To effect a confusion of ideas is an old scheme of the devil. Not to understand clearly and precisely is generally the source of intellectual error. In time of schism and heresy, to cloud and distort the proper sense of words is a fruitful artifice of Satan, and it is as easy to lay snares for the intellectually proud as for the innocent. Every heresy in the Church bears testimony to Satan's success in deceiving the human intellect by obscuring and perverting the meaning of words. Arianism was a battle of words and owed its long continued success to its verbal chicanery. Pelagianism and Jansenism showed the same characteristic, and today Liberalism is as cunning and obscure as any of its heretical predecessors.
For some, Liberalism consists in certain political forms; for others, in a certain tolerant and generous spirit opposed to despotism and tyranny; for others again it means simply civil equality; for many it becomes a vague and uncertain sentiment which shapes itself into opposition to all arbitrary government. Although already defined it will not be amiss to define Liberalism again.
In the first place no political form of any kind whatsoever, whether democratic or popular, is of itself [ex se] Liberalism. Forms are mere forms and nothing more. Forms of government do not constitute their essence. Their forms are but their accidents. Their essence consists in the civil authority by virtue of which they govern, whether that authority be in form republican, democratic, aristocratic, monarchical; it may be an elective, hereditary, mixed or absolute monarch. These various forms of themselves have nothing to do with Liberalism. Any one of the may be perfectly and integrally Catholic. If they accept beyond their own sovereignty the sovereignty of God, if they confess that they derive their authority from Him, if they submit themselves to the inviolable rule of the Christian law; if they hold for indisputable in their parliaments all that is defined by this law; if they acknowledge as the basis of public right the supreme morality of the Church and her absolute right in all things within her own competency, they are truly Catholic governments, whatever be their form; and the most exacting Ultramontanism cannot reproach them.
History offers the repeated example of republican powers which have been fervently Catholic. Such was the aristocratic republic of Venice, such the merchant republic of Genoa, such in our day are certain Swiss Cantons; as examples of mixed monarchies truly Catholic, that of Catalognia and Aragon [the most democratic and at the same time the most Catholic of the Middle Ages], the ancient monarchy of Castile up to the advent of the House of Austria, the elective monarchy of Poland up to the time of the iniquitous dismemberment of that most religious realm. To believe that monarchies are of themselves [ex se] more religious than republics is an ignorant prejudice. The most scandalous example of persecution against Catholicity in modern time, have been given by monarchies, for instance by Russia and by Prussia.
A Government, whatever be its form, is Catholic, if its constitution, its legislation and its politics, are based on Catholic principles; it is Liberal if it bases its constitution, its legislation and its politics on rationalistic principles. It is not the act of legislation-----by the king in a monarchy, by the people in a republic or by both in a mixed form of government-----which constitutes the essential nature of its legislation or of its constitution. What constitutes this is whether it does or does not carry with it the immutable seal of the Faith, and whether it be or be not conformable with what the Christian law imposes upon States as well as individuals. Just as amongst individuals, a king in his purple, a noble with his escutcheon or a workman in his overalls can be truly Catholic, so States can be Catholic, whatever be the place assigned them in the scale of governmental forms. In consequence the fact of being Liberal or anti-Liberal has nothing whatever to do with the horror which every one ought to entertain for despotism and tyranny, nor with the desire of civil equality between all citizens; much less with the spirit of toleration and of generosity, which, in their proper acceptation, are Christian virtues. And yet all this in the language of certain people and certain journals is called Liberalism. Here we have an instance of a thing which has the appearance of Liberalism and which in reality is not Liberalism at all.
On the other hand there exists a thing which is really Liberalism, and yet has not the appearance of Liberalism. Let us suppose an absolute monarchy like that of Russia, or of Turkey, or better still one of the conservative governments of our times, the most conservative imaginable; let us suppose that the constitution and the legislation of this monarchy or of this government is based upon the principle of the absolute and free will of the king or upon the equally unrestricted will of the conservative majority, in place of being based on the principles of Catholic right, on the indestructibility of the Faith, or upon a rigorous regard of the rights of the Church; then this monarchy and this conservative government would be thoroughly Liberal and anti-Catholic. Whether the freethinker be a monarch with his responsible ministry, or a responsible minister with his legislative corps, as far as consequences are concerned, it is absolutely the same thing. In both cases their political conduct is in the direction of free thought and therefore it is Liberal. Whether or not it be the policy of such a government to place restraints upon the freedom of the press; whether, no matter under what pretext, it grinds its subjects, and rules with a rod of iron, a country so governed though it will not be free, will without doubt be liberal. Such were the ancient Asiatic monarchies, such are many of our modern monarchies, such was the government of Bismarck in Germany; such is the monarchy of Spain, whose constitution declares the king inviolable but not God.
Here then we have something which without seeming to resemble Liberalism is really Liberalism, the more subtle and dangerous precisely because it has not the appearance of the evil it is.
We see then what care must be used in treating questions of this kind. It is of great importance above all that the terms of the discussion be carefully defined and that equivocations be studiously avoided which would favor error more than the truth.