Paths to Democracy, Catholic and Secular

Some years ago, I interviewed a young Frenchman for a lectureship in political theory. He was an honest man and, as we walked around the university’s botanical gardens discussing matters of common interest, he told me that, if appointed, he intended to commute from Cambridge to Birmingham during term time. To me this didn’t seem a viable long-term proposition and the lectureship went to another candidate. The young Frenchman was called Emile Perreau-Saussine. In 2010 he died, aged only 37.

The loss that this premature death represents can be judged by Perreau-Saussine’s posthumously published Catholicism and Democracy (Princeton University Press, £30.95). Not only is this a fine work of scholarship and one that is beautifully written; it also occasions pause for thought on almost every page. Far more than “an essay in the history of political thought”, as its modest subtitle suggests, Perreau-Saussine’s book seeks to address the complicated relationship of the Catholic Church with modern secular democracy. In so doing, it raises questions that transcend the narrow confines of its French subject matter, inviting us to reflect more generally upon what happens when the activity of politics is freed of the limitations and constraints imposed by an irksome and unwanted God.

It was France, according to Perreau-Saussine, that set the tone for Catholic political thought from 1650 to 1950. This was so because France was at once the eldest daughter of the Church, the birthplace of the nation state and the stage for the revolution of 1789. What was distinctive about French Catholicism was the tradition of Gallicanism. In 1682, with Louis XIV on the throne, the French clergy formally recognised that the French monarchy was not subject to papal authority in temporal matters. Condemned by the Holy See, the theological justification of what became known as Gallican liberty was that an elect nation had no need of papal sanction to ensure that it acted in a Christian manner. In political terms, this assertion of the autonomy of monarchical power marked the subordination of the Church to the state. Nevertheless, the relationship between the Church and an absolute monarchy that saw itself as divinely ordained was one of intimate union. French national identity remained tightly linked to Catholicism.

There were at least three important dimensions to these developments within the French Church. The Gallican acceptance of the independence of temporal power did not mean that there should be no moral and spiritual limits to royal authority. A good political system, as Bossuet demonstrated in his Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, was a Christian political system. Secondly, the political logic of national autonomy was never strong enough to push Gallicanism into a French version of Anglicanism. The papacy did everything possible to ensure that the Gallican Church did not declare unilateral independence. Thirdly, Gallicanism entailed no diminution in the quest for religious uniformity. Protestantism had no place in France — as was demonstrated by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the subsequent exodus of 400,000 Huguenots.

It was a rejection of this practice of intolerance that fed powerfully into the demands of the revolutionaries of 1789. To these men it seemed self-evident that a good government was not a confessional state but one that recognised and protected the natural rights of its citizens. Constraints upon the exercise and abuse of executive power were best achieved through representative democracy, rather than the Christian education of the Prince. It followed that the monarch’s power derived not from God but from the nation and its representatives; the latter were no longer the clergy or the aristocracy, but the members of the Third Estate. With this the entire structure of the ancien régime was brought into question, and it would not be long before the secularisation of the French state began. 

This was confirmed with the enactment of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790. There is much that might be said about this controversial piece of legislation. At one level it looked like an attempt to integrate the Church into the Revolution on a Gallican basis. Crucially, it stipulated that bishops were to be subject to election and that the electors were to be not the clergy but all citizens, including those who were not Catholics. It also obliged the clergy to swear an oath of allegiance to the French state. If nothing else, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a massive political blunder. It alienated not only the Church hierarchy but also Louis XVI and the greater proportion of the French population. According to Perreau-Saussine, it is at this moment that the breach between religion and the modern world can be dated.

Certainly, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy raised an issue of major importance: what was the place of the Church in a democratic polity that presupposed a direct and unmediated relationship between the state and individual. The Church, after all, was neither the people nor the state, but a corporate body resting upon the non-democratic principle of apostolic hierarchy. If democracy meant popular sovereignty it could not but call the authority and privileges of the clergy into question. The point made by Perreau-Saussine is that the Revolution of 1789 failed to resolve this question, with the result that the Church had no public role and Catholics were excluded from the nation.

