Christianity and Democracy

Some Remarks on the Political History of Religion,
Or, On the Religious History of Modern Politics

translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton

[Editor’s note: Part II of Christianity and Democracy will run in the February issue.]

Whoever compares the relations that obtain today between democracy and Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, with what they were during the greater part of their common history, has the feeling that each one of the two protagonists has ceased to resemble itself, that it has become wholly other than it was. Democracy consents to the presence in its bosom of a numerous mass of believers. With the exception of a very small number of “rationalists” without an audience, it no longer plans “to destroy the infamous thing,” (i.e., Christianity); and the famous proclamation of Viviani today sounds like an amusing curiosity from the Belle Epoque: “Together, and with a magnificent gesture, we have extinguished in heaven stars which will never again be relit.”

The change accomplished, or suffered, by the Catholic Church, however, is even more striking. The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, and the Holy Father himself, ask Christians to discover in their religion the true, although long-hidden source, of the most precious good which is at the heart of modern democracy: the rights of man. The Catholic Church today celebrates the sacred character of religious liberty, of the liberty of conscience that it formerly denounced with thunderous indignation. In the encyclical Mirari vos (15 August 1832) directed against Lamennais, Gregory XVI speaks of this “very fecund cause of the evils that today so deplorably afflict the Church, to wit indifferentism, the vicious opinion which, by the perversity of the wicked, gains credit everywhere and according to which the salvation of the soul can be obtained by whatsoever profession of faith, provided that morals conform to the rule of the just and the honorable . . . and from this poisoned source of indifferentism has come the false and absurd opinion, or rather delirium, according to which the liberty of conscience of each ought to be affirmed and defended.” As late as the beginning of this century, Saint Pius X, in the encyclical Vehementer nos (11 February 1906) addressed to the people and clergy of France, condemned the separation of the Church and state as a “supreme injustice” done to God, and also as contrary to natural right and to the law of nations, contrary to the fidelity due to oaths, contrary finally to the divine constitution and the liberty of the Church.

What happened? How are we to understand so complete a change of appreciation on the part of the supreme heads of an institution which loves to underscore the centuries-old, even millenary, immutability of its thoughts and words? Must one follow the historians who, in order to explain past conflicts, are prone to invoke an enormous “misunderstanding” bound to “historical circumstances,”follow them into the still doubtful combat in which the parties are drawn irresistibly beyond the natural and reasonable limits of their opinions? Before concluding in such an irenic manner one at least must determine the intellectual content of the debate, that is, the motives advanced by the Church when she condemned the principal propositions of modern politics. If the Church initially, and for so long, declared herself against democracy, it is because she had the sentiment, or rather the conviction, that the modern democratic movement was directed fundamentally against her, that is, against the true religion and thus against the true God. It is impossible even to enter into the great subject of the relations between democracy and the Church if we do not first clarify this central fact.

The Modern Movement or
the Emancipation of the Will

The movement of the Enlightenment, the vector of modern politics, had for its goal, and result, the establishment of the lay, liberal state, “without opinion,” particularly without religious opinion — of what was called “the neutral and agnostic state.” The dominant Catholic opinion was that this agnosticism of the state was in fact state agnosticism, and that this state agnosticism was in fact a state atheism. In this judgment the Roman magisterium itself joined the Catholic writers of the so-called “reactionary” school such as de Maistre and de Bonald who were so influential at the beginning of the XIXth century.

What is true in the Catholic affirmation that the liberal state is not neutral, or “agnostic,” but rather atheist? It is the fact that the liberal state, in its first project, or primary purpose, wants to institutionalize the sovereignty of the human will. Recognizing only free and equal individuals, it has no legitimacy except that founded on their will: the institutions of this state have for their raison d’être the manifesting of this will through suffrage, then the putting of this will into action by a representative government.

