It is undeniable that American constitutionalism and the ordered liberty it provides have historical roots in England. Nevertheless, one might be excused for finding it somewhat ironic that American Catholics join other Americans in seeing themselves as inheritors of a distinctly and specifically English liberty. England itself historically has not been particularly friendly toward religious liberty or Catholics in particular. Why, then, look to England? Is England the only place where liberty flourished? Worse yet, from a Catholic perspective, does the very fact of England’s militant Protestantism during the early modern era explain the rise and maintenance of political freedom, meaning that there is something “unfree” about Catholic politics?
Were it true that only England provides a true history of liberty’s growth prior to the time of modern revolutions, that would be tragic from two points of view. It would show that there is in fact something “anti-liberty” about Catholicism, as Protestants often have claimed. Further, it would seem to excuse the sometimes quite oppressive and even violent treatment of Catholics by English authorities and by those who wish to follow in their footsteps today. Catholics should not need to be reminded that the English government going back to Henry VIII, and coming forward even into the twentieth-century, has been hostile toward Catholicism and Catholics. The martyrdom of numerous priests and bishops such as St. John Fisher, the sacking of the monasteries, and laws forbidding the saying of Catholic mass and even decreeing execution for priests lasted for centuries. Catholics were disenfranchised until the nineteenth-century and even in the twentieth-century social disabilities were common (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, being Catholic, was not allowed to dine with his Protestant colleagues at Oxford). A central justification of these injustices was that Catholics were “loyal to a foreign prince” who sought enslavement of both souls and bodies, imposing the tyrannous hierarchy of Catholicism. Even on the continent, the story often was repeated that Popes ruled their “estates” as tyrants and sought only to expand their temporal authority in order to force reconversions to their faith and re-establish a kind of absolute rule over the bodies and minds of the people. What is more, it has been this vision of Catholicism as intrinsically hostile to human liberty that has fed into an anti-Catholic sentiment in portions of the American public that has damaged religious liberty and constitutional government itself.
If true, the charges leveled at the Catholic Church and her people would be damning, indeed. Were it true that only the particular cultural institutions and developments of Protestant England, along with, perhaps, those of Protestant Holland, could produce political liberty then Catholicism would be riven by internal contradictions. Catholics recognize that, while salvation is the ultimate, highest good, liberty also is a real human good and freedom aids greatly in the development of the human person. If their religion were hostile to liberty, then, they would have to choose between salvation and freedom. Thankfully, ordered liberty is not a purely English phenomenon and Catholicism is entirely consistent with ordered liberty, not merely in theory, but also in historical practice. My purpose, here, is to examine some of the reasons for Americans’ focus on English liberty. Some of these reasons are accidental and some genuinely important. They are worth exploring for what they can tell American Catholics about ourselves and about the requirements for ordered liberty.
It is best to begin with accidental reasons. Most Americans know little about medieval and early modern history of any kind. What is more, the further one strays from English history (which has a great deal written about it, almost all of which is, well, in English) the less knowledge there is. This is not just a matter of self-centered disinterest—such “multiculturalist” arguments make just as much sense in regard to Italy or medieval Germany as in regard to Africa and the Far East, which is to say, none. It is natural and right that people know most about their own history; they always should know more than they do, but that goes for all times and all fields. American culture is predominantly British, in the wide sense, and so our historical knowledge tends to focus on Great Britain and its center, England.
There is, not surprisingly, a somewhat more sinister aspect to our ignorance of the middle ages and the sources of liberty in particular, one that applies to England as well as the continent and has ideological origins and results. The assault on courses in Western Civilization and on the study of Western history has hit hardest in the area of European history before the modern era. Americans for generations have learned increasingly little about the medieval world, becoming more and more ignorant of the development of their culture and civilization. This ignorance has allowed for ideological fantasies to gain more than a foothold on university campuses and even in the public mind. Martin Bernal’s assertively ignorant Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, for example, has lent academic respectability to the sad practice of inventing “possible pasts” with as much basis in history as Bigfoot. And these fantasies receive a rather outrageous (and sad) amount of coverage in university classrooms where political correctness trumps the pursuit of knowledge. At the same time, the myth of liberty’s sudden arrival on the historical stage in the mind of John Locke continues to hold sway even among Americans holding Ph.D.s in relevant fields of study.
