The Lure of Monarchy and its Variants (The Catholic Right, Twentieth in a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 09:48:44 AM EST
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 descendent 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.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank Cocozzelli :  Part One  Part Two  Part Three   Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen

(i)  Holmes, Stephen, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, Page 193.

I decided to do this piece because of a reader's comment. it goes to show how a post can start the ball rolling on a given issue.

Anyway, this is an important part of the Catholic Right's mindset that must be understood. if more Americans--especially Catholic Americans--understand that this is the type of society that many of these actors are looking for, then our democracy will face less of a threat.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 09:53:25 AM EST

Some people want to be told by others how to think and believe, and some other people are only too willing to tell others how to think and believe. The monarchists and the Christian Right are prime examples of this. They, and our current administration also tend to lead by means of fear rather than love. We are told we have to fear terrorism, the wrath of God, and hellfire. Why are we not encouraged to love?

by khughes1963 on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 04:05:40 PM EST

I like this installment, Frank. One group that seems to be rather blatantly obvious about its monarchical mindset is the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP,) founded upon the beliefs of Brazilian professor and intellectual Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. The American branch has received attention for protesting gay rights, same-sex marriage, marching in anti-abortion protests, and protesting the films Dogma and The Last Temptation of Christ. I don't recall where I read this, but I remember an article that quoted a TFP member as saying that the 20th century was not the best century in which to be living. I wonder if they would have preferred the 12th or the 13th centuries. Perhaps they even regret the Renaissance.

In this context, I also remember a letter published several years ago in our local paper, the  Dayton Daily News, in which a college student from Oakwood (the most affluent town in my area) attending the Franciscan University of Steubenville (no surprise there either) attacked the French Revolution and the ideas that emanated from it.

The Founding Fathers strove hard to establish a political system designed to avoid the abuses of a monarchical system. Don't forget that one element of anti-Catholic prejudice that Catholics experienced in this country happened to be a very real association of the institutional Church with conservative and even reactionary politics. The example of the feckless James II of England comes to mind. After coming to the throne in 1685 upon the death of his brother Charles II, James II exhibited the same political denseness and inability to learn from practical experience that characterized the last of the senior line Bourbon monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X. It was said of the last Bourbons that they forgot nothing and learned nothing. The same could be said of the last male Stuart monarch, James II. For many of the same reasons, James II also lost his crown and the English forced him into exile in France. His son James (the Old Pretender) and grandson Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie/the Young Pretender) also failed to recover the throne. The monarchical wannabes you describe here seem to be oblivious to history.

I would have thought that the changes of Vatican II would show that the Church was more interested in concentrating on political systems that upheld the dignity of individual human beings and fair distribution of goods and services. It is unfortunate that John Paul II seemed to give up on it, and I think it was a reflection of his lack of experience with democratic governments. Poland was a republic at the time John Paul II was born, but before the war, it had become a nationalist dictatorship, was then occupied by the Nazis, and finally wound up ruled by a Communist dictatorship.

I am glad you mentioned the Mortara case. I thought David I. Kertzer's book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara was excellent, and I recommend it. I would also recommend Chris Hedges' book  American Fascism.

by khughes1963 on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 11:18:17 AM EST

This is exactly the type of coment I was hoping for. Change within the Church unfortunately seems to carry a price. Just look at what John Courtney Murray, S.J, Hans Kung and Yves Congers went through prior to Vatican II. Even Aquinas had to endure the forces of reaction from Cardinals at Oxford and Paris.

But if we are to win this battle with the more narrow-minded, we must be willing to risk alienation, even within our own church.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 01:44:32 PM EST

This concerns me with the pressure that was brought on Kerry and other Roman Catholic politicians by the church.

It was clear that the Vatican was trying to dictate American laws, by threatening the politicians with censure or excommunication.   So, it is going to take a Roman Catholic politician with guts if they get into office.

I do wish Kerry would run again- and if he had to, stand up against the Vatican when they tried to dictate to this country through him.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 11:24:24 AM EST


Good comments on this. There are not a few Catholics, like my parents and myself, who ignored the bishops' admonishments on single issue voting. Speaking for myself, I think they have totally forfeited their moral authority with their mishandling of the sexual abuse cases by some members of the clergy. I have an informed conscience, and it doesn't necessarily agree with theirs.

by khughes1963 on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 11:33:28 AM EST

I think the St. Louis  archbishop alienated as many Catholic voters as he controlled during the 2004 election.

by NancyP on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 02:39:40 PM EST

Courage, that is exactly what the more mainstream and liberal soul of Catholicism desperately needs.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 03:46:46 PM EST

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