Authority and Liberty

By Robert Hugh Benson.


The truth shall make you free.—JOHN VIII. 32.

Bringing into captivity every understanding to the obedience of Christ.—II COR. X. 5.


We have already considered in outline the relations between Faith and Reason; how each, in its own province, is supreme and how each, in its turn, supports and ratifies the other. We pass on to a development of that theme, springing almost immediately out of it, namely, the relations between Authority and Liberty. And we will begin that consideration, as before, as it is illustrated by the accusations of the world against the Church. Briefly they are stated as follows.

I.    Freedom, we are told, is the note of Christianity as laid down in the Gospels, in both discipline and doctrine. Jesus Christ came into the world largely for this very purpose, to substitute the New Law for the Old and thereby to free men from the complicated theology and the minutia of religious routine which characterized men’s attempts to reduce that Old Law to practice. The Old Law may or may not have been perfectly adapted, when first it was given, to the needs of God’s people in the early stages of Jewish civilization; but at any rate it is certain, from a hundred texts in the Gospel, that Jesus Christ in His day found it an intolerable slavery laid upon the religious life of the people. Theology had degenerated into an incredible hair-splitting system of dogma, and discipline had degenerated into a multitude of irritating observances.


Jesus Christ, then, in the place of all this, preached a Creed that was essentially simple, and simultaneously substituted for the elaborate ceremonialism of the Pharisees the spirit of liberty. The dogma that He preached was little more than that God is the Father of all and that all men therefore are brothers; “discipline” in the ordinary sense of the word is practically absent from the Gospel, and as for ceremonial there is none, except such as is necessary for the performance of the two extremely simple rites that He instituted, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now this supposed spirit of liberty, we are informed, is to-day to be found only in Protestantism. In that system, if it can strictly be called one, and in that system only, may a man exercise that freedom which was secured to him by Jesus Christ. First, in doctrine, he may choose, weigh, and examine for himself, within the wide limits which alone Christ laid down, those doctrines or hopes which commend themselves to his intellect; and next, in matters of discipline, again, he may choose for himself those ways of life and action that he may find helpful to his spiritual development. He may worship, for example, in any church that he prefers, attend those services and those only which commend themselves to his taste; he may eat or not eat this or that food, as he likes, and order his day, generally, as it pleases him.  And all this, we are informed, is of the very spirit of New Testament Christianity. The Truth has made him free, as Christ Himself promised.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is essentially a Church of slavery. First, in discipline, an enormous weight of observances and duties is laid upon her children, comparable only to the Pharisaic system. The Catholic must worship in this church and not in that, in this manner and not in the other. He must observe places and days and times, and that not only in religious matters but in secular. He must eat this food on this day and that on the other; he must frequent the sacraments at specified periods; he must perform certain actions and refrain from others, and that in matters in themselves indifferent.

In dogma, too, no less is the burden that he must bear. Not only are the simple words of Christ developed into a vast theological system by the Church’s officials, but the whole of this system is laid, as of faith, down to its minutest details, on the shoulders of the unhappy believer.  He may not choose between this or that theory of the mode of Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist; he must accept precisely that, and no other, which his Church has elaborated.

In fact, in doctrine and in discipline alike, the Church has gone back to precisely that old reign of tyranny which Christ abolished. The Catholic, unlike the Protestant who has retained the spirit of liberty, finds himself in the same case as that under which Israel itself once groaned. He is a slave and not a child; he binds his own limbs, as the old phrase says, by his act of faith and puts the other end of the chain into the hands of the priest. Such, in outline, is the charge against us.


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Now much of it is so false that it needs no refutation. It is, for example, entirely false that New Testament theology is simple. It is far more true to say that, compared with the systematized theology of the Church, it is bewilderingly complex and puzzling, and how complex and puzzling it is, is indicated by the hundreds of creeds which Protestants have made out of it, each creed claiming, respectively, to be its one and only proper interpretation. Men have only come to think it “simple” in modern days by desperately eliminating from it every element on which all Protestants are not agreed. The residuum is indeed “simple.” Only it is not the New Testament theology! Dogmas such as that of the Blessed Trinity, of the Procession of the Holy Ghost, of the nature of grace and of sin—these, whether as held by orthodox or unorthodox, are at any rate not simple, and it is merely untrue to say that Christ made no statements on these points, however they may be understood. Further, it is merely untrue to say that Protestant theology is “simple”; it is every whit as elaborate as Catholic theology and considerably more complex in those points in which Protestant divines are not agreed. The controversies on Justification in which such men as Calvin and Luther, with their disciples, continually engaged are fully as complicated as any disputations on Grace between Jesuits and Dominicans.

Yet the general contention is plain enough—that on the whole the Catholic is bound to believe a certain set of dogmas, while the Protestant is free to accept or reject them. Therefore, it is argued, the Protestant is “free” and the Catholic is not. And this brings us straight to the consideration of the relations between Authority and Liberty.

II.   What, then, is Religious Liberty? It is necessary to begin by forming some idea as to what it is that is meant by the word in other than religious matters.


Very briefly it may be said that an individual enjoys social liberty when he is able to obey and to use the laws and powers of his true nature, and that a community enjoys it when all its members are able to do so without interfering unduly one with the other. The more complete is this ability, the more perfect is Liberty.

