Liberty Matters

The Divinely Mandated Institution: A Reply to Ralph Raico

Ralph Raico again says that I have not “sufficiently considered the question I raised in my first post: ‘Why the West?’ Why did liberalism arise in the West…?”
On two previous occasions, I said that I agree (in essentials) with Lord Acton’s explanation, which is the same explanation that Ralph has proposed. I may disagree with Ralph about many things, but not with his belief that the medieval church served as an effective institutional barrier to the growth of absolute power in the West. Given my agreement with Ralph on this key point, I cannot understand why he needs more information.
I will add, however, that the emergence of a secular culture in the West contributed a great deal to the development of liberalism.
Ralph wrote: “George concedes that Christianity desacralized the state, a very great step forward from the Greeks and Romans, who deified it.”
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I originally gave a passing nod to this claim in order to avoid some technical and potentially tedious exchanges. To be more precise, the claim is true in part and untrue in part. All this depends on which Greeks and Romans we are talking about, as well as the time period in question. Aristotle, for example, did not “deify” the state, nor did Epicureans and Stoics. But (as I have explained in previous comments) many Christian theologians, including Augustine, viewed government as a divinely mandated institution -- a punishment and remedy for sin. So this matter ultimately reduces to what we mean by “desacralize.”
Ralph wrote: “George makes no mention of the blood games in the arena, the favorite entertainment of the Roman populace. This perhaps casts ‘Roman morality’ in a more sinister light than as simply a system protecting life and property."
I never said anything about Roman moral practices or culture. I simply pointed out that Augustine opposed the notion that a person “should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent.” I wasn’t aware that “blood games in the arena” were voluntary activities between consenting adults.
Ralph wrote: “I find George’s discussion of ‘totalitarianism’ curious. He says that the medieval church was totalitarian in that it claimed jurisdiction over all of Christendom and some papalists even claimed jurisdiction over the whole world. He believes that no thinker of the time on the state’s side made comparable claims for the state.”
Ralph goes on to say: “There was at least one medieval thinker who did argue for universal secular monarchy: Dante, in his De Monarchia.
Dante recommended universal monarchy as an ideal ¬(primarily as a way to end war); he did not claim that any emperor of his time actually possessed such jurisdiction. The papalists, in contrast, claimed universal authority for existing popes. In addition, Dante’s ideal monarch did not possess anything like the absolute power that papalists bestowed upon the pope.
Ralph wrote: “But ‘papalists’ like Pope Boniface VIII maintained not that the Church should exercise secular power, but that secular rulers were under the authority of the pope.”
The “plenitude of power” was a traditional Catholic doctrine that invested popes with jurisdiction over both temporal and spiritual affairs. The theory was that popes delegated certain tasks to temporal rulers -- an act that was symbolized by the anointing of rulers. To delegate a power is not to renounce one’s ultimate authority over that sphere. Christendom was regarded by papalists as one society, one Christian Republic, with the pope at its head.
The theory that church and state are two independent powers, each with its own legitimate sphere of authority, was most often defended by critics of the Catholic Church. Liberal secularists in particular -- those who opposed any kind of established church -- maintained that the church should have no coercive authority whatsoever; it should confine itself to the sphere of voluntary beliefs, practices, and so forth. It took centuries for the church to catch up with this essential libertarian tenet.
Ralph mentioned some heroes who, “inspired by their Christian faith,” stood up against 20th-century totalitarian states. Well, shall we compile a list of those people who, inspired by their Christian faith, committed unspeakable acts of cruelty and mass murder? The list would be a long one. It is fortunate that those earlier criminals did not have access to 20th-century weaponry and technology. True, it was more laborious and time-consuming to depopulate entire towns and cities with mere swords, but they did what they could with what they had. Moreover, it is no longer acceptable to excuse the atrocities of the Nazis and Soviets, whereas apologists for church atrocities are not nearly as rare. (Lord Acton, though himself a Catholic, relentlessly denounced historical whitewashing of the church.)
Ralph wrote: “George passes over in silence the chief occupation of kings, presidents, and the other masters of states throughout history: war. The misery that it has brought down on mankind is infinitely greater than the oppression of any church.”
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Why is this even relevant to this discussion? As an anarchist, I don’t need to be tutored in the atrocities of states. In the 19th century, the liberal historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote that “the Church of Rome has shed more innocent blood than any other institution that has ever existed among mankind.” I freely concede that things have changed dramatically since the time Lecky wrote his comment. I freely concede that the church is no longer in first place, or anywhere close.
Ralph wrote: “In an important article, Joseph R. Stromberg shows that even the so-called religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were actually carried out by secular rulers, to further their own ends.”
In part, yes. But though some secular rulers used religion as a cover, the ferocious emotions that motivated the horrors of those wars were rooted in religious beliefs and differences. Nationalism wasn’t much of a factor during the 16th and 17th centuries, but religion was. Massacring heretics was a popular blood sport among Catholics and Protestants alike.
Ralph wrote: “History is full of surprises, and there were other forces working against Church omnipotence besides the state. It was the state that veered off towards omnipotence. We are living in a world where it is approaching that goal, and there is no longer any church that can act as a counterweight.”
At least the church no longer bestows divine grace on mass murderers by anointing them. We may take some comfort in that.