Regime Changing Print
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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