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June 23, 2014

Modern liberal democracy and liberal notions of human rights are widely seen as the highest form of political organization and the clearest sign of moral progress of humanity. But this system of individual autonomy only works to the extent that there is overwhelming respect for legitimate authority and the common good.

When people ambush and shoot police officers because they are symbols of authority, it strikes at the very heart of the system. To the extent that such attacks become more than extreme rarities, the question is raised about whether society can tolerate an obsession with individual autonomy that fails to pay heed to the common good.

It is more than the gunning down of police officers that reflects an idolization of personal freedom. An economic system that allows, indeed encourages, the accumulation of vast amounts of private wealth while significant numbers of people live in destitution begs for the dispossessed to rise up and claim their share of society's riches. A society which uses up the resources of the earth to provide for the desires of today's population, leaving the environment barren for future generations has lost its moral authority to use those resources.

Assaults on the common good can be tolerated to a certain extent. However, the obsession with individual autonomy is a like a drug, demanding ever-greater fixes in order to sustain itself. If indeed that obsession does spiral out of control and respect for the common good continues to diminish, it is only a matter of time before a massive crisis ensues that brings the whole system collapsing like a house of cards.

Picking up the pieces will not be the task of a population that is by that point hopelessly irresponsible, but will instead fall to the most potent strong-armed dictator who rises above the chaos. This is an eventuality no one relishes.

Western societies have created a system of individual rights that has little connection to an understanding of the human person who is intrinsically oriented to God and to the common good. This is true in our legal system, but even more importantly it is true in the collective consciousness.

Too often, people see legitimate authority, moral law and civil law as barriers to human happiness rather than as frameworks which enable the nurturing of a community of freedom and harmony.

Our situation is not hopeless. There remains a huge residue in the popular will that respects morality, the common good and legitimate authority. However, if our system of human rights is not rooted more explicitly in moral law and our economic system is not more clearly oriented to the common good, Western societies are headed for difficult times. The system of democracy itself may be seriously threatened.