French Catholicism and the secular state. Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editor, with Jonathan Chaplin, of God and Global Order (Baylor Univ. Press).
Every Pentecost is loud. In that first, in dusty provincial Rome long ago, storming winds and tongues of flame made manifest the promise of a curtain torn, of a tomb split open. It was a new communion, one in which barriers of language, race, and gender were remade in the person of Jesus Christ. The curse of Babel undone, humankind found wholeness.
The French Revolution sparked its own Pentecost, with the acrid smell of powder and flint and the scream of metal and steel striking mortal blows to the Ancien Régime, the old order which divided a sovereign people by the hubris of divine right and the paternalism of the clergy. The Revolution brought the masses into the political arena. It was a political Pentecost, a civic epiphany that sparked an explosion of activism.
The story of Emile Perreau-Saussine’s Catholicism and Democracy is a clash of Pentecosts, a clash of sovereignties — one too many for most Catholics, who were just as happy with the one they already had. It is a remarkably powerful story, told by a political theorist of extraordinary talent and depth, a story with its own sad ending, if marked only by his tragic death at such a young age from a heart attack.
The book was published posthumously, and over it hangs that lament which Alasdair MacIntyre puts so poignantly in the foreword: “I shall resist the temptation to note here the occasional doubts that I would have wanted to express to the author or the questions that I would have been anxious to put to him. But I do so with unusual sadness, since I shall never learn what he would have said.”
Yet what Perreau-Saussine bequeathed to us in Catholicism and Democracy is an inheritance worthy of his brief genius. The questions he brings into focus are twofold:
- First, why and how did Catholic France, and Catholicism generally, accommodate the spirit of revolutionary democracy, of the sovereignty of the people, which seemed so contrary to the theology and practice of the Catholic Church?
- And second, far more subtly, why was it so easy for Protestantism
Of this last question he says very little explicitly, but the consistent suggestion is that Protestantism, and what he calls liberal Protestantism especially, is essentially ideological modernity with theological dressing, tending toward pantheism. Conservative Protestantism comes off rather better, but you might be forgiven for reading the book as concluding that there is no real political or theological vitality in Protestantism — which is, I hope, an overstatement.
Few things seem less palatable to the American religious and political imagination than French Catholicism, and yet there are remarkable parallels between Protestant America and Catholic France, a tether across space and time that Catholicism and Democracy teases at, but never stretches out and sermonizes. Perreau-Saussine’s enviable restraint yields a striking counter-narrative of religious freedom, statehood, and the Catholic faith. Americans, Laotians, Bolivians — everyone — should take note: how we tell that story, how we understand the practice and power of religion and politics in the nation-state’s European past, will profoundly inform our present and our future.
Catholicism and Democracy is the story of Catholic political ideas in an age of democracy, told to complete or at least explain the connection between the origins and applications of Vatican I and Vatican II. It is Perreau-Saussine’s argument that the seemingly radical transition which took place between the two was not so radical at all, but that in fact the resources that yielded these conciliar engagements with modernity, especially in the Gallican and ultramontanist traditions [vocab: the traditions/policies that the absolute authority of the church should be vested in the pope], existed in a productive tension which gave rise to one, consistent theological and political strain.
Consistency of tradition is important in a way to Catholics in which it is, of course, not to Protestants, so the value of that argument might be lost on some readers. But even if the argument is a stretch, and I think it may be, it is not made disingenuously and neither without some solid evidence. Perreau-Saussine traces in the work of Maistre, Lemennais, Tocqueville, Comte, Littré, and Péguy an existential struggle: how can a person who professes to be the slave of Jesus profess in that same breath the ultimate sovereignty of the people? In these thinkers the rushing, horizontal immanence of a Pentecost of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” meets head on the hierarchical pillars of a faith which recognizes no God but the Lord, no sovereign but Jesus Christ.
This is precisely where the book offers such richness for those who are neither French nor Catholic. The crisis of revolutionary France was how to combine a system of sovereign, equal, political peoples with a system of faith, stewarded and safeguarded by a historic hierarchy, deeply entrenched and in many cases internally divided about what paths of justice to follow. The answers were far from obvious. The question of how to live as people owing oaths of loyalty to both Caesar and God is not new, even if the specific institutions and history of late-modern Catholic Europe are, and the answers — and failures — are instructive for more than that time and place.
Leave aside the spat with Protestantism for the moment and consider Islam, a religion which some scholars and pundits have suggested is simply incapable of reforming around the idea of representative democracy. Can there be hope for Islamic states to forge a theological consensus around the rights and duties of democratic liberalism?
