St. Ambrose the Illiberal

At The Josias, Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., an old friend of Semiduplex, presents a letter from St. Ambrose of Milan to the Emperor Valentinian (Ep. XVII, written in 384), with a brief introduction from Pater Waldstein. Here’s the setup:

Epistle XVII, written in the Summer of the year 384 to the young emperor Valentinian, was occasioned by a controversy over the altar of the goddess Victoria in the Curia Julia, the Senate house in Rome. The altar, with its statue of the goddess, had been removed by Constantius II, restored by Julian the Apostate, and removed again by Gratian. Conservative, pagan aristocrats in the Senate asked the young emperor to restore the altar.

(Emphasis supplied.) And here’s why Pater Waldstein thinks the letter is important:

But St. Ambrose protests vigorously against the request. Christian senators, he argued, would be forced by the erection of the altar to take part in pagan worship. But more fundamentally, he lays down a principle that contains the germ of all subsequent Catholic integralism. The Christian emperor is a servant of God, and must promote the true religion.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink in original.) This is what St. Ambrose says (don’t worry, the English is coming right up):

Cum omnes homines, qui subditione Romana sunt, vobis militent imperatoribus, terrarum atque principibus, tum ipsi vos omnipotenti Deo et sacrae fidei militatis. Aliter enim salus tuta esse non poterit, nisi unusquisque Deum verum, hoc est, Deum christianorum, a quo cuncta reguntur, veraciter colat; ipse enim solus verus est Deus, qui intima mente veneretur: Dii enim gentium daemonia, sicut Scriptura dicit (Psal. XCV, 5).

Huic igitur Deo vero quisquis militat, et qui intimo colendum recipit affectu, non dissimulationem, non conniventiam, sed fidei studium et devotionis impendit. Postremo si non ista, consensum saltem aliquem non debet colendis idolis, et profanis ceremoniarum cultibus exhibere. Nemo enim Deum fallit, cui omnia etiam cordis occulta manifesta sunt.

(Emphasis supplied). Now, in English:

As all men who live under the Roman sway engage in military service under you, the Emperors and Princes of the world, so too do you yourselves owe service to Almighty God and our holy faith. For salvation is not sure unless everyone worship in truth the true God, that is the God of the Christians, under Whose sway are all things; for He alone is the true God, Who is to be worshipped from the bottom of the heart; for the gods of the heathen, as Scripture says, are devils.

Now everyone is a soldier of this true God, and he who receives and worships Him in his inmost spirit, does not bring to His service dissimulation, or pretence, but earnest faith and devotion. And if, in fine, he does not attain to this, at least he ought not to give any countenance to the worship of idols and to profane ceremonies. For no one deceives God, to whom all things, even the hidden things of the heart, are manifest.

(Emphasis supplied.) You ought to read the whole thing at The Josias when you get a free minute or two. This is the basic idea of integralism—or, as we prefer to call it for a variety of reasons, illiberal Catholicism—just as Pater Waldstein claims. Everyone, even the state, has duties to God, which include promoting the true religion and ruling in accordance with the common good and right reason. This has immediate consequences for the right ordering of the state, too, as Pater Waldstein states in his “three sentences on integralism,” including the subordination of the state to the Church.

As soon as we saw this, we were immediately reminded of something Leo XIII said in Immortale Dei, which we discussed recently in the context of the American federal Constitution. You will, dear reader, forgive us, we hope, if we repeat ourselves a little bit to make our point. Leo says:

[T]he 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 reaching 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. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. For one and all are we destined by our birth and adoption to enjoy, when this frail and fleeting life is ended, a supreme and final good in heaven, and to the attainment of this every endeavour should be directed. Since, then, upon this depends the full and perfect happiness of mankind, the securing of this end should be of all imaginable interests the most urgent. Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the well-being of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek. Wherefore, for this purpose, care must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded the religion whereof the practice is the link connecting man with God.

(Emphasis supplied.) There are strong resonances, as one might expect, between what St. Ambrose wrote to Valentinian and what Leo XIII teaches here. We see readily that there is no difference between an ordinary man or woman and a man or woman invested with civil power. All men owe service to God and the true faith, as St. Ambrose says, and societies are not exempt from this duty, Leo reminds us. This is, as Pater Waldstein suggests, the basic insight of integralism or illiberal Catholicism.

