The Long View 2005-12-22: Europe and Its Discontents

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

In this blog post, John Reilly points to a sublime essay written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the height of his powers: Europe and Its Discontents. Published in English by First Things magazine, Benedict analyzes the idea of Europe through a grand sweep of history, religion, and politics.

You should go and read it.

I was quite excited when Pope Benedict was elected, and this essay illustrates why. Benedict has an extraordinarily sharp mind, and he turned his mind towards the largest questions of our age. I think his diagnosis of the crisis of European civilization, broadly defined to include the European diaspora and those parts of the world brought fully into the European cultural orbit, holds up well eleven years later.

In particular, it seems to me that Benedict was right that the default position among the centrist coalitions that dominate politics in Europe and America and their cultural partners, that there is nothing of value in Western culture or history, is profoundly weak, and this weakness has enabled nationalist populists of various sorts to gain political power by simply not expressing disdain for their nations or their history.


I don't think these movements are really what Benedict had in mind:

What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.

I think Benedict was trying to build a more peaceful future by looking squarely at what was happening, but also by trying to build bridges between the powerful and those in Europe who felt marginalized. In his characteristic way, he sought this way through truth.

He frankly said this about immigration and low birthrates:

At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.
Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen—at least by some people—as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.

Eleven years ago, Benedict attempted to head off the political crises we have now by warning that low birthrates and high rates of immigration with the frank intent to replace the missing natives were bound to reach a tipping point that sparked a backlash. Would that we had listened.

Europe and Its Discontents


The essay "Europe and Its Discontents," by Pope Benedict XVI, appears in the January 2006 issue of First Things. (This is the piece’s first appearance in English; it was apparently published in Europe last year.) The pope tries to define Europe geographically and religiously; to diagnose the causes of the loss of morale in European societies; and to outline certain remedies.

Europe, for the pope’s purposes, includes the historically Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox regions of the Old World from the Atlantic to the Urals. To some extent, it also includes the Americas and the Russian East, but Benedict’s historical observations apply chiefly to Western Europe. He proposes the interesting hypothesis that the original self-consciousness of post-Roman Europe was an awareness of finality and mission provided by the model of history in the Book of Daniel. However, Benedict emphasizes that the notion of a distinction between church and state is very old in the West. As early as the fifth century, Pope Gelasius (492-496) cautioned that secular and spiritual authority were united only in Christ, not in any human institution. At the time of the Reformation, the traditional practice of close cooperation between church and state was challenged by the model of the state church, a model which later included provision for the toleration of free churches. The Enlightenment and the French revolution saw the beginning of laicism, under which religion was treated as a private matter and the public sphere was secularized as much as possible. The United States took a middle ground between these positions. The American stance is based on a combination of the religious disestablishment demanded by the free-church tradition with a national sense of universal religious mission. The result is not so far from the model of Pope Gelasius.

Throughout Europe, and also in the United States to a lesser degree, religion was in decline in the 20th century no matter the model that a given country favored. The same was true of socialism, which had briefly tried to replace religion or (in its democratic forms) supplement it. Thus, the terms in which Europeans had identified themselves for centuries lost their meaning. The loss of identity has apparently also meant the loss of the societal will to live. The symptoms are both demographic, in the form of below-replacement birthrates, and cultural, in the form of a multicultural refusal to embrace the European heritage or to pass it on.

The essay considers whether there is anything to be done about this situation. Benedict notes Oswald Spengler’s model of history, with its pattern of civilizations that grow, bloom, and decline toward death. The biological metaphors that Spengler used leave little room for hope. The pope is far more pleased with Toynbee’s model. It is not deterministic, and in fact it diagnoses the problem of modern Europe as a loss of social cohesion that arises from a loss of religious faith. Toynbee counseled that Western Civilization needed a new spiritual foundation. His Holiness, perhaps predictably, is of like mind.

The essay suggests three specific points of identity that Europe needs to regain:

Human rights must be acknowledged to have a transcendent origin;

Marriage and the family must conform to historical norms;

There must be respect for the sacred; even atheists can be expected to manifest ordinary respect for what other people hold to be holy.

Returning at the end to Toynbee, Benedict notes that the well-being of a civilization depends on its creative minorities. He says that Christians should look on themselves as just such a creative minority. They should help Europe to regain its identity and thereby allow Europe to serve all mankind.

* * *

Reading Benedict’s short essay, one is reminded of Henri Pirenne’s observation that it is much easier to write briefly of a large subject; narrow topics, in contrast, must be treated at length. Actually, it is probably a failing on my part that my summary is as long as it is. So, rather than compound the error by long commentary, let me just highlight a few points that touch on my own peculiar interests.

It is a mistake to see too much daylight between Spengler’s and Toynbee’s views on the future of the West. Both spoke in terms of a civilization-wide revival of religion. The chief difference is that Spengler said “is” and Toynbee said “ought.” Spengler’s prophecy of the Second Religiousness is not perhaps wholly complimentary to religion; certainly it does not understand of the malaise of modernity as a religious issue. Nonetheless, it does point to a substantial resacralization of thought and of public life. It might be said, in fact, to predict the return to religion that Toynbee advised.

Note that Toynbee is a problematical prophet, however. Sometimes he seemed to think of the future not in terms of a revival of historical Christianity, but of the appearance of a new universal faith that would be the underpinning of a future ecumenical society. This new faith would have a large Christian component, of course, and it might even be considered a development of Christianity. Inevitably, however, it would be a Christianity with quite a lot of syncretic elements, certainly with regard to expression and possibly in terms of dogma. What use would such a Christianity be for the reconsolidation of a European Europe, whose problem is precisely the forgetting of the historic forms that this new Christianity would replace?

This brings to the three essential points that Benedict says must enter into a European identity. The items he mentions are unobjectionable, indeed obviously necessary. The problem is that there is nothing particularly European about them. Inalienable rights; a human model of the family; reverence for reverence: what part of the world does not need these things? One could argue, of course, that having returned to essentials, Europe would again embrace that part of its heritage that was consistent with them, and then move on to a new golden age. One fears, however, that such a thin understanding of the European identity would prove a bit like John Rawls’s theory of ethics: an economy of principles often produces an economy of results.

Then there is the basic question of whether religion should be recommended for its practical benefits. Jesus did not come into the world to save Western Civilization; he came to save souls. Augustine provided a partial answer to this objection, of course: Christians have an obligation to work for the betterment of the human condition, and it is no great stretch to argue that the revival of Europe would make the world a better place. However, there is a difference between a situation in which Christians know what they have to do and the practice of commending Christian principles to the world at large for their curative properties.

As for applying Toynbee’s notion of “creative minority” to the Europe’s dwindling stock of Christians: that would be a fine thing, but one does not create a creative minority at will. There is nothing wrong with elites per se; Toynbee is perfectly correct when he says they make the world go round. As we know, however, anyone who wants to belong to an elite does not deserve to be a member. Elites are constituted by the work they do; at their best, they scarcely notice their own status. An elite that knows it’s an elite is more likely to be what Toynbee called a “dominant minority,” the ruing class of a civilization in its terminal phase.

Having made all these carping remarks, let me conclude by saying that there is actually very little in Benedict XVI’s essay that I disagree with. The points I have made here are more in the nature of qualifications than of criticisms. Like Spengler, I am of the “is” rather than “ought” disposition. The difference is that I have persuaded myself that the “is,” the most likely future, is not so bad as some people (notably Spengler himself) would have us believe. Of course, for an inevitable good outcome to happen, we must act as if the outcome depends solely on our own efforts, which in fact it does.

It is entirely possible that I have thought about all this too much.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-05-10: The Great Pruning

There is an element of truth in this:

Since I go to these services, I obviously approve of them, but I wonder whether the election of Benedict XVI might have the paradoxical effect of ending the traditionalist liturgical movement. Traditionalists have spent the last 35 years fighting official hostility to the old liturgy. Benedict is not going to call for a general return to the old Mass, but he is likely to take steps to ensure that it can be said (sung, really) wherever a priest and a congregation want it. Suppose there is perfect liberty in the matter, but still only a small percentage of Catholics is interested?

The number of Latin masses using the 1963 Missal probably went up a bit after Summorum Pontificum, but not much. There just isn't much of a market right now. 

The Great Pruning


An otherwise unalarming item in today's New York Times, about blood-doping among athletes, has this remarkable aside:

Dr. Ann Reed, chairwoman of rheumatology research at the Mayo Clinic, who uses sensitive DNA tests to look for chimerism, finds that about 50 to 70 percent of healthy people are chimeras. The more scientists look for chimerism, the more they find it. It seemed not to exist in the past, she said, because no one was explicitly looking for small amounts of foreign cells in people's bodies.

Most of us are chimeras? That explains so, so much.

