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Authoritarian Institutions Have No Place in a Democratic Society

A key debate in the Catholic Church tracks with a larger question facing American society: whether to cede freedom to a central power that wants less accountability.
 
 
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There is a battle going on within the Catholic Church that reflects the battle also occurring within American society: whether to cede individual freedom to a central power that simultaneously seeks less accountability for its actions. And in both cases, the forces of greater authority seek a great leap backwards past the social contract beliefs of the Enlightenment: a course of action that spells danger for American democracy. The battle of divine right monarchy versus liberal democracy continues.

As a Catholic, I often have to remind myself that the Church itself is something of a monarchy.  She is the direct descendant of the Roman Empire, seeing herself as something as God's government on Earth. But instead of a Caesar who commands armies, there is a pope who commands a religious hierarchy of sorts. And outside of the College of Cardinals who choose a pope, there is little popular democracy involved in Vatican affairs. It should then be no surprise that the more ultra-traditionalist, ultra-orthodox minded leaders of the Church often find conservatively autocratic societies more to their liking.

The Church has often been ruled by autocratic popes such as Pius IX, a pontiff who saw himself as the very personification of Catholicism (Pius IX, who began as a liberal reformer, evolved into a reactionary. He is perhaps best known for his kidnapping and raising of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, from his parents). Perhaps rays of light such as Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, were aberrations, She now seems to be heading back in that direction.

During Vatican II, there was a move by John XXIII to inject a tolerance for dissenting opinions. The Church made peace with liberal democracy and modernity and began bringing herself up to date on many matters through the process of aggiornomento. This necessary process continued to a slightly less extent under his successor, but was quelled mercilessly by the more autocratic John Paul II. That policy continues under Benedict XVI.

As with John Paul II, Benedict XVI seeks counsel from those who find little or no satisfaction with liberal democracy. They view the "golden age" of the Catholic Church as the Middle Ages, the time before Renaissance, Enlightenment and of course Reformation. This, we must remember is a world where the Church never had to justify any of its actions. This is the view of men such as Rev. John McCloskey, George Weigel and Michael Novak. These are men who seek to knock down the wall separating church and state and have ultra-orthodox Catholic morality define secular law.

In both Part Five as well as in Part Eight the issue of monarchy was broached. It is in their affinity for Carlism of Spain's not-so-distant past that more extreme elements of the Catholic Right we can find an understanding.

For ultra-traditional Catholics such as Messrs. McCloskey, Weigel and Novak, any disagreement with an orthodox understanding of Catholic morality is viewed as being hostile to all religious thought. That is because for these Catholics there is no other true religion; Catholicism and religion is one and the same thing. In their minds, the "freedom of religion" means the freedom of their religion. While their ideal society would tolerate the practice of other faiths, it would not tolerate different notions of good and evil. Episcopalian or Jewish law--which both unlike Catholic teachings support embryonic stem cell research and divorce--would have little or no bearing on the national discourse--unless it converged with ultra-traditional Catholic teachings. Legal birth control would also be subject to greater limitation. And for these folks yesteryear's Spain, replete with Catholic monarchs and subsequently with strongman Francisco Franco, is more akin to their dream society: national morality not arrived at by commonly shared notions of good and evil, but one decreed by a subjective theology.

 
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