The Catholic Thing
The Sovereignty Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Monday, 05 November 2012

An old friend of mine has a gift for uttering truths at inopportune moments. These are the best times to utter them, according to me and at least one philosopher. The place to discuss abortion, said the late George Grant, is at a polite academic sherry party.

His view – the not unusual one that “after all, women dont give birth to cats” – was politely, perhaps even heroically ignored, through many years. My fellow Canadians have a gift for not hearing things they dont want to hear, so widely dispersed that even our talk radio hosts share in it.

But I daresay Grants auditors silently took note, and that this helps explain why the man was: 1.) academically isolated, 2.) ended his teaching career in a remote place and, 3.) was nevertheless lionized for a few conventionally leftish political opinions on subjects he knew and cared nothing about.

My friend John Robson, surely among the most intelligent, perceptive, best-informed and frankly honest journalists anywhere, similarly benefits from our national hearing impairment. In a media discussion wherein low and declining voter turnout was being routinely lamented, he gave it as his opinion that perhaps turnout is still too high.

Perhaps it would be to the public advantage if more people with no idea what they are voting for, or self-understanding of why, simply gave our elections a pass. Although my own views go well beyond Robsons, it was a point I thought worthy of the discussion, which it did not get.

Americans can hear, and I am consciously writing in an American forum. The populists down here are not necessarily faux; your rightwing Tea Party types are not Tory elitists, and the words “We the People” were written so large, at the top of page one in your founding document, that no one has been able to forget.

Foreigner that I am, I will make no comment on your election this Tuesday, even though the result of it is likely to impact Canadians almost as much as Americans, given Americas size and our intimate relations.

My perfectly orthodox Catholic views on human life should anyway make my bias clear: for it seems inconceivable to me that a faithful Catholic, of average or even somewhat below average intelligence, could fail to distinguish between the background party positions on the life issues that matter most. Those who nevertheless fail I tend to write off as unfaithful Catholics, or otherwise perverse.

Indeed, this is how I have come to view elections everywhere: not as a test of politicians, whose trade is no different from that of other door-to-door salesmen. Some are more skilled, some are less, and very few behave as statesmen, or can afford to do so given ground rules in any broad franchise representative democracy.

Some flourish, and some dont, in what is indisputably a free market for snake oil. Rather, I use the result to judge “the people” themselves; for an election return gives a statistical indication of whether a people as a whole, or considered class by class or region by region, are in any sense astute.

         Has Hobbes won?

Given a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, can they pick the egg that is less addled? For bad as things are, there is usually some choice. Were the ballots anywhere printed with a line reading, “None of the above,” it might be more interesting.

Broad-franchise representative democracy is a modern, even post-modern invention. Though today taken for granted, as the default position for any constitutional order, it was entirely unknown and inconceivable until comparatively recent times – except among barbaric nomads, wandering beyond the peripheries of civilization.

Womans suffrage, for instance, was allowed nowhere before 1893, and reached Switzerland not until 1971. Before the Great War, generally, one might say the vote was considered a privilege; after, it quickly became a right.

Protestant countries were decidedly ahead of Catholic countries on this issue, as they had been on most other extensions of the franchise. It will go without saying that the USA once counted as a highly Protestant country.

But Catholic countries were seldom slow in following the Protestant Zeitgeist, just as they had not been slow in assimilating the new principle of national sovereignty after the Thirty Years War. It was a boon for rulers, and how little we understand today this universalization of political absolutism.

Létat, cest moi,” declared le Roi-Soleil, patron and protector of everything in France, but Louis XIV was only adapting the Protestant principle to a Catholic realm. The original absolute dictatorship was the achievement of Englands Henry VIII, and Swedens Gustav I – along with the policy that followed from it.

Every source of authority independent of the State – not only the Church and her counsels, but also the feudal and aristocratic, parochial and municipal, legislative and judicial estates – was collapsed into a single order, radiating from a single place.