Such a project certainly does not affirm, with “the foolish” of Scripture, that “there is no God.” Not only does it say nothing about God, but it says nothing, or very little, about the world, and even about man. However, by positing that the political body has for its only rule or law the will of the individuals who compose it, it deprives the law of God of all political authority or validity, whether the latter is conceived as explicitly revealed, or solely inscribed in the nature of man. It refuses all authority to that which has by definition, naturally or supernaturally, the highest authority. The man of the Enlightenment implies, or presupposes, that there is no God, or that He is unconcerned with men, since he rejects, or at most considers as “private,” as optional, obedience to the law of God.

One might add: if there is a God, the human will cannot be “autonomous,” or “sovereign”; to affirm this “autonomy” or “sovereignty,” is to deny the existence of God.

Certainly, the atheism of presupposition or of implication is not exactly the atheism of affirmation, or atheism simply. Few men truly know what they think and what they want, and many will be liable to affirm simultaneously the divine law and human sovereignty; as was often said at the time of the second Vatican Council, many will believe “in God and in man.” But one does not judge a political and spiritual situation according to the idea of it that the least enlightened members of the community make for themselves. Moreover, the intention, and to speak truly, the antireligious passion, of the great men who in the XVIIth and XVIIIth century elaborated these new doctrines, was clearly enough avowed. The Church therefore judged in its wisdom, let us say from 1791 to 1907, from the Brief Quod aliquantum condemning the Civil Constitution of the Clergy to the encyclical Pascendi reproving modernism, that the modern political and intellectual movement willed the eradication of the true religion.

Keeping in view the motives behind the original conflict, we foresee also the motives behind the later reconciliation. After all, this insurrection, this revolt of the human will — to continue to speak the language of the Church of the XIXth century — by the effect of its progress and its triumph, is going to transform itself into institutions, habits, sentiments — into “human things” where human nature and the divine law necessarily will find, in some form, their place. After all, if God exists, the human nature created by Him, that even without the support of the secular arm retains awareness of the exigencies of His law, will inhabit and humanize, that is, Christianize, the state created by the sovereign or human will in its revolt. Whatever the successes of the “Revolution,” the moment of some “restoration” always comes. Even if we admit that the modern will essentially revolted against God, God is necessarily stronger than it, and this means that the nature of man is stronger than the human will. Hence, at the end of some generations, the satanic pride of the Enlightenment, duly humbled by reality, gives way to the firm resolution to organize a rational society full of solicitude for human needs and where the Church can live, speak and exercise her influence: our society. The Church, which has concern for men, cannot curse such a society.

Things did happen in this manner to a certain extent, but only to a certain extent. The will of the Enlightenment, humiliated by democratic reality, by bourgeois prose, revolted against the bourgeois democratic society which it took to be a humiliation. The revolutionary spirit, the spirit of sovereignty, revolted in the form of socialism and communism against its first incarnation. The Church, to be sure, explicitly condemned these revolts, at least in the case of communism. They acted on her, however, in two contrary senses. These demonic revolts encouraged her to reconcile herself with the very democracy that the revolutionaries wanted once again to overturn, and with which she henceforth shared responsibility for the things that are. But they also confirmed her hostility to modern democracy, which appeared to engender endlessly ever more radical revolts against the Church. It is in this way, precisely as a fatal sequence, that the encyclical Quanta cura (8 December 1864) condemned as a single ideological and political series: Naturalism (we would say: liberalism), Socialism, Communism.

The historical landscape would be clear if we did not have to take account of a third possibility. Certain quarters of Catholic opinion agreed with socialism and communism in their hostility to democracy, which as Catholics they had learned to detest. And while some reconciled with democracy in order to confront the communist threat, others were favorable to communism out of hatred for democracy. This last reaction was particularly observable during the twenty years that followed the Second Vatican Council, which, moreover, quite curiously did not renew the condemnation of communism. In this manner were realized all the possible theological-political dispositions or arrangements subsequent to the French Revolution.

Perhaps one will grant such a summary presentation a certain plausibility. But, it will be said, it is too dependent not only on the point of view of the Church but also, less excusably, on the most immoderate of Catholic rhetoric. What is this “demonic” will to institutionalize the sovereignty of the human will, to substitute the latter for the law of God or for the finalities, aptitudes and necessities of the nature of man? Is not this a way of speaking which is perhaps acceptable in the heat of a bitter conflict of vast import, but incapable of establishing an historical explanation? I believe on the contrary that we have here the guiding thread of the correct explanation; if not that, we have at least an exact description.

