How Long Will Secular Liberalism Endure?

Secular liberalism is at odds with Catholicism. The point seemed obvious to most people until the postwar period, when the thought took hold that an essentially harmonious relationship could be established that would draw on the American model. America, it seemed, was different from Europe with its long tradition of statism and anti-clericalism. It rejected an established church, but embraced religious freedom, an active and diverse civil society, and a limited and decentralized government that did not try to dominate culture and gave the Church the protection and freedom she needed to thrive.

The attempt to establish a harmonious relation with the liberal state has been less fruitful than hoped, and even in America has run into profound difficulties. Our government and other authoritative institutions have become more centralized and more concerned with remodeling all aspects of life, including the beliefs and attitudes of the people. We are becoming more like Europe, and to make matters worse the outlook of the governing classes on both sides of the Atlantic has moved in a direction radically opposed to both religion and natural law. Throughout the Western world, Catholics and Catholic institutions are increasingly required to conform to anti-Catholic norms, and in much of it you can be punished as a criminal for public assertion of Catholic moral doctrine.

The intolerance is aimed less at Catholicism in particular, although the Church is a highly-visible target, than any form of Christianity that does not reduce without remainder to progressive politics and private therapy. We are increasingly ruled by practical utopians who believe themselves comprehensively responsible for human relations, and their efforts leave no place for an independent and refractory organization like the Church that proposes a contrary vision that now counts as intrinsically antisocial and oppressive.

So where will the present situation lead if—as seems quite possible—our secular authorities continue on their present course? Will the blood of the martyrs once again be the seed of the Church, or will multiplying restrictions and disabilities wear down Catholic life until the Church all but disappears?

Many societies have been anti-Catholic. How effective their anti-Catholicism has been has depended on the nature of the society and its guiding principles. Roman society, for example, had nothing to propose that could fill the needs Christianity satisfied, and the Roman empire was more loosely organized and its activities more limited than modern states. As a result, Roman persecutions, however savage they might be, were mostly local, sporadic, and ineffectual. By the time the Romans saw a need for comprehensive enforcement of religious loyalty the Christians were too strong and the empire too divided for the policy to be effective.

Some of the Church’s more recent opponents have been more organized, focused, steady, and successful. The Muslims eliminated Catholicism from North Africa, the home of Cyprian and Augustine, and the Protestants did much the same over large stretches of Europe. They were able to do so because the governments they established had more comprehensive concerns than the Roman government did, they took the issue of religious unity more seriously, and they stood for principles that had the broad-based appeal and staying power needed to establish themselves at least somewhat durably among the people.

In the last century the most severe attacks were carried on by secular systems that functioned as religions but excluded transcendent truth and authority. The attacks were organized and focused to the point of fanaticism, and they often led to widespread martyrdom of clergy and ordinary believers, as with the radically anticlerical regimes in Mexico and Spain and the totalitarian regimes that ruled Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and their respective empires.

Those attacks were not enduringly effective because the regimes carrying them on were too much at odds with human nature and with the societies they dominated for their vision to endure. Thus, for example, religious belief has bounced back in Russia, and Christianity is making unprecedented advances in China. Both countries had been searching for some sort of guiding principle, and when communism failed Christianity stepped into the gap. (In regions like East Germany and the Czech Republic, where communism was imposed from outside on a society in which religion was already weak, Soviet domination does seem to have accelerated the loss of faith.)

It appears, then, that as a human matter suppression of Catholicism is likely to work if the system that carries it on endures, takes the effort seriously, and offers a reasonably appealing way of life that provides somewhat of a substitute for what is suppressed.

So what does that mean in the case of secular liberalism, assuming it remains as ideological a system as it now seems? It has been enormously successful as a practical matter, and the way of life it offers evidently appeals to a great many people. Further, its opposition to Catholicism has become much more serious and active during the post-1960s period. The result is that it has been very successful in changing religious views and weakening Church authority among the laity and even among many clergy and religious.

