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The Christian Idea of the Person: The Western Roots of Liberty

Brian Douglass
It has become quite popular to declare that our culture is post-Christian. The implication is that

we have moved beyond a more backwards and primitive time marked by Christian Civilization. While

there have been numerous references to the coming Dark Ages brought about by the destruction of

Western Culture, the threat we face is not comparable to that of the barbarians converted to civilization

by the Romans and then baptized through the work of the Apostles and their successors. To call the

present situation barbaric would be an insult to the Visigoths. We face an apostate culture. It has known

Christ and it has rejected Him. The implications of this realization are rather chilling, but it gives us a

starting point from which to rebuild.

One of the more insidious tactics of this new post-Christian culture is to adopt terms that sound

suspiciously like those used under the old order, while giving them a different meaning. In The

Screwtape Letters, the demons note that “[e]verything has to be twisted before it's any use to us.”1 As

Paul reminds us, “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but. . . against the rulers of the world of

this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”2 One of these terms that has been

twisted is “liberty.” This word is central to our entire Western experience and deeply rooted in our

nature as persons. However, as will be shown below, a slight twist of this term has had disastrous


In the beginning, God created man to love him and because of his love for us.3 God's love is so

immense that the Scriptures record “[e]ye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of

man, what things God has prepared for those who love him.”4 However, man is not forced to accept

these gifts, even though it is the end for which we were created.

As Ecclesiasticus states, “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his

own counsel.”5 In the Summa, Aquinas references this passage in his discussion of free will. As further

evidence of free will, he notes that if it were “otherwise, counsels, exhortations, commands,

prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain.”6

It is in this freedom of will that liberty has its root. Humans, because of our unique position as

creatures of the world and spiritual beings with souls, possess liberty. As Aquinas noted, rocks do not,

that is why God does not have need to give them Commandments.7 In the book of Genesis, we also see

the other side of the coin, we are to rule over all of creation as wise stewards.8 For, although we are

given the Earth as our domain, it is still God's creation. Psalm 23 opens with “The earth is the Lord's

and the fullness thereof: the world, and all they that dwell therein.”9

Not only are our souls judged on how we followed God's law in our spiritual life, but we also

are responsible for our use of our liberty in relations with other people, as well as non-human creation.

Liberty brings with it responsibility. This calls to mind Jesus’ parable of the Talents where the master

rewards those who used his property wisely and condemns the man who refuses to make good use of

what he was given.10 The obligations that follow from liberty are forgotten to such an extent today that

the word liberty has become synonymous with license. This divorce between liberty and obligation has

proved to be very detrimental to society.

Liberty, in the Western Tradition is closely tied to the concept of person. The conception of

person, as we know it, is a product of divine revelation through Christ. It was foreign to the pagan

Greeks. Plato theorized a soul which was eternal and the source of our identity, but returned to a new

body after death, thus having pre-existing knowledge.11 Aristotle proposed a soul-body unity, where

part of the identity was in the body and part was in the soul, creating a sense of individuality as the

body and soul together constitute a whole, rather than placing so much focus on the soul (with

interchangeable bodies) as Plato does.12 However, neither approaches the Christian understanding,

which the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church describes as “the human being is

a person, not just an individual.”13 In Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII declared that the “term

‘person’” indicates “a nature endowed with intelligence and free will.”14 It is clear from this definition

of the human person, that it is the person who has liberty. It is also clear that the drive for exclusively

materialistic philosophies is entirely foreign to the traditional Western view of man.

The next implication to be examined follows from the nature of the human person and the

obligations of liberty: the origin of community. In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II teaches that

“[b]eing a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in a relationship, in

relation to the other ‘I.’”15 As Aristotle had claimed, man was a social creature.16 This natural

community serves as a “prelude to the definitive self-revelation of the Triune God: a living unity in the

communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”17 Man is born into a community, the family; this is a

fact of life impossible to escape by our very biology.