The truth is that ordered liberty is not a modern invention, and that the institutions, beliefs, and practices essential to liberty developed over many centuries, reaching high levels of sophistication at various periods and various places, many of them distinctly Catholic. This truth is known, but sadly only by a relative few. I have mentioned before in these pages the important work of Brien Tierney on the medieval origins of rights and of the late Harold J. Berman on the development of constitutionalism and the rule of law from the eleventh and twelfth-century papal investiture crisis through the modern era. Neither scholar is or was “conservative” in any full sense. But both are or were honest historians interested in the origins of modern institutions and in the societies that provided the context for the development of various forms of law and freedom.
Nor are the themes of these two scholars’ work the only ones highlighting “Catholic” origins of liberty. Historians know, or should know, of the countless Italian city-states and German “free cities” of the medieval and early modern era. Here persons and communities of various kinds, including guilds and neighborhood groups, gained representation in local assemblies and exercised important powers of self-government. In Italy and Germany both, the rights that in England grew up in boroughs or local towns possessed of enough political weight to receive charters of liberties from the monarch, were exercised by urban communities. Rights in these continental cities were if anything stronger than in England because no monarch could enforce or make real any full claim of “sovereignty” over them. Even in “Norman” Sicily, political scientist Filippo Sabetti has shown that local communities were willing and able to fight for charters granted them by various monarchs if later ones sought to renege on or undermine them.
Then there was Switzerland. In the early middle ages, long before there was such a thing as a “Protestant” kingdom, there were the liberties of the Swiss in their cantons. Both before and after some of Switzerland became Protestant (after John Calvin supposedly took a central role in the development of ordered liberty) Catholics in Switzerland continued to enjoy, exercise, and defend the same kinds and extent of liberties as their Protestant fellow-Swiss, liberties they had enjoyed since long before the Reformation shattered Christendom. A reasonably accurate picture of Europe, then, includes England within it, as part of a common civilization, experiencing development of many of the same local liberties that would prove essential to “modern” constitutional government. In their own time, European peoples in a variety of contexts enjoyed both rights of self-government and social and cultural grounds for common action sufficient to maintain peace, order, and good government with liberty.
I have not, of course, mentioned every geographical area or future nation of Europe in this brief summary. This is not because France, for example, did not share in many of these developments, most of which can be traced to the institutionalization of a separate sphere and locus of power in the Church as a counter to secular power. The Pope’s right to “invest” or appoint his own bishops gave him an important means by which to check the powers of kings and nobles. This hard-won power led to development of what Berman called “the first modern legal system” (the canon law of the Church). The Church established an entire legal jurisdiction in England, in France, and elsewhere on the continent; in which, decisions regarding marriage, church issues, education, and issues relating to the poor were adjudicated. The Church also established tools by which monarchs and nobles might be called to account for abusing the Church, the people, or the laws.
The result was a somewhat fluid system in which there was a significant amount of conflict and (obviously, given human nature) abuse. But in this environment individual persons and various communities were able to assert and vindicate rights against “higher” powers. The system was not, however, immune to outside forces or changes in opinion and power relations among the parties.
It is hardly a revolutionary observation that the position of England as an island set apart from the rest of Europe helped insulate its people and institutions from many of the conflicts and developments on the continent. First, however, the English monarchs had to lose their French territories, a process that had the added benefit of weakening the kings themselves. King John, for example, was forced to accept the great charter of liberties of England, Magna Carta, in large measure because his onerous taxation failed to produce victories in his wars with France, instead hastening the loss of English territories there.
