Front Page Titles (by Subject) VI: POLITICAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHURCH - The History of Freedom and Other Essays
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VI: POLITICAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHURCH - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays 
The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
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POLITICAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHURCH1
There is, perhaps, no stronger contrast between the revolutionary times in which we live and the Catholic ages, or even the period of the Reformation, than in this: that the influence which religious motives formerly possessed is now in a great measure exercised by political opinions. As the theory of the balance of power was adopted in Europe as a substitute for the influence of religious ideas, incorporated in the power of the Popes, so now political zeal occupies the place made vacant by the decline of religious fervour, and commands to an almost equal extent the enthusiasm of men. It has risen to power at the expense of religion, and by reason of its decline, and naturally regards the dethroned authority with the jealousy of a usurper. This revolution in the relative position of religious and political ideas was the inevitable consequence of the usurpation by the Protestant State of the functions of the Church, and of the supremacy which, in the modern system of government, it has assumed over her. It follows also that the false principles by which religious truth was assailed have been transferred to the political order, and that here, too, Catholics must be prepared to meet them; whilst the objections made to the Church on doctrinal grounds have lost much of their attractiveness and effect, the enmity she provokes on political grounds is more intense. It is the same old enemy with a new face. No reproach is more common, no argument better suited to the temper of these times, than those which are founded on the supposed inferiority or incapacity of the Church in political matters. As her dogma, for instance, is assailed from opposite sides,—as she has had to defend the divine nature of Christ against the Ebionites, and His humanity against Docetism, and was attacked both on the plea of excessive rigorism and excessive laxity (Clement Alex., Stromata, iii. 5),—so in politics she is arraigned on behalf of the political system of every phase of heresy. She was accused of favouring revolutionary principles in the time of Elizabeth and James I., and of absolutist tendencies under James II. and his successors. Since Protestant England has been divided into two great political parties, each of these reproaches has found a permanent voice in one of them. Whilst Tory writers affirm that the Catholic religion is the enemy of all conservatism and stability, the Liberals consider it radically opposed to all true freedom.
“What are we to think,” says the Edinburgh Review (vol. ciii. p. 586), “of the penetration or the sincerity of a man who professes to study and admire the liberties of England and the character of her people, but who does not see that English freedom has been nurtured from the earliest times by resistance to Papal authority, and established by the blessing of a reformed religion? That is, under Heaven, the basis of all the rights we possess; and the weight we might otherwise be disposed to concede to M. de Montalembert’s opinions on England is materially lessened by the discovery that, after all, he would, if he had the power, place this free country under that spiritual bondage which broods over the empires of Austria or of Spain.”
On the other hand, let us hearken to the Protestant eloquence of the Quarterly Review (vol. xcii. p. 41):—
Tyranny, fraud, base adulation, total insensibility, not only to the worth of human freedom, but to the majesty of law and the sacredness of public and private right; these are the malignant and deadly features which we see stamped upon the conduct of the Roman hierarchy.
Besides which, we have the valuable opinion of Lord Derby, which no Catholic, we should suppose, east of the Shannon has forgotten, that Catholicism is “religiously corrupt, and politically dangerous.” Lord Macaulay tells us that it exclusively promoted the power of the Crown; Ranke, that it favours revolution and regicide. Whilst the Belgian and Sardinian Liberals accuse the Church of being the enemy of constitutional freedom, the celebrated Protestant statesman, Stahl, taunts her with the reproach of being the sole support and pillar of the Belgian constitution. Thus every error pronounces judgment on itself when it attempts to apply its rules to the standard of truth.
Among Catholics the state of opinion on these questions, whether it be considered the result of unavoidable circumstances, or a sign of ingenious accommodation, or a thing to be deplored, affords at least a glaring refutation of the idea that we are united, for good or for evil, in one common political system. The Church is vindicated by her defenders, according to their individual inclinations, from the opposite faults imputed to her; she is lauded, according to circumstances, for the most contradictory merits, and her authority is invoked in exclusive support of very various systems. O’Connell, Count de Montalembert, Father Ventura, proclaim her liberal, constitutional, not to say democratic, character; whilst such writers as Bonald and Father Taparelli associate her with the cause of absolute government. Others there are, too, who deny that the Church has a political tendency or preference of any kind; who assert that she is altogether independent of, and indifferent to, particular political institutions, and, while insensible to their influence, seeks to exercise no sort of influence over them. Each view may be plausibly defended, and the inexhaustible arsenal of history seems to provide impartially instances in corroboration of each. The last opinion can appeal to the example of the Apostles and the early Christians, for whom, in the heathen empire, the only part was unconditional obedience. This is dwelt upon by the early apologists: “Oramus etiam pro imperatoribus, pro ministris eorum et potestatibus, pro statu saeculi, pro rerum quiete, pro mora finis.”1 It has the authority, too, of those who thought with St. Augustine that the State had a sinful origin and character: “Primus fuit terrenae civitatis conditor fratricida.”1 The Liberals, at the same time, are strong in the authority of many scholastic writers, and of many of the older Jesuit divines, of St. Thomas and Suarez, Bellarmine, and Mariana. The absolutists, too, countenanced by Bossuet and the Gallican Church, and quoting amply from the Old Testament, can point triumphantly to the majority of Catholic countries in modern times. All these arguments are at the same time serviceable to our adversaries; and those by which one objection is answered help to fortify another.
