Friday, October 28, 2011

Equality and the Church: Post-Revolutionary U-turns

ow did the Church react to the ousting of the secular aristocracy?  First, when asked to support the French revolution, Pope Pius VI roundly condemned it in 1791 in the ironically titled encyclical, Caritas.  The condemnation was the opening move by the Vatican against the emerging liberalism, liberty, and equality.

Shortly after the French Revolution, calls began to be heard suggesting that the Church take a leadership role in the cause of liberty. Surely, people said, freedom is consistent with and even lies at the heart of the gospel message and the whole of Sacred Scripture.

Felicité Robert de Lamennais, born prior to the revolution, a scholar, priest and author, engaged a group of followers in this cause. Because there was governmental interference with the Church at every level: governance, education, etc., Lamennais stated that separation of Church and State, complete freedom for the Church, was in the Church’s best interest.

Lamennais and his followers started a daily newspaper, L’Avenir, The Future. Its slogan was "God and Liberty." It subscribed to the full liberating agenda: complete religious liberty, freedom of education, freedom of the press, etc. Lamennais wanted to start a movement based on his belief that this concept of liberalism would find its proper home in the Church. L’Avenir attacked the bishops as blind, worldly and cowardly.

As you might suppose, tremendous opposition arose among the clerical aristocracy to these ideas. The final denunciation came from Pope Gregory XVI in the encyclical Mirari Vos. (1832). In the encyclical he complains that the Church is afflicted with indifferentism. A brief quote says it all: “And so from this rotten source of indifferentism flows that absurd and erroneous opinion, or rather insanity, that liberty of conscience must be claimed and defended for anyone…. Nor can we foresee more joyful omens for religion and the state from the wishes of those who desire that the Church be separated from the State.”

Thanks to the wisdom and efforts of an American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray , insanity made a U-turn and became sanity when the second Vatican Council made plain in its Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965): “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully…. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.” And in the same document: “Government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens.” 

There we have it: freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. It is just one of many examples down through history where bishops have made a U-turn in their positions on moral issues.

In our next issue, we will look at the bishops’ post-revolution position on equality. 

The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter Abbott, S.J.

The Sources of Catholic Dogma, by Henry Denzinger

Church and Revolution:  Catholics in the Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice, by Thomas Bokenkotter.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Tide Begins to Turn: The Advance of Liberty, Equality and Democracy

nder the mantle of the French and American revolutions, the spirit of democracy, liberty, and equality captured the hearts and minds of the western world, never again to be smothered for long. Never again in the western world would the subjection of the masses be greeted with an apathetic acceptance. Never again would it have long-term staying power.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 defined liberty and equality: “Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others; thus the exercise of the natural rights of man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of those same rights.” Liberty became further formulated as 1. Separation of Church and State. 2. Freedom of Conscience. 3. Freedom of Speech and 4. Freedom of the press.

Equality was defined: “The law must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all…employments according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of virtues and talents.”

Now, let’s trace the advance of liberty and equality, first in society at large and then in the Church. 

In society, briefly: we can tie liberty and equality together when we talk of universal suffrage, the right of every individual to vote and select their leadership and to settle issues by vote, each vote equal in value. As history moved forward after the revolutions, voting became a right, but not for all at first. It was restricted in various ways: by sex (men only), by race (whites only), by property (only for property holders, etc.).

The advance toward universal suffrage was slow. By 1900, over a century after the French Revolution, there was still not a single democratic country with universal suffrage. One qualification or another got in the way. An analysis by Freedom House indicates that while no country had yet arrived to universal suffrage by 1900, by 2000, another century later, 120 of the world’s 192 nations, or 62% of them, had universal suffrage. Aristocrats are still around today in the western world, but mostly in their own little enclaves, where they talk to themselves and are looked upon as quaint relics of a bygone age or as flag substitutes. Politically, they are mostly impotent.

