On Christmas Day in the year 1797 the aristocratic Luigi Barnabà Chiaramonte (1742-1823), Cardinal Bishop of Imola in Romagna in northern Italy, startled his congregation by declaring that there is no essential conflict between democracy and Christianity. Coming as it did hard on the heels of the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France (1793-1794), it must have seemed to many that their Ordinary had lost his mind. (E.E.Y. Hales, Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1954, 35.)
|Pope Pius VII|
Nor would subsequent events have quelled their fears. On Chiaramonte’s election to the papacy in 1800 as Pius VII, he moved the papal court back to Rome as soon as he could. Once there he instituted some moderate reforms in the Curia and made it clear that he and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824), were prepared to accommodate to the new regime in France as far as they could so long as it was consistent with Catholic principles.
In response to overtures from then-First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte a concordat was signed with the French Republic but was soon violated. When Pius VII refused to support Napoléon’s war effort, the Man of Destiny occupied the Papal States and imprisoned him. Following years of harsh captivity, the pope returned to the Vatican in 1815 after the Hundred Days.
Undaunted by his sufferings under liberté, égalité, and fraternité, Pius VII again attempted to implement liberal reforms in the Papal States and Church administration but was frustrated by reactionary revolts. Although unsuccessful, his goal was to accommodate the Church as far as possible to the modern world without altering doctrine but emphasizing religious issues and maintaining political neutrality. In 1823 he sent Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (1792-1878), the future Pope Pius IX (elected 1846), on a two-year mission to Chile to solidify relations with the new republics of Central and South America.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
What puzzles papal historians down to the present day is how Pius VII could continue to champion liberal democracy after experiencing the brutal reality of it first-hand. The solution to this conundrum lies in the fact that “liberal democracy” is a term that covers a multitude of sins as well as virtues. The real question is what one means by “liberal” and the particular philosophy of democracy followed.
Three major types of liberal (as opposed to classical) democracy prevailed at the end of the eighteenth century and carried over into the nineteenth. As described briefly by Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859) in Democracy in America (1835, 1840), the French or European type of democracy that tends to socialism is that humanity itself, the collective, is sovereign. The English type of democracy that tends to capitalism is that the “great man” or an élite, is sovereign.
In America, where the highest form of democracy was to be found, the human person, the individual, is sovereign. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II.2.v.) This is the “Catholic” form of liberal democracy, firmly grounded on the dignity and sovereignty of the human person under God. Every child, woman, and man is innately worthy of respect by the mere fact of being human, and this is reflected in “Catholic” political theory.
Strictly speaking, of course, there is no such thing as “Catholic political theory,” any more than there is “Catholic philosophy,” “Catholic mathematics,” “Catholic physics,” or — worst of all in this discussion — “Catholic economics.” There are at best schools of economics (or philosophies or political theories) that materially conform to or at least do not contradict the precepts of the natural law and Catholic doctrine, but that is as far as it goes or can go. It would be as unreasonable in order to be a “good Catholic” to require membership in a particular political party or adhere to some scientific theory about astronomy or biology as it would be to demand that someone subscribe to a specific school of economics.
That being said, however, at least since the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) democratic forms of government have been recognized as being consistent with the natural law and Catholic doctrine. From the Angelic Doctor’s De Regimine Principum to the De Laicis of Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Catholic political theory has incorporated democratic principles.
Bellarmine, however, made an error that has had serious repercussions down to the present day. In an effort to counter the heretical “Divine Right of Kings,” Bellarmine separated social rights — the rights to enforce the law and punish offenders, to tax, to declare war, etc. — from the human person created by God, and then vested social rights in the collective created by man. (See Rev. John Clement Rager, S.T.D., The Political Philosophy of Blessed Cardinal Bellarmine. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1926.)
|Robert Cardinal Bellarmine|
The significance of Bellarmine’s error is . . . profound. By claiming that something created by man has rights that man created by God does not, Bellarmine’s theory made God subordinate not merely to actual human beings, but to a “legal fiction,” an imaginary concept that has no existence apart from the human mind.
This reversed the entire order of creation that has God at the top, then man, then whatever man creates, the last of which is at the command and under the control of human beings. Instead, an imaginary construct — the collective or the State — is at the top, then man, and God is at the bottom. The collective calls the tune, man fiddles, and God dances in response.
Pope Pius XI (Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, 1857-1939; elected 1922) would correct Bellarmine’s error in his social doctrine, but that was of no use a century before his election. As a result, when the Industrial and French Revolutions disrupted society and traditional political and religious institutions failed adequately to address the new things, thoughtful — and desperate — people began searching for alternatives.
What they came up with was “the democratic religion” — what would soon be called socialism.#30#