The principle was the same, whether that capital was Paris, London, Stockholm, or ultimately Washington D.C. And so it is no wonder that faithful Catholics, in their bones, feel uneasy pledging their allegiance.

Today, via Enlightenment theories on the Social Contract, emerging naturally from Hobbess notion of the State as the indispensable protection racket, the arrangement may seem to have been inverted into Proudhon's “létat cest nous.”

But the principle of political absolutism remains intact. It is in a single word the principle of “sovereignty” – of supremacy, paramountcy – necessarily involving the politicization of every aspect of human life.

For Catholics, and Christians at large, it is worth reviewing, on a daily basis, the alternative and necessarily subversive claims of Christ the King. His was understood to be “the sovereignty” in pre-national Christendom; and while Christians live everywhere today under the absolute power of an essentially fascist State, let us pray for deliverance from its mandates.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and, until recently, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (18)Add Comment
written by G.K. Thursday, November 04, 2012
This is simply superb. As Stephen Krason has pointed out, John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (#73) states the moral obligations and restraints on legislators: “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law…” This must also apply to other decision-makers, such as voters, since if it didn't there would be a untenable moral situation where voters (who have less control over legislation) have stricter moral obligations than legislators (who actually draft and pass the legislation). Clearly voting for an option to restrict abortion is licit for a Roman Catholic.

"Those who nevertheless fail I tend to write off as unfaithful Catholics, or otherwise perverse."
written by Other Joe, November 05, 2012
This is excellent. A political power cannot do other than reduce all concerns to political concerns including morality. The term "politically correct" says so much and yet we seem to have made our accommodations to it and to the philosophy behind it. In 1968, the expression was put about that "the personal is political". In other words, there is nothing that is not political. Thoughts may be crimes and indeed hate has been criminalized even though its existence can only be inferred, never detected and the basis for the inference is political not moral. Our leaders in Center lie to us for our own "good" as defined by political necessity. What is missing in all of the power centers of the world (excepting the Vatican) is a clear sense of morality and the required foundation on which it arises - the transcendental source of morality, and indeed of political power. These grave matters have been reduced to voting for prom king and queen from among a favored clique every so many years. Even in theory, democracy only works with an informed electorate. What we have these days is a ginned up plebiscite where-in people deprived of information select a celebrity host and give that individual life and death power over society. These comments are intended to support (however clumsily) Mr. Warren's well-crafted comments.
written by Jack,CT, November 05, 2012
Thanks for a great perspective,always good to see other
cultures and how they view our way of doing "Business"
Great Article Thanks!
written by jsmitty, November 05, 2012
Hmmm. Maybe the other commenters can help someone uninitiated with this.

When did "Christians everywhere" begin living "under the absolute power of an essentially fascist state"? Was this a decisive historical event or a slow process? And if the latter, when did the descent begin?

And what do we do from here? Return to, say, the Counter Reformation monarchy of Spain under Philip II? Mary Tudor? The pre divine right kings of France? Would we opt for any of these things even if we could?

I get the ethos that right thinking Catholics are supposed to hate the "Enlightenment" (as though this were a univocal thing). And i get the fact that classical Catholic thought tended to be very suspicious of democracy (at least until the 20th century, that is.) And I get that the essence of our hope is Christ the King and not the US Constitution!

But doesn't the idea of Christ's Kingdom have to at some point touch down to earth in some sort of concrete manifestation? Isn't that the whole point of the Incarnation and the Church?

I don't see where this kind of take leads anyone except alienation and despair and the fruitless longing for a past in human history of ideal government that largely never was.
written by Andrej, November 05, 2012
Practical arguments are the ones generally brought out in favor of our democracy: first principles intrinsically at odds with one another can co-exist as long as the practical aspect of life is made good for all. 'Surely everyone understands and desires concrete simple goods!'

But now we are coming to the point where a faithful Catholic can barely participate in the culture and will only be able to participate in the workforce with regret (especially in positions at a higher-than-menial level)...

