The Long View: Earthly Powers

Some of John's central ideas about the Papacy are contained herein. The 18th and 19th centuries were a time of rampant nationalism in Europe, and the Pope was the head of the last institution that could effectively resist the nation-state. As the latter half of the nineteenth century built to a revolutionary crescendo that would reach its culmination in the Great War, Pius IX and Leo XIII filled this unlooked for role in their own characteristic ways.

Earthly Powers
The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the
French Revolution to the Great War

By Michael Burleigh

HarperCollins Publishers 2005 Harper Perennial 2007
529 Pages, US$16.95
ISBN 978-0-06-058094-0


The conventional narrative of the intellectual history of the modern West is that the 18th-century pioneers of European thought were won over to an agnostic version of the Enlightenment, which then spread throughout the 19th century to all levels of society. Religion was replaced by science and ideology. State-supported ecclesiastical institutions were replaced by secular ones, especially in the areas of education and social services. The result, in the 20th century, was a largely secular world, in which religious sentiment was residual. The politics of the Enlightenment in power was conducted according to what moderns imagined (however catastrophically) to be the dictates of reason.

This very entertaining book by Michael Burleigh, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society who has written extensively on the intellectual origins of Nazism, does not quite do an "everything you know is a lie" reversal of this story. He does argue that the progress of secularism has by no means moved only in one direction. The eclipse of traditional religious life, where that has occurred, has rarely been followed by a flowering of scientific rationalism. Rather, it has been a segue to "political religion," in the form either of Christianity reinterpreted in a nationalist sense or of politics invested with ultimate meaning.

The book takes the story from, roughly, the French Revolution to the First World War. (A second volume, Sacred Causes, covers the 20th century and later.) The tale of "political religion" in Earthly Powers follows the familiar inflections of 19th-century history: post-Napoleonic reaction; the spread of liberal nationalism; the revolutions of 1848, the appearance of the social-revolutionary Left; and on through the darkening of the European political horizon following the Franco-Prussian War. By this account, the spiritual history of the West was worked out in the interconnected but distinct systems of France, Germany and Britain (there is also some attention to the peculiar cases of Russia and Poland). The author does not attempt a detailed treatment of religion in the United States, but America comes into the story nonetheless, largely through the vibrant enterprise of transatlantic anglophone evangelicalism, but also in part through the influence of American Catholicism on the Vatican. The Catholic Church, in fact, is among the few links common to all these stories, to some extent even with increasingly mad Russia. It has been said (though not by the author) that the template for all claims of political liberty in the West was the defiance by the popes in the 11th century of the Holy Roman Empire in the Investiture Controversy. In this reviewer's opinion, at least, one could recast the history in Earthly Powers as the story of how the somnolent, post-baroque papacy was again dragged, kicking and screaming, into the role of chief defender of the human spirit against the pretensions of politics.


* * *

By the end of the 18th century, the decentralizing facet of the Reformation had succeeded everywhere. Except for a few sects and revivalist movements, the institutional face of Christianity was the national church. Such institutions supported the monarch (in a few cases, the republic commonwealth) and preached social doctrines as little disruptive as possible of a presumably perennial status quo. The supranational character of Christianity was preserved in theory in Catholic ecclesiology, but in practice the universal Roman church was divided among dioceses subservient to the national monarchies. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was in fact a great reformer when he was not urging Mozart to use fewer notes. He nationalized the property of monasteries that did not provide medical or educational services, and generally turned the Catholic Church in his wide domains into a branch of the civil service. In France, the already ancient tradition of "Gallican" semi-independence simply intensified during this period. At ground level, French priests were men of some education, as had also been the case in the Church of England since Stuart times. They often viewed themselves as civilizing agents in the profounder parts of France Profound. The higher clergy, again in France as in England, for the most part viewed Christianity benignly, but ordinarily their attention was elsewhere.

