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Political modernity and Vatican policy

Here’s an interesting analysis of the outlook behind recent Vatican policies regarding Church, state, democracy, human rights and whatnot: What Kind of Caesar?. According to the author, Russell Hittinger, traditional Catholic teaching assumed that the state has a necessary sacral dimension—all authority, after all, is from God—and naturally wanted that dimension to be Catholic. The post-French Revolution state attempts on the contrary to abolish that dimension. Until Vatican II, the Church objected to the attempt on the ground that if the sacral dimension were lacking it would be impossible for state authority to remain both real and limited. In the absence of a superior principle that justifies it and puts it in a definite setting, government would end up anarchic or totalitarian.

Two hundred years into the Enlightenment, at Vatican II, the Church decided that settled realities had to be accepted, the secular state could indeed function without immediately collapsing into anarchy or tyranny, and the point was to assure it of popular acceptance and somehow to limit it so it could establish order and allow human life to develop toward its true goals free of political oppression. Democracy and human rights, it was thought, could do all that. Perhaps carried away by the optimism of the early ’60s, the Vatican II generation decided the new situation was even a good thing. After all, why should the Church have to compete with the state in the sacrality business?

The desacralization of the state was to mean a demotion of the state. Gaudium et Spes (one of the documents of Vatican II) expressed the new attitude:

“As for public authority, it is not its function to determine the character of the civilization, but rather to establish the conditions and to use the means which are capable of fostering the life of culture among all even within the minorities of a nation.It is necessary to do everything possible to prevent culture from being turned away from its proper end and made to serve as an instrument of political or economic power.”

The secular state was thus to be strictly subordinated to the life of the society as a whole, and particularly to its spiritual side: culture and religion. It is culture, and not the state, that becomes the theater for the work of conversion, and it therefore becomes supremely important:

“Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history and the position he takes toward the fundamental events of life such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.”

[From Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s major social encyclical.]

So the state was to be limited, and culture and religion free. It didn’t work out that way, and there are no prospects things will get better. In fact, the old view was right: the state that recognizes no sacred dimension cannot limit itself and becomes absolute. Democracy now means that everything is done in the name of the people and for their supposed benefit, but it’s done by their betters in accordance with their own judgment. The democratic requirement of popular consent has come to mean that the people are required to approve of what’s being done, and if they don’t there’s something wrong with them and they have to be re-educated. Human rights, which were supposed to limit government and protect the freedom of culture and religion, instead expand government and require it to remake or abolish culture and drive religion out of public life, all in the name of freedom, equality and tolerance. Some examples we’ve commented on at Turnabout:

  • Multiculturalism, which has become fundamental to the modern state, means that no particular culture can have public standing. That is as much as to say that no particular culture can exist as the way of life of any human society. Culture must therefore be abolished as such.
  • If ordinary people say they don’t like the PC nonsexist multicultural society, everyone who matters agrees that the government should do whatever it takes to straighten them out and in the meantime make sure their views don’t affect anything.
  • In particular, the religious views of ordinary people shouldn’t be allowed to affect anything. Such views by definition are irrational and intolerant.
  • Human rights, as authoritatively construed by treaties, require governments radically to alter the cultures of their own people in unprecedented ways with regard to matters as fundamental as sex and family life. Human rights thus require the strict subordination of culture to ideology.

So it seems the new policy adopted in the 60s doesn’t fit the actual situation or any situation that is now foreseeable. It’s unclear where the Church will go on all this. When a mistaken policy is big and public enough it becomes very hard to deal with, because the consequences of admitting there’s a problem are so immediate and horrifying. Hence the happy talk that’s been such a feature of the post-Vatican II Church. Nonetheless, things are changing. As a result of the scandal regarding clerical pederasty there’s been a lot less happy talk in the American church recently, and recent trends in the EU seem to have had somewhat the same effect in Europe. Open recognition that there are serious problems had been developing for some time. Even in his 1995 article Hittinger had noted that:

“the long train of human history shows that the political imperium has never successfully resisted the temptation to sacralize itself. What the modern democracies proposed, and what Rome has only recently blessed, takes enormous discipline.”

He then pointed out that in Evangelium Vitae, then just released, the Pope had observed the use of “human rights” as a vehicle for the absolutism of the modern state, but nonetheless stuck to his fundamental acceptance of political modernity and of political standards drawn from within modernity itself.

It seems doubtful to me that the Church will be able to maintain its attachment to political modernity. Politically modernist Catholicism doesn’t work and can’t be made to work, because experience has shown so clearly the correctness of the old Catholic view, that the state has a necessary sacral dimension. Moderns try to dodge the issue by abolishing capital punishment and trying to substitute endless dialogue for war, but the power of life and death and the right to demand extreme sacrifice are essential features of the state. Without them the state simply can’t exist. But what can justify such things if the state is simply an agreement we enter into? And if the state feels empowered to claim them without justification, as it necessarily will, rational justification vanishes and there’s no limit to what the state can claim.