The frequent recurrence of this sort of argument which appears to us as treacherous for defence as it is popular as a weapon of attack, shows that no very definite ideas prevail on the subject, and makes it doubtful whether history, which passes sentence on so many theories, is altogether consistent with any of these. Nevertheless it is obviously an inquiry of the greatest importance, and one on which controversy can never entirely be set at rest; for the relation of the spiritual and the secular power is, like that of speculation and revelation of religion and nature, one of those problems which remain perpetually open, to receive light from the meditations and experience of all ages, and the complete solution of which is among the objects, and would be the end, of all history.
At a time when the whole system of ecclesiastical government was under discussion, and when the temporal power was beginning to predominate over the Church in France, the greatest theologian of the age made an attempt to apply the principles of secular polity to the Church. According to Gerson (Opera, ii. 254), the fundamental forms into which Aristotle divides all government recur in the ecclesiastical system. The royal power is represented in the Papacy, the aristocracy by the college of cardinals, whilst the councils form an ecclesiastical democracy (timocratia). Analogous to this is the idea that the constitution of the Church served as the model of the Christian States, and that the notion of representation, for instance, was borrowed from it. But it is not by the analogy of her own forms that the Church has influenced those of the State; for in reality there is none subsisting between them, and Gerson’s adoption of a theory of Grecian origin proves that he scarcely understood the spirit of that mediæval polity which, in his own country especially, was already in its decay. For not only is the whole system of government, whether we consider its origin, its end, or its means absolutely and essentially different, but the temporal notion of power is altogether unknown in the Church. “Ecclesia subjectos non habet ut servos, sed ut filios.”1 Our Lord Himself drew the distinction: “Reges gentium dominantur eorum; et qui potestatem habent super eos, benefici vocantur. Vos autem non sic: sed qui major est in vobis, fiat sicut minor; et qui praedecessor, sicut minor” (Luc. xxii. 25, 26). The supreme authority is not the will of the rulers, but the law of the Church, which binds those who are its administrators as strictly as those who have only to obey it. No human laws were ever devised which could so thoroughly succeed in making the arbitrary exercise of power impossible, as that prodigious system of canon law which is the ripe fruit of the experience and the inspiration of eighteen hundred years. Nothing can be more remote from the political notions of monarchy than the authority of the Pope. With even less justice can it be said that there is in the Church an element of aristocracy, the essence of which is the possession of hereditary personal privileges. An aristocracy of merit and of office cannot, in a political sense, legitimately bear the name. By baptism all men are equal before the Church. Yet least of all can anything be detected corresponding to the democratic principle, by which all authority resides in the mass of individuals, and which gives to each one equal rights. All authority in the Church is delegated, and recognises no such thing as natural rights.
This confusion of the ideas belonging to different orders has been productive of serious and dangerous errors. Whilst heretics have raised the episcopate to a level with the papacy, the priesthood with the episcopate, the laity with the clergy, impugning successively the primacy, the episcopal authority, and the sacramental character of orders, the application of ideas derived from politics to the system of the Church led to the exaggeration of the papal power in the period immediately preceding the Reformation, to the claim of a permanent aristocratic government by the Council of Basel, and to the democratic extravagance of the Observants in the fourteenth century.
If in the stress of conflicting opinions we seek repose and shelter in the view that the kingdom of God is not of this world; that the Church, belonging to a different order, has no interest in political forms, tolerates them all, and is dangerous to none; if we try to rescue her from the dangers of political controversy by this method of retreat and evasion, we are compelled to admit her inferiority, in point of temporal influence, to every other religious system. Every other religion impresses its image on the society that professes it, and the government always follows the changes of religion. Pantheism and Polytheism, Judaism and Islamism, Protestantism, and even the various Protestant as well as Mahometan sects, call forth corresponding social and political forms. All power is from God, and is exercised by men in His stead. As men’s notions are, therefore, in respect to their position towards God, such must their notion of temporal power and obedience also be. The relation of man to man corresponds with his relations to God — most of all his relations towards the direct representative of God.
