The Catholic Thing
Regime Changing Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Wednesday, 02 February 2011

The most difficult practical question in the political order is accurately to describe exactly what kind of a regime we are dealing with or living in. Is it a monarchy, aristocracy, polity, tyranny, oligarchy, democracy, or mixed regime, to use Aristotle’s terms? These forms give us better insight into the actual souls of citizens in modern regimes than do constitutional particulars.

In the coverage of Egypt, not to mention Tunisia or Iran, the classical regime issues are displayed: 1) Egypt must change to a “democratic,” meaning the “best,” regime. 2) Granted its glaring imperfections, the present one should be kept for stability in the area. 3) If the regime is changed, something worse will occur. 4) The best regime won’t happen, but let’s hope something better will. 5) “Democratic” elections can elect anyone including tyrants.

In classical terms, Egypt has been governed by a practical tyrant or dictator, called a president. He sits on a powder keg of conflicting religious and economic issues that can suddenly explode. So we ask: What sort of regime “ought” to rule there? What is the “best” kind of a regime we can hope for? What regime is preferable, knowing that any realistically possible regime will be dangerous?

The further question is: “Who are the ‘we’ asking the question?” – the Egyptians, the Europeans, the Israelis, the Africans, the Americans, the Chinese, the Saudis, the Russians, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts? Radically different answers will come from each of these sources.

Egypt, in our minds, stands in the shadow of Iran, where a relatively decent autocratic shah was replaced by a religious regime that seeks, in its own mind, to establish the “best” regime described in the Muslim tradition or scriptures. With many co-religionists who think the same way, it maintains that all Muslims, if not all regimes should be ruled by this “best” regime. This is what jihad is about. Most of us would call such a regime the “worst” regime.

Most Catholics have watched, without much obvious concern, increasing persecution of Christians throughout the Middle-Eastern area. The Holy Father has responded by reiterating the principles of constitutional religious liberty, which he maintains should govern all regimes, including Muslim ones. Of course, many Muslim countries maintain that perfect religious liberty occurs only when everyone is Muslin and the regime is ruled by Islamic law. Anyone else is treated as a second-class citizen, and pays a price for being left alone.

       Tear down or build up: What regime will come next in Egypt?

We Westerners persist in making a distinction between state and religion that is not in this tradition except as a kind of leftover from classical or colonial times, that is, from our own tradition. The al-Azhar university in Cairo recently broke off dialogue with the Vatican after the pope brought up the question of the persecution of Christians in Egypt.

Much of this turmoil, however, arises from modern political philosophy concerned with the location of the best regime. Classical political thought, though it granted that most regimes were not perfect, was considered utopian or unrealistic because it advocated a regime of virtue and truth as its basis, even when it was not reached.

The modern liberal regime is now based on the complete separation of religion and politics. No principle of truth or good is allowed. All is tolerated but truth claims, especially religious ones. The purpose of a state to enforce our “natural rights” to do whatever we choose while not hurting anyone else.

In that perspective, this regime of tolerance and guaranteed prosperity is the “best” and inevitable regime, a product of historical necessity. Every country in the world should be constructed in this way. We will have no “peace” until all are “democratic.” We will have turmoil and chaos until we set up such “globalized” world “regimes” that are guaranteed by an overpowering international force based on the same theoretic principles. The establishment of such a system substitutes for the transcendent order.

This heady view of how to deal with the widely diversified regimes that actually exist in the world eliminates the questions of truth from politics. It views truth as the cause of political turmoil. But the solution to the problem presented by Muslim regimes is not to make them all relativists, but to confront much more directly the truth of their claims. It is ironic that Muslim reaction to regimes that criticize them is that such regimes, by their own testimony, stand for nothing. They allow and encourage all sorts of moral and personal disorder from which Muslim regimes seek to protect themselves. 