In the Western Tradition, each of us is a person having liberty and membership in a community

by our very nature as human beings. From these two facts can be built both a solid explanation of a

properly ordered society, as well as an explanation for the numerous failures that lead to the “valley of

tears” which we see around us today.18

It is impossible to say that liberty can be expressed through total and complete isolation and

removal from community, for God has said that “[i]t is not good that the man should be alone.”19 In

addition to the conception of “person,” the West owes to Christianity another debt, that of the

realization that all men are brothers and thus united in community. The Hebrews recognized the

community of fellow Hebrews, as well as to those aliens who lived with them.20 However, as Jesus

noted in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, there were still problems with calling another man one’s

neighbor, let alone brother.21 It was the teaching of the Church which stressed that we are Christ’s

brothers22 and that God is our Father.23 Further, as Christians, we are united into the Body of Christ;

thus, we are not simply united to the living around us, but also to the dead through the Communion of

Saints, as stated in the Creed.24

This common bond of brotherhood with all mankind leads Aquians to state that “[l]ife in society

takes on all its significance when it is based on civil friendship and on fraternity.”25 The Catechism

notes that the Fourth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”) “illuminates other relationships
in society.”26 We see “in every human person, a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called ‘our

Father’. . . [O]ur relationships with our neighbors are recognized as personal in character. The neighbor

is not a "unit" in the human collective; he is ‘someone’ who by his known origins deserves particular

attention and respect.”27

Thus, communities are made up of persons, each with their intrinsic value and liberty, creatures

created by and loved by God, our Father. The Catechism makes it clear that relations cannot simply

stop at simply “guaranteeing rights and fulfilling duties such as honoring contracts.”28 The proper

nature of relations between men is not this legalistic type of relationship, but rather that of a “natural

good will in keeping with the dignity of human persons concerned for justice and fraternity.”29 This is

a call to base our relations on a standard of love and friendship, one that recognizes the common bond

between men. As the Compendium of Social Doctrine notes, this concept of “civil friendship” is “the

most genuine actualization of the principle of fraternity, which is inseparable from that of freedom and


From this universal realization of human liberty, the nature of person-hood, and the family of

man that is the community, we can see the existence of a universal, moral law: Natural Law. This law is

God's Law, written on man's heart in such a way that “not even ingrained wickedness can erase it.”31 It

is upon this universal law that all civil laws must be based.32 The denial of the universality of this law

is a denial of the universal community of mankind and makes it impossible to “build a true and lasting

communion with others.”33 When “a correspondence between truth and good is lacking,” society

suffers.34 Liberty is rooted in our universal nature as persons, so our recognition of this fact must be

universal. Otherwise, liberty cannot last. Relativism dooms a community to failure because of its denial

of the reality of the universality of man's worth and sets man up as “the sole measure of realities and of

truth,”35 echoing the tempting words of Satan in the Garden of Eden “you shall be as Gods, knowing

good and evil.”36 Such men, “no longer [take] as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his
own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed,

his selfish interest and whim.”37 This is a recipe for disaster.

Perhaps the best example of the collapse of society following the denial of truth and universal

law can be seen in the “culture of death,” specifically centered around abortion. As a result of

relativism and license being mistaken for liberty, the Compendium's warning that “[f]reedom

mysteriously tends to betray the openness to truth and human goodness, and too often it prefers evil and

being selfishly closed off.”38 This is a perfect depiction of the contraceptive mentality that pervades

modern culture. As Pope Paul VI prophetically warned in Humanae Vitae, the use of contraceptives

leads inescapably to a growth in both immorality and in selfishness, particularly in disrespect towards

women.39 This mentality is not simply linked to playing God through a selfish perversion of God's

Law, but it also involves playing God on an even greater level, by manipulating, unlawfully, the

creation of a human person.40

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II sets out the plan of battle against this culture of death.

He notes that the roots of the culture of death lie in “a notion of freedom41 which exalts the isolated

individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of

them.”42 This is a freedom “which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak,

who have no choice but to submit.”43 In allowing the weak to be excluded, as if they were non-

persons, “it is force which becomes the criterion for choice and action in interpersonal relations and in

social life. But this is the exact opposite of what a State ruled by law…historically intended to


The Pope continues citing God's question to Cain: “Where is Abel your brother?” to which Cain

replied “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”45 John Paul II affirms that “every man is his

‘brother's keeper,’ because God entrusts us to one another.”46 It is through “this entrusting that God

gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension.”47 True
freedom is “at the service of the person and of his fulfillment through the gift of self and openness to

others.”48 However, the distorted, false freedom of the culture of death is “made absolute in an

individualistic way” and “is emptied of its original content, and its very meaning and dignity are


The culture of death has lead to numerous repercussions in the world. In addition to the ills that

Paul VI warned about in Humanae Vitae, we now see that the contraceptive mentality has led to a

demographic disaster that is looming over most of the developing world. Most of Europe is in

population freefall with birthrates well below replacement values.50 In countries marked by extensive

welfare programs, the consequences of aging populations with fewer young people to replace them is a

recipe for running out of money. While countries turn to immigration from third-world countries to

solve this problem, the clash of cultures that frequently results can be deadly.51