The view we are discussing is one founded on timidity and a desire of peace. But peace is not a good great enough to be purchased by such sacrifices. We must be prepared to do battle for our religious system in every other sphere as well as in that of doctrine. Theological error affects men’s ideas on all other subjects, and we cannot accept in politics the consequences of a system which is hateful to us in its religious aspect. These questions cannot be decided by mere reasoning, but we may obtain some light by inquiring of the experience of history; our only sure guide is the example of the Church herself. “Insolentissima est insania, non modo disputare, contra id quod videmus universam ecclesiam credere sed etiam contra id quod videmus eam facere. Fides enim ecclesiae non modo regula est fidei nostrae, sed etiam actiones ipsius actionum nostrarum, consuetudo ipsius consuetudinis quam observare debemus.”1
The Church which our Lord came to establish had a twofold mission to fulfil. Her system of doctrine, on the one hand, had to be defined and perpetually maintained. But it was also necessary that it should prove itself more than a mere matter of theory,—that it should pass into practice, and command the will as well as the intellect of men. It was necessary not only to restore the image of God in man, but to establish the divine order in the world. Religion had to transform the public as well as the private life of nations, to effect a system of public right corresponding with private morality and without which it is imperfect and insecure. It was to exhibit and confirm its victory and to perpetuate its influence by calling into existence, not only works of private virtue, but institutions which are the product of the whole life of nations, and bear an unceasing testimony to their religious sentiments. The world, instead of being external to the Church, was to be adopted by her and imbued with her ideas. The first, the doctrinal or intellectual part of the work, was chiefly performed in the Roman empire, in the midst of the civilisation of antiquity and of that unparalleled intellectual excitement which followed the presence of Christ on earth. There the faith was prepared for the world whilst the world was not yet ready to receive it. The empire in which was concentrated all the learning and speculation of ancient times was by its intellectual splendour, and in spite, we might even say by reason, of its moral depravity, the fit scene of the intellectual establishment of Christianity. For its moral degradation ensured the most violent antipathy and hostility to the new faith; while the mental cultivation of the age ensured a very thorough and ingenious opposition, and supplied those striking contrasts which were needed for the full discussion and vigorous development of the Christian system. Nowhere else, and at no other period, could such advantages have been found.
But for the other, equally essential part of her work the Church met with an insurmountable obstacle, which even the official conversion of the empire and all the efforts of the Christian emperors could not remove. This obstacle resided not so much in the resistance of paganism as a religion, as in the pagan character of the State. It was from a certain political sagacity chiefly that the Romans, who tolerated all religions,1 consistently opposed that religion which threatened inevitably to revolutionise a state founded on a heathen basis. It appeared from the first a pernicious superstition (“exitiabilem superstitionem,” Tacit. Annal. xv. 44), that taught its followers to be bad subjects (“exuere patriam,” Tacitus, Hist. v. 5), and to be constantly dissatisfied (“quibus praesentia semper tempora cum enormi libertate displicent,” Vopiscus, Vit. Saturn. 7). This hostility continued in spite of the protestations of every apologist, and of the submissiveness and sincere patriotism of the early Christians. They were so far from recognising what their enemies so vaguely felt, that the empire could not stand in the presence of the new faith, that it was the common belief amongst them, founded perhaps on the words of St. Paul, 2 Thess. ii. 7,1 that the Roman empire would last to the end of the world.2
The persecution of Julian was caused by the feeling of the danger which menaced the pagan empire from the Christian religion. His hostility was not founded on his attachment to the old religion of Rome, which he did not attempt to save. He endeavoured to replace it by a new system which was to furnish the State with new vigour to withstand the decay of the old paganism and the invasion of Christianity. He felt that the old religious ideas in which the Roman State had grown up had lost their power, and that Rome could only be saved by opposing at all hazards the new ideas. He was inspired rather with a political hatred of Christianity than with a religious love of paganism. Consequently Christianity was the only religion he could not tolerate. This was the beginning of the persecution of the Church on principles of liberalism and religious toleration, on the plea of political necessity, by men who felt that the existing forms of the State were incompatible with her progress. It is with the same feeling of patriotic aversion for the Church that Symmachus says (Epist. x. 61): “We demand the restoration of that religion which has so long been beneficial to the State . . . of that worship which has subdued the universe to our laws, of those sacrifices which repulsed Hannibal from our walls and the Gauls from the Capitol.”
Very soon after the time of Constantine it began to appear that the outward conversion of the empire was a boon of doubtful value to religion. “Et postquam ad Christianos principes venerint, potentia quidem et divitiis major sed virtutibus minor facta est,” says St. Jerome (in Vita Malchi). The zeal with which the emperors applied the secular arm for the promotion of Christianity was felt to be incompatible with its spirit and with its interest as well. “Religion,” says Lactantius (Inst. Div. v. 19), “is to be defended by exhorting, not by slaying, not by severity, but by patience; not by crime, but by faith: . . . nihil enim est tam voluntarium quam religio.”1 “Deus,” says St. Hilary of Poitiers (“ad Constantium,” Opp. i. p. 1221 c), “obsequio non eget necessario, non requirit coactam confessionem.”2 St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom protest in like manner against the intemperate proselytism of the day.3 For the result which followed the general adoption of Christianity threw an unfavourable light on the motives which had caused it. It became