The Public Interest

The city of God in the city of man

Daniel J. Mahoney

Fall 2001

FOR centuries, the Roman Catholic church was the most self-conscious and determined critic of “the modern project.” It identified liberal democracy with the Enlightenment’s efforts to free mankind from any natural or supernatural restraints on the human will. In 1864, Pope Pius IX notoriously concluded his Syllabus of Errors with a condemnation of those who called on the church to make peace with “liberalism, progress, and modern civilization” and thus to ignore what the church considered the demonic inspiration of the quest for the “autonomous” human self. In recent decades, everything has changed. Today, the Syllabus is nothing but a historical curiosity.  A wide range of Catholic thinkers, including Pope John Paul II himself, have claimed to uncover the Christian origins of liberal democracy properly understood. A few years ago, the conservative Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, even suggested that the French revolutionaries, the violent initiators of the first ideological, anti-Christian revolution of modern times, did not appreciate the underlying Christian inspiration of their efforts to found a social order on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. 

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