Three massive facts must here be taken into consideration. First, the history of modern philosophy, from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, appears as oriented to and animated by the elaboration of the concept of will. Next, the intellectual center of modern democracy is constituted by the notion of the rational will, elaborated, at the center of this history, by Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. Finally, the first and decisive affirmations of the will, of man as will, were conceived and formulated in an explicitly polemical relation with the ecclesiastical institution and the Catholic understanding of the world — to which one can add, as culmination and superfluous proof, that Nietzsche at the end of this spiritual history, joined the unlimited affirmation of the human will to the unlimited polemic against Christianity. It is difficult to find in human history a closer representative linkage.

Let us look first at the third point. The modern project to establish political legitimacy on the will of the human individual has been led to its completion. It has been transformed into the institutions, mores, and sentiments of our democracy. This reality satisfies us, and we no long perceive the extraordinary audacity of the original project of establishing the human world on the narrow point of the human will. A fact however must help us experience the astonishment indispensable for understanding. This invention was neither necessary, nor even probable. The proof is that one can describe very well the human world, particularly political existence, that one can conceive and institutionalize very well political liberty, without having recourse at all to the notion of the free individual endowed with a sovereign will.

Aristotle’s Politics gives a description and analysis of political life which in a certain way is exhaustive — in any case more complete and subtle than any subsequent description or analysis. The bringing to light of the elements of the city, the critical and impartial analysis of the claims of the different parties, the exploration of the problem of justice, of the relations between liberty, nature, and law: the phenomenology of political life is presented without either prejudice or lacuna. Whoever wants to orient himself in the political world, either for the sake of action or understanding, finds in Aristotle’s Politics a complete teaching. It is therefore the case that only an historical accident could have obliged us to dismiss Aristotle, and given us a reason to invent the notion of the sovereign will.

According to Aristotle, every human association has for its end a certain good; and every human action is done in view of a certain good. Therefore, when Aristotle studies the elements which constitute the city, he only encounters groups and “goods,” each group defining itself by the type of good it seeks and can attain, and on which it ordinarily bases its claims for power. At no time does the individual with his will appear: Aristotle does not even have a word to name him (more exactly, the sovereign individual will). The landscape is reversed with the founders of modern politics. Henceforth only one element enters into the composition of the legitimate city, the one for which Aristotle did not even have a word, the sovereign individual. Next to the Politics, the book of the ancient city, let us put the Social Contract, the book of modern democracy. Not only does Rousseau say very different things from those that Aristotle says, not only does he contradict him frequently, but quite strikingly the tone, the movement, the very principle of the thought are wholly different: something has happened that places thought under an unprecedented law of attraction, or repulsion.

The Aristotelian analysis of human action and association had been received and formally ratified by the Catholic Church. In the eyes of the latter, however, a new community has appeared, among those of which the human world is constituted: the Church herself — vera per fectaque respublica, or societas, the perfect republic, or society, because its object, its raison d’être, its end, even its Author, is the perfect Being, the Sovereign Good, God Himself. Henceforth a supernatural community, the Church, was added to the natural communities. Its dignity necessarily was incomparably superior to theirs, as eternal salvation and eternity are incomparably more important than temporal well-being and time. Assuredly, this posed some problems.

Aristotle had envisaged the case of a man, or a group, whose virtue was incomparably superior to that of the rest of the political body. He concluded that one must either give him total power, or ostracize him. And medieval Europe, in its relation to the Church, oscillated between these two positions. In accord with the first line of reasoning, the “plenitude of power” — not only spiritual but also temporal — was granted to the Church, and she claimed it for herself. In accord with the second, she was excluded completely from temporal power. The human world was constituted as though it was closed upon itself and self-sufficient, under the sole power of the Emperor. This is what Dante and Marsilius of Padua wanted. In this way Aristotle was of no help in resolving the new theological-political problem: certainly it cannot be said that one is in a position to resolve a problem when the principle of the solution can engender two strictly contradictory solutions with equal plausibility or legitimacy; when the premises, that is, imply two contradictory conclusions. An accident that Aristotle had not foreseen, and could not have foreseen, obliged western man to renounce Aristotle’s philosophy.