evident that the heathen world was incapable of being regenerated, that the weeds were choking the good seed. The corruption increased in the Church to such a degree that the Christians, unable to divest themselves of the Roman notion of the orbis terrarum, deemed the end of the world at hand. St. Augustine (sermo cv.) rebukes this superstitious fear: “Si non manet civitas quae nos carnaliter genuit, manet quae nos spiritualiter genuit. Numquid (Dominus) dormitando aedificium suum perdidit, aut non custodiendo hostes admisit? . . . Quid expavescis quia pereunt regna terrena? Ideo tibi coeleste promissum est, ne cum terrenis perires. . . . Transient quae fecit ipse Deus; quanto citius quod condidit Romulus. . . . Non ergo deficiamus, fratres: finis erit terrenis omnibus regnis.”4 But even some of the fathers themselves were filled with despair at the spectacle of the universal demoralisation: “Totius mundi una vox Christus est . . . Horret animus temporum nostrorum ruinas persequi. . . . Romanus orbis ruit, et tamen cervix nostra erecta non flectitur. . . . Nostris peccatis barbari fortes sunt. Nostris vitiis Romanus superatur exercitus. . . . Nec amputamus causas morbi, ut morbus pariter auferatur. . . . Orbis terrarum ruit, in nobis peccata non ruunt.”1 St. Ambrose announces the end still more confidently: “Verborum coelestium nulli magis quam nos testes sumus, quos mundi finis invenit. . . . Quia in occasu saeculi sumus, praecedunt quaedam aegritudines mundi.”2 Two generations later Salvianus exclaims: “Quid est aliud paene omnis coëtus Christianorum quam sentina vitiorum?”3 And St. Leo declares, “Quod temporibus nostris auctore diabolo sic vitiata sunt omnia, ut paene nihil sit quod absque idolatria transigatur.”4
When, early in the fifth century, the dismemberment of the Western empire commenced, it was clear that Christianity had not succeeded in reforming the society and the polity of the ancient world. It had arrested for a time the decline of the empire, but after the Arian separation it could not prevent its fall. The Catholics could not dissociate the interests of the Church and those of the Roman State, and looked with patriotic as well as religious horror at the barbarians by whom the work of destruction was done. They could not see that they had come to build up as well as to destroy, and that they supplied a field for the exercise of all that influence which had failed among the Romans. It was very late before they understood that the world had run but half its course; that a new skin had been prepared to contain the new wine; and that the barbarous tribes were to justify their claim to the double inheritance of the faith and of the power of Rome. There were two principal things which fitted them for their vocation. The Romans had been unable to be the instruments of the social action of Christianity on account of their moral depravity. It was precisely for those virtues in which they were most deficient that their barbarous enemies were distinguished. Salvianus expresses this in the following words (De Gubern. Dei, vii. 6): “Miramur si terrae . . . nostrorum omnium a Deo barbaris datae sunt, cum eas quae Romani polluerant fornicatione, nunc mundent barbari castitate?”1 Whilst thus their habits met half-way the morality of the Christian system, their mythology, which was the very crown and summit of all pagan religions, predisposed them in like manner for its adoption, by predicting its own end, and announcing the advent of a system which was to displace its gods. “It was more than a mere worldly impulse,” says a famous northern divine, “that urged the northern nations to wander forth, and to seek, like birds of passage, a milder clime.” We cannot, however, say more on the predisposition for Christianity of that race to whose hands its progress seems for ever committed, or on the wonderful facility with which the Teutonic invaders accepted it, whether presented to them in the form of Catholicism or of Arianism.2 The great marvel in their history, and their chief claim to the dominion of the world, was, that they had preserved so long, in the bleak regions in which the growth of civilisation was in every way retarded, the virtues together with the ignorance of the barbarous State.
At a time when Arianism was extinct in the empire, it assumed among the Teutonic tribes the character of a national religion, and added a theological incitement to their animosity against the Romans. The Arian tribes, to whom the work of destruction was committed, did it thoroughly. But they soon found that their own preservation depended on their submission to the Church. Those that persisted in their heresy were extirpated. The Lombards and Visigoths saved themselves by a tardy conversion from the fate with which they were threatened so long, as their religion estranged them from the Roman population, and cut them off from the civilisation of which the Church was already the only guardian. For centuries the pre-eminence in the West belonged to that race which alone became Catholic at once, and never swerved from its orthodoxy. It is a sense of the importance of this fidelity which dictated the well-known preamble of the Salic law: “Gens Francorum inclita, Deo auctore condita, ad Catholicam fidem conversa et immunis ab haeresi,” etc.1
Then followed the ages which are not unjustly called the Dark Ages, in which were laid the foundations of all the happiness that has been since enjoyed, and of all the greatness that has been achieved, by men. The good seed, from which a new Christian civilisation sprang, was striking root in the ground. Catholicism appeared as the religion of masses. In those times of simple faith there was no opportunity to call forth an Augustine or an Athanasius. It was not an age of conspicuous saints, but sanctity was at no time so general. The holy men of the first centuries shine with an intense brilliancy from the midst of the surrounding corruption. Legions of saints—individually for the most part obscure, because of the atmosphere of light around them—throng the five illiterate centuries, from the close of the great dogmatic controversies to the rise of a new theology and the commencement of new contests with Hildebrand, Anselm, and Bernard. All the manifestations of the Catholic spirit in those days bear a character of vastness and popularity. A single idea — the words of one man — electrified hundreds of thousands. In such a state of the world, the Christian ideas were able to become incarnate, so to speak, in durable forms, and succeeded in animating the political institutions as well as the social life of the nations.
