Understanding the Liberty of the Church

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The recent golden anniversary of the Vatican II Council has sparked numerous reflections on the “meaning” of the Council. The Council, famously, was meant to “open wide” the doors of the Church to the modern world, and was the most important Church council since Trent in the sixteenth century. Behind the commemorations lay a long series of disputes between those promoting the “spirit of Vatican II” against those they believe to have moved the Church in an authoritarian or reactionary direction, and those arguing that the Council has been sidetracked by those seeking to replace orthodoxy with the spirit of the age.

At the same time, many Catholics have become energized over the attempts, through regulations such as the HHS mandate, to change the traditional relationship between religious belief and state power, as set out in the Constitution. The Obama administration has asserted the right of government to interfere with the internal workings of religious institutions, and to define what may or may not count as religious exercise.

The HHS mandate and related actions are the results of a democratic ideology that began with the French Revolution. As Emile Perreau-Saussine, a brilliant young French scholar who died unexpectedly in 2010, explains in his provocative book Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought, recently translated (with an introduction by Alasdair MacIntyre) and published by Princeton, the Church has been engaged, both in terms of ecclesiology and politically, with that ideological revolution since 1789.

Perreau-Saussine’s thesis concerns the relationship between Vatican II and its predecessor, Vatican I, which met in 1869-70. Vatican I is best remembered for the doctrine of papal infallibility, and for that reason is considered by some as the more “reactionary” of the two councils. Perreau-Saussine disagrees, seeing each as a different pole of the Church’s reaction to the rise of liberal democracy, with an underlying unity. Further, Perreau-Saussine contends that the councils were also reactions to the political challenges the Church faced in the decades after the French Revolution.

Perreau-Saussine is concerned almost exclusively with France; for him “Gallicanism is the preeminent tradition of distinctly political thought” within the Church. Gallicanism is a complex interplay among bishops, kings, and parlements in negotiating the political claims of the nation and the autonomy of the Church. It was in France also that the disruptions of the Revolution brought about the democratic age, which challenged the Church’s relationship with political society, arguably, in ways not seen since the conversion of the Roman Empire. But the book’s nuanced, thoughtful discussions of the relationship between Catholicism and democracy have wider application to the United States and other Western countries.

France’s millennium as the “eldest daughter of the Church” resulted in deep intertwining of the state and the church, a religious-political model that the Church unfortunately too often accepted as the price of state protection. The Revolution broke the sacred bond that had existed between the French nation and the French Church.

Ultramontanism, in this sense, was less a reactionary rejection of liberalism than an acknowledgement of a key liberal premise: the modern state will be secular. Those French Catholics who looked “over the mountains” (ultra montes) to Rome were seeking a replacement for the French monarchy, which was now lost forever. However, ultramontanists like Joseph de Maistre preserved a key insight of the Catholic tradition, “that the only viable constraints on power are, ultimately, religious constraints.” 

Indeed, Perreau-Saussine sympathetically portrays de Maistre as something of a radical innovator, insofar as he put the liberty of the Church not in terms of Gallican independence but in dependence on the papacy. Yet the “ultra” project became simply another form of political utopianism, which the Church could not accept in light of the radically new political world – one of fully separate, democratic states.

What does this have to do with the Councils? Well, Vatican I rejected de Maistre’s apocalyptic view of the Revolution, a process started with Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris that in Perreau-Saussine’s view “recognized the autonomy of the political sphere.” Vatican I was the most visible effort in the Church’s attempt to disentangle itself from France and its (at times merely symbolic) unions with political authority: 

[U]nable to immerse itself in the democratic system without losing its very identity, the church felt the need instead to reassert its character as a distinct entity. It therefore largely abandoned the Gallicanism that had woven it into the fabric of the Ancien Regime. Unable to identify with a state that had cast off its essentially confessional character, Catholics instead identified themselves as never before with the papacy.

Rather than a reactionary redoubt, this enabled the Church to gather resources to confront a state neutral at best and hostile at worst, as Perreau-Saussine sets out in careful detail with regard to the France of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Vatican II, to compress his argument, was not a departure but a complement to Vatican I. The first Council established the Church as a society independent of the political world. The second Council “reconnected with an older Catholic political tradition, which. . .had asserted the importance of the role of the laity and the autonomy of the political sphere.”  Neither “progressive” nor “reactionary,” each Council drew from the rich Catholic reflection on politics to reimagine the Church’s mission in a secular, democratic age.

Catholicism and Democracy is an important contribution to what is perhaps the central question of our time: preserving the liberty of the Church, and its adherents, in an age not only wholly democratic but also almost completely secular. 




Gerald J. Russello (9171-2021) was a lawyer and editor of The University Bookman.