Given all that, the obvious question as to the future of Catholicism in the West, humanly speaking, is how much staying power secular liberalism will have, and whether it will maintain its appeal to ordinary people. Luckily for Catholics (and for humanity in general), those requirements bring weak points of the liberal system into focus. Secular liberalism makes maximum equal satisfaction its highest good. That principle is what gives it popular appeal, but it means ever-greater demands on public resources, since people require more and more to be satisfied, and it also means ever-less discipline, loyalty, and public spirit to support the system, since it undermines ideals of love and sacrifice.

Secular liberalism lacks a grounded principle of authority, and its aspiration to universal satisfaction makes it adverse to widespread use of threats and force. As a result, its basic method for maintaining control is a system of payoffs, propaganda, and ever-more comprehensive regulation. That method has mostly been rather successful. Material benefits have been funded through the extraordinary productivity of capitalist economies in a technological age, propaganda facilitated by alliance with the mass media and the expertise and training industry (otherwise known as the educational system), and regulation made effective by a comparatively high degree of bureaucratic discipline and efficiency.

None of those resources are infinite or everlasting. Organizational discipline and efficiency don’t sit well with an emphasis on equal satisfaction, so they are unlikely to be maintained. Also, it is becoming harder and harder to fund public programs or provide individuals with satisfactory employment, so much so that public finance has been reduced to an endless series of short-term expedients that everyone knows cannot go on forever. When the money runs out, people start feeling real economic pressure, and the government is unable and seems unwilling to do anything for them, will they keep on believing what they are told? Why should they, when the basis of what they have been told is that they have a right to get what they want?

So it seems that during the coming decades it will be increasingly difficult for secular liberalism to maintain itself among the people as a minimally satisfying system of practice and belief. Still, historical change is generally slow, and liberalism has been very effective at weakening its competitors, so it is likely to be with us in an ever-less appealing and successful form for some time to come. The best analogy to the period we may have before us is therefore the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union. Catholics can expect any number of petty restraints and stupid oppressions, but no terror, and less and less real belief in the official system. As a result, we can very likely expect a fertile field for Christian witness and for the growth of new forms of Christian life and revival of very old ones.

This essay first appeared August 8, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Father Joe Blonski

    This is wonderful news.

  • somnipod

    Maybe the church needs to again order the prayers after low mass. Against liberalism. Then again, maybe if liberalism is rooted out of the church first. All one needs to do is look at the garbage over at national Catholic reporter. The bishops conference in the usa pushing progressive policies with doublespeak regarding obamacare and lawbreaking illegal aliens doesn’t help!

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Hostility to organized religion, anti-clericalism, laïcité, is an absolutely bedrock principle of the Liberal state, as Lord Acton explains:

    “The modern theory, which has swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it, is the enemy of that common freedom in which religious freedom is included. It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of a limited command. Under its sway, therefore, every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws. In other words, religious profession is free, but Church government is controlled. And where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied.”

    That is why the passion for equality, the hatred of privilege and the tolerance of despotism usually go together. It is in hierarchical societies, tribal or feudal, that the power of central government is weakest and the passion for liberty strongest.

  • NE-Catholic

    Mr. Kalb provides an optimistic message. Unfortunately, every Sunday the hope that ‘liberalism’ might be driven from the Church is undercut in homilies, prayers and wishes that support a view of the government as the solution to social problems, encourages lawlessness by embracing lawless and immoral behavior and urges contributions to actively anti-moral activists in the guise of ‘Catholic’ educational institutions that are anything but. All done with the tacit approval of our ‘Catholic’ Bishops and episcopacy.

    • The Church’s constitution and doctrines give her an intrinsic tendency to revert to type. And then there’s the guarantee that the gates of Hell will not prevail. It can be hard of course to remain vividly conscious of those things day to day.

      • Sygurd Jonfski

        “And then there’s the guarantee that the gates of Hell will not prevail.” But Jesus also asked, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ I always understand these two quotes as qualifying one another.

        • Facile1

          Hmmmm. What is the repository of FAITH? Is it the human heart or is it the Church?

          We always assume that the Church is the repository of FAITH. BUT even the CHURCH teaches that FAITH is a gift of GOD to HIS children. And so is FREE WILL. Everything begins with a gift.

