A familiar charge by critics of today’s Church is the accusation that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have reacted against or “betrayed” the balance Vatican II struck between individual liberty and Christian tradition. A counter-revolution is even said to be afoot, with not only theological progressivism as its target but, even more darkly, democracy, liberty, and modernity.
In his recent and final book Catholicism and Democracy, the late Cambridge scholar Émile Perreau-Saussine attempts to defuse that anger by presenting a long view of modern Church history. He advances the thesis that the French Revolution determined the outcomes of both Vatican I (1869-1870) and Vatican II (1962-1965), and that “the adaptation of the church to the democratic world order came in two stages, at the two councils.” Yet the critics’ “fear of . . . counter-revolution makes sense only if Vatican II marked some great break with the past.” But there never was such a break. Instead, the two councils “taken together” represented “a coherent Vatican reform.” In that light, the Church’s recent de-emphasis of Vatican II should be viewed as the steadying application of wisdom within a changing modern world.
In 1791 French revolutionaries set down the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, assigning all French citizens a right to vote in elections for parish priests and bishops. The intention was to fuse popular sovereignty and France’s nationalist Catholicism, so that the new democratic state might benefit from the revival and harnessing of the older, typically aristocratic tradition.
In any event, neither the Church in Rome nor many of the French Catholics who had accepted the Revolution could stand for this. They objected that the Civil Constitution, which empowered non-Catholics to participate in the governing of the French church, had crossed a line. It also excluded non-citizens, leaving the pope himself with no say at all in that governance. Nationalist spirit could not blot out the Constitution’s anti-Catholic hues. Leading French Catholics thus began to claim that the Revolution’s fundamental commitment to democracy was incompatible with the liberal freedom of religion it had earlier upheld. The inability of the Gallicanist state to co-opt Catholicism’s social energy exposed a tension inherent in liberal democracy: between the people empowered as a sovereign whole, on one hand, and those partial societies of individuals which diversify the nation, on the other.
By the late 1790s the medieval tradition of ultramontanism was being revived by Joseph de Maistre and other French Catholic intellectuals. They urged their co-religionists to look ultra montes—that is, “beyond the mountains”—to the papacy in Rome as the only legitimate source of religious and temporal authority. The “Counter-Revolution” had begun.
Perreau-Saussine shows that ultramontanism transcended its own political theology inasmuch as it shared and helped to promote the rational orientation of political philosophy. Maistre may have viewed the Revolution as God’s punishment for a sinful France, but he also reasoned carefully about the dangers of the new democratic statism. In the past the French church’s established influence in political life had diffused “a sense of moral limits,” even during the heyday of the Old Regime. But in the new order, “now . . . everything comes down to force.” Modern secularism thus posed a far greater risk of domestic tyranny or even totalitarianism than any Catholic monarch ever had.
Changing political circumstances altered political ideals over the next seventy years, such that pro-Catholic thinkers such as Félicité de Lamennais gradually began to endorse liberalism’s doctrine of religious liberty as a way of providing safe harbor for the Church’s social influence within a French state that was no longer officially Catholic. In Perreau-Saussine’s words, the new generation of thinkers “traded in reactionary ultramontanism for liberal ultramontanism.”
It was liberal ultramontanism, and not a neo-medieval commitment to papal absolutism, that informed the Declaration of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I. As evidence Perreau-Saussine mentions the weighty influence of Cardinal Manning, who “saw papal infallibility as the way . . . to release the church from the grip” of secular statism, as well as the papal allocution of July 20, 1871, which deemed it “a pernicious error to claim that infallibility reasserts a right to depose sovereigns.” The real purpose of the Declaration was to distinguish and to keep apart the political and the theological domains.
Thus understood, Vatican I still typifies one of “the two poles between which the Catholic Church oscillates in the age of democracy.” It is not a position of reaction against democratic change. Rather it involves the recognition that the modern Church can now be only one society among many, and that its distinctness in this sense occasionally demands accommodation for sake of self-protection. Consequently, the Church must be able to clearly distinguish (and separate, if need be) itself from the broader culture.
Vatican II established the other “pole” for the Church in the democratic age: a position that explicitly recognizes “the merits of democracy and liberalism” in and of themselves. The spectacle of twentieth-century totalitarian movements led the Church to resolve to act in the larger world, against political messianism and in support of political moderation. In doing so, according to Perreau-Saussine, Vatican II relied in part on the seminal work of another French thinker, Tocqueville, who suggested that Catholicism could flourish when it is not a state religion, and that democracy and pluralism could deliver real benefits to faith itself.
Recent anger over the supposed “betrayal” of Vatican II has thus arisen from a mistake, according to Perreau-Saussine. Progressive critics presume there to be an opposition of the two councils, when in fact they are only two ends of a continuum of Vatican reform. Postconciliar orthodoxy, then, does not seek to critique liberal democracy from a re-emergent anti-liberal vantage point. It merely moves back toward the Vatican I end of the continuum, in order to protect both revealed truth and modernity—against modernity itself.
Catholicism and Democracy inaugurates a much-needed effort to recount the history of Catholic political ideas in the democratic age. Sadly, this fine book is also Perreau-Saussine’s final work, as the professor passed away at the age of thirty-seven in 2010. It is to be hoped that its posthumous publication will inspire others to pick up the important thread that he has so brightly illuminated.
Jeffrey A. Smith is tutor and the NEH Chair in Modern Thought at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD.
Émile Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.