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Michael Burleigh’s study of European religion and politics requires us to imagine a very different Europe than the one we behold today—not the polity of bureaucrats in Brussels but a Europe of statesmen and revolutionaries who aimed at the most extravagant notions of national destiny.

Beginning with the French Revolution and running through World War I, Earthly Powers chronicles more than a century of unrelieved turmoil. No project was too big for the human mind, whether the conquest of nations, the civilizing of colonial peoples, the creation of new religions, and the invention of most every -ism worth fighting about. Auguste Comte’s proposal that the earth’s elliptical path be changed to a circular orbit to moderate climatic extremes was emblematic of a culture in which the state, science, and religion pledged their energies to eschatological visions. 

Burleigh’s main theme is the problem of religion. Here, too, we must put out of our minds any simple notion of the kind of secularization we now see in Europe—for rather than emptying the public square of religious ideas and debates, religion flooded the newspapers, the bookstores, and the cabinets of government. Such statesmen as Gladstone and Bismarck regarded themselves as experts on matters ecclesiastical and theological, just as prelates fancied themselves as having important things to say on issues of economics and social policy. In the centuries that transpired between the religious wars of the sixteenth century and the formation of nation-states during the nineteenth, Europeans certainly had not lost their appetite for religious opinions, nor the quest for an integral relationship between religion and what Burleigh calls “earthly powers.” When Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, the eighty condemned propositions tell us at least as much about the prodigious market of religious ideas as they do about the pontiff’s grumpy estimation of “modern civilization.”

Meanwhile, there were what Burleigh calls “political religions.” Eric Voegelin, in his 1938 book The Political Religions, used the term to describe the rise of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, but Burleigh thrusts the idea back into the prior century. It is an experience of religion that turns the system of symbols back on this world for their completion and satisfaction—what Voegelin called “world immanent” religion. Surveying the French Revolution, Tocqueville spoke of an “incomplete religion” possessed of saints, sacred calendars, festivals, and messianic ambitions which never transcend the merely chronological. The revolutionaries disembedded the old civic religion from its early medieval belief in Gallic exceptionalism, and threw its armies from Moscow to Cairo.

To understand the nineteenth century is to appreciate that these various senses of religion and faith were quite intermingled. Burleigh speaks reasonably enough of a “halfway stage in times when the symbolic world of Christianity was still known reality.” Former seminarians and sons of preachers understood the symbols, and they knew how to provide simulacra of traditional and civic religion for the popular imagination. Civic catechisms, based on Lutheran and Tridentine models, were produced throughout Europe to extol nationalism. Garibaldi’s catechism captured something of the Italian élan: “Thou shalt not fornicate, unless it be to harm the enemies of Italy.” Other catechisms were more subtle or earnest, depending on the authors’ estimation of the culture.

The point, however, is that political religion could never exist as a completely free-standing thing in nineteenth century Europe. It depended on symbolic world of Christianity. In three chapters on the Revolution and its aftermath in France, Burleigh examines one such effort to create and to impose a new religion as an alternative to Christianity. Revolutionaries created new calendars, pantheonized their heroes, invented festivals and liturgies of civic religion, culminating in the proclamation of the Cult of Reason in June 1794.

It was ultimately a flop. Within a few years time, Napoleon made his détente with the Church, and in 1815 the Bourbons were restored to the throne. But an important lesson was learned. The religion of the Revolution was unable to do two things which are the work of an earthly religion: to produce social solidarity and to constrain the passions. It was learned, then, that an alternative to the traditional religion had to look and feel a lot like the old one.

No less an authority than Edmund Burke spoke this sociological imperative. Religion is the basis of civil society, and both are “integral parts of the same whole.” For neither the first nor the last time, it was the political Right that insisted religion must satisfy the two criteria of crowd-control and social solidarity. The Right soon had its chance to put its ideas into effect. At the Congress of Vienna, the great powers restored and otherwise propped up the alliances between throne and altar. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox leaders figured that, after the Enlightenment and the Revolution, religion was being granted a new lease on life. They were happy to pledge the obedience of the faithful in return. The pope urged Poles to submit to the tsar, who had plundered their churches, seminaries, and universities; the ecumenical patriarch similarly commanded the Greeks to obey the Ottomans.