          The CHURCH of Christ will not disappear merely because no one living on earth believes in HIM. There will always be the Communion of Saints. BUT the end of FAITH on earth will come when there are no longer any newborns to be gifted. Of course, that will also mean the end of human life as we know it on this planet (which is foretold in the Bible). SIN consumes itself like fire consumes fuel.

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            Well, that’s your interpretation – a bit… facile.

            • Facile1

              I’m not disagreeing with you. And in a blog (where brevity is a virtue), one is facile by necessity. I chose the username as a caution to my readers.

              • Sygurd Jonfski

                It was a pun that I couldn’t resist. By choosing such a username you are inviting wordplays on it.

                • Facile1

                  Sir, your usage of the word ‘pun’ is incorrect. It is evident you do not know that ‘wordplay’ is not necessarily meanspirited. How does one tell? Focus on the subject. Making my username the focus of your reply does not add to your argument and is a disservice to the readers of this blog.

                  • Sygurd Jonfski

                    All right then, since you insist on your anal-retentive nitpicking – your exegesis is not so much facile as very contrived. I hope my reply will reach you on your high horse…

  • Folcroft Glenolden

    Very perceptive article. Now in the United States secular liberalism is embraced by high bourgeois managers and intellectuals as the thing that gives them the right to rule. Since it gives them status in their world, it will be hard for them to give up. But, nevertheless, the more people see through it the better.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    We assign a date for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. It would be entertaining to assign a date for the Fall of Secular Humanism as well. I’d say 2045.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I say the 1929-1930 Lambeth Conference. Like the fall of the Roman Empire, it took time, but the fall of Secular Humanism started on the date they decided that procreation was not the point of sex, and convinced a major Protestant Christian denomination to follow. Previous to 1928, contraception was immoral. After it, the sexual revolution happened.

      • Adam__Baum

        There’d have been no Lambeth Conference with Henry Tudor and the escalation of his pride and lechery into a state imperative, and the subordination of Marriage to his statecraft.

        Ironic that he attacked Marriage in the pursuit of offspring; his successors attacked it to avoid them. One means, two evils, and a sulphuric odor

        • TheodoreSeeber

          That was the *rise* of secular humanism. I was talking about the *fall*. Secular humanism, like the Protestant Shaker heresy, cannot survive the decision not to breed. As it is, today it is only spread by “education”- that is, brainwashing.

      • Christian LeBlanc

        As long as a relatively sterile culture can subsist off of a relatively fertile one, the sterile culture can survive.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          We are no longer a fertile culture. Only immigrants have a greater than replacement rate demographic in the United States. Native populations and cultures are dying.

          And that includes just about every Catholic family that has been here more than a few generations. Surveys don’t determine right and wrong- but it is a fact that *most* American Catholic Women have bought into the same population control lies as their Protestant cousins. There are more single child families in my generation than in the last 5.

          In the next forty years, we’ll lose a third of the American population to old age. The people that replace them will NOT be secularists.

          • The sterile culture of the International Left has been sheep-stealing from the fertile cultures around them for decades, and will continue to do so.

    • jacobhalo

      Deacon, 2045 may be the fall of the American Empire. Every government has fell throughout history. Ours will be no different.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Most people think the liberalism is the bad part. The dangerous part is the secularism- especially fascist secularism.

  • davend

    Secular liberalism in the West has been around since at least the 1660s, and if anything, is gaining steam as the Church continues to cede the moral high ground. The “gates of hell” argument (inevitably trotted out) does not apply at all times and everywhere.

  • Sygurd Jonfski

    “We are increasingly ruled by practical utopians who believe themselves comprehensively responsible for human relations…” That’s why the best course of action is to stop voting for these “practical utopians” even if it means not voting at all. Judging by some media reports, this is a somewhat growing trend among the voters. When you vote for the “lesser evil”, what you get is the lesser evil, not any form of the good. Once the national governments are elected by, say, only 20% of the voters, someone will notice the missing votes and will try to gain them. Democracy is now just an opiate for the masses but it can still be used effectively to remedy its own ills.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      I have decided to opt out of a corrupted system. My voting days are over. I await the collapse. In the meantime I will work to support my Church and serve the poor.

