hope of some great good, may show herself indulgent, and may conform to the times in so far as her sacred office permits. But it is not so in regard to practices and doctrines which a perversion of morals and a warped judgment have unlawfully introduced. Religion, truth, and justice must ever be maintained; and, as God has intrusted these great and sacred matters to her office as to dissemble in regard to what is false or unjust, or to connive at what is hurtful to religion.

43. Whenever there exists, or there is reason to fear, an unjust oppression of the people on the one hand, or a deprivation of the liberty of the Church on the other, it is lawful to seek for such a change of government as will bring about due liberty of action. In such case, an excessive and vicious liberty is not sought, but only some relief, for the common welfare, in order that, while license for evil is allowed by the State, the power of doing good may not be hindered.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Leo’s observations were accurate and in light of subsequent events seem prophetic. In the mid-nineteenth century a liberal believed in free trade and laissez-faire economics. At the time of the Irish potato famine Peel’s Conservative ministry was prepared to countenance direct government interference to alleviate what was becoming apparent as a vast human tragedy; the incoming Liberal ministry (1846) was unwilling to go against the free market and insisted that relief be dependent on public works. As a result too little was done, and too late.

    At least classic liberals believed in free speech and (at least in theory) feedom of conscience. Their present-day counterparts seem to have little time for either. In fact the definition of a liberal is someone who will fight to the death for your right to agree with him.

  2. Is it wrong for some to accept what is extorted from others? The issue of fairness is being brought into Obamacare. Possession of stolen property is against the law.

  3. I always thought Pope Leo’s vision was of the coming wars of the 20th century but maybe he also saw the spread of contraception and abortion and the way the faith has been watered down. I think Bishop Jenky’s addition of the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel during the intentions is very appropriate.

  4. “Hey, Donald, please change “Leo XII” in the title to “Leo XIII”. Thanks. Am sharing on facebook and at my blog.”

    Oops! Done! That is what happens when I am racing to complete a blog post just before heading off to Mass with the family!

  5. John, I believe the Pope’s comments were more directed at Continental liberalism, and that of South America, than they were at liberalism in the Anglosphere. In the United States and the British Empire liberalism evoked little of the hostility to religion that was often a hallmark of liberalism in other areas. Popes grew fond of the “hands off” policy towards religion in the United States. One 19th century pope, his name eludes me, was no fan of liberalism in general, but noted that no where else was he more Pope than in the United States where the Catholic Church was not interfered with. Would to God that this was still true! Modern liberalism in the US fully embraces the anti-clericalism of Continental and South American liberalism of the time when Pope Leo wrote Libertas. In addition it goes much farther in exalting the power of the State over the individual than most of those liberals would have.

  6. John Nolan’s right. The autocratic czar of the Russias closed to export of foodstuffs the ports of Poland to alleviate famine in Poland. See Paddy’s Lament.

    For the Brits it was more than laissez faire economics. Some saw starvation as a solution to the Irish problem.

    Pharaoh’s next diktat will be that Catholic priests must celebrate Nuptial Masses for gay couples.

    Mark Steyn makes a point.

    “The president of the United States has decided to go Henry VIII on the Church’s medieval ass. Whatever religious institutions might profess to believe in the matter of ‘women’s health,’ their pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities and immunities are now subordinate to a one-and-only supreme head on earth determined to repress, redress, restrain and amend their heresies. . . . But where’d all the pandering get them?”

    O, Say,
    Does that star spangled banner still wave,
    O’er the land of the spree
    And, the home of the slave?

  7. “One 19th century pope, his name eludes me, was no fan of liberalism in general, but noted that no where else was he more Pope than in the United States where the Catholic Church was not interfered wit.”

    Don, I think that was Pope Gregory XVI.

  8. It should also be remembered that what is called liberalism in the US is called in Europe socialism. Referring to T Shaw’s comment, no-one has properly explained the extraordinary population growth in Ireland in the century preceding the Famine, so that in 1845 its population was 8m, compared with 16m in the rest of the UK. (It’s now 4m compared with over 60m in the rest of the British Isles). To see famine as a solution to demographic/political problems might have a utilitarian logic to it, but the prevailing Christian ethic in Victorian times would never have allowed it to become policy. It took a 20th century Stalin to do this.

  9. It is noteworthy that Pope Gregroy XVI is often cited (his encyclical Mirari Vos in particular) by the more anti-American element within the “traditionalist” movement as “proof” that American principles are inherently anti-Catholic, although nothing coould be further from the truth.

  10. George Weigel gave the annual Simon Lecture for the Ethics and Public Policy Center in D.C. just last week. The topic was the relevance of Leo XIII for our time. I imagine the lecture will be published soon in an upcoming issue of First Things.


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