This reflection forces us to ask ourselves whether we have not changed our own regime away from the pursuit of virtue and truth to such a degree that we are no longer able to confront regimes on the basis of the order or disorder of soul that they reveal in their actions and constitutions.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Bill, February 02, 2011
It is must be mentioned that Egypt receives the second largest packet of money from the US each year in order to buy its support for the country which receives our largest largesse. Much of that money was used to buy equipment for the police to be used to control...wait for it...the citizens who are now peacefully rising up to demand their rights and to push out an externally funded dictator. Whether you are a foetus in Philadephia or an Iraqi, Egyptian, etc., you know who sets the rules
written by AHR, February 02, 2011
Fr. Schall's analysis includes certain truths that have not received any attention in all the coverage of events in Egypt. Mubarak, who is secular, governs a country that has many warring factions. If his regime would be graded on keeping the peace he would get a B+. He has also made Egypt into a force against radical Islamic extremism. He has joined Israel in fighting Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, after a week of videos that only showed opposition to Mubarak, his "supporters" and the military materialized. Even with his sometimes glaring shortcomings some forces in Egypt have determined that he is better than those who would succeed him -- in other words he is not alone. For one, the Christian Copts are undoubtedly pleased because he has provided that community with a measure of security in an often violent hostile environment.In the last few days there has been evidence that his Western style critics are a tiny minority of those protesting his regime. Many, probably most, of the demonstrators were from the Muslim Brotherhood who are danger to us all.
written by Donna Bethell, February 02, 2011
Fr. Schall correctly concludes that the West's submission to the "tyranny of relativism" means that we have abandoned any ground for criticizing real tyranny. The Pope can cogently demand religious freedom and the European elites are now struggling to agree on an inoffensive way to object to anti-Christian violence without using the word "Christian."
written by Achilles, February 02, 2011
Excellent article Fr. Schall!
"The purpose of a state to enforce our “natural rights” to do whatever we choose while not hurting anyone else." This is the wiccan creed "Do what thou wilt, though harm no one." Echoing this narcissistic creed is President Obama when he said,“each of us deserves the freedom to pursue our own version of happiness, each of us deserves the freedom to speak our minds, to not fit in, most of all, to be true to ourselves. That’s the freedom that enriches all of us. That’s what America is all about.”
No Mr. Presidend, this is not what America is all about, that is what wicca is all about.
The real answer lies in Truth and virtue and in the idea of subsidiarity and a rediscovery of the transcendent. Achilles
written by Robert , February 02, 2011
I have some limited experience of Egypt, having spent a summer in Cairo learning Arabic (and being deeply impressed by the committment of Copts to their faith). I am not so sure, as the previous commenter is, that the Mubarak regime has been good for Christians. With regard to Islamic extremism, his regime has a played a double game: brutal repression on the hand while, at the same time, pandering to extremists - trying to "steal their thunder" so to speak - on the other. This policy has been disastrous for all Egyptians, but for Christians in particular. The brutal repression only embitters Muslims against the regime and drives them to extremism, while the pandering emboldens them, since it exposes the basic illegitimacy of the regime.
written by champd, February 02, 2011
Thank you Father for taking a step back and an attempt to shed clarity on a particularly dangerous situation, but one that is representative of political delicacies all over the world. It is true that we in the west can fool ourselves into thinking that "democracy" simply speaking is always great - there are different forms of democracy as you hint at. An un-grounded democracy leaves rule for all sorts of tyrannical behavior in all sorts of subtle ways- take the abortion rate in New York City as an easy example- our democracy has lost its footing on one of the most basic truth claims ever- the fact of innocent life. Thanks for alluding to that in your comments Bill.