* * *

Readers will recall that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the favored candidate for pope of the Spengler at Asia Times. Not content merely to enjoy this papacy, however, Spengler is now favoring us with reflections on the true difficulties that Benedict XVI faces. Consider Spengler's latest column, The pope, the musicians and the Jews:

In order to raise the Catholic Church up out of the ruins of European secularism, Benedict looks backward to the biblical background of Christianity as well as to the high culture of the Christian West. In this respect, he may be one of the most innovative popes in history, for he must break with ancient church tradition to do this. Benedict is one of the most cultivated men alive, with a mind that no surviving school could have trained. The trouble is that little is left in Europe, either of high culture or of the Jews. Perhaps he sees his mission under the sign of St Benedict, as a preserver in a dark age.

I suppose that is one way to look at it. Another is that history is starting to catch up with the conservative future of Hesse's Glass Bead Game. These passages, about the world after modernity, express the spirit of Benedict's program:

The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...

[I]t is also supported by what has long since become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.

Remember now: we already know the future, but we must try to look surprised when it happens.

* * *

On a related somewhat matter: there was a big party for time-travelers over the weekend at MIT. The party was fine, by this account, but it is not certain that any time-travelers actually attended. Various theories were proposed to explain their apparent nonattendance, of which my favorite is this:

4. Time travel is possible, even easy, and there's only one universe. According to "Niven's Law," the only stable configuration in such a universe is a history in which time travel is never invented. So time travelers keep changing things at will until by chance they do something that prevents time travel from being invented every time it might have been. The practical result from our viewpoint would be that every time a researcher was on the verge of building a time machine, that researcher would slip on a banana peel and suffer a fatal injury, or a mega-asteroid would destroy all life on that planet, or the like. Professor Mallett, be careful!

Yes, but if Doctor Who attended, are you sure you would recognize his current incarnation?

* * *

Speaking of English stuff, I recently read Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday, which deals with the adventures of a London neurosurgeon on the day of the big anti-war march in 2003. The novel seems to be a bit like the elephant described by the blind men, since every review focuses on different things. My review is the only one I know of to mention Monty Python. However, perhaps I should have paid more attention to the chronic dread of ordinary criminality that is one of the themes of the book. That is not an omission that Mark Steyn makes in his assessment of why the Tories did so poorly in last week's election. He offers these observations about a naturally Tory constituency that voted for the Liberal Democrats:

In Henley-in-Arden, north of Stratford, I parked near the surgery and made my way to the high street via a footpath lined with houses and offices. All had bars on the windows and signs warning that CCTV was in operation. Henley's a pretty town with a charming medieval high street - if you take your tourist snaps in long shot. The close-ups tell a different story...That's post-socialist Britain: materially prosperous, but civically impoverished; wealthy villages and upscale suburbs full of frustrated and impotent citizens.

Except with regard to the immigration issue, this sense of the wheels falling off has become rare in the US: the Giuliani Era ended it. However, Steyn also has remarks of relevance to the US:

[E]conomic conservatism isn't enough for a conservative party. It may have been in the late Seventies when nothing worked and everyone was on strike. But, though it pains a low-tax nut like me, my sense of modern Britain is that it doesn't think of itself as over-taxed.

For the most part, Americans don't view themselves as overtaxed, either; the big exception is local property taxes. The Republicans have been doing well because they have had a near monopoly on values issues for years. This situation isn't going to last, however. The Democratic Party is visibly moving to concede the culture wars (abortion will go first; the gay thing will follow). When that happens, the new Republican indifference to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles will leave them with nothing to say to the public.

* * *

There is mayoral election here in Jersey City today, by the way. I voted after the polls had been open for two hours. I was number 18. That's better than the School Board election two weeks ago: I voted after four hours, and I was number 9.

* * *

By the way, if anyone was planning to attend the local Tridentine Mass at Holy Rosary in Jersey City this Pentecost Sunday, note that it is at 9:30 AM, not 12:30 PM.

Since I go to these services, I obviously approve of them, but I wonder whether the election of Benedict XVI might have the paradoxical effect of ending the traditionalist liturgical movement. Traditionalists have spent the last 35 years fighting official hostility to the old liturgy. Benedict is not going to call for a general return to the old Mass, but he is likely to take steps to ensure that it can be said (sung, really) wherever a priest and a congregation want it. Suppose there is perfect liberty in the matter, but still only a small percentage of Catholics is interested?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-26: Exploding Pet Peeves

Cardinal Sarah, Catholic Conservative

Cardinal Sarah, Catholic Conservative

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many European and American Catholics reacted with dismay, because Joseph Ratzinger was so conservative. Except that he really wasn't. Ratzinger had taken his job at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith very seriously, but he was not particularly extreme. Rather, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI represents the center of global Catholicism. 

I know that describing shades of theological opinion in terms of Left and Right is inaccurate, but it is also easy shorthand. In that shorthand, Cardinal Sarah represents the Catholic right. Culturally conservative, and confidently outspoken about anything he thinks isn't right, which includes both gay rights and free market capitalism.

Exploding Pet Peeves


We can already see that the initial line of attack against Benedict XVI will be his role during the closing years of John Paul II's pontificate in the Vatican's reaction to the sexual abuse scandals. Here's a typical example, from The Guardian of April 24:

Pope Benedict XVI faced claims last night he had 'obstructed justice' after it emerged he issued an order ensuring the church's investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret. The order was made in a confidential letter, obtained by The Observer, which was sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001...The letter states that the church's jurisdiction 'begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age' and lasts for 10 years...The letter is referred to in documents relating to a lawsuit filed earlier this year against a church in Texas and Ratzinger on behalf of two alleged abuse victims. By sending the letter, lawyers acting for the alleged victims claim the cardinal conspired to obstruct justice...

Daniel Shea, the lawyer for the two alleged victims who discovered the letter, said: 'It speaks for itself. You have to ask: why do you not start the clock ticking until the kid turns 18? It's an obstruction of justice.'

The answer to the last question is clear enough. Obviously, you should report credible evidence to the police of on-going abuse of minors immediately, whether you are sure about it or not. If such reports were made after the victim is an adult, however, Cardinal Ratzinger wanted the Church to focus on its own internal discipline. Cardinal Ratzinger's point seems to have been that the Church is not a law-enforcement agency. Wherever possible, the cardinal wanted the church authorities to conduct their own investigation, thereby avoiding a scandal in a situation where nothing had yet been proved. Some people do have a duty to report suspected abuse: teachers, for instance. However, the general rule is that there is no duty to report a suspected crime. It is not obstruction of justice for a private organization to try to police itself.

The flaw in Church policy was that many dioceses turned out to be too crooked or stupid to either conduct an investigation or deal properly with the abuse they found. The flaw in the criticism of Joseph Ratzinger is that he has a livelier appreciation than almost anyone in Rome of the general incompetence of certain dioceses on matters of doctrine and discipline. That is why he is so strongly disliked by the Catholic Left. It is also why he was made Benedict XVI. The attempt to paint him as the chief architect of obstruction is going to backfire in a very satisfactory fashion: unlike the aging John Paul II, he is in a position to do something about the problem.

* * *

On the other hand, David Warren has a point when he says that it's a mistake to appreciate this papacy just for the historical fireworks it is likely to cause:

While I have much sympathy with...trying to build up Benedict XVI as "our new Torquemada", I don't think it will be necessary to build a new Catholic consensus upon "surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope". Rather, let the Pope be Pope, and let every other person find his own way, by the light of grace.

A friend of mine made a similar point to me last Sunday: the wonderful thing about this papacy is that it relieves those of us of an orthodox persuasion of the feeling that we are obligated to conduct our own little campaigns of guerrilla apologetics. The Vatican is going to do that now, and we know that our local dioceses will get the memo.

* * *

And what does the Devil think of all this? Omens from Germany, where he has the greatest cause to be unhappy, suggest that he is fit to burst:

BERLIN (AFP) - Hundreds of toads have met a bizarre and sinister end in Germany in recent days, it was reported: they exploded...According to reports from animal welfare workers and veterinarians as many as a thousand of the amphibians have perished after their bodies swelled to bursting point and their entrails were propelled for up to a metre...

Greater wonders than these we shall see; and hopefully less disgusting ones.

* * *

On a somewhat different note, Blithering Bunny takes aim at a solecism that makes me fit to burst:

To "beg the question" means you’ve assumed the conclusion you're attempting to argue for (ie. you’ve used your conclusion as a premise). It's a term used by analytic philosophers, and some people are clearly impressed by the terms analytic philosophers use. So the term gets bandied about in other circles in an attempt to sound impressive, and before you know it newspaper and magazine columnists are using it in completely the wrong sense, to mean "raise the question". Here's an example from a recent Prospect article by Roderick Swanston:
Writing a history of music, even a history of western music, begs some big questions.