This is, however, a controversial concept under liberalism, even among Catholics devoted to the liberal order. And it seems to us that St. Ambrose’s comments provide another good opportunity to discuss the principle that it is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a good liberal. As the liberal moment in the West appears to be in as much jeopardy as it has been at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union (if not before then), it is perhaps a good time for Catholics to take this opportunity to reexamine liberalism in the light of the doctrine of the Church, which, as Paul VI has noted, has special competence to pronounce upon natural reason. But we will see in a moment that St. Ambrose’s letter, invested with both great antiquity and great authority, is extremely useful for an illiberal Catholic arguing with his liberal friends.

The basic idea of liberalism is that everyone should be free to pursue their own happiness. There is a proceduralist dimension to liberalism—that is, liberalism insists on allegedly neutral rules for discourse of various kinds—but that is ultimately in service of the idea that everyone ought to be free to achieve his or her idea of happiness. But, with St. Ambrose and Leo’s teaching in mind, we see that this is a betrayal of the state’s duties in two dimensions. First, the liberal state betrays its duty to God and the true faith by failing to profess absolutely all that we know about God, both through natural reason and through revelation, and by pretending, as Leo says, that all religions are essentially the same or that religion is of no interest to the state. Second, the liberal state betrays its duty to its citizens by failing to make it as easy as possible for them to obtain the highest good, God, through virtue and religion.

But, of course, these are, as one might say, features not bugs as far as liberalism is concerned. As we just said, liberalism’s fundamental argument is that everyone should be free to pursue their own happiness, by applying reason in a procedurally neutral space. Each man or woman chooses among options what is most pleasing to him or her through the application of reason. Now, he or she ought to make the right choice, but nothing forces that choice. This is fundamentally corrosive to society, as we have discussed recently. This is a point that liberal Catholics, devoted as they are to the current political order, fail to grapple with when they tout liberalism as some sort of solution. Consider what Leo says in Libertas praestantissimum:

What naturalists or rationalists aim at in philosophy, that the supporters of liberalism, carrying out the principles laid down by naturalism, are attempting in the domain of morality and politics. The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth. Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man’s individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason. To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.

Moreover, besides this, a doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State. For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion and judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption. With reference also to public affairs: authority is severed from the true and natural principle whence it derives all its efficacy for the common good; and the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority. Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny. The empire of God over man and civil society once repudiated, it follows that religion, as a public institution, can have no claim to exist, and that everything that belongs to religion will be treated with complete indifference. Furthermore, with ambitious designs on sovereignty, tumult and sedition will be common amongst the people; and when duty and conscience cease to appeal to them, there will be nothing to hold them back but force, which of itself alone is powerless to keep their covetousness in check. Of this we have almost daily evidence in the conflict with socialists and members of other seditious societies, who labor unceasingly to bring about revolution. It is for those, then, who are capable of forming a just estimate of things to decide whether such doctrines promote that true liberty which alone is worthy of man, or rather, pervert and destroy it.

(Emphasis supplied.) It is, of course, traditional for liberal Catholics to inject a little Modernism or Americanism into this discourse, and attempt to avoid Leo’s teachings in Immortale Dei and Libertas by claiming that Leo was writing for a specific time and place or, worse, was merely offering prudential, non-dogmatic reflections on questions of the age. In other words, as society has progressed, Leo’s arguments are less applicable. Liberalism isn’t so corrosive to society. In fact, they say, liberalism is the best—the only—way to order a just society.

This is where Pater Waldstein and The Josias have done us a great service by presenting the letter of St. Ambrose. One can see that the argument of liberal Catholics is squarely contrary to the tradition of the Church. Indeed, we can see that the germ of the idea is present in the Patristic era. With that in mind, it is much harder to say that Leo’s critique of liberalism was limited to a specific time or place. Indeed, it is fairly easy to say that it represents perennial Catholic teaching, and an ambitious integralist might say that it forms part of the deposit of faith. At any rate, it presents the illiberal Catholic with a wonderful rhetorical trap. “Oh, well, Leo was just writing for an age of looming anarchy and revolution. In these times, of course, liberalism is perfectly tolerable,” one’s liberal Catholic interlocutor might say. “Perhaps, but if that’s so, why did St. Ambrose say essentially the same thing in AD 384? Isn’t that rather ‘always, everywhere, and by everyone’?”

Try it, and watch the subject change as if by magic!