In order to have a chance of finding a solution, it was necessary to make oneself independent both of nature and of the accident which is not natural — what Marsilius of Padua calls “this cause [that] neither Aristotle nor any other philosopher of his time or before him could have observed,” this “miraculous effect produced a long time after Aristotle’s time by the Supreme Cause beyond the possibilities of inferior nature and of the habitual action of the causes found in things.” It was necessary to sever oneself from the complexity of groups and goods, both natural and supernatural, to decompose human sociability, both natural and supernatural, and then to finally reconstruct the political body from the element which survives at the end of this effort of abstraction: the free individual. The new political body, neither natural like the city nor supernatural like the Church, is created by human will in order to effect what it wants.

The movement of modernity is structured by the stages of the will’s emancipation. However, even as philosophy properly speaking pursued the radicalization of this notion, one can see throughout the XIXth century in the order of action and of political theory, beginning from a certain date, a contrary movement, or a countermovement. The French Revolution is the moment when the movement of Enlightenment (we can also say: “liberalism”) experienced fright at the results of its action. It became fearful especially before the notion of the sovereignty, or the will, of the people. The latter had become a terrible reality as a result of the action of the French revolutionary Convention. According to the quite striking formulation of Benjamin Constant: “There are weights too heavy for the hands of men.” While as a consequence of the aggressively antireligious action of the Revolution the Catholic Church in the XIXth Century was going to clarify and harden its opposition to the political movement of modernity, a part of that movement, the part properly liberal, was willing to join with, if not always the Church, at least Christianity, or with “religion” in general. It is at the moment of, and as the result of, the French Revolution — and with reference to the problem of the will — that the partisan arrangements with which we have lived so long were determined.

On the right, the conservatives, or reactionaries, reacting expressly to the Revolution, reject the will; they see in the exercise of it and in the affirmation of its free exercise, the source of all disorder. Man is only worthy in his position as heir or inheritor. It is by inheritance, or in the attitude of the heir, that man receives the most precious goods of which he is capable. Such is Burke’s conviction, determined from the first moment of the revolutionary tempest. With some, reaction goes so far that they are led to maintain two extreme and perfectly contradictory positions, precisely on the problem of the will. Joseph de Maistre affirms on the one hand that nothing of what man expressly has willed can be good, that good can only come to him from what he has not willed. Simultaneously, he posits the necessary existence of a sovereign will to hold together society — and, one can assume, in order to repress the efforts of revolutionary wills — in short, a sovereign will that has the task of repressing the rebellious human will. On the left, on the side of the revolutionaries, later the socialists and the communists, they continued to affirm the human will. They even promised themselves “next time” not to let it be captured by “Thermidor.”

It is in the center that the intellectual situation is the most complex and interesting: as I just noted, the liberals are caught between their doctrinal heritage and their new fear in the face of the revolutionary event, which their doctrines had perhaps caused, or in any case had accompanied and facilitated. It is then that religion finds again, or rather finds, since it had never before truly appeared in this light, its specifically modern political and moral credibility. What had been its defect becomes its merit. It is now praised for the very reason it was formerly and even recently criticized: it is something above the human will. Evoking the Convention’s attack on the Church, Constant writes, with gratitude and approval: “The smallest saint, in the most obscure hamlet, resisted successfully against the entire national authority drawn in battle against him.” Quite a remarkable affirmation on the part of this anticleric who, by birth, education, and conviction belongs to the XVIIIth century, and whose Huguenot ancestors — like the soldiers of the revolutionary army in 1793 — used hammers to flatten saints’ images on the facade of churches, even those found “in the most obscure hamlet.” However, it is to Tocqueville that we must turn for the most precise analysis of the difficulties and contradictions of the new political and religious situation.


Pierre Manent


Pierre Manent teaches political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and, as a visiting professor, at Boston College.

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