The facility with which the Teutonic ideas of Government shaped themselves to the mould of the new religion, was the second point in which that race was so peculiarly adapted for the position it has ever since occupied towards Christianity. They ceased to be barbarians only in becoming Christians. Their political system was in its infancy, and was capable of being developed variously, according to the influences it might undergo. There was no hostile civilisation to break down, no traditions to oppose which were bound up with the recollections of the national greatness. The State is so closely linked with religion, that no nation that has changed its religion has ever survived in its old political form. In Rome it had proved to be impossible to alter the system, which for a thousand years had animated every portion of the State; it was incurably pagan. The conversion of the people and the outward alliance with the Church could not make up for this inconsistency.
But the Teutonic race received the Catholic ideas wholly and without reserve. There was no region into which they failed to penetrate. The nation was collectively Catholic, as well as individually. The union of the Church with the political system of the Germans was so complete, that when Hungary adopted the religion of Rome, it adopted at the same time, as a natural consequence, the institutions of the empire. The ideas of Government which the barbarians carried with them into every land which they conquered were always in substance the same. The Respublica Christiana of the Middle Ages, consisting of those States in which the Teutonic element combined with the Catholic system, was governed by nearly the same laws. The mediæval institutions had this also in common, that they grew up everywhere under the protection and guidance of the Church; and whilst they subsisted in their integrity, her influence in every nation, and that of the Pope over all the nations, attained their utmost height. In proportion as they have since degenerated or disappeared, the political influence of religion has declined. As we have seen that the Church was baffled in the full performance of her mission before Europe was flooded by the great migration, so it may be said that she has never permanently enjoyed her proper position and authority in any country where it did not penetrate. No other political system has yet been devised, which was consistent with the full development and action of Catholic principles, but that which was constructed by the northern barbarians who destroyed the Western empire.
From this it does not seem too much to conclude, that the Catholic religion tends to inspire and transform the public as well as the private life of men; that it is not really master of one without some authority over the other. Consequently, where the State is too powerful by long tradition and custom, or too far gone in corruption, to admit of the influence of religion, it can only prevail by ultimately destroying the political system. This helps us to understand the almost imperceptible progress of Christianity against Mahometanism, and the slowness of its increase in China, where its growth must eventually undermine the whole fabric of government. On the other hand, we know with what ease comparatively savage tribes—as the natives of California and Paraguay—were converted to a religion which first initiated them in civilisation and government. There are countries in which the natural conditions are yet wanting for the kingdom of grace. There is a fulness of time for every nation—a time at which it first becomes capable of receiving the faith.1 It is not harder to believe that certain political conditions are required to make a nation fit for conversion than that a certain degree of intellectual development is indispensable; that the language, for instance, must have reached a point which that of some nations has not attained before it is capable of conveying the truths of Christianity.
We cannot, therefore, admit that political principles are a matter of utter indifference to the Church. To what sort of principles it is that she inclines may be indicated by a single example. The Christian notion of conscience imperatively demands a corresponding measure of personal liberty. The feeling of duty and responsibility to God is the only arbiter of a Christian’s actions. With this no human authority can be permitted to interfere. We are bound to extend to the utmost, and to guard from every encroachment, the sphere in which we can act in obedience to the sole voice of conscience, regardless of any other consideration. The Church cannot tolerate any species of government in which this right is not recognised. She is the irreconcilable enemy of the despotism of the State, whatever its name or its forms may be, and through whatever instruments it may be exercised. Where the State allows the largest amount of this autonomy, the subject enjoys the largest measure of freedom, and the Church the greatest legitimate influence. The republics of antiquity were as incapable as the Oriental despotisms of satisfying the Christian notion of freedom, or even of subsisting with it. The Church has succeeded in producing the kind of liberty she exacts for her children only in those States which she has herself created or transformed. Real freedom has been known in no State that did not pass through her mediæval action. The history of the Middle Ages is the history of the gradual emancipation of man from every species of servitude, in proportion as the influence of religion became more penetrating and more universal. The Church could never abandon that principle of liberty by which she conquered pagan Rome. The history of the last three centuries exhibits the gradual revival of declining slavery, which appears under new forms of oppression as the authority of religion has decreased. The efforts of deliverance have been violent and reactionary, the progress of dependence sure and inevitable. The political benefits of the mediæval system have been enjoyed by no nation which is destitute of Teutonic elements. The Slavonic races of the north-east, the Celtic tribes of the north-west, were deprived of them. In the centre of mediæval civilisation, the republic of Venice, proud of its unmixed descent from the Romans, was untouched by the new blood, and that Christian people failed to obtain a Christian government. Where the influence of the ideas which prevailed in those times has not been felt, the consequence has been the utmost development of extreme principles, such as have doomed Asia for so many ages to perpetual stagnation, and America to endless heedless change. It is a plain fact, that that kind of liberty which the Church everywhere and at all times requires has been attained hitherto only in States of Teutonic origin. We need hardly glance at the importance of this observation in considering the missionary vocation of the English race in the distant regions it has peopled and among the nations it has conquered; for, in spite of its religious apostacy, no other country has preserved so pure that idea of liberty which gave to religion of old its power in Europe, and is still the foundation of the greatness of England. Other nations that have preserved more faithfully their allegiance to the Church have more decidedly broken with those political traditions, without which the action of the Church is fettered.