From this a series of broader questions followed. What reason did the Church have to recognise a state that had taken away its privileged status? Why should the faithful obey a state that was in conflict with the Church and that ignored divine law? More troubling still, what were the goals of the state to be when they were not set by the Church? Was the judgment of the people any more sound than the judgment of the clergy?  

Beneath this, both then and now, has lain a more fundamental unease among Christians about the hubristic enterprise of emancipating humans from the will of God and of seeking to refashion humanity through the wholesale reconstruction of society. Without wishing to assert that Christianity always prevented injustice and tyranny, Perreau-Saussine nevertheless contends that the sense of the sacred communicated by the Church brought with it a sense of moral restraint. “The secularisation of the state”, he writes, “seemed to offer it the potential for action without limits. Challenging the political or quasi-political role of the Church opened the way to potentially totalitarian political monism.”

Is this claim justified? The barbarism perpetrated by atheistic regimes in the 20th century indicates that it is. So too does the French Revolution itself. Maximilien Robespierre makes only a brief appearance in Perreau-Saussine’s study, but a new biography, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (Yale University Press, £25), by Peter McPhee provides plenty of evidence to support Perreau-Saussine’s argument. Doubtless McPhee would be offended by this conclusion. As he sees it, “the comparatively limited loss of life” during the Reign of Terror makes preposterous the parallel between Robespierre and Mao or Pol Pot. His Robespierre is a poor provincial boy from Arras with a strong will to succeed, who made his way to Paris and found himself a young revolutionary remaking a world against massive odds. McPhee’s is a tale well told — particularly fascinating is the revelation that Robespierre had many female admirers — but it is hard to accept his conclusion that both Robespierre’s greatness and his tragedy derived from his unwillingness to compromise the principles of 1789 in the interests of stability. 

Not surprisingly, Robespierre was a supporter of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, seeing priests simply as elected officials and public functionaries. According to McPhee, he had no sympathy for the idea that the Church should be self-governing. At first, Robespierre expressed public sympathy for religion and saw no advantage in needlessly alienating the Church but, as the Revolution gathered pace, he came ever more to see the need for a new civic culture to replace Christian ritual and superstition. What Robespierre now envisaged was the complete regeneration of the people through an educational programme involving the compulsory removal of children from their parents. The Cult of a beneficent Supreme Being would replace the cruel God of the Catholic Church.

Yet, as McPhee vividly recounts, Robespierre’s mental universe was one of unrelenting and imaginary conspiracies. The Revolution was to be a war to the death and the enemies of the people were to be exterminated. Political morality was reduced to terror as “prompt, severe, inflexible justice”, with terror cast as virtue’s necessary companion. In the end Robespierre could not distinguish dissent from treason. No one was safe. This included 14 nuns and lay sisters from a former Carmelite convent accused of living in a religious community. On  July 17, 1794 they were guillotined at what is now the Place de la Nation in Paris.

Much of the focus of Perreau-Saussine’s study falls upon the consequences for the Church of this bloody and humiliating experience. For counter-revolutionary writers such as Joseph de Maistre, the Revolution of 1789 was both a satanic event and a Protestant plot. It was also an example of divine chastisement. Catholicism was again aligned with monarchy and against democracy. More importantly, many of the faithful came to see the so-called liberties of the Gallican Church as a form of slavery. Unable to identify themselves with either the revolutionary or Napoleonic state, they turned in ever greater numbers to Rome and a sovereign papacy as a guarantee of their spiritual autonomy. Catholics, in short, became ultramontanes, advocates of supreme papal authority in matters of faith. The First Vatican Council and its proclamation of papal infallibility was an answer to their prayers. 

Paradoxically, however, in defending the liberty of the Church and in refocusing their attention upon its spiritual role, Catholics also became liberals. Probably the best (and most intriguing) example of this is to be found in the writings of Felicité de Lamennais. The atheism of the modern state led him first to denounce the alliance of throne and altar and then to embrace the slogan of God and Liberty. Next came a messianic humanitarianism and what Perreau-Saussine describes as a church-free Christianity. A free church in a free state was to become the watchword of liberal Catholicism. 