The Ancien Regime certainly had its peculiar accidents, and technology was doubtlessly inferior in those days...but how can we not dream of graceful leadership? It has existed. There were Saint Kings after all.
written by Achilles, November 05, 2012
Jsmitty, The enlightenment: “ man is the measure of all things”. A house built on the shifting sands of human perception. No Catholic can truly abide by the failed enlightenment experiment, look at the fruit. Death, death and more death, and the man measurers call it “progress” and even “life” or “freedom”, such as you might yourself. These are the rallying cries of the “culture of Death” and we do not abide in death, or false freedoms, or any kind of liberation theology as you seem to express in very veiled terms. What authority do you have to say that Orthodox Catholicism has not “touched down” ? When in fact it is the only position that is completely truthful and has completely “touched Down” to earth because it tells what man really is, unlike all the “ideologies” that you seem to be half in and half out of.

Certainly for a materialist or an ideologue, even the attempt to adopt Orthodox Catholicism leads to despair and alienation because the call of Christ is to die to oneself, pick of the cross and follow Him, and the call of the ideologue is to live the “good life” by whatever definition the “ego” deems most appropriate. Your problem with Orthodox Catholicism appears to be one of authority.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 05, 2012
Alas, jsmitty once again admits his ignorance of history and culture. Well, J, I recommend reading two books as a start:

Taylor, Charles. _A Secular Age_. Harvard University Press, 2007. I especially advise reading the Epilogue since it will give you a thumbnail of why the Enlightenment was a failure in what it claimed to be doing. And why the medieval world for all its faults was superior.

Gregory, Brad. _The Unintended Reformation_. Harvard University Press, 2012. This explains why the product of the Reformation, I.e., the Enlightenment delivered a decrease in truly enlightened behavior.

J, I do hope you read books and not just blog posts. These two in particular will help remedy your oft posted-about ignorance of history and culture.
written by jsmitty, November 05, 2012
You make alot of assumptions about what I think, on limited data Achilles. But this is a more thoughtful reply than normal. The part about dying to self and carrying the cross is a bit of a non-sequitur I'm afraid, because this is a command for individuals to hear and embrace and not so much a prescription of how to order society as a whole, in anticipation of the final judgment. I think it might stretch you too far to realize that the theological question of Church and state and all the permutations thereof is actually anything but simple, and again sadly cannot be reduced to a bromide.

My questions were actually more practical. to restate: Has democracy always been coterminous with "fascism" as the author seems to assume? And did the Kingdom of Christ exist until something called "the Enlightenment" came and overthrew it, replacing it with something else? (that seems also the pretty clear implication of the piece) And finally what sort of a government should we have now, if existing arrangements are so unacceptable? What model specifically are we aiming for? One that actually existed in the past or another of our own imagining (non-ideological imagining of course!). And sorry, but there are questions besides what our policy on abortion will be!
written by jsmitty, November 05, 2012
OK GK I'll the Middle Ages represent the apogee of Western civilization, and we've been in steady decline ever since. You won't find this view expressed by any recent pope or council or encyclical but's dogma for a particular class of disaffected Catholics of the sort who frequent this site and who think they've diagnosed the root cause of all that is wrong with the world. I get that.

I don't know what you or anyone else think Christ thought he was doing by allowing the Middle Ages to give way to modernity, but perhaps it was his plan all along necromantics obsessed with writing paeans to the time that the rest of the world forgot. Otherwise, I'm sure you'll one day instruct him on how he made a horrible mistake by ever allowing William of Ockham into the Franciscan order

But my you or anyone else...what do you do now besides commiserate? Is that what the Kingdom demands now? Really?
written by Dante, November 05, 2012
I'm afraid this election will prove the most unsafe place for an unborn christian to be in is a Catholic womb.
written by Jack,CT, November 06, 2012
@Dante,I believe Mitt will be our next
President and things are about to change,
never loose hope!
written by Achilles, November 06, 2012
Jsmitty, what you fail to understand is that most TCT readers are not subscribers to “man is the measure of all things” as you appear to be. Your questions are silly and unanswerable because you have taken your view of the immensity of reality and crammed it into the thimble of your understanding, changed the terms and therefore distort reality beyond recognition.
Pointing out that there is something wrong is not “commiserating” as the final option, that is ludicrous.