It is equally clear that, in insisting upon one definite principle in all government, the Church has at no time understood that it could be obtained only by particular political forms. She attends to the substance, not to the form, in politics. At various times she has successively promoted monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; and at various times she has been betrayed by each. The three fundamental forms of all government are founded on the nature of things. Sovereignty must reside with an individual, or with a minority, or with the majority. But there are seasons and circumstances where one or the other is impossible, where one or the other is necessary; and in a growing nation they cannot always remain in the same relative proportions. Christianity could neither produce nor abolish them. They are all compatible with liberty and religion, and are all liable to diverge into tyranny by the exclusive exaggeration of their principle. It is this exaggeration that has ever been the great danger to religion and to liberty, and the object of constant resistance, the source of constant suffering for the Church.
Christianity introduced no new forms of government, but a new spirit, which totally transformed the old ones. The difference between a Christian and a pagan monarchy, or between a Christian and a rationalist democracy, is as great, politically, as that between a monarchy and a republic. The Government of Athens more nearly resembled that of Persia than that of any Christian republic, however democratic. If political theorists had attended more to the experience of the Christian Ages, the Church and the State would have been spared many calamities. Unfortunately, it has long been the common practice to recur to the authority of the Greeks and the Jews. The example of both was equally dangerous; for in the Jewish as in the Gentile world, political and religious obligations were made to coincide; in both, therefore,—in the theocracy of the Jews as in the πολιτέια of the Greeks,—the State was absolute. Now it is the great object of the Church, by keeping the two spheres permanently distinct,—by rendering to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s—to make all absolutism, of whatever kind, impossible.
As no form of government is in itself incompatible with tyranny, either of a person or a principle, nor necessarily inconsistent with liberty, there is no natural hostility or alliance between the Church and any one of them. The same Church which, in the confusion and tumult of the great migrations, restored authority by raising up and anointing kings, held in later times with the aristocracy of the empire, and called into existence the democracies of Italy. In the eighth century she looked to Charlemagne for the reorganisation of society; in the eleventh she relied on the people to carry out the reformation of the clergy. During the first period of the Middle Ages, when social and political order had to be reconstructed out of ruins, the Church everywhere addresses herself to the kings, and seeks to strengthen and to sanctify their power. The royal as well as the imperial dignity received from her their authority and splendour. Whatever her disputes on religious grounds with particular sovereigns, such as Lothar, she had in those ages as yet no contests with the encroachments of monarchical power. Later on in the Middle Ages, on the contrary, when the monarchy had prevailed almost everywhere, and had strengthened itself beyond the limits of feudal ideas by the help of the Roman law and of the notions of absolute power derived from the ancients, it stood in continual conflict with the Church. From the time of Gregory VII., all the most distinguished pontiffs were engaged in quarrels with the royal and imperial power, which resulted in the victory of the Church in Germany and her defeat in France. In this resistance to the exaggeration of monarchy, they naturally endeavoured to set barriers to it by promoting popular institutions, as the Italian democracies and the aristocratic republics of Switzerland, and the capitulations which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were imposed on almost every prince. Times had greatly changed when a Pope declared his amazement at a nation which bore in silence the tyranny of their king.1 In modern times the absolute monarchy in Catholic countries has been, next to the Reformation, the greatest and most formidable enemy of the Church. For here she again lost in great measure her natural influence. In France, Spain, and Germany, by Gallicanism, Josephinism, and the Inquisition, she came to be reduced to a state of dependence, the more fatal and deplorable that the clergy were often instrumental in maintaining it. All these phenomena were simply an adaptation of Catholicism to a political system incompatible with it in its integrity; an artifice to accommodate the Church to the requirements of absolute government, and to furnish absolute princes with a resource which was elsewhere supplied by Protestantism. The consequence has been, that the Church is at this day more free under Protestant than under Catholic governments—in Prussia or England than in France or Piedmont, Naples or Bavaria.
As we have said that the Church commonly allied herself with the political elements which happened to be insufficiently represented, and to temper the predominant principle by encouraging the others, it might seem hardly unfair to conclude that that kind of government in which they are all supposed to be combined,—“aequatum et temperatum ex tribus optimis rerum publicarum modis” (Cicero, Rep. i. 45),—must be particularly suited to her. Practically—and we are not here pursuing a theory—this is a mere fallacy. If we look at Catholic countries, we find that in Spain and Piedmont the constitution has served only to pillage, oppress, and insult the Church; whilst in Austria, since the empire has been purified in the fiery ordeal of the revolution, she is free, secure, and on the highroad of self-improvement. In constitutional Bavaria she has but little protection against the Crown, or in Belgium against the mob. The royal power is against her in one place, the popular element in the other. Turning to Protestant countries, we find that in Prussia the Church is comparatively free; whilst the more popular Government of Baden has exhibited the most conspicuous instance of oppression which has occurred in our time. The popular Government of Sweden, again, has renewed the refusal of religious toleration at the very time when despotic Russia begins to make a show, at least, of conceding it. In the presence of these facts, it would surely be absurd to assume that the Church must look with favour on the feeble and transitory constitutions with which the revolution has covered half the Continent. It does not actually appear that she has derived greater benefits from them than she may be said to have done from the revolution itself, which in France, for instance in 1848, gave to the Church, at least for a season, that liberty and dignity for which she had struggled in vain during the constitutional period which had preceded.