The question that the breakdown of this distinction raises (rather than begs) is whether the confusion results from a simple misunderstanding of the terms, or whether educated people no longer know what a circular argument is.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-20: Wir haben einen Papst

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

It is interesting to look back at the partisan reactions to the elections of Pope Benedict the XVIth. Catholic conservatives, myself included, were overjoyed. Catholic liberals were despondent, having hoped for a great liberal reformer. Then, just a few short years later, the roles were reversed when the long awaited liberal Pope finally came. 

For the vast majority of Catholics, nothing changed all that much. Individual bishops continue to be the shepherds of their flocks, setting policy and making decisions. The center of gravity of Catholicism continues to shift toward Africa, for simple demographic reasons. Relations with our Orthodox brethren slowly improve. 

The general trajectory of Catholicism wasn't altered much by the election of either Benedict or Francis. Which is probably what you should expect from a diffuse, locally governed organization with billions of adherents.

Wir haben einen Papst


So why have I been so keen that Joseph Ratzinger should be elected pope? The chief reason is a series of sermons he gave in 1996, In the Presence of the Angels I Will Sing Your Praise, when his brother Georg retired as choirmaster of the Regensburg Cathedral. This passage tells you more about the man and his real concerns than anything you are likely to see in the press:

As they gazed upon these frescoes, the monks of Mt. St. Mary surely thought of the 19th chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which treats the discipline of Psalm singing and the manner of saying the Divine Office. There, the father of western monasticism reminds them, among other things, of the verse of Psalm 147 (Vulgate): In conspectu angelorum psallam tibi [In the sight of the angels I will sing to Thee]. And Benedict goes on: "Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and His angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony" [ut mens nostra concordet voci nostræ].

It is, therefore, not at all the case that man contrives something and then sings it, but rather the song comes to him from the angelic choirs, and he must raise his heart on high so that it can harmonize with the tone which comes to him.

But one fact is of fundamental importance: the sacred liturgy is not something which the monks manufacture or produce. It exists before they were there; it is an entering into heavenly liturgy which was already taking place. Only in and through this fact is earthly liturgy a liturgy at all -- in that it be -- takes itself into that greater and grander liturgy which is already being celebrated.

I can (and do) defend this metaphysics on its merits, but I cannot deny how much it appeals to me simply as intellectual esthetics. This is how I think; or at any rate, it is how I feel. Ich kann kein ander.

Ratzinger's life work has come to be defined by the fact that not everyone finds this neoplatonic vision so intuitive. When he was a young adviser at the Second Vatican Council, and accounted a liberal, he promoted chipping away the gingerbread of historical accretions on Catholic liturgy and theology. He did this for no other reason than that these things had grown so thick that they partially obscured the divine presence they were intended to frame. He sought clarity through austerity. In later years, to his growing horror, he realized that the license for experimentation issued by Vatican II was being used by people who did not see the transcendent at all, or who confused it with human intersubjectivity. At the worst, "the spirit of Vatican II" came to mean the community worshiping itself. Even when there was no heresy, there was a great deal of stupidity: new Catholic church-buildings almost invariably looked like Darth Vader's helmet, and the ancient tradition of Latin chant, which fascinates even people with no immediate interest in Catholicism, was replaced by a repertoire that was so accessible that parishioners did not find it worth singing.

We will be hearing a great deal more on Benedict XVI's views about local control of the church, and homosexuality, and war and peace, and capital punishment. What we must remember is that none of these are basic issues, even when the Church's position on them is not negotiable. All that matters is keeping unobstructed the vision of that liturgy that never ends. Ever feature of the structure of the Church, and of human society, must be ordered to that end. Keep that in mind, and this papacy will make perfect sense.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is the gloating issue. I had this problem when George Bush was reelected. Many friends and family members were stunned and horrified when that happened. I tried not to rub it in. I really did. The election of the new pope presents a somewhat different problem, however. Most people I know who had heard of Joseph Ratzinger also wanted him to be pope, so I have fewer temptations to be vindictive on a personal level. Well, that's what the Internet is for.

You do have to feel sorry for these people. Poor Fr. Richard McBrien, S.J., of Notre Dame was offering commentary on ABC (the American network) when the results of the election were announced at St. Peter's Square. Fr. McBrien has signed on to every flaky theological idea for the last 35 years, and he has been audibly waiting since 1978 for John Paul II to die. His face was not visible when the announcement was made, but he spoke in the sort of voice we normally hear on televison only from the victims of natural disaster. He must have felt like what Michael Moore would feel like if George Bush resigned and was replaced by Karl Rove. Alas.

And then there is Andrew Sullivan. Alackaday.

All I can suggest to such people is that they are not living in the worst of all possible worlds.

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The Long View 2005-04-18: Omens: Libertarian & Papal

This seems like a good opportunity to link to this week's most striking graph. The libertarian corner is almost wholly unoccupied by actual voters, but it figures heavily among the intelligensia and the ruling class.

Omens: Libertarian & Papal


People looking for bad omens were no doubt pleased by Jeffrey Rosen's piece in yesterday's New York Times MagazineThe Unregulated Offensive. The piece dealt with the well-funded libertarian movement, sometimes called "The Constitution in Exile," aimed at reviving all the "substantive due-process" jurisprudence that the Supreme Court was forced to abandon in the 1930s under pressure from the Roosevelt Administration. When I was in law school, the general consensus was that substantive due process was perhaps the stupidest thing the Supreme Court ever did. Based on little more than its own imagination, the Court used the power of judicial review to strike down laws governing wages and work hours, the protection of endangered species, and pretty much everything else that 20th-century states did in peacetime. Oliver Wendell Holmes was not keen on much of that social-welfare legislation himself, but he forcefully reminded his colleagues on the Court, in a long line of ringing dissents, that their economic and social theories were not in the constitution, and that there would be no end of trouble if the Court pretended they were.

What we have here is yet another instance in which the Right has become as unprincipled as the Left. We should note that the current libertarian project is beyond even the widest definition of conservative. Justice Scalia, whose views on the welfare state are not so different from Holmes's, has said that the libertarians are asking the courts to embrace the sort of judicial overreaching that he has been arguing against for his whole career. Rosen is of similar mind:

But a political transformation in [the libertarians'] favor remains, for the moment, remote, and they appear content, even eager, to turn to the courts to win the victories that are eluding them in the political arena. Advocates of the movement are entirely sincere in their belief that the regulatory state is unconstitutional as well as immoral and that a principled reading of the Constitution requires vigorous enforcement of fundamental limits on state power. Nevertheless, it is a troubling paradox that conservatives, who continue to denounce liberals for using courts to thwart the will of the people in cases involving abortion and gay marriage, now appear to be succumbing to precisely the same temptation. If the lessons of the past 60 years teach us anything, when judges try to short-circuit intensely contested democratic debates, from the New Deal cases to Roe v. Wade, they may provoke a fierce political backlash that sets back the movement they are trying to advance. In this sense, even if the Constitution in Exile movement manages to transform the courts before it has transformed the country, it may find that it has won less than it hoped.

Let me make the last point explicit: The power of constitutional judicial review may or may not survive the morbid insistence of the cultural Left on maintaining the autonomy right of the Griswald-Roe-Casey decisions. Should the Supreme Court begin to strike down economic legislation as it did before 1937, the Court's jurisdiction will be quickly and radically reduced.

* * *

On the subject of bad omens, rarely have we seen such a motley collection of them as in the NBC miniseries, Revelations. The Bible does give signs of the apocalypse, but the writers for the series seem to have found theirs in The National Inquirer. Actually, if you are interested in some popular apocalyptic sign-spotting, and don't mind anti-Catholic polemics, you might take a look at Endtime Insights. Better still, go to Carolin Esser's Apocalyptic Ideas in Old English Literature. The gallery will be of interest to those readers looking for graphics to incorporate into really alarming greeting cards.

* * *

I have read quite a bit of John Paul II's writings. The content was important, even dramatic, but there was something about the "voice" of this prose I could never quite put my finger on. Had the text been part of a novel, it would have been more like an explanation by an omniscient narrator rather than the thoughts of a character. Now Joseph Bottom, who has lately risen to the dizzy eminence of editor at First Things, has also noticed something of the sort. Writing in The Weekly Standard (April 18), he says:

"We have millions of words from the man: the 14 major encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters; the popular books like Crossing the Threshold of Hope, scribbled on yellow pads during long plane flights; the scholarly works he wrote as a young theologian; the thousands of prayers and exhortations he delivered during the innumerable audiences he tirelessly gave as pope. And in all those words, there is hardly a hint of what a psychologist would demand: a persona that somehow stands apart from the history through which he lived and the intellectual growth he experienced.

Something else: JPII was often conciliatory, but never defensive. Perhaps only John XXIII had as little use as John Paul II for the Church's post-revolutionary defensive crouch of the last two centuries.