Meanwhile, in France, the national history was one of ever-greater consolidation of power in the hands of the monarch. From one jurisdiction among many in what is present-day France, the “King of the Franks” came to rule an entire nation. The process took many centuries, but was accompanied by a concentration of powers that created perhaps the strongest monarch in Europe, even as it reduced the liberties of the French people.
The effects of the Protestant Reformation on the various kingdoms, dukedoms, bishoprics, and cities of Europe varied widely. In general, however, it brought about solidified nation-states in which the powers of the Church were curtailed or eliminated and in which the liberties of local jurisdictions suffered much the same fate. Even in those realms maintaining loyalty to the Church, the appropriately named doctrine of Gallicanism helped establish royal power over ecclesiastical officers and jurisdictions. Nowhere was this concentration of power more complete than in France, the home of Gallicanism, where even during the middle ages kings had fought tooth-and-nail against Church liberties and restrictions on their own authority. Bishoprics came increasingly under the control of kings (some even became objects for sale by the monarchy) and little could be done to stem the tide of royal power.
None of this is to say that liberty was secure in England. The age of absolutism, the early modern era, was established at the expense of those institutions that once checked and balanced royal power. Church, nobility, local communities and associations, all were brought increasingly under the power of the center. In England, too, the Reformation served as a tool by which kings (Tudor kings especially) extended their personal power. Henry VIII’s self-styled absolute leadership of the English Church, established through judicial murder, forced oath-taking, confiscation, and the occasional massacre brought the ecclesiastical jurisdiction directly under royal control. Among other things, this empowered Henry and his daughter, Elizabeth, to use (Anglican) Church bodies to enforce “public morals” and attendance at churches enforcing royal discipline. Those Catholics who resisted were executed, lynched, or forced to flee, save a small number who either went underground or, if sufficiently powerful, sought exemptions for their own families.
How, then, was England any different from the continent? How indeed, did liberty manage to flourish under such circumstances? In general terms, it did not. Rather, liberty in England, like the great charter itself, was suspended, though the English people continued, in their somewhat backward, poor, hence de-centralized kingdom, to enjoy significant space in their local communities to exercise significant rights of self-government.
The Netherlands was the one “new” area of liberty during this era, joining Switzerland as a realm of ordered liberty during difficult times. It was, fittingly, only in these two geographic regions where local jurisdictions held significant, consistent, and well-defended rights that ordered liberty in the more general sense continued to hold sway and even increase during the early modern period. One may trace the myth of liberty’s “Protestantism” to this era and the influence of Holland and (not-so-purely Protestant) Switzerland. Most relevant for Americans, English Puritans maintained contact with co-religionists and political allies in the Netherlands and gleaned from thinkers there (including the too-little-known early federalist, Johannes Althusius) an understanding of the importance of self-government for a virtuous common life.
The Puritans were Calvinists who sought to lead the lives demanded by their faith under relatively severe government disabilities imposed by England’s established Anglican Church. Though much less draconian than those imposed on Catholics, restrictions on Puritans caused these peoples to band together in tight-knit communities through the use of “church covenants” governing religious, economic, and local political life; their covenants would serve as models for later, American colonial documents such as the Mayflower Compact.
A number of scholars have noted the similarities of Calvinist townships, especially when transplanted to the American colonies, with medieval (that is, Catholic) parishes. Theologically quite distinct, both forms of community emphasized the importance of self-government, group identity, and virtue in public and private life. During this period, however, the French monarchy in particular was stamping out local liberties by seizing back town charters on the grounds that they were simple gifts from the crown, which could be granted, re-taken, then perhaps re-sold at will. As the great philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville observed, the townships fought hard for their charters, but eventually could no longer raise the money or determination to retake them. Thus, where northwestern Europe was concerned, England became a locus of conflict in which the forces of local liberties had much more power than in France, though not so much as in Holland. The Protestant myth of Catholicism’s hostility to liberty gained credence, then, especially within England, from the specific example of France.