The political character of our own country bears hardly more resemblance to the Liberal Governments of the Continent,—which have copied only what is valueless in our institutions,—than to the superstitious despotism of the East, or to the analogous tyranny which in the Far West is mocked with the name of freedom. Here, as elsewhere, the progress of the constitution, which it was the work of the Catholic Ages to build up, on the principles common to all the nations of the Teutonic stock, was interrupted by the attraction which the growth of absolutism abroad excited, and by the Reformation’s transferring the ecclesiastical power to the Crown. The Stuarts justified their abuse of power by the same precepts and the same examples by which the Puritans justified their resistance to it. The liberty aimed at by the Levellers was as remote from that which the Middle Ages had handed down, as the power of the Stuarts from the mediæval monarchy. The Revolution of 1688 destroyed one without favouring the other. Unlike the rebellion against Charles I., that which overthrew his son did not fall into a contrary extreme. It was a restoration in some sort of the principles of government, which had been alternately assailed by absolute monarchy and by a fanatical democracy. But, as it was directed against the abuse of kingly and ecclesiastical authority, neither the Crown nor the established Church recovered their ancient position; and a jealousy of both has ever since subsisted. There can be no question but that the remnants of the old system of polity—the utter disappearance of which keeps the rest of Christendom in a state of continual futile revolution—exist more copiously in this country than in any other. Instead of the revolutions and the religious wars by which, in other Protestant countries, Catholics have obtained toleration, they have obtained it in England by the force of the very principles of the constitution. “I should think myself inconsistent,” says the chief expounder of our political system, “in not applying my ideas of civil liberty to religious.” And speaking of the relaxation of the penal laws, he says: “To the great liberality and enlarged sentiments of those who are the furthest in the world from you in religious tenets, and the furthest from acting with the party which, it is thought, the greater part of the Roman Catholics are disposed to espouse, it is that you owe the whole, or very nearly the whole, of what has been done both here and in Ireland.”1 The danger which menaces the continuance of our constitution proceeds simply from the oblivion of those Christian ideas by which it was originally inspired. It should seem that it is the religious as well as the political duty of Catholics to endeavour to avert this peril, and to defend from the attacks of the Radicals and from the contempt of the Tories the only constitution which bears some resemblance to those of Catholic times, and the principles which are almost as completely forgotten in England as they are misunderstood abroad. If three centuries of Protestantism have not entirely obliterated the ancient features of our government, if they have not been so thoroughly barren of political improvement as some of its enemies would have us believe,—there is surely nothing to marvel at, nothing at which we may rejoice. Protestants may well have, in some respects, the same terrestrial superiority over Catholics that the Gentiles had over the people of God. As, at the fall of paganism, the treasures it had produced and accumulated during two thousand years became the spoils of the victor,—when the day of reckoning shall come for the great modern apostasy, it will surrender all that it has gathered in its diligent application to the things of this world; and those who have remained in the faith will have into the bargain those products of the Protestant civilisation on which its claims of superiority are founded.
When, therefore, in the political shipwreck of modern Europe, it is asked which political form of party is favoured by the Church, the only answer we can give is, that she is attached to none; but that though indifferent to existing forms, she is attached to a spirit which is nearly extinct. Those who, from a fear of exposing her to political animosity, would deny this, forget that the truth is as strong against political as against religious error, and shut their eyes to the only means by which the political regeneration of the modern world is a possibility. For the Catholic religion alone will not suffice to save it, as it was insufficient to save the ancient world, unless the Catholic idea equally manifests itself in the political order. The Church alone, without influence on the State, is powerless as a security for good government. It is absurd to pretend that at the present day France, or Spain, or Naples, are better governed than England, Holland, or Prussia. A country entirely Protestant may have more Catholic elements in its government than one where the population is wholly Catholic. The State which is Catholic par excellence is a by-word for misgovernment, because the orthodoxy and piety of its administrators are deemed a substitute for a better system. The demand for a really Catholic system of government falls with the greatest weight of reproach on the Catholic States.
Yet it is important to remember that in the ages of faith the same unity prevailed in political ideas, and that the civil as well as the religious troubles of our time are in great measure due to the Reformation. It is common to advise Catholics to make up their minds to accept the political doctrines of the day; but it would be more to the purpose to recall the ideas of Catholic times. It is not in the results of the political development of the last three centuries that the Church can place her trust; neither in absolute monarchy, nor in the revolutionary liberalism, nor in the infallible constitutional scheme. She must create anew or revive her former creations, and instil a new life and spirit into those remains of the mediæval system which will bear the mark of the ages when heresy and unbelief, Roman law, and heathen philosophy, had not obscured the idea of the Christian State. These remains are to be found, in various stages of decay, in every State,—with the exception, perhaps, of France,—that grew out of the mediæval civilisation. Above all they will be found in the country which, in the midst of its apostasy, and in spite of so much guilt towards religion, has preserved the Catholic forms in its Church establishment more than any other Protestant nation, and the Catholic spirit in her political institutions more than any Catholic nation. To renew the memory of the times in which this spirit prevailed in Europe, and to preserve the remains of it, to promote the knowledge of what is lost, and the desire of what is most urgently needed,—is an important service and an important duty which it behoves us to perform. We are greatly mistaken if these are not reflections which force themselves on every one who carefully observes the political history of the Church in modern Europe.
