Belief

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.

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.

This adverse reaction to both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was first truly articulated by post French Revolution philosopher Joseph de Maistre. Such a view was readily apparent when the University of Dallas's Frederick Wilhelmsen wrote, "...because the world is secularist and the Church must sacramentalize the whole of existence.  A sacral world is one with the Faith's perpetual rejection of Manicheanism and of any dualism that sharpely (sic) divorces the sacred from the profane." His daughter, Dr. Alexandra Wilhelmsen echoes these sentiments as well as (in a somewhat softer vein) Alasdair MacIntyre.

The ultimate appeal of monarchy is the ease of control it brings. When sovereignty is vested with an ultra-orthodox monarch or a "benign" tyrant who in turn is answerable only to the Catholic Church and not to the people, it is clearly easier to blur the line between theology and secular law.  And while it is true that only the truest believers of the Catholic Right are actually advocating a return to actual monarchy, many--especially of the Straussian/neoconservative variety--do desire the strong leader, "the unitary executive." It is no coincidence that many ultra-traditionalist Catholics such as Deal Hudson and William Donohue find comfort in the presidency of George W. Bush; a leader who clearly disdains accountability.

Part of the answer is that since the ascendancy of Thomism, a specific vision of Natural Law that has guided much of Catholic philosophy. Named for the church philosopher Thomas Aquinas who developed it, much of its principles are grounded in the classic teachings of Aristotle and Classical Greece. Inherent in this school of thought is that inequality is a given in nature. As Stephen Holmes explains the vision of "Classic Right" theorists as well as why they are so threatened by Enlightenment thought:

 

`To conceive nature in traditional fashion, as inherently hierarchical, was to say that social ranks and political superiority require no special justification. A state of nature where individuals were "all equal and independent," by contrast suddenly puts subjection and subordination on the defensive. State-of-nature theorists, in short, meant to force defenders of hereditary authority and monopoly to explain and justify all deviations from the standard of natural equality. Like other liberals, Locke used the contractualist idea to discredit the strong theory of intergrationalist obligations entailed by traditional patriarchalism. His (Locke's) ultimate aim was to dismantle a specific set of involuntary hierarchical relations characteristic of traditional European societies. His proximate aim was to confute those such as Robert Filmer, who asserted that nature itself had endorsed hereditary monarchy' (i)

Simply put, monarchy--as well as its more sinister relation, dictatorship--obviates accountability. Power can be more easily abused without any need to justify actions. And when policy--especially that which favors those with superfluous wealth--can be backed up with religious imprimatur, there is less of likelihood for dissent. The fear of damnation is an extremely useful tool to avoid discussion. Enforced compliance disguised as national unity is their explanation for the necessity of such a thought-suffocating society.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, then running for the presidency, addressed a Southern Baptist leadership uneasy with his Catholicism. He assured them that the subjective teachings of his personal faith would not be imposed upon his fellow citizens:

 

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Now, less than half of a century later, a relatively small, but powerful group of Catholics would undo JFK's understanding of religion's proper role in American democracy, one of contribution but not control. The aforementioned theocratic gurus McCloskey, Weigel, Novak as well as others, whisper their distrust of the common man into the ears of others in positions of power such as US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and US Senator Sam Brownback (R-Ks). They seem bent upon changing our very understanding of democracy itself, reverting it from one based upon Enlightenment principles to one that is more reminiscent of Aristotle's Athens, one where the master not the slave understood what the common good expected of each individual.

This paternalistic attitude of superiors wanting to tell the masses what their personal morality must be is part and parcel of much of today's Catholic Right.  And just as royalty once justified their power by divine right, these nefarious actors seek to justify non-meritorious, non-commutative privilege via the very same distorted reasoning.

Frank L. Cocozzelli is a private practice attorney who lives with his family in New York City. He is a director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, on behalf of which he co-authored with Eve Herold the White Paper, "An Unholy Alliance: How Neoconservatives and the Religious Right Have Joined Forces to Fight Stem Cell Research." He is also the author of a 2008 study published in The Public Eye magazine, "How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death." He writes a weekly column on neoconservatives and the Catholic Right at Talk to Action , and is currently working on a book on contemporary liberalism.