* * *

There will probably be a new pope by the time you read this. Here are a few quickly falsifiable predictions:

---Although a new pope often takes the name of his immediate predecessor, there does not seem to be a single case in which the same name was used by three popes in a row. So, the odds are that there will be a revival of an earlier name. "Pius" is a possibility, but a pope who declared himself Pius XIII would begin his reign with a lot of unnecessary baggage. I suggest that another Gregory might be in order; the last one was in the 19th century. Such a name would recall Gregory the Great, who founded Christendom, and Gregory XIII, who sponsored the reform of the calendar.

---The last two papal conclaves were very quick, just a day or two. Within the confines of orthodox thought, as distinguished from what the newspaper editorialists are saying, there is actually rather less to discuss this time around. It would be surprising if this conclave lasted past midweek.

----Again, the chief argument against Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope Gregory XVII by noon on Wednesday is that so many people are on record as predicting just that (well, not the Gregory part). Neither the College of Cardinals nor the Holy Spirit like to be told what to do.

Whatever does happen, we may be sure that we will never see the like of Pope Hilarius (461-468) again. Well, relatively sure.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-10-20: Real Reasons

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

This reminder of Pope John Paul II in his declining years makes for an interesting counterpoint to his successor, Benedict XVI. Each faced increasing age and debility; each selected a different way of responding to it. I think each way has its merits. 

The argument John makes here that the Papacy is best thought of as the still center around which the Church turns has something going for it.  I think is true in a long term sense, and perhaps less true in the short term sense. The reason for this is something John himself said in 1998

[...] the papacy has never existed in a vacuum. The mutations it has undergone in the past 2000 years are only partly the result of the logic of its own development. The short explanation for these changes is that the papacy was simply mirroring the political evolution of the societies in which it lived. The pope was once a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The reigning Pope currently is an executive, even if he lacks a nuclear football. This seems to be the reason why Benedict chose resignation: to allow a more vigorous man to try to fix the many messes in the Vatican. Whether Pope Francis is successful at reigning in the power and influence of the curia is a matter yet to be settled.

As for the Iraq War, John mentions the five-year seven-country plan that widely circulated at the time. General Wesley Clark mentioned that plan too, in an interview in 2007.

So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

By now, we have managed to make a mess of Syria and Libya. We negotiated a deal with Iran, although Clark was right about the kind of influence Iran was and is wielding in Iraq. Sudan and Somalia are still hellholes. Lebanon has quieted down some. I suppose I should be grateful our reach exceeded our grasp here?

Real Reasons

John Paul II was clearly not well at yesterday's beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He confined himself to reading the brief Latin formula declaring her blessed; he delivered none of his own homily. He slumped in his seat in such a way that he seemed to disappear into his ceremonial robes. Seeing his obvious debility, many people are asking why the pope continues to appear regularly in public. For that matter, they ask, why does he not just abdicate? John Paul II knows his own reasons, but I would suggest two points.

The first is that, by showing himself in public, he demonstrates to a increasingly rumor-prone world that he is still alive. Moreover, he has enough good days to prove that he has his wits about him. Still, it is reasonably clear that his staff must be managing almost everything by now. Why does he stay in office? I suspect he does it to demonstrate that the papacy is not just an executive. The pope is not followed around by a Swiss Guard with a nuclear football; he does not have to be alert and fully briefed at every moment. Popes reign. They rule only incidentally.

Speaking of Mother Teresa, I recently heard a homily by a priest who knew her slightly. In his presence, he said, another priest patted her on her head and said, "Mother, you are getting shorter every year!" To that she is said to have replied, "I become smaller, Father, so that I can better fit into the heart of Jesus."

Given a straight-line like that, someone else might have said, "I'm not getting smaller, Father. I just look smaller to you because every time I see you you are more full of it." She said no such thing, however. That's why she is up for sainthood.

* * *

An opinion piece appeared in yesterday's New York Times by the president of Iraq's Governing Council, Ilad Alawi. (The first name is "Ilad" online, but "Iyad" in the print edition.) The article, entitled America Must Let Iraq Rebuild Itself, makes a reasonable argument that Iraq's regular army and pre-war police should be recalled to duty. The officer corps of both must be vetted for Baathist sympathies and human rights violations, of course, but the rank-and-file can be counted on to devote their attention to keeping the peace. Such a move would relieve Coalition troops of most ground-level security duties, and would greatly enhance the legitimacy of the coming Iraqi government in the Arab world.

The fact that this proposal has appeared at all is perhaps more important than its specifics. When the Governing Council was organized, it was said that no one would take it seriously unless it publicly opposed the US occupation authority on some major issues. It has been doing that frequently, so much so that one wonders whether some of the disputes may have been exaggerated simply to demonstrate the Council's independence. This proposal to revive the army and police is just the biggest initiative to come from the Council so far.

And what of the merits? The Coalition dissolved the army and police for the excellent reason that it would not have been able to trust them. Moreover, institutions like the Iraqi army often have a debilitating effect on the political life of developing countries. They are not really militaries, but a combination of police force and political party. Such armies become the single largest interest group. They offer a measure of stability, but often at the expense of occupying political space that ought to be filled by civilian associations. Certainly the Iraqi Governing Council would have been a negligible institution, if the Coalition had kept the army in being and worked through a committee of anti-Baathist generals.

These things are a matter of degree, however. The plan had always been to recruit police and military officers from the institutions of the old regime. The question remains how much use can safely be made of the old institutions themselves. One suspects that the Governing Council will eventually get at least part of its wish, now that there is a core of personnel committed to the new order of things.

* * *

On a different but not wholly unconnected topic, we should be giving some thought to the likelihood that laser weapons could soon make the recent revolution in military affairs obsolete. Writing in The Oakland Tribune, Ian Hoffman points out in an article entitled Warfare at the speed of light that even today's superduper smart weapons are still bound by the limits of Newtonian ballistics. Not so the laser weapons now under development, which have passed beyond gas lasers to chemical combustion and now to solid state. Once deployed and married with computer guidance, they could clear the skies of everything from ballistic missiles to mortar shells. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is problematical. Hitting a bullet with a beam of light is not.

There are problems, of course. Lasers are fair-weather weapons. The chemical lasers closest to deployment, as air-to-air canon, sound a little like the steam-driven computers in The Difference Engine. Nonetheless, it is likely that they will turn warfare into something new by midcentury. Note that the evolution continues away from unconscionable mass destruction, and toward precision and ubiquity.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the current war, readers might want to compare two recent assessments of the next step.

I can't remember the last time I actually touched a copy of the The Village Voice. However, when I saw that its current issue had a picture of President Bush as a crusader on its cover, and not as a moron or a cowboy, I took the trouble to view the cover-story online. The piece is called Bush's War Plan Is Scarier Than He's Saying: The Widening Crusade, by Sydney H. Schanberg. He tells us in the first paragraph:

If some wishful Americans are still hoping President Bush will acknowledge that his imperial foreign policy has stumbled in Iraq and needs fixing or reining in, they should put aside those reveries. He's going all the way-and taking us with him.

Part of the reason I found this interesting was because it contrasted so strongly with a the opening paragraph of a recent analysis by Dr. George Friedman of Stratfor. His article, entitled "The Next Phase of the War," begins thus:

Washington is reformulating its war plans in Iraq -- something critics of the Bush administration might view as a sign of weakness. The real weakness lies not in that the United States is shifting strategies, but rather that it has taken so long to make adjustments. However, even with a new strategy, it is unclear whether the United States will succeed.

The important point is that these two views of what is going on are not essentially different. Friedman says that the Iraq War had two objectives:

1. Seizing the most strategic country in the region as a base of operations from which to mount follow-on operations against countries that collaborate or permit collaboration with al Qaeda.
2. Transforming the psychological perception of the United States in the Islamic world from a hated and impotent power to a hated but feared power.

Schanberg fleshes this out with the increasingly famous five-year, seven-nation to-do list that has supposedly been circulating in the Pentagon since 911, but his article makes the same point: It's All Part of a Big Plan. The difference is that he finds this shocking:

A five-year military campaign. Seven countries. How far has the White House taken this plan? And how long can the president keep the nation in the dark, emerging from his White House cocoon only to speak to us in slogans and the sterile language of pep rallies?

May I in turn express my surprise that people continue to say they have been surprised by the Bush Administration? The president has repeatedly said pretty much what he was going to do: just look at his State of the Union speech in 2002. For rhetorical purposes, the president's opponents have named him Liar. In fact, few presidents have been clearer about what they intend to do and why they intend to do it.

Please pay attention. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-04-12: The World United

John's rather broad take on the Enlightenment makes me think of Pope Francis, and Pope Emeritus Benedict. Pope Francis' recent trip to America has been a huge success. From the very first, Francis' style has won over nearly everyone. You cannot find a better example of this than the way in which Francis laughed in obvious delight when he saw a baby dressed as the Pope in Philadelphia.