Of course, by mid-century the throne-and-altar restoration had been swept away by revolutions and political turmoil. Indeed, it failed the twofold test of utility, neither guaranteeing crowd control nor social solidarity. Gradually, the utility argument passed into the hands of progressives, who understood that the Right had sets its sights too low. Rather than being a kind of police force in vestments, proper religion was a valuable resource for achieving the correct kind of order, now conceived as progress, and, above all, of nationalism.

The question remains, however: Why did nationalism become the way to harmonize religion and the state? A short and incomplete answer is that the state, with it apparatus of sovereignty, is a rather distant and cold object of loyalty. It was one thing to create state sovereignties, but quite another to make them habitable. States needed to win hearts and minds not merely by obedience, but a sense of belonging.

During the Revolution, the Committee for Public Safety decreed, “We will show this Fatherland to the citizen ceaselessly, in his laws, in his games, in his home, in his loves, in his festivities. We will never leave him to himself alone.” The regime managed to infuriate almost everyone and to spark a popular uprising. Other states, notably England, learned to supply the warmth of a national culture much earlier. Italian unification not only emerged rather late but had to work hard to convince the people that it was not somewhat artificial. Gaining momentum throughout the century was the idea that the state is not an end in itself, but rather the exemplar, expression, and servant of national culture. Philosophers like Hegel and Fichte, poets like Heine, social scientists like Durkheim, and theologians from Schleirmacher to Troeltsch, argued that religion (properly understood) supplies the cultural warmth, the moral inspiration for what Bismarck would call “Practical Christianity.”

No one could take very seriously the doctrine of a separation of church (much less religion) and the state. When that term was used—in France in 1905, for example—it did not mean what modern Americans might imagine. It meant, rather, de-clericalizing and a removal of ecclesiastical mediations of public things. In France, it meant specifically transferring church temporalities to cultural associations supervised by a minister of cults.

The spirit of the age was to meld together religion, culture, and state. The right-wing French nationalist, Charles Maurras, spoke of the gap to be healed between the juridical (pays légal) and the real nation (pays réel). Folklore abounded with charming notions of the sovereign awakening the sleeping beauty of the nation or, in the other direction, the nation presenting itself as the spotless bride to the sovereign. However the images were worked and reworked, the moral of story was that two forces split in modernity must go back together.

So powerful was the imperative of unity that Ernst Troeltsch could explain: “The great religious movement of modern times, the reawakened need for religions, develops outside the churches, and by and large outside theology as well.” Lest there by doubt where he stood at the time of the Great War, he added, “The German faith is a faith in the inner moral and spiritual content of Germanness, the faith of the Germans in themselves, in their future, in their world mission.” 

Earlier in the century, Fichte prophesied the need for a “fourth denomination,” neither Lutheran, Reformed, or Catholic, but a Fatherland religion. Indeed, in 1822 Frederick William III merged Reformed and Lutheran into a Union. The Italian nationalist, Giuseppe Mazzini, declared: “We fell as a political party; we must rise again as a religious party. . . . Like sons of the same mother . . . the people shall gather around these two altars and offer sacrifice in peace and love.”

Talk of divine providence was everywhere in the public domain—not the traditional notions of a general providence of created nature and the special providence of revelation proper. Rather, what could be called a third-track providence, which focused on a particular people specially covenanted and empowered. And if the first two providences were not outright denied, only the third-rail was entitled to interpret their truth. The Kaiser asserted: “On me, on me as the German Emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am His weapon, His sword and His visor.” The comment raised eyebrows, but he was guilty of rhetorical excess rather than postulating a singular doctrine. All sides allowed themselves to speak of a holy war, a clash of civilizations directed by invisible powers—Odin against Bethlehem, as one English prelate put it—but interpreted and embodied by earthly ones.

Of course, none of this could have a happy ending. Religious authorities continually misunderstood the force of political religion. Many clergy and laity believed the religiously charged atmosphere of public policy was welcome evidence for the utility of religion in the modern world. To his credit, at the outset of the Great War, Karl Barth defied the political religion, going so far as to deny that Christianity is a religion at all. It was too late.

