One of the more interesting things we discover about Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and his greatest work, Democracy in America (1835, 1840), is that the author — like Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876) a generation latter in The American Republic (1866) — considered himself a Catholic writing as a Catholic. What surprises many people is to find out that both de Tocqueville and Brownson considered the American system (slavery excepted) to be the closest to “Catholic” political theory.
|Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J.|
Of course, to label any science, hard or soft (with the exception of theology, “the Queen of Sciences”), as “Catholic” is not, strictly speaking, accurate. It is even misleading after a fashion, as Dr. Franz H. Mueller, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., noted. What both de Tocqueville and Brownson meant, of course — and said so, if not in so many words — was that the American system was not the most Catholic per se, but the most consistent with Catholic teachings.
Even more remarkable is that de Tocqueville wrote during the pontificate of Gregory XVI (Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, 1765-1846, elected 1831), who issued the first social encyclicals condemning liberalism and religious indifferentism, and who coined the phrase rerum novarum (“new things”) in his second social encyclical in 1834, Singulari Nos, condemning the “Democratic Religion” advocated by a renegade priest, Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) . . . with whom de Tocqueville was personally acquainted.
|Pope Gregory XVI|
Not that de Tocqueville was particularly impressed with de Lamennais. As the former said of the latter after personally experiencing some of de Lamennais’s tantrums that resulted from de Tocqueville trying to persuade de Lamennais to support him on an issue on which they both agreed(!), de Lamennais had “a pride great enough to walk over the heads of kings and bid defiance to God.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 191.) The fact was de Lamennais wanted the same thing as de Tocqueville, but it had to be done precisely as de Lamennais wanted it and at the time he wanted it.
Brownson was less complimentary, and he allowed de Lamennais no excuse at all or any grounds for agreement. In the July 1859 issue of Brownson’s Quarterly Review, he declared,
|Félicité de Lamennais|
The fall of the unhappy La Mennais may well be held up as a warning to all over-zealous and headstrong individuals who have theories or crotchets of their own for advancing Catholic interests; but, though wholly inexcusable on his part, it may, perhaps, be urged with no less propriety as a warning to those who are more ready to pounce upon a writer for his errors than to help him to discover the truth that would correct them. We cannot help thinking, that, if they who with so much zeal denounced the unhappy abbé, had taken, in a spirit of charity and candor, half as much pains to help him understand the truth he had in view, but which he saw only dimly or fitfully, as they did to prove him in the wrong and the advocate of monstrous errors, he might have been saved. Certainly, his philosophical system was unsound, but his opponents in France combated it with a system about equally unsound.
What interested de Tocqueville as a foreign observer and Brownson as an American, however, was the fact that the American system (at least in the mid-nineteenth century) appeared to have achieved a balance between the individual and the collective. As Brownson put it in the Introduction to The American Republic,
|Orestes A. Brownson|
The United States, or the American Republic, has a mission, and is chosen of God for the realization of a great idea. . . . [I]ts mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the State, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual — the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. (Orestes A. Brownson, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003, 3)
This is the idea of subsidiarity in a nutshell. It isn’t that the State does automatically whatever individuals and groups cannot do for themselves. That may be necessary as a temporary expedient, but the goal of true subsidiarity is to ensure that power resides or subsides in actual people, not in any form of the State or community. The moment the State takes over a function that belongs to individuals or intermediate groups as a permanent solution instead of as a temporary expedient, the principle of subsidiarity has been violated.
Sovereignty of the people is not to be construed collectively or in an elitist manner, and that is what both Brownson and — as we shall see in the next posting on this subject — de Tocqueville saw as unique in the American system.