  • Ita Scripta Est

    I think secular-liberalism has always seen Catholicism as the original enemy hence why liberalism especially hates tradition, hierarchy, community and legitimate authority all the hallmarks of Catholic social order. In this it shares an affinity with its step-father- Protestantism. Thus “Robespierre does not fear the’gospel’ of the reformers” as De Maistre once noted.

    As far as the coming collapse, I think this is the wrong way to look at it. Many libertarian/Protestant/Mormon types seem to take comfort in predicting a coming political/economic collapse that will act as a reset. This is opposed to a Catholic view of history and destiny. We must trust in the Divine Providence of God who is the prime mover of history and not to the some abstract zeitgeist determinism. I think Mr. Kalb would agree that liberalism while appearing a recent innovation on its face may just be a recurring theme in human history. Call it what you want- Gnosticism, tyranny, I prefer simply man’s fallen drive to upset God’s order.

  • crakpot

    “payoffs, propaganda, and regulation”
    That about sums them up.

    Their payoff system won’t collapse until the people feel it. That won’t be by confiscatory tax rates. Most don’t pay any income tax at all, as evidenced by the fact that talk of abolishing the IRS (you’d think that would be a popular idea) has died off. Collapse will come when the government check doesn’t cut it anymore – inflation caused by Obama’s monumental money printing. The kicker will be when they begrudgingly go back to looking for a job and find that there are still none.

    Their propaganda system won’t collapse due to new media and talk radio. No lib is gonna decide to tune in to Rush. Collapse will only come when their “science” is seen as the evil lie that it is – when conscience is bothered. Life begins when they say it does, and we have 55 million corpses based on that? Homosexuality is nature, not behavior, and my daughter has “transgenders” harassing her in the girl’s bathroom? Blacks are a victim race, and 80 year old WWII vets are being beaten to death?

    As for their regulatory system, that won’t collapse at all without external force. Regulation is set up to be enforced on their opponents, but waivered for their followers. Look at Obamacare. How about the TSA waiving head scarves through, but strip searching nuns and the elderly? My electricity rates skyrocket due to global warming propaganda, yet people with electric cars pay half the rate. The IRS targets conservative groups, but lets progressives sail through. NSA, DOJ, Dept. of State – you name it, same M.O. Regulation will only collapse when it is taken down by constitutional initiative, as Levin is trying to do, or God forbid by use of the 2nd Amendment.

    • Adam__Baum

      “Most don’t pay any income tax at all, as evidenced by the fact that talk
      of abolishing the IRS (you’d think that would be a popular idea) has
      died off.”

      There’s a reason that our feudal masters use the IRS to dispense the “earned income tax credit” (which is really the unearned income no tax direct transfer) and why little or audit activity is directed at the program, despite the known existence of massive fraud.

      Not only does it produce a constituency with a favorable view of the agency, but it creates social conflict between payers and recipients that serves the ruling class when it employs “divide et impera” techniques.

  • Marie Dean

    I give it two years max before secular humanism and secular liberalism are suppressed, before the West falls into tyranny. Everything is in place.

  • windjammer

    How long you ask? That’s easy. As long as the liturgy is not fixed and the Bishops use their brains and courage for their butts, nothing is going to appreciably change.

  • Facile1

    I agree with Mr. Kalb. But he is simply stating the obvious.

    Catholicism and Liberalism will always be diametrically opposed to each other. The fundamental premise of the Church is a belief in GOD. The fundamental premise of Liberalism is a belief in MAN. The latter belief is, of course, the sin of idolatry.

    Both recognize the nation state as a tool.

    This is not a problem if we “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Read Matthew 22:19-21)

    BUT it becomes a problem when the nation state takes upon itself what rightfully belongs to God. It does not belong to the purview of the nation state to legislate morality. The laws that criminalize sin (such as the incarceration of sodomites and the stoning of adulteresses) are overt abuse of temporal power. The laws that legitimize sin (such as legalized abortion, the publicly funded distribution of contraceptives, ‘same sex’ marriage, divorce and euthanasia) are covert abuse of temporal power.

    It is also not the business of the nation state to shape the minds of children by way of ‘Public Education’. The shaping of the minds of children is ‘FAITH FORMATION’. This is the sole responsibility of parents.

    Liberalism will fail, of course. But not before the demise of the nation state.

