Tuesday, May 27, 2014

License is Enemy to Liberty

Is there an Augustus in our future?
      Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States, which was first instituted a century and a half ago to honor those who fell in the Civil War.  Robert Royal published an essay to commemorate the holiday yesterday at The Catholic Thing [here] which, although addressed specifically to the situation in the U.S., applies to republics everywhere, and fits in well with certain themes that I have been exploring here, in particular the relationship between Christian faith and citizenship.     
     Near the end of his essay, Royal writes: “At the bottom of our current woes lies a question about what freedom means today. America’s founders put freedom near the center of national life, but not absolute freedom, which they regarded as ‘license.’”   He then quotes John Adams, who in 1776 said that political leaders 

may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. . . .They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.
Regular readers of this blog know that Adams is eminently quotable, and that this wasn’t the last time he expressed such sentiments.  Nor is he the first to do so; Royal also cites the Roman historian Livy, who lived during the reign of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.  At the end of the first century B.C.  Livy writes: 

let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies. 

It was obvious to Livy that the root of Rome’s troubles was the deterioration of public morals. “He was right”, concurs Royal, “yet Rome did not ‘fall’ until 500 years later, though you could argue that in the meantime it became something other than a moral exemplar among nations.” One could also point out that while Rome did not at that time cease to be, it certainly ceased to be a republic, because immoral men are incapable of self- government.  License, as I often point out to my libertarian friends, is the enemy of Liberty [see here, for instance].  And so the Romans of Livy’s time needed an Augustus to do for (and to) them what their ancestors had done for themselves.  We would be very unwise to assume that the same could not happen to our own homelands.      
     This also has some application to the Church.  The Church is not a republic, but in its institutional aspect it shares some things in common with republics, particularly in that both rely for their maintenance on the efforts of committed but fallible human beings (Papal Infallibility notwithstanding).  Also, as I discussed in yesterday’s post [here], while Christ promised that the “Gates of Hell will not prevail” against his Church (Matthew 16:18), individual Christians and indeed local churches can and will be lost along the way.  Consider that Hippo, the episcopal see of the great Saint Augustine, as well as the ancient Patriarchal sees of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople have been largely Muslim for longer than they were ever Christian.  What Livy calls the “decay of character” can have disastrous consequences for the Churches and the people of particular times and places.           
     So where does this leave us?  There are those not only in the public sphere but also in the Church (you can hear them beating the drums about divorce and communion even now) who seem to dismiss the moral law as little more than a chew-toy for the scrupulous and the obsessive (that is, us). And we know that morality is a means, not the end of religion, but we also remember that St. Paul said: “Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, with minds set on earthly things” (Phillipians 3:19).  It was clear to both the Apostle Paul and the pagan Livy that human institutions are built on the foundation of public morality; consequently, men enslaved to vice are worthy of neither the sovereignty of free citizens nor the Freedom of Christ.  Christ himself  is assured of victory in the end but we, individually and communally, must still work out our salvation in fear and trembling (see Phillipians 2:12).