On this note, Burleigh rather abruptly ends Earthly Powers, with aftermath or summary, only the promise of a second volume on the totalitarian era. Given the complicated history Burleigh sets out to explain, no title will exactly capture the material. Even so, his readers might complain that the subtitle—The Clash of Religion and Politics—is misleading. There wasn’t much of a clash, and that indeed is the scandal of the story.

What conflicts there were tended to erupt within the precincts of Catholicism. One reason is that Rome was never happy with the process of state-formation. In 1648, Innocent X, declared the treaties of Westphalia “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” The new system of sovereign states caused the slow decline of the twin international colossi of papacy and Holy Roman Empire. But what choice was there except to adapt to what were de facto national churches? The Vatican was dependent on Catholic sovereigns to politically and militarily hold the line in the Counter-Reformation and to supply the material infrastructure for the ever-growing missions in the Americas and Asia. For their part, Catholic sovereigns understood that they needn’t do anything so radical as Henry VIII’s schism to enjoy a functional supremacy in matters religious. 

At mid-nineteenth century, there was no consensus in the Catholic world about whether a proper understanding of theology should lead in prudence, if not in principle, to less or more political liberty. There was, however, an emerging consensus on one point: The Church had to extricate itself from state control and to return to what John Courtney Murray would later call the “Gregorian state of the question.”

He was referring to Gregory VII. The proposition that the liberty of the Church was the precondition for tackling the issue of how Catholicism is to be incarnated in states and nations began on political Right. In the early days of the Restoration, the doyen of Catholic conservatives, Joseph de Maistre, insisted that Gregory VII’s work be completed in modern times. He remorselessly criticized the ecclesiology of national churches, taunting Gallicans to change the creed to read, “I believe in divided and in dependent Churches.” He insisted that “nothing is accomplished” without overthrowing the “magic castle” of regalism, and accused kings and princes of a “great rebellion.” A succession of Catholic writers picked up the theme. Félicité de Lamennais, Dom Guéranger, Henri Lacordaire, John Henry Newman, Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, Antonio Rosmini, among others, wrote tracts on the Gregorian reform and its application to the present crisis.

None of this was initially well received in Rome. Joseph de Maistre felt slighted by Pius VII who didn’t respond enthusiastically to an autographed copy of Du Pape, which had made the papacy out to be the very center of the périmètre sacre, the sacred boundary. Four decades later, Antonio Rosmini, a papalist, but moderately liberal in political matters, received even shabbier treatment for arguing that state nomination of bishops was one of Christ’s five wounds. Only Guéranger managed to beat this drum while keeping intact his credentials in Rome. He was one of the only players in the story who grasped how the Gregorian theme would lead to the First Vatican Council. 

In any event, this kind of talk did not appear to popes as conservative but radical, which indeed it was. Three popes of the Restoration era heard the message and dismissed it. Replaying Canossa meant the loss the papal states, which depended on the military and political support of Catholic sovereigns.

And then Pius IX lost his temporal dominions in 1860. In the years leading up to this loss, Pius had issued numerous acerbic claims and complaints about the liberty of the Church. No one paid much attention until they showed up in the Syllabus of Errors (1864). The eighty condemned propositions were culled from encyclicals and occasional decrees, and then roughly grouped according to major themes. The European press had considerable sport with the last proposition, “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Catholic spin-meisters worked overtime to put the best construction on it. Bishop Dupanloup of Orléans wrote the most famous defense: “Where do we find it written,” he demanded, “‘Outside the Code Napoléon there is no salvation’?”

Underneath the journalistic mockery of the Syllabus, cabinets and courts in European capitals suspected that Duplanloup had the right interpretation. They viewed with alarm sections 19 to 55 of the Syllabus, which taken together suggested that Pius would pull the plug on familiar church-state relations. Temporal sovereigns would no longer enjoy an inherent right to co-govern the Church. Their suspicion was confirmed in 1868 when Rome issued a bull of indiction for a Vatican Council but left out the customary invitation to the temporal sovereigns to send ambassadors, the oratores. Even more alarming was a rumor that a Vatican committee had drafted a document entitled De Ecclesia Christi, which included several chapters and canons on Church and state.