    The Church of Christ will prevail, of course. But not before much (and unnecessary) suffering.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      This thinking should be further developed into a lengthier piece….it is that good. Thanks!

      • Facile1

        Thank you for your kind words. I wish I could claim these ideas are original to me. All can be referenced back to the New Testament. One can say the latter is the ‘lengthier piece’ (and better said).

  • smokes

    Man…and certainly woman….have proclaimed themselves gods. It’ll take centuries to bounce back from such narcissism as much darker days lie ahead. The Church has properly moved away from Europe and the USA to friendlier environs. So, there’s Hope, despite the inability of Catholics to perpetuate their species. Let’s see how we’re doing around 2300 A.D.

  • Old Guard

    “payoffs, propaganda, and regulation”

    But these are nothing to sneeze at. They are well on the way to making public life – especially economic life – impossible for many Catholics. If, for example, faithful Catholics cannot work as physicians or printers or photographers or bakers in the near future, red martyrdom may be a preferable alternative.

  • Ed

    I find this essay very accurate to where man is with secular liberalism, and I applaud Mr. Kalb’s understanding of the successes of this form of thought and process. I would like to offer a light critique of the overall premise; the comparative between secular liberalism and Catholicism, and in the end, Christianity.

    First, does Christianity expect to sweep through the world leaving a stable faith wherever it goes? Christians are always preening towards a time when we are all living in harmony. This hope is nothing but vanity. Humanity and weather have one real thing in
    common; it goes where the wind takes it. If America falls to Islam or Zumba what does that have to do with God’s plan? Where in Isaiah, Matthew or Revelation is America spared?

    Second, it is not Christianity that is stepping into the gap in Russia and China, it is
    humanity as God had created it. Christianity is the reflection of the good nature of man. Christianity is the result of God’s creation of a creature that is sentient in nature so it can acknowledge that foundational, behavioral trait that has provided humanity with its success as shepherd of the world; its monogamous, family structure that delineates
    authority and thus provides stability for the society. This is the essential element of God’s creative plan that takes mankind successfully forward in the service of God. This is that crucial element that tampers down thought, word and deed that attempts to destabilize the society and thus deform God’s plan. Christianity and other religions are but the philosophical outlay of God’s plan for mankind and we call it theology. In man’s ability to
    acknowledge – to be conscious of – those things that lead him along the path of life, he by nature, God’s nature, takes measure of his process. To sell Christianity though and not humanity is to put the cart in front of the horse, and to analyze humanity through
    Christianity only creates division. Christianity is in service to man, and man is in service to God.

    Secular liberalism is a deformity of man’s good nature, as God created it. It hopes to replace the authority of the family with a broader view of the society AS the family and thus a new authority is created that provides for that which Mr. Kalb notes; universal
    satisfaction. This is genetically impossible. Secular man, through his massive alignment of technology, is placing all of its bets on reaching a cohesion between the great diversity of man before his house of cards comes tumbling down. Well, as I said, humanity
    is like the weather, and a good stiff wind will surely knock the house down at
    some point, and man certainly knows how to blow hard.

  • Austin

    I think there will be greater polarization between geographic areas which have largely surrendered to secularism, childlessness, hedonism, and agnosticism and those geographic areas which have not. There is a big difference even now on college campus life between a real catholic college such as University of Dallas and Yale, with its sex week and so forth.

  • smokes

    Why do we call it “liberalism” or “secular humanism”? It’s ATHEISM.

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  • Jesse Powell TWRA

    I wrote an essay responding to Mr. Kalb’s article above. What I have noticed is that many of the social indicators have been surprisingly good since 1995 but it is true the political situation seems to be getting worse fast; particularly rising atheism and rising support for so called “gay marriage.” The core of Secular Liberalism is rejection of God; rejection of a transcendent moral order beyond human will. Secular Liberalism makes the mistake of thinking that human beings can invent any kind of social order they want ignoring the reality that human beings were made with a purpose in mind and that in particular female human beings were designed for a feminine purpose and male human beings were designed for a masculine purpose.

    For those interested in my response to the essay above:

    The Conflict between Conservative Behavior and Liberal Belief; a response to James Kalb