More Leo XIII: on religious liberty and the tyranny of liberalism (read: Pres. Obama’s Administration)

The other day I posted a quote about civil authority and freedom from an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII called Diuturnum illud.  I was happy to see that Bp. Slattery also quoted that enecyclical in his outstanding response to Pres. Obama’s attack on religious liberty, the 1st Amendment and the Catholic Church.

Here is another passage from Leo XIII, from his 1888 encyclical Libertas praestantissimum.

John Paul II also quoted this encyclical. Libertas praestantissimum is about true and false freedom —how freedom relates to law, authority, and God, and how its abuse leads to individual and societal self-destruction.

It is all relevant to what is happening today in America. Here are a few excerpts (my emphases):

8. … [A]ll prescriptions of human reason can have force of law only inasmuch as they are the voice and the interpreters of some higher power on which our reason and liberty necessarily depend. …

9. … Of the laws enacted by men, some are concerned with what is good or bad by its very nature; and they command men to follow after what is right and to shun what is wrong, adding at the same time a suitable sanction. But such laws by no means derive their origin from civil society, because, just as civil society did not create human nature, so neither can it be said to be the author of the good which befits human nature, or of the evil which is contrary to it. …

10. From this it is manifest that the eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man, but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united. Therefore, the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law. Likewise, the liberty of those who are in authority does not consist in the power to lay unreasonable and capricious commands upon their subjects, which would equally be criminal and would lead to the ruin of the commonwealth; but the binding force of human laws is in this, that they are to be regarded as applications of the eternal law, and incapable of sanctioning anything which is not contained in the eternal law, as in the principle of all law. Thus, St. Augustine most wisely says: “I think that you can see, at the same time, that there is nothing just and lawful in that temporal law, unless what men have gathered from this eternal law.” If, then, by anyone in authority, something be sanctioned out of conformity with the principles of right reason, and consequently hurtful to the commonwealth, such an enactment can have no binding force of law, as being no rule of justice, but certain to lead men away from that good which is the very end of civil society.

13. … 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.

30. Another liberty is widely advocated [in modern times], namely, liberty of conscience. If by this is meant that everyone may, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments already adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong—a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear. This is the kind of liberty the Apostles claimed for themselves with intrepid constancy, which the apologists of Christianity confirmed by their writings, and which the martyrs in vast numbers consecrated by their blood. And deservedly so; for this Christian liberty bears witness to the absolute and most just dominion of God over man, and to the chief and supreme duty of man toward God. It has nothing in common with a seditious and rebellious mind; and in no tittle derogates from obedience to public authority; for the right to command and to require obedience exists only so far as it is in accordance with the authority of God, and is within the measure that He has laid down. But when anything is commanded which is plainly at variance with the will of God, there is a wide departure from this divinely constituted order, and at the same time a direct conflict with divine authority; therefore, it is right not to obey.

31. 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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, Religious Liberty, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. pkinsale says:

    Fr. Z: The more I learn about Pope Leo XIII, and his writings on social justice and his devotion to St. Michael in particular, I wonder why his cause has never advanced very far. Any ideas on this?

  2. Legisperitus says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z. We need this teaching proclaimed now more than ever. When the liberty of the Church is not respected, the State is a tyrant.

  3. NoTambourines says:

    A few years ago, one of our priests in my hometown parish summed it up this way: “True freedom is freedom to choose the good.”

    If there are obstacles to that freedom — within one’s own interior struggles, or imposed externally — that’s a problem. In this case, they’re being imposed externally by Obama/HHS.

    Liberals rail against legislating morality, but that’s exactly what they’re doing here. They’re saying religious institutions are free to choose the good… but as dictated by the whim of the present government, and not according to their own teachings.

  4. prooney says:

    On a partially related side note, there is some dispute over the authenticity of the “100 years prophecy” attributed to Pope Leo XIII. The arguement being that a priest who worked in the Vatican, and detailed the circumstances around the institution of the St Michael Prayer, didn’t mention the prophecy. Although there is one site that argues for its authencity, stating that while the priest doesn’t mention the prophecy, he does affirm the side-story about the pontiff collapsing in St Peter’s etc. And given that he was writing his eyewitness testimony years after the “100 years prophecy” was already popularised, the fact that he doesn’t mention it – even to refute it, could be seen as a subtle confirmation. See

  5. Supertradmum says:

    This great Pope had more energy than most, I think and here is a great site for his accomplishments. As to standing up for truth in the market place, he saw the growth of tyrannies under his watch and was fearless in his defense of truth. I wish our present Pope would address the American political scene in a longer document on religious freedom, even if it would be a repetition. Pope Benedict XVI has made some short statements. But we need a long one, I think.

  6. Cathy says:

    What I do not understand, and I am often responded to with rage, is why we take abortion and seek to limit it by introducing pain capable legislation. This is promoted by pro-life groups, but I cannot cheer this on. Three problems, 1) we concede that murder is wrong and offensive in accordance to pain suffered, not the deprivation of the unalienable right to life, 2) we concede that children in the womb, prior to 20 weeks are incapable of feeling pain, 3) like the celebrated partial birth abortion ban, we risk the courts agreement with the unborn child’s capacity to feel pain, and a court decision that would simply accord palliative care via anesthesia to the unborn child while his/her life is taken in the act of abortion. Right reason is on our side when we proclaim abortion against God and against the natural law. I do not understand why we budge on the proclamation in pro-life law that direct abortion is always wrong.

  7. ContraMundum says:

    Whenever I read something like this, I inevitably conclude that religious education was much, much better in the past. Our recent popes have mostly been reduced to giving us almost kindergarten-level Sunday School lessons — not because that is the limit of their understanding, but because the Catholic public show such need of remedial education.


Comments are closed.