Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Myth of Medieval Totalitarianism

Here's a very interesting piece by John P. McCarthy titled "Decentralism and Statism in the Experience of Christendom". In short McCarthy goes to great length explaining the governing political philosophy of Medieval Christendom and how it compares to modern political institutions; particularly on the question of statism(i.e. centralized governmental control) as opposed to decentralism.

Contrary to the popular myth expressed nowadays, Medieval Christendom tended to favor the latter, while modern liberal and secularist governments have tended towards the former. As he explains:

Many good Liberals, especially in the nineteenth century, characterized Christendom as a theocracy, the epitome of centralization and statism, especially because of the suggestion that political authority emanated from the Pope. However, while there was that theocratic proclivity in Western Christendom, it was more the exception than the rule. In fact, the historical record of Christendom, and the heritage of Christendom that continues, probably more in the United States than Europe itself, should indicate that Christendom was a major supporter of decentralization and opponent of statism.


McCarthy goes onto to explain that Christian theology itself seems to "militate against statism and favor decentralization." Largely this was because of the doctrine of Original Sin(which implies that man is too flawed to have absolute power) along with his Christ's command to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but to God the things that are God's". This implied that Caesar was not the sole authority in the world, but that the commands of God had to be obeyed as well.

Possibly the most interesting point made in this piece is that one key social institution prevented the state from assuming absolute power during the Medieval period, and that institution was none other than the church. For example, the ability of the pope to excommunicate monarchs "was an important restraint on absolute political power."

However over time, especially beginning in the late Medieval period, monarchs were able to concentrate more and more power into their own hands. The Great Schism and other unfortunate incidents that served to weaken the geo-political power of the Papacy only helped this process along. By the time of the Renaissancence and the Wars of Religion, the existence of absolute monarchies became the norm throughout Europe.

Then came the supposed "Age of Enlightenment" in the 18th century, where intellectuals proposed new theories about man and of the state. The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that man, through use of reason, could perfect himself. This of course ran contrary to the Christian concept of original sin, but the Enlightenment rejected Christian morality as nothing more than outdated rubbish. Having believed that man could become perfect, logically one could also argue about the ability to create the perfect state. And that's just what the Enlightenment thinkers sought to lay out. Basically the job of the state was to create a more enlightened and perfect world. However, in order to accomplish that goal, a more efficient and centralized form of government would be needed. Many European monarchs adopted this viewpoint under the premise of "elightened despotism".

The ideals of the Enlightenment eventually lead to the French Revolution of 1789, and consequently the further centralization of governmental power. Yet the idea of the state being a vehicle for transforming society into a more perfect ideal did not die, in fact it was further articulated throughout the 19th century and came to full practice within the 20th century with unspeakable horrors.

So rather than totalitarianism being a product of Christendom, it is rather a product of centuries of turning away from Christian teachings. Ironically when Medieval people spoke about the separation of church and state, they largely meant it so that the church wouldn't be corrupted by the state. The church, again, was seen as a divinely inspired institution that held society together and whose moral power kept the state in check. In contrast, when we now speak about this concept it's reversed; somehow the state is in danger of being corrupted by the church. However, it can clearly be seen which force has caused more destruction when left unchecked by more moral forces.

Yet the notion that Christianity provided the framework for totalitarianism has gained new emphasis within a intellectual movement known as the European New Right, also known by its French name Nouvelle Droite. Long story short, this a group of intellectuals who believe in revitalizing European civilization and providing the intellectual case for legitimizingtng ethnic identities. Certainly nothing wrong with that. However, this movement is Neo-pagan in orientation, and wishes to blame Christianity for much of the mess of the modern world.

Tomislav Sunic is a key thinker within this movement who shares this view. In his article "Marx, Moses and the Pagans in the Secular City", he lays out his case that "the roots of tyranny do not lie in Athens or Sparta, but are traceable, instead, to Jerusalem" and the Bible. He certainly agrees with the assessment of Oswald Spengler that "Christian theology is the grandmother of Bolshevism", because of its emphasis on social justice and so on. If it weren't for 2000 years of Christianity, Liberalism and Communism would not have been possible, or so their argument goes.

McCarthy completely dismisses this argument, stating that "Christians were not to construct a terrestrial utopia". This is because Christ himself stated that his kingdom was not of this world. Jim Kalb also offers his thoughts on this issue, arguing that rather than being the direct result of Christianity, liberalism and communism were more or less gross perversions of Christian doctrine. BTW, here's a link to another interesting discussion about the European New Right's mistaken views on Christianity by Jim Kalb and others.

Anyways, the lesson here is that the example of Medieval Christendom provided the example of limited government in its true sense (not the so-called conservative fraud of "small government"), while secularism has done nothing but given government more power than it needs. This is why Catholic Social Doctrine has always upheld decentralization, aka subsidiarity, as an all important element.

So the next you meet a liberal who screams about the seperation of church and state on the grounds that religion will set up a tyrannical theocracy(like in the Middle Ages or "Dark Ages" as they're more commonly referred to derogatorily), you can counter them with the facts!

3 Comments:

Blogger Jovan-Marya Weismiller, T.O.Carm. said...

My blogroll is updated and I linked to this article. Thanks!

7:12 PM  
Blogger Fidei Defensor said...

Great post, as you point out, and as honest historians are starting to realize the term "Dark Ages," is more of a reflection on our own predjudice than the state of Christian Europe during that era.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Perun said...

Yes there are several books out there that now discuss how advanced the Middle Ages were; both culturally and even technologically. Some histories have even claimed that by the 13th century, Medieval Europe was perhaps the most advanced civilization in the world!

11:45 AM  

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