A remarkable paradox at once presents itself—that Liberty can only be secured by Laws. Where there are no laws, or too few, to secure it, slavery immediately appears, no less surely than when there are too many; for the stronger individuals are, by the absence of law, enabled to tyrannize over the weaker. Even the vast and complex legislation of our own days is designed to increase and not to fetter liberty, and its greater complexity is necessitated by the greater complexity and the more numerous interrelationships of modern society. Laws, of course, may be unwise or excessively minute or deliberately enslaving; yet this does not affect the point that for all that Laws are necessary to the preservation of Liberty. Merchants, women and children, and citizens generally, can only enjoy rightful liberty if they are protected by laws. Only that man is free, then, who is most carefully guarded.

In the same manner Scientific Liberty does not consist in the absence of knowledge, or of scientific dogmas, but in their presence. We are surrounded by innumerable facts of nature, and that man is free who is fully aware of those which affect his own life. It is true, for example, that two and two make four, and that heavy bodies tend to fall towards the centre of the earth; and it can only be a very superficial thinker who considers that to be ignorant of these facts is to be free from the enslaving dogmas of them. If I am ignorant of them I am, of course, in a sense at liberty to believe that two and two make five, and to jump off the roof of my house; yet this is not Liberty at all in the sense in which reasonable people use the word, since my knowledge of the laws enables me to be effective and, in fact, to survive in the midst of a world where they happen to be true. That man, then, is more truly “free” whose intellect is informed of and submits to these laws, than is the man whose intellect is unaware of them. Marconi’s intellect submits to the laws of lightning and he is thereby enabled to avail himself of them. Ajax is unaware of them and is accordingly destroyed by their action.

The Truth, then, makes us free. The State which controls men’s actions and educates their intellects, which, in a word, enforces the knowledge of truth and compels obedience to it, is actually freeing its citizens by that process. It is only by a misuse of words or a failure to grasp ideas that I can maintain that an ignorant savage is more free than an educated man. It is true that I am, in a sense, “free” to think that two and two make five, if I have not learned arithmetic; on the other hand, when I learn that they make four I rise into that higher and more real liberty which a knowledge of arithmetic bestows. I am more effective, not less so; I am more free to exercise my powers and use the forces of the world in which I live, and not less free, when I have submitted my intellect to facts.

III. (i) Now the soul too has an environment. Men may differ as to its nature and its conditions, but all who believe in the soul at all believe also that it has an environment, and that this environment is as much in the realm of Law as is the natural world itself. Prayer, for example, elevates the soul, base thinking degrades it.


Now the laws of this environment were true even before Christ came.  David knew, at any rate, something of penitence and of the guilt of sin, and Nathan knew something, at least, of the forgiveness of sins and of their temporal punishment. Christ came, then, with this object amongst others: that He might reveal the laws of Grace and convey to men’s minds some at least of the facts of the spiritual life amongst which they lived. He came, moreover, partly to modify the workings of these laws, to release some more fully, and to restrain others; in a word, to be the Revealer of Truth and the Administrator of Grace.

He came then, to increase men’s liberty by increasing their knowledge, as, in another sphere, the scientist comes to us with the same purpose.  Here, for example, is the law that murder is a sin before God and brings its consequences with it, a law stated briefly in the commandment Thou shall not kill. But our Divine Lord revealed more of the workings of this law than men had hitherto recognized. I say unto you, declared Christ, that whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer. He revealed, that is to say, the fact that this law runs even in the realm of thought, that the hating spirit incurs the guilt and punishment of murder, and not merely the murderous action. Were men less free when they learned that fact? Not unless I am less free than I was before, when I learn for the first time that lightning kills. Christ came, then, to reveal the Truth that makes us free, and He does so by informing our intellects and enabling us to bring into captivity every understanding to His obedience.

(ii)  Turn now to the Catholic Church. Here is a Society whose function it is to preserve and apply the teaching of Christ; to analyze it and to state it in forms or systems which every generation can receive. For this purpose, then, she draws up not merely a Creed—which is the systematic statement of the Christian Revelation—but disciplinary rules and regulations that will make this Creed and the life that is conformable to it more easy of realization, and all this she does with the express object of enabling the individual soul to respond to her spiritual environment and to rise to the full exercise of her powers and rights. As the scientist and the statesmen take, respectively, the great laws of nature and society and reduce them to rules and codes, yet without adding or taking away from these facts, that are true whether they are popularly recognized or not—and all with the purpose not of diminishing but of increasing the general liberty—so the Church, divinely safeguarded too in the process, takes the Revelation of Christ and by her dogma and her discipline popularizes it, so to speak, and makes it at once comprehensible and effective.


What, then, is this foolish cry about the slavery of dogma? How can Truth make men anything except more free? Unless a man is prepared to say that the scientist enslaves his intellect by telling him facts, he dare not say that the Church fetters his intellect by defining dogma.  Christ did not condemn the Pharisaic system because it was a system, but because it was Pharisaic; because, that is, it was not true; because it obscured instead of revealing the true relations between God and man; because it made the Word of God of none effect through its traditions.

But the Catholic system has the appearance of enslaving men? Why yes; for the only way of aiming at and using effectively the truth that makes us free is by bringing into captivity every understanding to the obedience of Christ.


This is taken from Paradoxes of Catholicism.





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