It is clear that there was much about these ultramontane developments with which Perreau-Saussine feels uneasy. The ultramontane tendency, he writes, resulted in a disciplined Church but one that was “an empty shell, reactionary and sectarian”. In particular, he regrets the abandonment of the search for a harmony between religious and political life. As he emphasises, infallibility had no implications for papal authority in matters of law and politics. From this follows Perreau-Saussine’s admiration for Alexis de Tocqueville — the greatest political thinker of the 19th century, in his opinion — and an endorsement of Tocqueville’s view that democracy can and should be both restrained and educated by Christianity. Later in the book he expresses his approval of the liberal Gallicanism of the contemporary writer Pierre Manent. He also sees the Second Vatican Council, with its recognition of the political role and primacy of the laity, as marking the reconciliation of the Catholic Church with this liberal Gallican tradition. The balance between the temporal and the spiritual was reaffirmed, with the result that the Church at last found itself at ease in the world of democracy. As Perreau-Saussine writes: “For all that religion can pose a danger to the state, this risk arises not only when religion is too political, as is generally imagined, but also when it is too apolitical, when believers develop a tendency to see nothing beyond their own religious group and become oblivious of the civic community to which they also belong.” The believer, in other words, should also be a proud and active citizen.

This, of course, has never been an easy matter, especially in France. Robespierre was not the last voice of intolerant secularism. After the Cult of the Supreme Being came the ludicrous religion of theophilanthropy and a succession of attempts to establish a lay secular power that would act as a substitute for Catholicism. In the 19th century Auguste Comte founded the religion of humanity, with its own rituals and calendar; indeed, Comtean positivism became the quasi-official dogma of the French Third Republic after 1870. A republican catechism was now deployed through the state school system to educate children to become enlightened, autonomous and free citizens. “Laicism”, the new state doctrine, quickly turned into anti-clericalism. The 1901 law on freedom of association was used to criminalise religious activities. The separation of Church and state that followed in 1905 was used to cow the Church into submission. Religious faith was reduced to a purely private matter, thereby denying the Catholic concept of the Church as a society and a communion. Perreau-Saussine cites Charles Péguy as one of the few French writers who showed how Catholics and laicist republicans might find common ground.

In fact, the relationship between Church and state in France even before 1940 was often one of compromise. The Church came to see the advantages of separation and the state’s schools did not banish the great Catholic authors of the past from their bookshelves. Church and state fought side by side in the union sacrée of the Great War. Over time — and despite the Church’s support for the Vichy regime — republicans came to see that the Church was not quite the intransigent threat to democracy they had taken it to be. The Second Vatican Council, according to Perreau-Saussine, confirmed that this was the case. The Church’s new enemy was totalitarianism.

Does this mean that the conflict between Catholicism and democracy has been finally resolved? As an Anglican rather than a Roman Catholic, I am not best placed to judge, but Perreau-Saussine speaks of a “degree of disenchantment”. The disquiet and concern of the Church, he contends, is not directed at liberal democracy as such but at the moral consequences of what has become a particular interpretation of individual autonomy. This, as we know, relates largely to issues that concern sexual behaviour. It increasingly bears upon questions of euthanasia and eugenics. More recently, the Church has found itself confronted with an aggressive secularism that seeks to deny the expression of personal religious convictions. Will the Catholic Church be compelled to change its moral teaching in the same way that it has been forced to close adoption agencies because it refuses to place children with homosexual couples?

Here is the nub of problem. If the Church believes that individual freedom cannot be understood outside the context of an objective moral order, it cannot be indifferent to truth. Democracy, however, can be. As even Robespierre acknowledged, the people might be the purest expression of the general good but so too were they capable of committing the most bloodthirsty crimes. The Church, then, claims to bear witness to a reality that transcends the general will. “Religious life”, Perreau-Saussine concludes, “can go together with a wisdom to which democratic life does not give rise on its own, a wisdom that consists in recognising limits to human autonomy.” All believers could agree.

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