[1 ]The Rambler, 1858.
[1 ]Tertullian, Apologeticum, 39; see also 30, 32. “We pray also for the emperors, for the ministers of their Government, for the State, for the peace of the world, for the delay of the last day.”
[1 ]De Civit. Dei, xv. 5. “The fratricide was the first founder of the secular State.”
[1 ]“The Church reckons her subjects not as her servants but as her children.”
[1 ]“It is the maddest insolence, not only to dispute against that which we see the universal Church believing, but also against what we see her doing. For not only is the faith of the Church the rule of our faith, but also her actions of ours, and her customs of that which we ought to observe” (Morinus, Comment. de Discipl. in administ. Poenitentiae, Preface).
[1 ]“Apud vos quodvis colere jus est Deum verum” (Tertullian, Apolog. xxiv.).
[1 ]August. de Civ. Dei, xx. 19, 3.
[2 ]“Christianus nullius est hostis, nedum imperatoris, quem . . . necesse est ut . . . salvum velit cum toto Romano imperio quousque saeculum stabit; tamdiu enim stabit” (Tert. ad Scapulam, 2). “Cum caput illud orbis occiderit et ῥύμη esse coeperit, quod Sibyllae fore aiunt, quis dubitet venisse jam finem rebus humanis orbique terrarum?” (Lactantius, Inst. Div. vii. 25). “Non prius veniet Christus, quam regni Romani defectio fiat” (Ambrose ad ep. i. ad Thess.).
[1 ]“There is nothing so voluntary as religion.”
[2 ]“God does not want unwilling worship, nor does he require a forced repentance.”
[3 ]Athanas. i. 363 b and 384 c μὴ ἀναγκάζειν ἀλλὰ πείθειν “not compulsion, but persuasion” (Chrysost. ii. 540 a and c).
[4 ]“If the State of which we are the secular children passes away, that of which we are spiritual children passes not. Has God gone to sleep and let the house be destroyed, or let in the enemy through want of watchfulness? Why fearest thou when earthly kingdoms fall? Heaven is promised thee, that thou mightest not fall with them. The works of God Himself shall pass: how much sooner the works of Romulus! Let us not quail, my brethren; all earthly kingdoms must come to an end.”
[1 ]“The cry of the whole world is ‘Christ.’ The mind is horrified in reviewing the ruins of our age. The Roman world is falling, and yet our stiff neck is not bent. The barbarians’ strength is in our sins; the defeat of the Roman armies in our vices. We will not cut off the occasions of the malady, that the malady may be healed. The world is falling, but in us there is no falling off from sin” (St. Jerome, ep. 35, ad Heliodorum; ep. 98, ad Gaudentium).
[2 ]“None are better witnesses of the words of heaven than we, on whom the end of the world has come. We assist at the world’s setting, and diseases precede its dissolution” (Expos. Ep. sec. Lucam, x.).
[3 ]“What is well-nigh all Christendom but a sink of iniquity?” (De Gub. Dei, iii. 9).
[4 ]“In our age the devil has so defiled everything that scarcely a thing is done without idolatry.”
[1 ]“Do we wonder that God has granted all our lands to the barbarians, when they now purify by their chastity the places which the Romans had polluted with their debauchery?”
[2 ]Pope Anastasius writes to Clovis: “Sedes Petri in tanta occasione non potest non laetari, cum plenitudinem gentium intuetur ad eam veloci gradu concurrere” (Bouquet, iv. 50).
[1 ]“The noble people of the Franks, founded by God, converted to the Catholic faith, and free from heresy.”
[1 ]“Vetati sunt a Spiritu sancto loqui verbum Dei in Asia . . . Tentabant ire in Bithyniam, et non permisit eos spiritus Jesu” (Acts xvi. 6, 7).
[1 ]Innocent IV. wrote in 1246 to the Sicilians: “In omnem terram vestrae sonus tribulationis exivit . . . multis pro miro vehementi ducentibus, quod pressi tam dirae servitutis opprobrio, et personarum ac rerum gravati multiplici detrimento, neglexeritis habere concilium, per quod vobis, sicut gentibus caeteris, aliqua provenirent solatia libertatis . . . super hoc apud sedem apostolicam vos excusante formidine. . . . Cogitate itaque corde vigili, ut a collo vestrae servitutis catena decidat, et universitas vestra in libertatis et quietis gaudio reflorescat; sitque ubertate conspicuum, ita divina favente potentia secura sit libertate decorum” (Raynaldus, Ann. ad ann. 1246).
[1 ]Burke’s Works, i. 391, 404.