Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Earthly Powers

Dagnabit. Yet another to add to the never-ending to read list.

Earthly Powers: religion and politics in Europe from the French revolution to the Great War
Michael Burleigh HarperCollins, 530pp, £25
ISBN 0007195729

[From the review in the New Statesman]

If Christianity had a mission in the 19th century, it was to restrain the leviathan of the nation state. This book tells the story of its failure. Across Europe, churches were expropriated, corrupted and exploited by more powerful civic structures, and ended the century weaker and smaller than they began it. The stage was set for the horrors of the next hundred years, the godless age par excellence.


The Catholic Church, to which Burleigh is clearly partial, was best placed to combat the new religion of nationalism. It was, after all, a supranational corporation, a successor to the Roman empire, laying claim to a universal and timeless truth. Despite their reputation as grim reactionaries, the 19th-century popes had a better appreciation of the moral limits of state power than most liberals. Article 39 of Pius IX's much-derided 1864 Syllabus of Errors denounces the doctrine that "the State, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits". His successor, Leo XIII, spoke presciently of the "idolatry of the State". During the First World War, the Vatican remained scrupulously neutral, striving where it could to hasten the end of what it regarded as "the collective suicide of a great Christian civilisation".

Yet the upshot of these endeavours was precisely nil. The problem was not that the pope had no battalions, but that he had lost the most important weapon in his spiritual armoury: the fear of hellfire. Emperors such as Napoleon were not about to go down on their knees in penitential dread. The Church was thus forced to rely for protection upon rulers whose concerns were purely worldly, and who regarded religion as no more than an instrument for the maintenance of power and wealth. Its moral authority suffered severely. "I am saddened and disturbed more than I ever have been before," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville during the reign of Napoleon III, "when I see in so many Catholics this aspiration towards tyranny, this attraction to servitude, this love of force, of the police, of censure, of the gallows." Only recently, largely because of Pope John Paul II's far-sighted denunciation of both Soviet and American lawlessness, has the Catholic Church regained something of its moral independence.

[Hmm. Guess hellfire's not a bad motivation. So much for "perfect contrition" eh? :) Though I don't know that I'd equate Soviet and American lawlessness. Bush-hatred aside, only a blind ideologue would not see that the former was far more murderous and deadly.]

The fate of the Protestant churches was, if anything, still more pitiful. Lacking the cosmopolitan scope of their Catholic counterpart, they did not even aspire to impartiality in inter-national affairs, but surrendered gleefully to the prejudices of the tribe. "This is a Holy War," preached the Bishop of London in 1914. "We are on the side of Christianity against the anti-Christ." Kaiser Wilhelm went one further. "Remember that the German people are the chosen of God," he said in a speech to his troops. "On me, on me as German emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am His weapon, His sword and His visor." Reading this and other pronouncements, one understands the ease with which so many Lutheran clergymen embraced the tenets of National Socialism.

[And the book looks at Catholic social teaching as well]

For all its subtlety and depth, however, Catholic social philosophy did not fare well in the 20th century. Christian trade unions lost the struggle with their more militant socialist rivals, while the growth of the welfare state progressively reduced the scope for spontaneous co-operation. The con-sequences are still with us. Modern British social services are constitutionally incapable of using moral language, dressing everything up in the obfuscating jargon of "problems" and "needs", to which ingenious new "solutions" are forever being proposed. Burleigh uncovers a far more sophisticated tradition of thinking about such questions - one that modern politicians would do well to consider.
So many books ....

::Update:: -- Of course, Amy's talked about this book. A few weeks back. In relation to Diarmaid (how does one pronounced that?) MacCullogh's review in the Guardian. Oh, and I heartily recommend Prof. MacCullogh's history of the Reformation. Good stuff.

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