Another thing I find interesting has to do with Father's allusion to "confront the truth of their claims"- i.e. to pursue a dialogue of truth about Islam and the impact of political rule that stems from its view of reality. I wonder- seriously- if the sort of dictatorship that seems to accompany Islamic rule in various parts of the world is directly connected to the sort of voluntaristic notion of God present in Islam itself, as Father talks about in his book on the Regensburg Lecture. If God is sheer will then it makes sense that political rulers pursue the same path in governing their people and obviously the theocratic state seems an ideal for Islam itself. This would make for a good honest debate about what the heights of Christian rule bring to the polis and what the heights of Islamic rule brings to the polis.
I suppose that 'Christendom' would be wonderful once again with saints at the helm, but there is something profound to our ability to get on with daily life despite the Gospel not being the law of the land, as much as we would love that to be the case. As heirs of the universal reason of western philosophy we realize that attempts at better political regimes are always a task, but the reason of the Logos, as Father points out, allows Christians to live in a more transcendent order, no matter who is at the helm.
written by chris in maryland, February 02, 2011
Building on Achilles point, the glaring omission in the Obama menu for freedom was "freedom of religion." With his anti-colonialist ideology Obama connives to trump our own nation's sincere belief in our Constitution's Bill of Rights, and the PRIORITY it gives to religious liberty, and the free expression thereof. Clearly, what peace-loving Muslims and Christians want and need to hear right now is a different US President, one who would sound the trumpet of Liberty, and boost the courage of millions of decent Moslems to "tear down the prison walls" of religious persecution and hatred erected in so many Moslem nations. But I think President Obama is more interested in isolating Israel than challenging his audience in the world-wide Islamic auditorium.
written by Aeneas, February 02, 2011
Wow! That was a great article! Really something to ponder. Actually its something I have been thinking about for a while now.
Achilles and Champd are right on in there analysis of this as well.
In many ways I think we Christians have been screwed the most by our current 'regime'. Think about it, we have gone from ruling ourselves, in our own way, in our own lands (that we built), to now being 'just another group' out there, ruled by others, bound by relativistic law, and having our once Christian civilization 'bleached' of all its Christianity. Call me crazy, but it sounds like we got the short end of the stick on this one.
written by William Benda, February 02, 2011
I am sorry, but I can't let this pass. You described the Shah as a relatively decent autocrat. The Shah of Iran was in no way "relatively decent" unless your definition of relatively decent includes torture, killing and suppression of any and all opposition. Simply because he was a supporter of the Unites States does not make him decent or any other positive descriptions.
written by Joseph Diaz, February 03, 2011
Who ever takes it over,you know its not going to be good plain and simple.Prayer is the only way to survive,these times.
written by Chris Robling, February 03, 2011
Hold on a second.

[A Dominican, taking over an abandoned Jesuit missionary post at the north end of Lake Michigan in the 19th century, invited the local Presbyterian minister to a Sunday afternoon debate. The minister, secure in his hold on his congregation, agreed, but then asked, "We know our differences, isn't this a bit showy?" The Dominican replied, "The flock must hear the Truth for the first time..."]

The 'truths' underpinning the western democratic form are robust and elaborated enough to have been anathema at the time to England, and over the years to the South, the facists, the communists and the jihadists, among others. For instance, they would hardly get a warm embrace from the gang running Burma/Myanmar, or any other self-conscious junta.

Which means they have plenty of content upon which to confront miscreants, should anyone choose to do so.

So I disagree with Fr. Schall's assertion, "No principle of truth or good is allowed. All is tolerated but truth claims, especially religious ones. The purpose of a state to enforce our “natural rights” to do whatever we choose while not hurting anyone else."

There is considerably more to the mix than these ingredients.

While I am as skeptical of and disappointed with the secular-legal approach to which Fr. Schall alludes, I urge consideration of such as an overstatement of statist quasi-utopianism, which is itself a pebble in the shoe of any reasonably open and tolerant society. Perhaps that will change after riots in Greece and (possible) default in Portugal, California and Illinois, but I am not holding my breath.

As long as there is government, some will believe in its omnipotence. Some love their nannies well into adulthood.

I hardly think Fr. Schall believes, as he implies, that the way to solve Muslim issues is metaphorically to walk up to Islam and say, "Be reasonable. Live like us."

In fact, I think doing so may bring about a de-stabilizing reaction. (Just ask noted political theorists Christianne Amanpour and Anderson Cooper -- both of whom were threatened by angry people amidst Cairo's protestors. Fox reporter Greg Palkot and his cameraman were seriously wounded for the mark of their office and -- apparently -- a strain of anti-US emotion, though this emotion is itself subject to considerable interpretation as Mubarak creating the grounds for military crack-down. I have no idea what it really is.)

Rather, the Islamists despise us and our way because of the very truth that grounds our system, and more so because of the compelling power that truth freely arrived at has compared to all forms of tyranny over the minds of men and women.

Fr. Schall had a colleague years ago at Georgetown, a liturgist named Lou Cioffi. Fr. Cioffi, SJ, used to distinguish in class between truth and Truth. I think Fr. Schall's note would have benefitted from Fr. Cioffi's distinction, as in:

"This heady view of how to deal with the widely diversified regimes that actually exist in the world eliminates the questions of Truth from politics. It views Truth as the cause of political turmoil... the solution to the problem presented by Muslim regimes is... to confront much more directly the truth of their claims."

Fr. Schall should have every opportunity to proclaim the Truth to us and to them. But the only way he will get to do it is if they first agree with the truth, that they are free to hear it.
written by Susan, February 06, 2011
Excellent essay. If only we could make our Constitution "Declaration compliant" to protect *all* human life, we could better protect it from having Sharia compliance forced on it.

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