The Catholic tradition suggests there might be, provided the internal resources of Islam can fund these commitments and, perhaps most challengingly, if a certain kind of ultramontanist theology can take root — an emergent loyalty to a supranational spiritual rather than spiritual-political office. It is the irony of medieval Catholicism that the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican and the papacy proved a secularizing rather than radicalizing force, as states relinquished their hold on clerical offices and popes relinquished theirs on political ones.
There is, I think, one significant oversight in Perreau-Saussine’s story. It is misleading to starkly state that the deconfessionalization of the nation secured a secular society. Disestablishment is not the same as deconfessionalization, and in this sense Maistre, and in the later tradition Schmitt, might be right, contra Perreau-Saussine, in talking about “political theology” and religion as “the constitutive principle of every society.”
If, as contemporary theologians like William T. Cavanaugh have argued, religion itself is a normative rather than descriptive term — if what we have come to define as religion is in fact an invention of the modern period — then the very categories of our analysis and belief have been predefined by a kind of secularism. This is certainly Charles Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age, where secularity is not neutral and nonreligious but rather, as in Cavanaugh, depends upon its own kind of thin theological consensus about the very definitions of sovereignty, politics, and religion. Where we draw those boundaries — indeed, whether such boundaries exist at all — is as much a matter of theology as of politics. Religion and its boundaries had to be invented before a secular society could claim to secure its freedoms.
This helps render Catholic (and Islamic) squeamishness at the prospect of secular society in a better context: what Catholics were being asked to do was not simply refashion their political loyalties, but fundamentally change their religion, by definition.
And if this secularism, this thin consensus at the basis of the Westphalian state, is indeed an act of theology as much as of politics, if it is religare in that binding original sense, then what we must admit, contra Perreau-Saussine, is that it is no accident of apostasy that Protestantism came to this first. Perhaps — and here I intentionally push back on his unqualified celebration of Catholicism — it was because Protestantism stands a better chance of Reformation, of making new consensus, on the basis of understanding old ones to have been wrong. It may be impolite to say it, but from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy by the Constituent Assembly on July 12, 1790, to the 1965 Declaration of Religious Freedom is an awfully long stretch. There was much profound political philosophy in the Catholic Church during this period, but that glacial growth is itself something of a concern to Protestants and secularists alike.
For Cavanaugh, the nation-state is an apostasy, and he would find a strong history in Perreau-Saussine’s account to draw on for that case. For Taylor, the thin consensus around which secularism persists in the Western state may well depart from orthodox Catholicism, but that is as politics is. A good compromise leaves everyone miserable, politicians will remind us, and to say that a serviceable lie persists at the basis of the nation-state might just be another way of saying we have found something thin enough, if unsatisfying, to largely agree upon, for the time being.
Perreau-Saussine, taking after his great mentor Alasdair MacIntyre, offers only the most tantalizing hors d’oeuvres in conclusion, leaving to us the feast of applying his argument and working out its contemporary applications. Clearly he believes in a kind of secularism — a positive idea of laicity — which understands the secular state to be funded by virtues laws cannot make, and values markets cannot sell. Liberal democracy, for all its freedoms and its rights, now finds itself with an ironic deficit only the Church can fund. As philosophy turns in upon itself, with the idea of autonomy of the will, of indefinite perfectibility, of profane manipulations, Perreau-Saussine wonders whether liberal democracy has not in fact already succumbed to its own totalitarian excesses. And here he concludes with a moving appeal to the papacy, to “the Vatican’s man in white” who is a sovereign with no crown, a witness to a reality which transcends the general will:
[H]e manifests the Christian refusal to be entirely swallowed up in the democratic order. That is the church’s service to society: to resist the docile conformism to which egalitarianism can lead. In a democratic world that works ceaselessly to eliminate otherness, even (perhaps especially) when it proclaims its commitment to pluralism, believers have an eye to something beyond the society of the here and now, and thus have an escape route from conformism. They form a breakwater against the tide of conformity. They are, par excellence, a sign of contradiction.
If it were to be the Catholic Church that so wrestled to come to terms with the measures of liberal democracy, which proved a salve and a savior for that same democracy, the power of that irony must surely wash whatever smug secularism still clings to our Western politics. I suppose Emile Perreau-Saussine now knows that answer, but I for one am very grateful to him for writing out its introduction in this important book.