The papacy on the eve of modernity was the executive of a rather derelict central Italian principality. Its ancient religious dignities did little to raise its modest diplomatic profile. The Habsburgs had a right to veto uncongenial candidates to the Throne of Saint Peter (a right they kept until the beginning of the 20th century). The pope's encyclicals could not be published in France without the royal permission. Everywhere the appointment of bishops was largely within the control of secular governments. Generally, the pope's ability to sway political events, and even the development of doctrine, was approaching the nadir of a centuries-long decline. The one Catholic institution that had revived something of the universal profile of the High Medieval church, the Society of Jesus, was (temporarily) suppressed by the popes themselves in 1773, largely in response to complaints from the Spanish and Portuguese governments about Jesuit interference with Iberian mistreatment of the South American Indians.

More broadly, long before the French Revolution, it was plain that the political actor in European civilization for the next few generations would be the nation state. The irony was that the royal dynasties had at first imagined they would benefit from this. In fact, the "throne" part of the ancient alliance of throne-and-altar tended to dissolve into popular nationalism. "Secularization" in the 19th century usually meant the search of the religion part for a new partner.

France was unusual in that it sometimes went beyond secularization to attempt "laicization," a conscious and ideologically motivated effort to drive religion from public life. Famously, an episode of the French Revolution was the only time until the Bolshevik Revolution in which a European government tried to extirpate Christianity itself. However, the author makes the novel point that the buildup to that enterprise was motivated part by the lingering effects of Jansenism, a school of thought within Catholicism with a Calvinist take on predestination. For the purposes of this story, its chief peculiarity was to make God as implacable as physics but not as easy to understand. It was rigorist and puritanical in morals and disparaging of the hierarchy, but tinged with pentecostalism and even millenarianism. Jansenism was eventually declared a heresy, but any doctrine that could win the allegiance of minds on the order of Blaise Pascal was going to have some lingering effects. It persisted in the growing intellectual opposition to the old regime, where it made common cause with freemasonry. The constellation of opposition ideas was still more influenced by Rousseau's surmise that society cannot do without religion, but that society was (or should be) national rather than universal, and that the best religion was therefore a national religion.

The brief attempt to create a Deist "Republic of Virtue" in France discredited the idea of manufacturing a post-Christian national cult. If there was going to be a religion of France, it would have to be some form of Catholicism; from that principle, later French republicans drew the conclusion that there should be no religion, except as a most private matter. In Germany, however, Rousseau's endorsement of a national religion fused with the Lutheran tradition of the state church. It acquired real force from the early Romantic version of German nationalism. German Romanticism endorsed a universal ethic, but held that this must everywhere be incarnated in a colorful variety of national traditions. This was a key element of German liberal Protestantism. That strand of Protestantism was also keen on keeping up with the latest developments in philology (hence, in fact, the "Higher Criticism" of the Bible). It was also amenable to a Hegelian view of progress. History tended to be seen as the clarification of national Ideas.

In France and Germany and Britain, the churches after the Revolution experimented with support for the powers that be, when those powers were amenable to accepting their support, or forming adventurous alliances with the growing middle class, or with the new industrial working class, or both. These efforts had an audience: the respectable classes had drawn the conclusion that traditional religion was an invaluable bulwark against chaos. Except sometimes in France, the new appeal of religion was not that of pure reaction. There were movements in all the churches to reinterpret the Christian mission as in part a social gospel. Christian trade unions and workers' benevolent associations sprang up, with varying degrees of success.

Although everywhere thought was given to the evangelization of industrial workers, these efforts probably went furthest in Britain. The country was already in the midst of a Nonconformist and Dissenter popular revival when the period covered by this book began. The revival from the beginning had emphasized sobriety of life and improved public order. It soon fed into the reformist schemes of the new, market-friendly Liberalism, and later into campaigns for the betterment of the working class. After a period of confused distaste, the Church of England joined in. Indeed, the Anglican Establishment became a serious (though of course not vulgarly enthusiastic) student of the new social questions. The church developed a vital and imaginative evangelical wing. As the author points out, citing from the works of acute Victorian observers, it was never clear just how effective all this effort really was in reaching the genuinely immiserated industrial workers. However, it did lend a Christian tinge to English socialism that distinguished it from most of its European counterparts well into the 20th century.