In France, Émile Ollivier declared in the Chamber of Deputies that the pope had in effect introduced the separation of church and state: “Yes, this is a new fact, a new deed indeed that the disseverance between the laical society and the religious society is put into effect by the pope’s own hand.” He went on to say, “Undoubtedly, Gentlemen, I know that Rome earnestly wishes to separate itself from the State, but She does not want the State to separate itself from Her.” Neatly, Ollivier managed to summarize what the nineteenth-century Catholic imagination attributed to Gregory VII: one-way separation. It was the mirror-image of what state nationalisms had claimed for themselves. In France, Germany, and England there was some talk about military intervention to stop this mutinous act in its tracks. But the ever-prudent English decided to let events take their own turn.

As it turned out, the bishops at the council could reach no consensus. No over-arching theory could overcome all of the practical concerns and consequences. Most of the attenders were under pressure by the home governments to stay clear of these propositions. So, they reached a conclusion without a theoretical apparatus and awarded the papacy the principle of universal jurisdiction, indirectly settling the matter. There would be no national churches, no inherent right of temporal sovereigns to nominate or veto the episcopal office. The Austrian government, the remnant of the old Roman Empire in the West, promptly annulled her concordat with the Church.

The point to be drawn is that, in the summer of 1870, Rome had, at best, only very tense relationships with the former Catholic nations. When the British envoy asked Pius’ secretary of state, Cardinal Antonelli, why the Vatican failed to invite ambassadors from Catholic nations to the Council, the secretary said that “exclusively Catholic Governments had virtually ceased to exist.”

This was an exaggeration, but one that was more true than false. Surveying the political landscape there was no model for how the Catholic religion could be properly aligned with the twin forces of state sovereignty and nationalism. At least nothing comparable to Anglicanism in England, or Protestantism in Prussia, or Orthodoxy in Russia. For several decades, Catholic liberals urged the adoption of the Belgian model, for its 1831 constitution was the first of its kind to abandon traditional powers to nominate bishops or veto ecclesiastical business. Burleigh mistakenly refers to the Belgian constitution as a “separation” of church and state, though Belgium, without the props of a concordat, supplied clerical salaries and religious education with state subsidies. Unfortunately, the Belgian experiment happened in the thick of the Restoration era. By 1870, when it would have looked like a very good model indeed, Belgium had drifted into prickly clerical-versus-anti-clerical politics.

The political poverty of the Church can be measured by the fact that Rome had a deep and abiding mistrust of party politics, especially parties with the Catholic label. The fifteen-hundred year habit of dealing with Catholic sovereigns was not easily translated into non-kingly politics. The Centre Party in Germany was usually on the outs with the Vatican. In Italy, the popes imposed the non-expedit, forbidding Catholics from participating in the new regime. It was lifted only 1919, on the condition that the new Popular Italian Party remain nondenominational. While the Church taught clearly enough about powers higher than the state, its approach to things lower than the state tended to emphasize, very conservatively, guilds and associations more like sodalities than political parties. In this way, Catholic activism from below could be kept within the orbit of ecclesiastical authority and Church unity preserved.

Out of its strengths and weaknesses, European Catholicism was at least partially immunized against the temptation of giving itself corporately over to the new political religion of nationalism. Burleigh writes: “Since Roman Catholics were primarily attached to the universal Church, they had difficulties in regarding the nation as the highest form of human community that God had established, something which they had in common with the Enlightenment belief in human universality, however much they may have despised and feared other aspects of that variegated project.”

The proofs of Burleigh’s interesting generalization are the Leonine encyclicals, beginning with Aeterni Patris. Leo had little use for the current species of Romanticism, especially as resourced by the political right, which, in France, was quite capable of conjoining religion and historical nostalgia to a blood-and-ethnicity politic. Indeed, Leo’s sorest problem came from the intransigent Right. Leo’s program was shaped by his worry that Catholicism had not responded adequately to the Enlightenment. This explains why his encyclicals return over and over again to the problem of the relation between faith and reason, the differentiation of the sciences, the role of natural law, the basis and scope of natural right of property, the question of whether there are pre-political states of nature, and whether Deism is an adequate natural theology.

In France, monarchist and traditionalist Catholics were appalled that Leo had gone so far as to insist that, by nature, there are plural legitimate forms of polity. In a letter addressed to all French Catholics, he wrote that while the Church must cross the “changeable ocean of human affairs,” it has no legitimate prudence over its “essential constitution,” received directly from Christ; but, “in regard to purely human societies, it is an oft-repeated historical fact that time, that great transformer of all things here below, operates great changes in their political institutions.”