This is not to say that there were not attempts in England to seize back charters and various other defenses for liberty. The Stuart Kings operated under the theory of absolute monarchy and sought to expunge what was left of ancient freedom. But Parliamentary and localist “country” forces, including significant Puritan support and helped immensely by the survival of the common law system and charters like Magna Carta, fought back. The relative weakness of royal forces (their failure to establish large standing armies in the face of a traditional attachment to local militias) added to the power of the “Parliamentary” cause and, after Civil War, restoration, and a second, less violent revolution, England, now firmly ruling the British Isles, seemed on its way to modern constitutionalism, fittingly enough under the Dutch King, William.
Familiarity with this English history (which leaves out, of course, the debates, conflicts, and even battles fought over particular liberties like that against imprisonment without charge and disestablishment of absolutist, “prerogative” courts) should not blind us to events on the continent. Protestant Prussia exerted its tyrannical powers as far as it was able, but did not destroy many of the free cities and overlapping jurisdictions to its south and west. Italy continued to exist in a chaos of conflicting imperial invasion that still left room for a vigorous republican tradition, along with a vigorous Church. Local liberties were under great pressure from a variety of military and political as well as ethnic and religious conflicts. At the same time, and even in Prussia, a tradition critical for the development of liberty was enjoying renewed vigor, namely, the rule of law. Often lost in dynastic and jurisdictional conflicts, insistence on the rule of law, not of men, was reinvigorated as nation states solidified, bringing kings to heel—in some nations more, in others less—through insistence on a standard of rule above the will of any one man or institution.
Central to the success of constitutionalism and human liberty in America was the distance its people enjoyed from both continental and English conflicts. The civil wars in England only increased immigration in the American colonies, and solidification of Parliamentary supremacy—which came to be the ruling ideology of the British Empire and helped maintain anti-Catholic disabilities—made no headway here. Indeed, the American Revolution itself was in large measure fought in resistance to the idea of any truly sovereign political body, capable of ruling as it willed.
As in England, tolerance for Catholics was at times hard to come by in the American colonies. But the extreme localism of the American frontier, combined with the (very spotty) inheritance of toleration for Catholics in Maryland left room for Catholics, as well as Jewish and other communities to grow. More important, for present purposes, was what did not happen here, but which has influenced Americans’ vision of Europe, namely, the French Revolution and its imperial aftermath. For it was the French Revolution, with its consistent, murderous hostility to the Church that established an ideological tradition of presenting Catholicism as hostile to liberty. At least as important, it was the Jacobins, and even more their successor, Napoleon, who stamped out Catholic liberty in particular in most of Europe. Napoleon’s consolidating empire, short-lived as it was, left in its wake a complex legal code, an attachment to ideological politics, and a consolidation of political and military power from which Europe has never recovered. It also all but stamped out the characteristically Catholic forms of liberty, with their roots in local communities, that existed on much of the continent, and that resurfaced only fitfully after his onslaught.
In an important sense, then, it was the European tradition, with deep roots in the law and practice of the Catholic Church, that provided many of the tools necessary for people to construct ordered liberty in the face of centralizing political power. England was a place where these tools found ready users and a situation in which the centralizing powers were, for a variety of reasons, susceptible of being brought to heel. Unfortunately, the taming of the king occurred in a place and time where the Church itself suffered under tremendous bigotry and legal disability. Other regions, both Catholic and Protestant, also saw these tools well used, just as others saw them ill-used and all too many saw them destroyed by revolution and Napoleonic Empire. In these latter countries a newer, more modern, and less ordered form of freedom, susceptible of the twin errors of radical secularism and state control in the name of “the people” came to hold sway. In the United States, meanwhile, a more localist, open, and vigorous form of constitutional liberty took hold.
This is not to say that the myth of “Protestant liberty” is not damaging. For much of American history, Catholicism has been presented as a problem for liberty. This attitude was at the heart of movements during the nineteenth-century to eliminate public funding for parochial schools. It has been transformed into a general hostility among liberal elites toward religion of any kind in the public square. Perhaps a bit more knowledge of where our freedoms come from might help us resist those who would take away many of them today.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.