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Issue Date:  October 13, 2006

The perils of democracy within the church

John Lukacs’ new book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (Yale University Press) is a sobering meditation upon the degeneration of Western democracy into populism and aggressive nationalism. In it, Lukacs, a historian whose special expertise is World War II and the decades before and after it, reflects on 20th-century history to warn of the pitfalls presented by the steady growth of unchecked popular sovereignty, both in the past and today. In this short passage excerpted from his book, Lukacs looks briefly at the historical currents affecting the Catholic church and cautions that greater democracy within the church may not in itself constitute a cause for hope.


There exists now a dormant and perhaps even nascent, appetite for faith -- for some kind of faith, for faiths of all sorts -- at the time of the decline of the sense of “enlightenment,” at the end of what, exaggeratedly and often falsely, was called an Age of Reason. At the same time there is the evident and rapid decline of the prestige and the influence of churches, at least in the West. The decreasing proportion of people who are churchgoers and the rapid fall in the numbers of men and women wishing and willing to become priests, pastors, nuns are but superficial symptoms of this decline.

Meanwhile, liberalism and social democracy have, almost inevitably, altered Protestantism, with its reminder of sin first diminishing, then evaporating. But, as in so many other phenomena of political life, here and there a radical and nationalist populism (one example: Northern Ireland) has merged with the reappearing remnants of a fundamentalist Protestantism (example: the United States), a kind of near-fanatical spirituality which, however -- because of its shallowness and individual permissiveness -- is ephemeral. Among the Eastern, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe the nationalist and populist characters of the different national churches remain largely what they have been for almost 1,000 years.

That was, and remains, the consequence of what we may call Constantinism (since it began with Constantine the Great): The willingness of churches, and of their peoples, to accept and even to venerate and worship (and on occasion even sanctify) the authority of monarchs, dictators, imperial rulers, when these invite their churches to assist them at their maintenance of law and order.

What has been happening with the Roman Catholic church and with its believers is more complex. Two hundred years ago -- we may even mark its lowest point in 2,000 years: 1799 -- the prestige and the power of the papacy seemed to vanish altogether. This did not happen. There were -- perhaps short-lived but nonetheless extant -- Catholic spiritual and intellectual revivals during the past 200 years, as well as resurgent evidences of the power and of the influence of certain popes (note but the nonmeasurable but nonetheless obvious contribution of the present pope [John Paul II] to the piecemeal collapse of communism in Poland not more than 20 or 25 years ago.)

During the 19th and early 20th century there were popes and committed Catholic thinkers who declared that Catholicism and liberalism and democracy were incompatible. As far as democracy was concerned, Tocqueville was among the first who did not think so; he saw the sometimes surprisingly durable coexistence of Catholicism and democracy in the United States (and also in Ireland). He also saw -- and was deeply vexed by -- the reappearance of Constantinism (he did not use that term) in his own France in and after 1848, when the church supported the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon because of the fear of revolutions and of socialism, for the sake of maintaining law and order. Still, there have been enough inspiring examples of the Roman Catholic church rejecting Constantinisms and dictatorships, especially when rulers had thought themselves to be sufficiently powerful to oppose and even attack the church, as in the case of Henry VIII of England, when not only saints such as Thomas More but at least some of the clergy were “not inclined to the fashion of the world as it goeth now.”

However, here too we must recognize a deep, perhaps tectonic, shift. By the 20th century, the great danger to and temptation of the church and its people was no longer Constantinism but populism. This is not the place to illustrate or even to enumerate the manifold evidence of Catholic nationalism and populism in many countries, and perhaps most tellingly in the Germany of the Third Reich, and then in the United States. It may be appropriate to draw attention to symptoms of the devolution during the past decades. The sudden melting away of the number of priests and nuns and religious aspirants in the 1960s may have been the result of clergy and of religious “inclined to the fashion of the world as it goeth now” -- perhaps the mainspring of the pedophiliac and homosexual scandals of priests that were revealed recently. These were results of the permissive secularized lives of the clergy, perhaps less because of the reforms of Vatican II than because of the sexual and social climate of the 1960s and after.

But what has been the reaction of the people of the church to these lamentable revelations? Criticism -- often warranted, sometimes not -- of cardinals and bishops, but, more than often, propagation to include more and more of the laity in the governance of the church, as if that were something long overdue, democratic and healthy.

No one thought that the American “laity,” ever so often, has been more “conservative” than “liberal,” more nationalist than supernationalist, not more but less spiritual than some of the older priests and hierarchs. When in 2003 Pope John Paul and the Vatican clearly and directly spoke against the American Republicans’ war against Iraq (also against the American humiliation of the dictator after his capture), the great majority of American Catholics were unaware, unknowing, uninterested, or, at best, indifferent to that. The record of the Catholic church in Germany during the Third Reich was neither clear nor unsullied, though it was better than that of most other churches. But had the German Catholic “laity” become included in the governance of the German Catholic church in 1933 or after, the record of that church during those harrowing years would have been infinitely worse.

We may not see a decline in the acceptance of the monarchical or hierarchical powers and prestige of the church not unsimilar to what happened 1500 years ago -- when, for example, in 499 in Rome two rival bishops were elected by rival groups of the clergy and the people, and when appeals were made to the near-barbaric ruler (Theodoric) to choose which one of the bishops should be installed. And we may yet see the contrary, the Catholic church being the last, embattled and tattered but, still, here and there visible -- bastion and inspiration of personal integrity, decency and, yes, of liberty and of hope.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006

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