Francis Laughs

Francis Laughs

Poor misunderstood Benedict never had this kind of press. Partly, this is due to very real personality differences between the two men. But it is also due to the way in which portraying each man in a certain way fit the narrative. Inconvenient acts or statements by either man tend to fall down the memory hole. For example, who now remembers when Pope Benedict installed solar panels on the Vatican, or when he praised environmental values and criticized capitalism in an encyclical? Contrariwise, who remembers when Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio compared a bill before the Argentine Senate regarding gay marriage to a work of the Father of Lies?

Activists on each side remember these things, but the general public neither knows nor cares. Yet, each man in his own way is working on the same project of human betterment, often doing and saying things that are indistinguishable. In fact, their differences only make sense in a certain shared context, that of the Enlightenment. As John said:

Left and Right, Progressive and Traditional, Liberal and Conservative, all these are oppositions that began with the Enlightenment and are meaningful only within it.

This shared set of assumptions is precisely what unites Francis and Benedict. Each man naturally appeals to slightly different strains of thought within the Enlightenment, but neither would be comprehensible without its shared set of assumptions. Eventually, modernity will come to an end, and something fresh and new will take its place. In time, that new point of view will make it difficult to distinguish exactly why Francis was popular in a way that Benedict never was [although in truth, Benedict was pretty popular, despite his press].

The World United
No less a person than Jane Fonda is now on record with the fear that "the entire world" will unite against the United States in the wake of the Iraq War. That would be good material for a humor column, but people who should know better have had thoughts along the same lines. Indeed, some of these thoughts substitute "hope" for "fear."
Consider the column by Matthew Parris in the London Times: It's Time We All Signed up for the Rest of the World Team. Though he does not touch on the merits of the Iraq War, he does go on at some length about American hubris and the need for the United Kingdom to return to the eastern side of the Atlantic. The gist of the argument is this:
"[T]hose nations that do not choose to take Washington's whip are going to need to coordinate their positions and keep in touch. The balance of power needs rebalancing. For want of a better term, I shall call the grouping of which Russia, Germany and France now form a putative core, the Rest of the World."
I don't want to beat a horse that was born dead, but I must point out that what we have here is a proposal for an Anarchist Union. If the world were capable of uniting, the US would not have had to conduct the Iraq War almost alone. (Giving due regard to the substantial contributions of the UK, Australia, and the other Coalition members, the war would not have happened if the US had not wanted it to happen.) Without rehashing the whole issue, it seems to me that any serious international system would have taken care of Iraq, and North Korea, long before now, even for human rights issues alone. War would probably not have been necessary; such a system would be able to impose sanctions that mean something. Such a system would also require a redefinition of sovereignty even more radical than that implicit in the European Union. The most uppity American acts would be far less irksome.
Whether or not the US was right about Iraq, the US acted precisely because the Rest of the World did not act. The institutions that purport to represent The Rest of the World worked to make collective action incoherent. Toothless Security Council resolutions, phony inspections, a porous sanctions regime that the "core of the Rest of the World" wanted dismantled anyway: the UN did nothing, and took 12 years to do it. The US believed that, finally, something real had to be done. Now we are asked to suppose that a new League of Nations will be formed to ensure that nothing is ever done again. I would not bet on it.
* * *
Let us count the quagmires. Soon after 911, there was the Afghanistan Quagmire. Then there was the Diplomatic Quagmire. Then there was the Desert Stalingrad Quagmire. We are in the waning hours of the Looters' Quagmire. Presently, we will be hip-deep in the Iraqi Internal Politics Quagmire. If we have learned nothing else in the past two years, we have learned that wetlands are drainable.
* * *
There is a critique of the Iraq War which goes far beyond issues of mere power and legitimacy. People who think that no use of force is legitimate without a UN stamp are still playing in the same intellectual ballpark as the neoconservatives. The dispute is really about how the goals of the Enlightenment can be best achieved; the proponents of the Rest of the World say merely that America is the wrong agent, implementing the wrong policies.
This is far from the only way to look at the question. One could also argue that America is the finest flower and avatar of the Enlightenment, and its activities in the world promote the Enlightenment most perfectly. According to a a Dr. John Rao, writing in Seattle Catholic, that is precisely what damns the Iraq War:
Orthodox Catholicism is what it says it is, and fails only in so far as people do not live up to its message. We are now witnessing the complete victory of a message that has never been what it says that it is, and becomes even more of a lie when people do live up to its potential for evil...These are not failures to live up to American Pluralist conceptions. This is what the American Regime, one of several socio-political by-products of revolutionary Enlightenment concepts, inevitably encourages.
As I have argued previously, the Enlightenment is a bit above our likes and dislikes. Everything that came after it was tinged by it: Left and Right were created at the same time in the 18th century. This is also true of Orthodox Catholicism in the 21st century. John Paul II is a man of the Enlightenment. He is comfortable with the fact, because he understands that there is more than one Enlightenment. The modern era is fragmented, but it is not essentially anti-religious or antinomian. Moreover, its program of human betterment can be considered nothing other than a Christian project, even if sometimes carried out in other terms.
At any rate, this is what the Enlightenment has meant in America. Michael Novak's essay in the April First Things, The Faith of the Founding, puts some welcome daylight between the actual "American Regime" and the recent jaundiced assessments of the whole Whig Tradition as an exercise in wiley anti-theism. All of this is not to suggest that the Enlightenment inaugurated the millennium, or that the United States is the Lord's anointed. What I am saying is that the Enlightenment is what we have. America is what we have. Any great good that is to be done in the current era will involve these two.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Active Faith

This one is now eighteen years old, but it has only gotten more pertinent, as American politics fossilizes into the Late Republican phase. We find ourselves doing the same things over and over, because there really are no other options left. This is what is meant by the End of History, not the ceasing of events and intrigue, but a limitation of the possible. By way of example, read John's concluding paragraph, and tell me whether this is an apt description of the Tea Party:

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.

It will be interesting to see how the election of Pope Francis changes the landscape of Catholicism in America. With John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we had over thirty years of politically conservative papacy. Francis is definitely a man of the Left, although nearly everyone forgets he is also completely orthodox. If you want a vision of what a politically engaged Catholicism might engender, post-WWII Europe is an excellent example. France, Germany, and Italy all implemented something very much like Christendom reborn. It all went off the rails seventy years later, but no one can expect any political program to have a shelf-life better than that.

Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics

by Ralph Reed

The Free Press, 1996
$25.00, 311 pp.
ISBN: 0-684-82758-1

All Dressed Up and No Place To Go


It is not Ralph Reed's fault that he looks like Antichrist to some people. Sure he has slicked-back black hair and unnaturally perfect teeth. Sure at 35 years of age he has the sort of perpetual adolescent appearance that gets police detectives assigned to work undercover at high schools. Sure he has an unfortunate predilection for having his picture taken back-lit (as the jacket of this book illustrates). None of this is evidence of dark ambition or bad character. It is the press, ignorant of religion and terrified of resurgent cultural traditionalism, that has made this very sharp Executive Director of the Christian Coalition into the face of liberalism's nightmare. The fact that he and his organization are, usually, punctiliously reasonable only makes them the more threatening.

People looking for strange opinions in "Active Faith," such as those that so richly inform the books of Reed's mentor, Pat Robertson, are likely to be disappointed. Judging by this memoir, he is a prosaic, perceptive man. A doctor's son, raised as a conventional Methodist in the New South, he has been a Young Republican since high school. He was the sort of student who interns with the state legislature and who works on political campaigns for the sake of working on political campaigns. In early adulthood, his faith became evangelical, a matter he disposes of in a few sentences. After a brief stint in Reagan's Washington, he went on to acquire a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University. (Are history doctorates now to play the role in political life that law degrees once did?) We learn a great deal about his views on how today's Christian politics fits into America's tradition of political reform sparked by religious revival. By his own account, it was just as he was finishing his doctoral thesis in 1989 that he got the call from Pat Robertson about becoming director of a new Christian lay organization whose creation Robertson was considering. The rest is history.

Reed takes up a lot of space explaining what the Christian Coalition is not, sometimes to rather disingenuous effect. Thus, we are repeatedly assured that the Coalition is not a partisan political organization dedicated to the promotion of Republican candidates. Those candidate information summaries they hand out at churches across America just before election day are merely objective accounts of the candidates' positions on issues important to people of faith. Oh, the things people will say to keep their tax deductions. Since I don't believe the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when they make similarly coy claims about their peace-and-justice activities, I don't see why I should find the Christian Coalition's far more blatant politicking any less political. Rather more plausibly, he insists that the Coalition is not a front for white racists. Indeed, for political reasons if nothing else, he fervently desires the expansion of the Coalition to include more black churches, more evangelical Hispanics, more of all those who still cling to the disintegrating raft of the New Deal's "majority of minorities." Perhaps the stereotype he rejects most convincing is the conventional wisdom (found not only in the liberal press) that the Coalition consists of the "poor, the ignorant, and the easily led." In reality, as Reed is at pains to instruct us, his membership tends to be richer and better-educated than the population as a whole. (It is also somewhat older and more female.) As events of the past few years have demonstrated, those who assume that the Christian Coalition is simply the nation's white trash in arms will suffer unpleasant surprises.