In the developing world, we see growing populations, the result of improving economic and

medical conditions.52 However, there are those who call for population control in developing nations in

order to help them improve. These schemes frequently include mandates for legal abortion and

contraceptive propaganda as part of the scheme to reduce population growth.53 The sad irony of these

policies, which are gaining world-wide support, is that they are programs which destroy liberty and

seek to impose a foreign mindset that ignores human dignity on people who can be easily manipulated,

all the while the programs' supporters decry the injustice of traditional moral order and religions.54 It is

also amazing to note that many of the supporters of population control recognize that perhaps the

greatest influence in fertility is decline of child mortality, not abortion policies or contraceptives.55

Perhaps the worst result of this hysteria is that the concern over eliminating population growth

is simply making matters worse. Population growth is a result of economic growth. Otherwise, children

would starve and population would stagnate. Time and again, studies have shown that the best way to
encourage development is to encourage and defend liberty.56 The solution is not murder, it is instead a

defense of the traditional Western view of liberty and the dignity of persons.

This is why Pope Benedict XVI notes, in Caritas in Veritate, that “[t]he truth of development

consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true

development.”57 Later he notes that “[o]penness to life is at the centre of true development” and that

“when a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the

necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good.”58 The theme of his letter, truth and love,

combine to show “us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to

true development.”59 It is only through Natural Law, a reflection of man's universal nature as a person

endowed with liberty that we can see true development of the whole man. This cannot be done without

consideration of man as body and soul, a person, and without God.60 Thus, Christ, is at the center of

true human development. Materialism, be it individualism or collectivism, as is found in Socialism, has

no hope of allowing man to reach his true potential.61 It is antithetical to true liberty.

The realm in which liberty is perhaps discussed the most today is in relation to government. The

Pledge of Allegiance concludes with the phrase “liberty and justice for all.” The Statue of Liberty is

one of the best-known symbols of the United States. And yet, government, through the creation of laws

allowing the perpetuation of the culture of death, shows itself to often be the greatest enemy of liberty.

When discussing the political community, the Compendium of Social Doctrine notes that a

“community has solid foundations when it tends toward the integral promotion of the person and of the

common good. In such cases, law is defined, respected and lived according to the manner of solidarity

and dedication towards one's neighbour.”62 It further states that the “Christian vision of political

society places paramount importance on the value of community, both as a model for organizing life in

society and as a style of everyday living.”63 Political life cannot simply be concerned with the material
order, but must also consider the moral and religious order which is part of the nature of a person, for it

is the human person which is “the subject and the goal of all social institutions.”64

Recognizing that political society is composed of a number of societies of different sizes and

scales, from the family to global relationships, the Church teaches that in addition to this adherence to

the common good, rooted in respect for the full human person, the other central principle to proper

order in political society is subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that “it is an injustice and at the

same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what

lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”65 Subsidiary defends liberty against attacks from higher

orders in society.

Some of the most serious attacks in violation of subsidiarity are those against the family. These

attacks originate from various quarters. One of the most basic is the assault on a parent’s duty to

educate their children in virtue and not just in academics.66 Cases have recently occurred in Germany,

which holds it is the State's duty to educate the child, over objections to mandatory State education.67

So far, the European Courts have ruled that the State’s duty overrides that of the parent.68 This seems a

clear violation of subsidiarity, even though that principle is mentioned several times in the Treaty of


Another example of the attack on the family by higher levels of society is the attack on property.

Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, makes it clear that ownership of property is something inherent to man's

nature as a person.70 It is property, gained through man's work, which allows him to provide for his

family.71 The injustices of Socialism are clearly seen in this light. The assault on property is an assault

on the family. It removes the means of security and replaces it with a dependence on the State, or some

other class (as is the case with slavery).

Hilaire Belloc warned of an impending condition of society, which he called the “Servile State.”

This he defined as a legally dictated return to slavery as “the free man can refuse his labour and use that
refusal as an instrument wherewith to bargain; while the slave has no such instrument or power to

bargain at all, but is dependent for his well being upon the custom of society, backed by the regulation

of such of its laws as may protect and guarantee the slave.”72 At present, we see numerous policies of

income redistribution being mandated through force of law. Data from the 2007 tax year shows that the

top 50 percent of American taxpayers now pay over 97 percent of income tax.73 The Tax Policy Center

recently stated that 47 percent of American households will pay no federal income tax for 2009.74 One

group, “net tax payers,” provides the support, to an increasing degree, for another group, “net tax

receivers.” As the number of “net tax receivers” heads past 50 percent, the Servile State's requirements

are met. The Servile State not only is an offense against the dignity of man and liberty, but it is an

assault on the family by the government, which seeks to remove means of independent sustenance.