In France the Church after 1848 tarnished what had been an improving image by lending its support, and tying its fortunes, to the venal and fundamentally unserious regime of the Second Empire. Since the Napoleonic settlement, the Church had been willing enough to accept the delegation from the state of responsibility for most education at the lower levels. (A point bewildering to an American reader: when the churches throughout this story complained of state oppression, they were often complaining in part about cuts in education subsidies paid from tax revenues, and even cuts in clerical salaries paid by the state. Similarly, when the churches sometimes declared against the separation of church and state, what they often meant in context were state programs to expropriate church-built schools, hospitals, and houses of worship.) Be that as it may, the education the French church provided was believed to have been found wanting in 1871, when Prussia defeated France. The Church absorbed much of the blame under the ensuing Third Republic. It did not help matters that the French Church had developed a reactionary monarchist streak that made it difficult for the Church to cooperate with republican France. Nonetheless, the Third Republic would, at first, take the church's grudging "yes" for an answer on the question of basic loyalty. However, the situation became more tense the more corrupt the Third Republic itself became. There came a point when the state seemed unwilling to tolerate even private religious schools, and shut down religious orders that manifestly were valuable public resources. Bishops could not be appointed without government approval, and the government was not approving.

The Dreyfus Affair may have extended the life of the Third Republic beyond its deserts, we are told: the catastrophic decision of conservative Catholic groups to support the fraud that sent Dreyfus to Devil's Island ensured that, when the fraud was exposed, there seemed to be no alternative to the incompetent laicist regime and its Mason-ridden army. (Yes, there are Masonic networks of influence, and in French history they have rarely made things better.)

The history of religion in Germany was divided along two parallel tracks: the project of liberal Protestantism to continue modernizing itself in order to stay relevant, and the effort by the ever more victorious Kingdom of Prussia to make the Catholic Church as irrelevant as possible. The German churches attempted to reach out to the new urban industrial society, but with perhaps more success on the Catholic side than on the Protestant. However, the liberal synthesis of the Higher Criticism and a theodicy of nationalism did find some favor in the new imperial government. Perhaps inverting the root meaning of "liberal," this synthesis in practice became a willingness to consecrate any political tendency that seemed historically successful. This willingness would have sorry consequences for German Protestantism in the 20th century.

Regarding the Catholic Church, the new German nationalism tended to share the French laicist view of 1871: the Church was responsible for weakening France. The Prussian victory of that year was celebrated in part as a victory of progressive Protestantism over Catholic obscurantism. In the famous Kulturkampf, Bismarck's government attempted to ensure that the first loyalty of all Germans would be to the empire rather than to a foreign religion. That was easier to do in Prussia than in the new empire as a whole, but Prussia was the bulk of the empire. Wherever possible, the state attempted to take control of Catholic institutions and civil associations, or to close those that could not be controlled. Priests and bishops went to jail. However, as the author points out, in this relatively civilized time religious repression was a matter for the courts and (often unenthusiastic) police, not for firing squads and concentration camps.

Returning to the resurrection of the papacy, we note again that it was forced into a new role by virtue of the kind of institution it was: the last transnational authority in the whole of the West. Governments, including sometimes traditionally Catholic governments, were making wider and wider claims to govern the souls and expropriate the stuff of their subjects. The subjects needed someone to appeal to over the heads of their governments, and the pope was elected. Even so, it took two generations for the popes to get a clue about what they should be doing. The Church had never had a particular animus against democracy or republicanism as political forms; the papacy in particular had never been happy with absolute monarchy. Still, the Holy Roman Empire had been shut down during the Revolutionary-Napoleonic emergency, and the same had very nearly happened to the Catholic Church. The papacy was stunned into prolonged political reaction. Despite warnings from Catholic reformers that the company of kings could be lethal, popes who could be induced to comment on social questions continued to say that they saw no reason why the world could not continue to be run by squires and parsons, with the Church receiving due support from its royal overlords.