The most important thing that the Christian Coalition is not is the Moral Majority. "Active Faith" gives you as lucid an account as you are likely to find of how the rise of evangelical participation in American politics, marked in the 1970s by the election of the genuinely pious Jimmy Carter to the presidency, stumbled badly during the Reagan years. The Christian Coalition is one form that the recovery from that stumble took. Culturally conservative Christians have learned from their mistakes. One suspects that they are in for the long haul. What they lack, however, is what their critics are most afraid of: judging by this book, the Christian Coalition has no real plan for the future, nor any idea how to develop one.

Evangelicals faced two problems when their resurgence began in the aftermath of the cultural chaos of the 1960s. The first was purely practical. They had withdrawn from politics for most of this century, particularly on the national level. Politics was tainted, worldly. While it might be morally permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, to actually enter his service was to risk criminal conviction in this world and damnation in the next. Evangelicals could and did run for office, of course, but not for he most part on peculiarly evangelical platforms or with the help of self-consciously evangelical organizations. Thus, there was no effective organizational mechanism for representing this important sector of the American people.

The South, where they were demographically strongest, was traditionally Democratic. The Democratic Party therefore would have been the logical vehicle for the evangelicals, as it had been at the beginning of the century, in the days of William Jennings Bryan. However, while the Democratic Party had never lost the moralistic tone which it acquired in the days of the Social Gospel and the Populists, the content of its worldview had proven to be extremely malleable. In Prohibition days the party was Progressive, during the New Deal it was Social Democrat, during the first half of the Cold War it was the supply train for the great anticommunist Crusade. By the time the evangelicals had need of it, however, it was firmly in the grip of the cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s. That left the Republicans, who had no idea what they were in for.

The Republican Party had grown from the Abolitionist movement, one of the social reform movements that owed their impetus to the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s. As is often with case with successful crusaders after the crusade, by the turn of the century the party had lost it moral fervor and become a party of economic interests. It frowned on the enthusiasms of Bryan and his native Populists and on the largely immigrant labor movement, both of which had so much to do with the making of the Democratic Party in this century. Under the inspiration of people like Theodore Roosevelt, it did give some play to the muscular Christianity of the Social Gospel, but this tradition within the party tended to become more and more attenuated with the passage of time. Thus, by the time of the final insult of Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party really did not have many ideas of its own about social or cultural issues.

What the Republican Party did have was a great need for new members. Therefore, when evangelicals and some conservative Catholics began drifting into the party as the Democrats became stranger and stranger, the newcomers were more than welcome. After all, in the beginning, they did not act as a self-conscious faction within the party. All you had to do to win their support was buy them off with a few token phrases about the defense of the traditional family and opposition to abortion. They rarely showed up at meetings, but they would vote Republican like clockwork, at least for president. Poor, ignorant and easily led, so the party's traditional leaders thought, they made the perfect electoral cannon fodder for high-visibility races.

The problem with this strategy was that it succeeded. When Ronald Reagan was elected Emperor of the Last Days in 1980, his devoted followers among the cultural conservatives thought they were owed something. Jobs in the new administration would have been nice, but more than cursory attention to their agenda would have been better. As it happened, they got nearly nothing. Reagan would not even address the annual anti-abortion rallies in Washington in person. They had not just been slighted, they had been deprived of access to the only political institutions they could consider using. They therefore began to build their own institutions. At first, they did this badly.

Evangelicals and conservative Catholics had no permanent local political organizations. Politics for them was largely something that happened on television. Thus, while they might be important for presidential politics, they were much less important in deciding who sat in Congress or on local school boards. (Most important, they had little say about who would be nominated to run.) There are two general strategies for mobilizing an inchoate voting block, a "rally" strategy or a "grassroots" strategy. The first is a strategy of mailing lists and television. It is the sort of politics for which the term "hot button" was coined, meaning any issue that is certain to attract the attention of easily defined constituencies and, hopefully, provoke them to donate money. A "grassroots" strategy sounds like it should be something homey and neighborly, but in fact it simply means political organization as it has been traditionally understood. It means building permanent local organizations of volunteer workers and precinct captains, people who may pay regular dues but who, much more importantly, can be counted on to donate some of their own labor to a campaign. It has long been known that the best way to maintain such an organization is as a collateral activity of some other institution. Labor unions are very good frames to hang a political party on. The Christian Coalition would eventually show that local churches are, too.

Before the evangelicals proved the power of organized religion in politics, however, they first tried a rally strategy. This is what the Moral Majority organization was all about. It was certainly conspicuous enough. The press loved it, like vampires love young women who neglect to wear crucifixes around their necks. It lived and died by its own knack for publicity. It was a remarkably clerical organization: at one point, all but one of its board of directors were ordained ministers. Since the televangelists of the 1980s could claim an audience in the tens of millions, ignorant reporters translated these figures into millions of political followers. The problem with the Moral Majority was that there was really nothing to it. Being a member simply required writing a check, so it had little control over what the prominent people associated with it did. More to the point, it had no troops on the ground. After a while even reporters began to notice that the only actual representative of the Moral Majority in a state where it claimed hundreds of thousands of members might be a single pastor with no staff. It was not a "majority" by any reasonable construction of the word. Then the garish downfalls of the great '80s television preachers amidst charges of embezzlement and sexual scandal suggested that it wasn't particularly moral, either. By the end of the Reagan Administration, it appeared that the era of the evangelical in politics was over.

The Reverend Pat Robertson thought otherwise. His experience during his run for the presidency in 1988 gave him some notion of what actual politics was like. If he conceived the "long march" of the Christian Coalition by himself, then he must be a very smart man indeed. But even if, as Reed suggests, Robertson was at first uncertain about whether to continue with the rally strategy or try the grassroots method, then he at least deserves credit for continuing to support what at first must have seemed like a doubtful enterprise. He is also, perhaps, to be given credit for having the good sense to limit his public association with the Coalition as much as possible. Everyone knows, of course, that Robertson provided the inspiration and backing to get the Coalition off the ground. Indeed, Reed began work in a warehouse amidst the old posters, office furniture and mailing lists of Robertson's 1988 campaign. However, the Coalition was never just a branch of Robertson's ministry, nor indeed a particularly clerical organization at all. Its board of directors, says Reed, contains only a single ordained minister. I do not think it is being cynical to suspect that Reed is exaggerating the independence of the Coalition from Reverend Robertson. Nevertheless, the Coalition has benefited immensely from not being structured as a preacher's fan club.

Unlike the Moral Majority, its has a professional lobbying presence in Washington that does not go away. This means that it can exert pressure, not just on the sort of hot button issues that were sometimes manufactured in the past to keep evangelicals placated, but on day-to-day legislation affecting welfare and education, or for that matter on things like telecommunications reform, which might seem to be peripheral to the Coalition's concerns. Even more important, legislators hear about the Coalition's positions not just from lobbyists, but from their own constituents. The Coalition is adept at organizing letter-writing and telephone call-in campaigns, as well as delivering live bodies to party caucuses and other meetings.

In some ways, the most interesting successes of the Coalition have not been in Washington or national politics, but in their ability to win races at the local level. Their special forte has been school board elections. They do not, perhaps, win quite so many of these as the consternation they cause among liberals may suggest. Still, they everywhere have served the function of slowing the advance of multiculturalism into the primary grades. Local party organizations in the United States have come to be notoriously skeletal affairs, easily dominated by small groups of enthusiasts. Since the 1960s, the enthusiasts have mostly been on the Left, and have turned their attention to the Democratic Party. With the Christian Coalition, we see the beginning of a similar process on the Right with the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition makes no claims to be a "majority" (it has 1.7 million members). An well-organized minority is important enough. There is nothing about its demographics which suggests that it could become the dominant force in American politics. Nevertheless, it is seven years old and a force that must be reckoned with. One can easily imagine it and organizations like it becoming as important as the unions were in their heyday. The problem with this picture, however, is that the unions knew more or less what they wanted. Because they had some vision of how society as a whole should work, they were able to advance beyond their original concern with wages and hours to present coherent policies on everything from foreign affairs to the structure of the health care system. The Christian Coalition, as Reed himself recognizes, is in contrast characterized mostly by what it is against.