Did you expect anyone to see this as a sincere question?
“When did "Christians everywhere" begin living "under the absolute power of an essentially fascist state"? Was this a decisive historical event or a slow process? And if the latter, when did the descent begin”

No one here thought that was even a question and I think most recognized it for what it is, you propagating your self-perceived brilliance and a challenge to engage in a battle of wits on the grounds of your personal asylum you mistake for the universe.

What you say you get, you obviously don’t get because you put forth a caricature of an idea and say you “get it.” We get it jsmitty, we get it.

What we love about the Saints, especially the Church Doctors is that they have striven to discover and understand the Gospel message, not to give their own interpretation. We can have confidence in their advice because they have confidence in Christ’s gospel message and the resounding echoes of the Saints who came before them. It seems to me Jsmitty, that you hear no such echoes, and that if someone were to repeat the Gospel message to you, you might reduce it to a “non-sequitur” because you don’t see the practical relevance of the Gospel message.
You don’t have to understand the TOE to live a meaningful life, unless you understand that the TOE is Christ. There is all the practicality necessary in the Gospel message. God bless you Jsmitty.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 06, 2012
Again, alas poor jsmitty, he didn't bite. He did not actually want someone to "help someone [namely him] uninitiated with this [e.g., the generally accepted view of the genealogy of modernity]". If he had he would have scurried to his local library and busied himself with reading the proffered books so he too could join the cognoscenti on history and culture. Instead he offers a snary comment showing the disingenuousness of his original post. Unfortunately typical for the type of troll that he is: uninterested in finding out the truth about things, but always vicious and snarky.

BTW, J, you might realize that Charles Taylor is one of the foremost scholars of intellectual history alive today, having been Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford (Fellow of All Souls College). For many years, both before and after Oxford, he was Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Taylor was also a Board of Trustees Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University. Brad Gregory holds the tenured Dorothy G. Griffin Professor of Early Modern European History Chair at the University of Notre Dame. He has won several distinguished awards in the area of Christianity in the Reformation era, including the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, 2005. Neither of these world class scholars can be characterized as somehow part of "a particular class of disaffected Catholics of the sort who frequent this site and who think they've diagnosed the root cause of all that is wrong with the world". Only an ignoramus, again, without knowledge of history or culture in a deep way would snap out such a frankly ludicrous opinion.

I would say "tolle, lege" but you wouldn't get the reference. The truth is that you don't get it at all. And worse, refuse to engage in a process of self-education that would help you get it. More's the pity.
written by jsmitty, November 06, 2012
Achilles seriously now.... which is the Saint, Father or Doctor whom this piece "echoes?" Which Father, Saint or Doctor--in their time or place--would have written or said anything remotely like "Christians everywhere" find themselves living in the absolute power of an essentially fascist state?" Which gospel passage do we find Jesus or Paul preoccupied with the changing social arrangements that had been centuries in the making, and constructing a world-view around that? In what sense did the gospel proclamation even remotely hint at that?

No, I'm sorry, what you call "orthodox Catholicism" is not the real article at all. It has aspects of the authentic thing to be sure. It is really just a strange historical narrative of persistent decline. The narrative really doesn't make much sense either on its own terms or in the view of Jesus Christ's governance of the world, in which one would like history to bear witness to. Still the narrative provides an emotional and intellectual safe-haven for people who for one reason or another are at odds with the modern world. The narrative helps to rule out of court any questions or complications or messiness associated with a real wrestling with reality. This is why I'm not allowed to ask when the decline began and why it happened at all in the broad scheme of God's providential care of the world.

Believe it or not, I would actually agree with many of your and Warren's critiques of modernity...except that I would insist that there are aspects of modernity that are good too and so you'd have me pegged differently that I am.