Next week, we will look at the bishop’s reaction to the revolutions and to their concepts of liberty and equality.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Purple Culture in Bloom

e are looking at the culture of the episcopacy as it evolved over time. Father Thomas Bokenkotter, priest and historian, notes that by the time of the French Revolution (1789), the aristocratic families had gained complete control over the appointment of bishops.   
Their sons were often installed in Episcopal palaces before they were dry behind the ears.    
Those sons carried with them into the episcopacy the same culture that we described in the previous issue of this blog.   
They were often more interested in worldly affairs and the gossip of the court than in spiritual matters. 
Bishops lived lavishly.   
Luxury abounded in episcopal palaces and even in the houses of many of the religious orders whose abbots and abbesses lived and traveled in princely style.  
The purple culture of the bishops was in full bloom.

A relevant example: A curé(Pastor) at that time was paid 300 livres per year. A bishop received up to 400,000 livres. That’s a 1 to 1,333 ratio.
What about the relation of the aristocracy, both secular and episcopal, to the common people, the non-aristocrats and the laity? Frankly, the latter were almost totally discounted.
They were useful as servants, but had little to offer except their labor, their taxes, their adulation and, of course, their use as cannon fodder. In its modern-day formulation it was “pay, pray and obey.” 

The reality was that the rest of humankind seldom entered the aristocratic consciousness. If the aristocrats happened to notice the dire poverty and terrible sufferings of the masses, they generally did little more than thank God that they were not of that class. Their perspective was supported by the common theology of that time: As they were aristocrats by the grace of God, just so the grace of God had established those others in their misery.

But, then came the FRENCH REVOLUTION. The causes of the revolution are complex and not the subject of this blog. It is enough to say that it sprang from the long-suffering discontent of the peasants and the middle class. It was shock and awe, filled with blood and horror, a revolt ultimately against a caste system that penetrated both society and the church. It brought its battering rams to the walls of established privilege and under the clear call of liberty and equality, privilege fell brick by brick. The peasants took their voice back. Their first word was revolution.
In the next issue we will take a brief look at the results of the revolution as they affected both the secular and the clerical aristocracy. 


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Culture of Aristocracy in the Golden Age of Princes

etween the 5th and 18th centuries both the secular aristocracy and the ecclesiastical aristocracy increased their power and their control over the lower classes. The time, just prior to the French Revolution, has been called the Golden Age of Princes. Using France as an example, it was a time when the magnificence and displays of monarchy and aristocracy were at their height. The aristocracy had strengthened itself considerably in the time between Louis XIV and Louis XVI. They now numbered about 400,000 in France and they maintained all the privileges of the aristocracy. They were exempt from taxes. The burden of the chief tax, called the taille, was imposed on the peasants and the middle class to pay. The control over and the distribution of justice remained in aristocratic hands. 

What was the culture of the aristocracy like? Precedence, the pecking order, controlled relationships within the group. And precedence was itself controlled by a maze of rules of etiquette. The movie, “Marie Antoinette,” reveals this culture in action. The rising ceremony of the queen (like that of the king) showed how members of the aristocracy vied with each other to present an article of clothing to the queen for her to put on. If someone higher in the pecking order, e.g. princess over duchess, happened to come in, the article went to the loftier of the two for handing to the queen. 

In effect, all eyes went upward to the higher order of precedence, and finally to the king. Fawning and sycophancy define the culture because ambition could only be advanced in that manner. The whim at the top had to be played to. Obedience and kowtowing became primary virtues. 

As a consequence, members of the aristocracy, for the most part, were a fairly shallow bunch. Gentlemen and ladies did not work so they were faced with finding ways to fill their time. They concerned themselves with gossip, parlor games, entertainments, sport, intrigue, and of course, their ambitions and their genealogies. They were self-absorbed to the point of ignoring anything outside their particular culture. It was a culture based on pretense. Aristocrats were basically actors, having to play in a culture that was exploitative, belittling and pompous. Trivia, as in the rules of etiquette, replaced anything of substance. 

Next week, we look at the purple culture of the bishops in this golden age of princes.

Resource: H.D. Molesworth, The Golden Age of Princes, 1969, G. P. Putnam's Sons.