A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Political Animal, Part X

In 1896 (the same year in which he entered the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield), the Anglican monk John Neville Figgis (1868-1919) published The Divine Right of Kings, a study of the political philosophy that reached the height of its development after — and as a result of — the Reformation.

From the Catholic point of view, the Mirfield Community (which still exists) is a relic of the somewhat artificial effort initiated during the "Oxford Movement" to revive the role that the monasteries had in the daily life of the people prior to what is euphemistically described as "the break with Rome." It is an application of "branch theory," a complicated issue that has no real significance for our argument, however important it might otherwise be. Whatever might be your personal opinion of such efforts as the Community of the Resurrection, it attracted some of the leading intellectual lights of the Anglican Church. The novelist Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) spent time there before his conversion to Catholicism and ordination as a Catholic priest.

Figgis's scholarly labors took a different direction. While apparently convinced to the end of his days of the falsity, etc., of the claims of "the Church of Rome" to a spiritual supremacy in Christendom, in all honesty he openly admitted, in common with William Cobbett a century earlier, that essential concepts such as the natural equality of all men, democracy, and governing with the consent of the governed had all been developments and teachings of the "Church of Rome" to which (for expedience, if nothing else) we will refer in the customary fashion as "the Catholic Church." (Some authorities consider the term "Roman" Catholic to be a concession to "branch theory," that is, to the belief that there are three "branches" of the Universal — Catholic — Church: Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican. The autocephalous Orthodox churches and the churches in union with the pope do not accept branch theory.)

Figgis concluded that divine right theory is a purely Protestant invention, and directly contrary to the great philosophical and political tradition of the West. While he utterly rejected the claims of the Catholic Church relating to the supremacy of the pope, Figgis felt himself forced to admit that, as far as political theory went, the Catholic Church was in the right, and it was, and had always been, a champion of political democracy as being the theory most consistent with the dignity of the human person.

Paradoxically, however, many people today, even (or especially) devout Catholics, seem unalterably convinced that a divine right monarchy is the only legitimate "Catholic" form of government, the only form given direct sanction by God Himself, and the only form approved by the Vatican and the papacy. How this came to be is the result of a series of historical accidents, as well as the triumph (temporary, we hope) of the party that since the sixteenth century has sought to base the natural moral law on God's revealed Will (explicit commands of God found in documents we base on faith), rather than on His Intellect (divine Nature reflected in that of every human being and discerned by reason alone). It's a complicated story, but we'll try to condense it as best we can.

It begins, as we might expect, with the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy in the 12th century — something to which we will keep returning in order to understand what is going on in the modern world. As Dr. Heinrich Rommen explained in his book, The Natural Law,
With Duns Scotus (d. cir. 1308), and with the principle of the primacy of the will over the intellect so much emphasized by him, there began inside moral philosophy a train of thought which in later centuries would recur in secularized form in the domain of legal philosophy. The principle that law is will would be referred in legal positivism, as well as in the theory of will in jurisprudence, to the earthly lawmaker (self-obligation).

For Duns Scotus morality depends on the will of God. A thing is good not because it corresponds to the nature of God or, analogically, to the nature of man, but because God so wills. Hence the lex naturalis could be other than it is even materially or as to content, because it has no intrinsic connection with God's essence, which is self-conscious in His intellect. For Scotus, therefore, the laws of the second table of the Decalogue were no longer unalterable. The crux of theology, namely, the problem of the apparent dispensations from the natural law mentioned in the Old Testament and thus seemingly granted by God (the command to sacrifice Isaac, Raphael's apparent lie, Osee's alleged adultery, the polygamy of the patriarchs, and so on), was now readily solved. Yet St. Thomas, too, had been able to solve such cases. Now, however, an evolution set in which, in the doctrine of William of Occam (d. cir. 1349) on the natural moral law, would lead to pure moral positivism, indeed to nihilism. (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 51-52.)
Rommen was a student of the great Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., Ph.D., who (in common with so many thinkers of equal or even greater caliber) has suffered much at the hands of later commentators and disciples who twist the otherwise clear teachings of their "master" to fit their preconceived theories and ideas. The distortions forced on the distributism of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc come forcibly to mind, especially those that change the substantial nature of natural rights to liberty — freedom of association — private property, and pursuit of happiness — the acquisition and development of virtue.

As a member of the renowned Königswinterkreis discussion group that included such luminaries as Father Oswald von Nell Breuning, Gustav Gundlach, and Franz Müller, Rommen was probably more "in touch" with Father Pesch's teachings than many of Father Pesch's latter-day aficionados. A number of these "wannabe" authorities seek to validate their personal opinions at the expense of common sense and sound philosophy by using Father Pesch's name as a deodorant for theories directly at odds with Father Pesch's Thomist orientation and that adhere more closely to an understanding of the natural moral law based on the Will rather than the Intellect.

This Occamist "triumph of the Will" received its greatest impetus after the success of the Reformation and when the Protestant groups finally saw themselves as completely separate bodies from Rome, instead of themselves being the sole representatives of the true Church established by Christ. This was supported by the aberrations in philosophy that began cropping up. As that genial commentator of the early 20th century, G. K. Chesterton, commented,
Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox: a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind. (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, "The Dumb Ox." New York: Image Books, 1956, 145-146.)
Coincidence (as they say)? I think not — although with far more justification than is usual with conspiracy theory fanatics. We will start to look at why this is so in the next posting in this series.

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