The failing is fundamental, indeed theological. The fact is that evangelicals have no coherent political theory in their tradition. American evangelicalism is without a theory of natural law, or even of good government. Reed calls his agenda the "pro-family" agenda, a characterization that I doubt many people find informative. Certainly it is an extraordinarily pale allusion to the ancient certainties that an organization purporting to represent Christianity in politics should have. Evangelicals have a foggy premise that government must be bad because the world is bad. They then reach the equally foggy conclusion that the best government is the least government. Thus, they manifest an inordinate preference for gum-up-the-works amendments to the Constitution, such as the proposals for limiting the number of terms legislators may serve and requiring super-majorities to increase not just tax rates, but government revenues. To Reed's evident discomfort, they are without a clue about foreign policy, except for the premises that foreigners are wicked and international organizations are wickeder. They are, of course, consistently in favor of support for Israel, but the Middle East is fast becoming a backwater as the focus of world history shifts eastward.

Liberation theologians like to say that they are formulating a theology "from below," giving revolutionary voice to the voiceless masses. American evangelical political theory, such as it is, really is "from below." It has been formulated by people who have never thought of themselves as rulers and, consequently, have no idea how to rule. It is not enough.

The Catholic Alliance is perhaps the most daring of all Pat Robertson's innovations. It was designed to provide a political home for culturally conservative Catholics. The fact that the Alliance has been as successful as it has is probably the fault of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the bishops themselves are for the most part faithful and intelligent men, their national organization is served by the sort of fatuous liberal bureaucracy that has done so much to destroy the mainline Protestant denominations. The bureaucrats can tolerate, because they must, the traditional Catholic opposition to abortion and euthanasia, but they seek without respite to submerge these things in a popular front agenda that is otherwise indistinguishable from that of the most reactionary-left elements of the Democratic Party. Like the evangelicals, culturally conservative Catholics have turned to the Republican Party and its collateral organizations for lack of a hospitable alternative.

Reed shows a certain predilection for aspects of Catholic social theory. He admires the ability of educated Catholics to frame moral issues in terms of natural law. He quotes Pius XI on the need for limited government. Like most people interested in devolving functions from a central government, he is intrigued by the notion of subsidiarity. However, the fact is that Catholic statecraft and evangelical political theory cannot survive in alliance indefinitely. Catholic theory does not look on government as an unavoidable evil, but as a divine institution, the means whereby we achieve collectively that good which we could not achieve as private individuals. It is democratic, in the sense that it requires rulers to rule with the consent of the government, but it is not egalitarian. It does not find hierarchy suspect, whether based on learning or birth. It never quite came to terms with market economics.

If given its head, Catholic social theory will restructure society as did the great Catholic post-war statesmen of Europe. Adenauer in Germany, de Gasperi in Italy, and later de Gaulle in France, all created "christian democratic" regimes that worked spectacularly well for several decades, which I suppose is all that you can ask of any political philosophy. They produced what were in essence moralistic welfare states, which proved far more successful than the secular-left welfare state being built by the Labor Party in Great Britain at the same time. These states were friendly to religion, breathtakingly solicitous of families by American standards, and even good for business unless you wanted to start your own company. Doubtless they were doomed by the excessive faith of their creators in the ability of the state to control the economy for the common good, but there was nevertheless a great deal to be said for them. Still, I do not think they are what the Christian Coalition has in mind.

Perhaps America will do better. The Christian Coalition, in alliance with like-minded organizations, might be the template for a future Christian Democratic Party of America (which might, of course, be called the Republican Party). American Christian Democracy would, one hopes, have a clearer understanding than its European predecessors that wealth is easier to redistribute than to create. It would also, I trust, avoid the European mistake of supporting churches so much that they no longer have to worry about maintaining an active membership. Naturally, American Christian Democracy would also have to recreate a legal structure consistent with human life as we known it.

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.


This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. For more information, please click on the following line:
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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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

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The Flame is Green

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The Long View: The Future of the Papacy

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus BenedictI see that Richard McBrien has an updated version of The Lives of the Popes. John's essay isn't really a review of McBrien's book, it is more along the lines of an attempt to set the record straight. This essay would be a good counter-point to the reviews of McBrien's book on Amazon.

I am certain McBrien is thrilled by the election of Pope Francis, but it shall be interesting to see what McBrien says when Francis fails to act on his plan. In his own way, Francis is as mis-understood as Benedict.

The Future of the Papacy


by John J. Reilly

On the whole, Richard McBrien's current bestseller, "The Lives of the Popes," is not a very good book. While the author does have the good grace to warn in the introduction that he is arguing for a particular model of ecclesiology, still the work is usually tendentious, sometimes spiteful and occasionally sloppy. (At the very least, the publisher should have assigned an editor who knew some Latin.) A paradoxical use of the book may be as evidence that Pius X's attitude toward theologians may have been right after all.

Be this as it may, the Epilogue entitled "The Future of the Papacy" does raise some interesting points. Fr. McBrien notes that history is liberating because it teaches us that things were not always as they are now. Because the papacy in times past was not always as it has been for the past century or so, he suggests, there is some reason to suppose that it will be different again in the future. His point is well taken; John Paul II himself took it in his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" (That They May Be One). However, in this context, it may not have quite the implications that "The Lives of the Popes" would lead you to believe.

A notion that runs through the "Lives of the Popes" (as well as through other recent discussions of the subject) is that the history of the papacy falls rather neatly into two halves. In the first millennium of the Christian era, according to this schema, the Bishop of Rome enjoyed a unique prestige among the world's bishops. The Apostolic See even acquired secular power in central Italy as civilization went to wrack and ruin. However, it was only in the second millennium (the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085) makes a reasonable transition point) that the papacy became a sovereign monarchy. This happened first in the secular and then increasingly in the ecclesiastical realm. Although the broadest claims to papal authority are medieval, there is a lot to be said for the observation that the actual power of the papacy over the governance of the Church reached its maximum after 1870, when the Apostolic See was involuntarily stripped of the distraction of the Papal States.

Today, according to some critics, the process of centralization has reached such an extreme degree that one might reasonably expect it to start to reverse. In fact, the emphasis by the Second Vatican Council on the collegiality of bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, is cited as the beginning of this process. Since we have already had two historical epochs, a proper respect for Hegel (and maybe for Joachim of Fiore) makes it almost inevitable that we consider the possibility of a third. Fr. McBrien is particularly keen on the notion that the third millennium will resemble the first more than the second. The pope will no longer be a monarch, either over secular subjects or over his fellow bishops. Rather, he will be a conciliator, whose special role will be to promote Christian unity. He will leave matters of discipline to local bishops and assemblies, while theology will be the province of the experts. Such as Fr. McBrien.

Periods of a thousand years do not normally make useful units of historical analysis, but still there is a fair amount of truth to this schema of two eras. There is even some sense in the anticipation of a Third Age. The chief point that needs to be added is that the papacy has never existed in a vacuum. The mutations it has undergone in the past 2000 years are only partly the result of the logic of its own development. The short explanation for these changes is that the papacy was simply mirroring the political evolution of the societies in which it lived. The pope was once a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

If anything, the papacy has been ahead of the curve in terms of the development of supranational organizations. Without entering into a discussion of the merits of organizations like the WTO and the IMF, still it is a good bet that more and more of the world's business will be looked after by specialized international regulatory agencies. There are already a lot of these. You don't hear about them much because, like the venerable Universal Postal Union, they have the good sense to stick to genuinely international issues and otherwise leave their national affiliates to run themselves. This is the model that the Fr. McBriens of the world would like the Church to embrace.

On its face, the model is not without merits. The principle of subsidiarity, not to say common sense, dictates that the units of any global organization should normally be self-governing. The Catholic hierarchy is a hierarchy of authority, not of administration. Even those of us who applaud the intervention of the Vatican to correct local scandals in teaching and liturgy must acknowledge that there is something wrong when parents in New Jersey are writing letters to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to complain that the nun teaching their kids' CCD class is a self-proclaimed witch. The real question, of course, is whether the problem is overreaching by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or incompetence on the part of the witch's bishop.

As is so often the case with predictions about the future, it seems reasonable to forecast a near-term period of heightened conflict, followed by a durable resolution that may well hold for a large slice of the next millennium. I agree that the current situation is not stable. On the one hand, there is a disgruntled clerisy of theologians in the colleges, plus a few bishops, who want the right to define Catholicism as anything they say it is. On the other hand, there is an episcopate that is reasonably orthodox but reluctant to challenge the experts. The Vatican greatly prefers not to intervene locally, but it is hard not to do so when the increasing ease of communications broadcasts every scandal worldwide. This just makes the clerisy madder, which invites more intervention. Something is going to give here.

The current assumption among the "just wait until the next pope" liberals is that what will give will be the papacy. The College of Cardinals, tired of getting all those weird letters from New Jersey, will elect a congenial makeweight at the next conclave. He will write a few encyclicals in which he encourages the fashionable theologies to be fruitful and multiply, while most of his time will be spent promoting peace-and-justice initiatives submitted to him from the better Catholic universities. The Catholic Church will then become like the easygoing Anglican Church, with which it will no doubt merge. The papacy will collapse back into its first-millennium role as an inter-episcopal mediator, and everyone will live happily ever after. You bet.