In the second half of the 19th century, the popes lost control of the papal states to the House of Savoy. The temporal authority of the popes became confined to the diplomatic fiction of Vatican City. Nonetheless, in some ways this revolutionary era was the most stable in the history of the Church: there were just two papacies, those of Pius IX (1846 to 1878) and Leo XIII (1878 to 1903), during the whole period. It is common to contrast these as the Bad Reactionary Pope and the Good Liberal Pope, but the author makes clear that the story was more complicated than that.

Pius IX (Pio Nono, to his friends and detractors) was quick and generous with anathemas. As he grew older, his list of things to dislike about the modern world grew ever longer. The list grew to include most of the world's monarchs (Pius had been so ill-advised as to rely on Napoleon III as his principal secular patron). Nonetheless, though he notoriously declared it a heresy to hold that the Holy Father must conform himself to progress, he also noted in the same Syllabus of Errors that it is anathema to hold the state to be the source and definer of political rights. For that matter, even his opposition to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy had a sort of grumpy integrity. The new kingdom, based in the north of the country, was much unloved, and contemporaries as well as historians have noted that the extension of its dominions to the south of Italy had something of a colonial character.

Conversely, it is clear that Leo XIII was the pope who finally got the memo about the real merits and demerits of the modern world. His encyclicals make clear the compatibility, if not the necessity, of democratic political institutions with Catholic doctrine. He held up church-state relations in the United States as a model to the French. His social encyclicals also cast doubt on the adequacy of liberal economics, in the 19th-century sense of "liberal": any economic system existed for the benefit of the people who lived under it, so that a purely laissez faire system that tolerated persistent mass destitution was a violation of natural rights. Still, even sunny Leo XIII did not quite grasp the full implications of his own ideas. He ended the Kulturkampf with Bismarck by diplomacy, to the great annoyance of the Catholic parties in Germany; they had been conducting a brave and not whole unsuccessful resistance by democratic means. He attempted the same with the Third Republic, with less success. He may have succeeded only in alienating the Catholic establishment there, which of course considered itself much more Catholic than any pope.

All these threads, including the bizarre decline of Russia from Orthodox revival to liberation theology to nihilism, were only prologue to the operatically apocalyptic climax of the First World War. In France, oddly enough, the war brought a kind of cultural peace. Many French Catholics might loathe the Third Republic, but they loved France. Religious people and institutions gave an account of themselves in the war that softened the antagonism of Left and Right. In Germany and England, the religious establishments embraced the causes of their respective regimes with great eagerness. This enthusiasm in part took the form of social work for the troops and medical care for the wounded, much of it under fire; this won the churches great credit, at the time and since. However, the churches identified the will of God with the political projects of their states. On both sides, religion therefore suffered in the disillusion that followed the war.

Again, the position of the papacy was most interesting. Benedict XV had had the misfortune to be elected in September 1914. From the first, he tried to negotiate a peace based on the status quo ante, or at least as ante as he could get. Eventually, he wound up referring peace feelers to President Wilson, whose views on ending the war were not at first very different. Meanwhile, he tried to keep Italy out of the war because (a) Italy would probably lose, creating a revolutionary situation in the aftermath, or (b) the slithersome House of Savoy would be in the winning coalition, thereby complicating future negotiations about the regularization of the status of the Vatican. These were acute surmises.

Again, the author has written a second volume that takes the story of the relationship of religion and politics in the West through the 20th century. Eventually, a third volume will have to be written, to bring the story to a close with the end of modernity in the 21st.

Books on Related Topics

Holy Madness

The Flame is Green

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site