Today, society has lost sight of the real meaning of liberty. Instead of seeing it as a gift that

brings responsibility, many see it as the ability to gain immediate satisfaction of our whims with no

consequences. Like the Grand Inquisitor in the parable told in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers

Karamazov, the modern mindset would rather that Jesus had turned the stones into loaves and fed us,

meeting our material needs.75 This is simply license. It is not true liberty. This false liberty leads to

disorder, death, and the present collapse of civilization that we see around us. The path back to sanity

and a properly ordered society is to once again embrace the true meaning of liberty. This of course

implies acceptance of the traditional Western conception of person and all that this entails. For, as Pope

Benedict reminds us, true development must look to the whole of man: material and spiritual, thus it

must be centered on Christ.76


1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 118.
2. Ephesians 6:12 Douay-Rheims.
3. The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechesism, Official Revised Edition, No. 2, (New York: Catholic
Book Publishing Corp., 1969), 9.
4. I Corinthians 2:9 Douay-Rheims.
5. Ecclesiasticus 15:14 Douay-Rheims.
6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa, 1a, q. 83 a 1.
7. Ibid.
8. Genesis 1:26 Douay-Rheims.
9. Psalm 23:1 Douay-Rheims.
10. Matthew 25:14-30 Douay-Rheims.
11. Plato, Meno, 85c, 87.
12. Christopher Shields, “Hylomorphic Soul-Body Relations: Materialism, Dualism, Sui Generis?,”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philospohy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-psychology/#3.
13. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic
Church (Washington: USCCB Publishing, 2005), #391.
14. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 259.
15. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 7: AAS 80 (1988), 1664.
16. Aristotle, Politics 1252 b30-1253 a3.
17. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 7.
18. Hugh Henry, “Salve Regina.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. (New York: Robert Appleton
Company, 1912), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13409a.htm.
19. Genesis 2:18 Douay-Rheims.
20. Exodus 22:21 Douay-Rheims.
21. Luke 10: 25-37 Douay-Rheims.
22. Hebrews 2:11,17 Douay-Rheims.
23. Matthew 6:9-13 Douay-Rheims.
24. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 Douay-Rheims.
25. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sententiae Octavi Libri Ethicorum, VIII, lect. 1: Ed. Leon. 47, 443, cited in
Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, 390.
26. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #2212.
27. Ibid.
28. Catechism, #2213.
29. Ibid.
30. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 390.
31. St. Augustine, The Confessions, Mineola, NY: Dover (2002), 24.
32. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 142.
33. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 142.
34. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 142.
35. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 142.
36. Genesis 3:5 Douay-Rheims.
37. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 19.
38. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 143.
39. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 17: AAS 60 (1968), 493-494.
40. Ibid.
41. The Latin text reads “libertas.”
42. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 19: AAS 87 (1995), 421-422.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid.
45. Genesis 4:9 Douay-Rheims.
46. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 19.
47. Ibid.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid.
50. Robert J. Samuelson, “The End of Europe,” The Washington Post, 15 June 2005,
51. “Official Admission: Iraq War Provoked 7/7,” Mail Online, 3 April 2006,
52. Murray Rothbard, Making Economic Sense, http://mises.org/econsense/ch41.asp.
53. Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (Penguin: New York, 2008), 188;
Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Balantine, 1970), 165-6.
54. Sachs, 190.
55. Sachs, 164.
56. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, #447; Rothbard; Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 363.
57. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 18,
58. Ibid., 28.
59. Ibid.
60. Ibid.
61. Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 118,
62. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 391.
63. Ibid, 392.
64. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 25: AAS 58 (1966),
65. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 186.
66. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223.
67. Peter J. Smith, “European Human Rights Court Rules State May Deny Parents Right to Home
School Their Children,” Life Site News, 27 September 2006,
68. Ibid.
69. Treaty of Maastricht, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/en/treaties/dat/12002E/pdf/12002E_EN.pdf.
70. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 6-9,
71. Ibid., 6-7.
72. Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London: T.N. Foulis, 1912), p. 17.
73. Gerald Prante, “Summary of Latest Federal Individual Income Tax Data,” The Tax Foundation,
74. Jeanne Sahdadi, “47% Will Pay No Federal Income Tax,” CNNMoney, 3 Oct. 2009.
75. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky, (New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 246-64.
76. Benedict XVI, 18.