But there is a danger here for otherwise well-meaning Catholics to lose themselves in the past. I don't think any reasonable interpretation of the gospel message calls us to do that. Which is why I think we should call a moratorium for a while on the "enlightenment lament" genre of writing and thinking for a while. Whatever God is doing in the modern world is a mystery, and I don't see much use in us feebly trying to develop a broader theory of intellectual or political history to explain it.

And the danger of these theories is not only that they really do smack of a particular ideology, but they tend to distract from the need to wrestle with the far more serious question: what should the people of God be doing now?

Or so it seems to me. Cheers
written by Achilles, November 06, 2012

Jsmitty,so now you are the arbiter of what authentic “Orthodox Catholicism” is? I cannot rely on The Bible , Magisterium, Saints, Church Doctors or the Holy Spirit any longer? Shall I check with you when I have a question?

The times have no impact on how the “people of God” are to act. The People of God are to act as they have always acted, as they act now and as they always will. To imitate Christ is simply that, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” It doesn’t require the suggested agonizing and calculating that you seem t insist upon. In fact, what is the culture of death but a “complex system of living.” True Christian simplicity is one way to uncover self-deceit.

Christ tells us in Mathew 6:24 “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” There is no synthesis of the secular world and the kingdom of Heaven. What the modern ilk does more than anything is to call things what they are not. For you to suggest that our concerns with calling the enlightenment and modern society what it is, which is a serious duty of the Orthodox Catholic, is somehow the entirety of our concerns is typical of a modern university educated person, give the wrong weights and measures to things. Plato’s warnings about writing in the Phaedrus were prophetic in demonstrating the plight of the university educated modern man and most of his professors.

Plato had Pharaoh say of writing “The discovery will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls because they will not use their memories.
They will trust external written characters and will not remember of themselves
Letters give her disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.
They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing.
They will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.
They will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Jsmitty, Do Plato;s words remind you of anyone? The little I do know of Orthodox Catholicism is much more concerned with ultimate reality, with the permanent, not the temporary. This may be a key to much of your confusion. I have enjoyed our conversation, I wish it could be more fruitful. Good Luck to you, I pray for Christ’s peace to find you, please pray for me. Achilles
written by jsmitty, November 06, 2012
Sorry, Achilles, but I think there's a docetism lurking at the foundation of your ideas...always has been....In the Incarnation the eternal and the temporal come together. That's the mystery! But I've enjoyed the conversation as well! Good night!
written by jsmitty, November 06, 2012
BTW GK...I get the reference. And I'm quite familiar with Gregory. It's a common theme among diehard medievalists that the world has been in decline since the Middle Ages and the condemnation of 1277 or William Ockham, or the Renaissance or the Reformation or the French Revolution or take your pick. And I'm not questioning the earnestness or the intelligence of people who hold some version of this. Sometimes they are erudite. It's practically a calling card for a certain stripe of Catholic intellectuals. But, you know, these guys will admit in their more candid moments with a few drinks in them that there is a touch of madness to all this. And as someone who once thought this way earlier in my academic career, I admit that this provides superficially plausible story of simplifying the messiness of modernity. Just assert the presuppositional truth of Scholastic Thomism on everything and use it as the yardstick to critique the flaws of everything after. Thomas was a genius with a very coherent system and so you can actually make this work--until you decide you want to engage the modern world and realize that most of your interlocutors don't share this assumption. So one response is to take your marbles and go home!

But I also hate to be the one to break it to you...this view of history and the world is 1) not the same as orthodox Catholicism and 2) not shared by every intelligent faithful Catholic 3) not held by Catholic scholarship generally. 4) not the only ( or even the best) Catholic way of dealing with the Enlightenment.

One reason Vatican II happened in fact was that enough Catholics realized that the Scholastic monopoly over theology was a dead end--precisely because it made addressing Catholic ideas to the modern world impossible.
written by anon, November 09, 2012
The post modern mind rejects much of what is true, does that mean St. Thomas was wrong? No. Some other poster mentioned some are making man the measure of all things. That is the issue.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author