The problem with this scenario is that it extrapolates the present into the indefinite future. It does seem reasonable that the third millennium of the Catholic Church in general and the papacy in particular will differ from the second. It may also be true that the third will resemble the first in some important ways. The flaw in the predictions made by many of the people who promote this model, however, is that there may be a resemblance between the first millennium and the third that they have not thought of: the absence of professional academic theologians.

By the end of the 20th century, we have come to think of theologians as just another part of the professoriate. However, the idea of a class of persons paid to teach and do research and criticize is not self-obvious. Most societies have not had such a class at all. Those that have had one have usually had it for only a few centuries at a time. There were such people for the first 500 years of the first millennium in the West. Athens, for instance, was a college town throughout the Roman period. The significant point is that the people who taught there were not theologians, but rhetoricians and philosophers. Although the early Church made use of philosophical ideas developed in the schools, it did not turn the ancient academies into Christian institutions. In fact, it eventually shut them down. A "theologian" in the first millennium was normally a bishop, someone like Augustine or John Chrysostom, who formulated theological propositions for the practical purposes of teaching and apologetics.

If we are going to think in units of centuries, then we should consider the possibility that the critical style of intellectual life that has characterized the West since the 18th century may cease to be ubiquitous. For instance, Francis Fukuyama's book, "The End of History," was much ridiculed a few years ago for suggesting that history ended with the end of the Cold War. In reality, he suggested nothing so crude. What he did say was that the possibilities of political theory within the Western tradition had been exhausted, which I think is not only plausible but true. Similarly, it is a given among many physicists that we are only a jump or two away from a general unification theory, or "theory of everything." Such a theory would not confer omniscience; it would simply unite cosmology and nuclear physics in a small set of equations. After the theory is achieved, there would still be physicists, but the enterprise of advanced physics would have fundamentally changed. It would become a matter of looking for the implications of what is already known, and of looking for better ways to express it and teach it.

As I understand it, this is very much what happened to theology in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. For three or four centuries after the Edict of Milan, the practice of theology was exuberantly speculative, and most of it happened in the Byzantine East. It was one of those eras in history in which high theory drove power politics. Popular enthusiasm was engaged by controversies of fantastic subtlety that today are fully understood only by specialists, and you wonder even about the specialists. Thereafter, however, Eastern Christianity lost this speculative quality. It was no longer necessary. The Eastern Church's theology was "finished," just as plane geometry was "finished" in Hellenistic times, and perhaps as physics will be "finished" in the 21st century.

In the first third of the first millennium, the world's bishops tended to discourage theological subtlety as part of their campaign against Gnosticism. By the last third, the major theological questions had already been settled. It was in the former and the latter contexts that it made sense for the pope to act primarily as an arbitrator and organizer. During the convulsive middle period, of course, the pope did often intervene in the great Christological controversies, but even then he rarely proposed formulations of doctrine himself. When it came time for the papacy to evangelize the newly barbarian West, the deposit of the faith had already been almost completely formulated by the Fathers of the Church. Everything necessary was already on the shelf. Much later, when the West developed its own intellectual life, it became necessary for the pope to act proactively on matters of faith and discipline, rather than just as a mediator. It is necessary still. However, it may not be necessary forever.

It really is not hard to predict the future, since almost anything you predict that is possible is bound to happen eventually. The trick is to get the timescale right. Nevertheless, I would be willing to suggest the following will be the state of things sooner rather than later: A Vatican that acts more like a senior patriarchate, a laity that rarely feels the need to inquire beyond the local bishop on points of doctrine, and a small class of clerical theologians who see their primary function as apologetics. I don't think you can have one part of this future without the other. It's a package deal.




Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Religion

I wasn't a Catholic when I first started reading John's website. He is probably partly to blame for how I turned out, along with G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Fr. John Neuhaus. Which is just as well, since none of these men are around to defend themselves any longer. John had a theological bent that showed in all of his writing. I was intrigued, and it led me on.

John's take on papal encyclicals, and the papacy itself was particularly formative. The Anglo-Saxon parts of Europe and their overseas progeny are currently ascendant, and we are right to see those individualistic cultures as uniquely successful, and as the birthplace of the political notions that currently dominate the world. However, it is worth remembering that space was opened in Western Civilization for liberty when a Pope forced an Emperor to kneel in the snow. I have come to see this as one of the defining features of Western Civilization, and also how Western Christianity differs from Eastern. The space that opened up between Church and State allowed for more real freedom than anyone had ever had, and also served as the first example of the principle of checks and balances that American democracy embraces.

John saw the Papacy as a unique institution in the world, one tied up with the fate of the West. It is also the nucleus of something greater, as the oldest transnational institution. The Bishop of Rome has variously been "a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The Pope may not have many divisions, but the Holy See bulks large in international politics. If a system of world governance crystallizes, the Holy See will be a part of it. This is why people who aren't Catholic care so much about who is Pope. They rightly surmise that much is at stake. On a personal level, John was a fan of Benedict the XVI as well. John understood him better than most. I don't think John would have been surprised by Benedict's resignation. John always saw him as an unwilling pope who accepted elevation out of obedience, when he would have much rather gone back to live a life of writing, prayer, and meditation. I am sad that John didn't live to see Pope Francis. I would rather have enjoyed his commentary. Ah well. Perhaps we'll catch up someday.


I am what is known as an "orthodox" Roman Catholic. This means that, while my views are conservative, I do not think I am any more Catholic than the Pope. This is an important point

Readers who have looked under the other headings of this Web site will have noticed a certain theological twist in everything I write. Here are some pieces that deal directly with religious questions. Just click on the underlined words:


The Reformation: A History [Diarmaid MacCulloch on one of God's Great Mistakes.] The Interior Castle [Saint Teresa of Avila describes the best case.]  


Revelation of the Magi [Brent Landau's translation and commentary of an ancient Syriac text that is not quite the Party Line.] Findings [Charles Upton chronicles the decay of Traditionalism in the latter Kali Yuga.] The Red Book [Carl Gustav Jung's psyche in illuminated color, also called Liber Novus.]


  American Babylon [Father Richard John Neuhaus's last book was on politics in the light of the eschaton.]


  Earthly Powers [Michael Burleigh on "The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War."] Eschatology [Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) on Death, Eternal Life, and the End of the World.]


  Spe Salvi [A review of Benedict XVI's second encyclical, Saved by Hope. The document is really about the idea of progress.] Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion [David Gelernter assures Americans that they are not as other men.]

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

How Many Divisions does the Pope have?

A fun piece of history, and an interesting artifact, is the M1868 Pontifico, the only modern rifle ever manufactured specifically for the Vatican. An extremely rare military rifle, the M1868 was manufactured for the Zuavi Pontifici, the international brigade that defended the Papal States. There were a mere 5,000 Zuavi, the Papal States being by the 1860s a small and derelict Italian principality left behind by the great nationalist movements of the XIXth century. When King Victor Emmanuel II annexed the Papal States in 1868, the Zuavi had no hope of preserving the independence of the Papal States by force of arms. Pope Pius IX retreated inside the walls of the Vatican, and never again left until his death in 1878.

This represented a nadir of the power of the papacy both politically and spiritually. The nationalist movements meant that the local churches were largely under the control of the nation state. The remaining properties of the monastic orders were seized even in Catholic countries. Following his election as abbot in 1868, Gregor Mendel spent the latter part of his life defending his abbey from the depredations of the Hapsburgs, to the detriment of further experiments in genetics.

Pio Nono (as Pius IX was familiarly known), was famously not amused by this development. The Syllabus of Errors actually dates from before the loss of the Papal States, but the more time Pius IX had to think about the new world order, the less he found to like about it. This dislike is not entirely without justification. The unification of Italy had something of a colonial character, with the North dominating the South. The strife between the industrial North and the agrarian South of Italy continue to this day. [the North makes Ferraris, the south Mafiosi]

The involuntary stripping of the Papal States from the Pope had the paradoxical effect of making the Papacy stronger. Freed from the distractions of temporal rule, the popes eventually discovered a profound moral authority as the only remaining transnational institution in the West.  This was abetted by the very success of the nation state, which had discovered an astounding ability to tax and organize the lives and possessions of its subjects. This enabled great progress as well as great devastation: the Great War would not have been possible without the nationalist ability to mobilize the entire citizenry of a state to fight a war. The Papacy functioned here as a court of last resort, the only existing institution you could appeal to over the nation state.

This did not occur immediately, but developed over the course of two generations, taking full flower in the social teachings of Pope Leo XIII. The international reach and prestige of the papacy has continued to increase ever since.

Thus when Stalin asked, "how many divisions does the Pope have?", he did not realize that the elimination of the last remnant of the Papal armies had made the Pope more powerful than ever.

h/t DarwinCatholic