For Leo the two expressions of providence—natural law and the apodictic divine revelation—set boundaries, but did not cancel out prudence. Prudence, functioning within the bounds of absolute norms, made unnecessary any appeal to a providence that made human history absolute. In an 1892 allocution, Leo XIII told his cardinals that the church’s temporal mission would center on “faith embodied in the conscience of peoples rather than restoration of medieval institutions.” His magisterial letters focused on a formation of conscience and prudence, and how to distinguish the two from the heterodox notions of historical destiny.

The most important, long lasting, and interesting Catholic movement after 1789 to take up the question of providence and prudence was the Cult of the Sacred Heart, with its companion cults arising from Marian apparitions. The Cult of the Sacred Heart was politically charged from the beginning, and it would assume different political and spiritual complexions as Catholicism was stripped of its political authority. Still, while the popes and the laity did not always see things eye-to-eye on the utility of political parties, they were joined in their appreciation of the Sacred Heart. The cult had medieval antecedents, but it is the modern one that is of interest to us. Burleigh mentions it, but it deserves something more than a passing note. For the cult ambiguously contained the material for a potent Catholic nationalisms as well as for a state and nation transcending universalism. A twenty-six year old Visitationist nun in the convent of Paray-le-Monial, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, began receiving apparitions of the Sacred Heart in 1673. From February to August of 1689 Marguerite-Marie passed to her superior, first, a message to Catholic kings, and then a special message to the Sun King, Louis XIV. If only Louis would put the image of the Heart on his military standards, and consecrate his government to the Passion of Christ, he would become a Constantine. Eventually, the Heart become a political and military symbol not only of French exceptionalism, but well into the nineteenth century of Catholic political restoration.

In Annum Sacrum, Leo made clear that, as the Church entered the twentieth century, it should no longer place its temporal hopes in the arrangements of the old political order. Once, he said, divine providence raised up a Constantine to deliver the Church from “the yoke of the Caesars.” Today, however, “another blessed and heavenly token is offered to our sight—the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, with a cross rising from it and shining forth with dazzling splendor amidst flames of love. In that Sacred Heart all our hopes should be placed, and from it the salvation of men is to be confidently besought.” Leo understood that the Heart had to be affirmed without the political doctrines of nationalism and exceptionalism. He called the dedication “the greatest act of my pontificate.”

To complete the international direction of Leo’s Annum Sacrum, Pius published Quas primas in 1925, declaring the Feast of Christ the King. It was written, among other reasons, to tame the Maurrasian nationalist movement with its debased, secularized version of special national covenants. A few months after the encyclical was published, Pius XI addressed 191 descendants of Catholic martyrs from the French Revolution, who were urged to reject “integral nationalism” in favor of “integral obedience” to Christ. Indeed, in the late 1920s it became a custom to contextualize the Heart in light of Christ the King.

Today, it will seem a strange thing to make Jesus’s heart visually subordinate to Christ’s kingship, but once on a time it was a profound exercise of political theology. It was nothing less than the way to preserve the Catholic imagination from what I have called the third-rail providences of nationalisms and political religions. The human and earthly Jesus of the Heart is also the fully transcendent King.

Burleigh skates the surface of this history in Earthly Powers. His most thought provoking insight is that the argument for the utility of religion typically begins on the Right as an effort to preserve the role of religion in buttressing social order, but moves inexorably to the Progressives, with their visions of providential exceptionalism and nationalism. Yet he does not elaborate the pattern in a way that allows us to draw a lesson. He leaves out, for instance, the American amalgamation of political and civic religions, with its peculiar version of third-rail providence. By the late nineteenth century, the American version was so important that it requires an historian of Europe to give at least a sidelong glance at what Lincoln meant by the “almost chosen” people, and to the subsequent volatility of the “almost.” Finally, Burleigh raises, without adequate reflection, a most interesting prospect. In western modernity, atheism never quite bottoms out. A religion, or more likely, an ersatz or political religion, always emerges to cushion its fall and to redirect its energies. Is this a good thing? Is it the role of religion to keep atheism from bottoming out? Earthly Powers never quite reckons with the questions which transcend the story.

Russell Hittinger is Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa