Church and Politics

We are often confronted with the eternal temptation of Christian churches: riding piggyback on the secular state or political parties in order to achieve its mission. Recently, we have seen scenes of Russian Orthodox priests blessing high-tech weapons of war. There is nothing more unfavourable to the clerical Church than socialism. Working in collaboration with a right-wing party is tempting, because the party in question finds the Church useful. Is this a good thing, especially if the right-wing political party advocates killing or banishing certain categories of human beings?

It is no new problem, and is presented in different ways in the US than in Europe. The American situation depicts this relationship between neo-conservatives and Zionists with fundamental Protestants. Here in Europe, we have the variations on the theme of Italian Fascism and the various authoritarian regimes of countries like Spain that had differing relationships with the Nazis during the 1933-1945 era. Attitudes vary considerably in France in regard to the Front National of Mrs Marine Le Pen. I have to say she is a temptation in regard to the nullities and scoundrels who represent the other parties in France!

In particular, the right-wing parties are opposed to the old socialist anti-clericalism of the late nineteenth century with personalities like Jean Jaurès and Emile Combes. Perhaps it can be argued that the cause of anti-clericalism is clericalism. When bishops and priests get too big for their boots, they can only expect a backlash from those who have lost the faith, in some cases because of them. In the present day, there is terrible pressure against the clergy because of large numbers of child sex abuse cases. It is often ignored that this phenomenon is probably more widespread in political establishments, business, education, the police and just about every instance that deals with children and vulnerable adults.

Superficially, the Church and right-wing politics may have a lot in common, but the differences do cause friction. In the early twentieth century, Charles Maurras with his Action Française and its integral-nationalist ideas incurred the displeasure of Pope Pius XI in the 1920’s. Maurras’ ideas were more concerned with politics than with religion.

Pius XII is often accused of having been too “close” to the Fascists and Nazis. He rehabilitated Maurras, and the French episcopate sided with Marshal Pétain (who collaborated with the Nazis under the Occupation). In justice to Pius XII, we do know that he was strongly opposed to Hitler and did all he could to save Jewish people from extermination. Much of the “crisis” caused in the French Church after Vatican II was an opposition between an episcopate with politically ambiguous ideas and a rank-and-file clergy that sided with the Résistance, the communists and socialists. This opposition panned out in the 1960’s and produced the famous reaction of May 1968. The current went along with De Gaulle.

The traditionalist reaction in France was opposed to De Gaulle’s policies and sided with what remained of the extreme-right, weakened as it was by the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Already in 1946, there was a new organisation of young people in France, inspired by ideas from extreme-right army officers in Algeria. When Vatican II seemed to go down the road of socialism, this also reinforced links between nationalists and ultra-Catholics.

The Front National was founded in France by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was of the anti-Gaullist tendency in the French army serving in Algeria. It prospered in the most dechristianised parts of France rather than among the old Catholic bourgeoisie. Only at the end of the 1970’s did Le Pen begin to appeal to traditionalist and nationalist Catholics.

Supporters of the Front National would not be restricted to the Society of St Pius X founded by Archbishop Lefebvre. When groups of traditionalists rallied to Rome in 1988 as a result of disapproval of the four episcopal consecrations, many took the same political ideas with them. Some, like my old superior at Gricigliano, had never been with the SSPX, but rather with Cardinal Siri in Genoa. He also strongly supports the Front National, or at least he did when I was in his institute. Many of the issues held in common between nationalists and traditionalists are connected with legitimate resistance to the worst excesses of socialism, like the abolition of independent schools, abortion and the erosion of the family.

Marine Le Pen has refined the image of her party to some extent, getting rid of the embarrassing comments from her father affirming that the Holocaust was only a “detail” of the history of World War II. Such statements are usually construed as implying “denial” or an attitude of belittling. The French nationalists maintain the republican secular line (separation of church and state), but apply it in relation to Muslim immigrants rather than the way the old socialists applied it against the Catholic Church. This would be a further motivation to uphold the nation of Christian civilisation in some way.

The temptation is there. The next presidential election in France will be in 2017. Present day prognostics for central and left-wing politics are not bright, and the resentment is felt. Many challenges from outside the country may influence things somewhat. What would life be like under Le Pen’s presidency? We should not exaggerate – there will be no concentration camps or genocide, but there may be an exit from the European Union and crackdowns on immigrations and problems with law and order. How sound will it be in economic terms?

Nationalism is tempting, but we do have to ask the question about whether we are attracted through hatred and intolerance for people outside our direct experience. If we refuse multiculturalism, do we have any culture left ourselves. Many of the jackbooted thugs of the 1930’s and 40’s showed little in the way of culture or love of humanity. We live in a political and spiritual vacuum from all points of view and “colours”. When we arrive at that point, things become very frightening.

A see the rise of Vladimir Putin, and am myself tempted to see him as someone who can save us from ourselves, get rid of all those nasty head-choppers in the Middle East and American oligarchs and self-interested elite. I wonder if he is too good to be true! What can I believe of what I read?

Probably the answer is to continue to go along with the worn-out conservatives and socialists, which are only really two facets of the same thing, whatever that is – and try to live in parallel. The Church has lived in the catacombs before and can do again. We don’t need to be affirmed by worldly power or secular politics, and more that Christ did when he said that his Kingdom was not of this world. Of course, without the money, we have to downscale – we have no choice about it. In the end, the only Christianity with any credibility and worth anything will be what has survived going it alone contra mundum. Of course we run the risk of ending up with an Orwellian dystopia or a Caliphate, but that seems to be life.

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5 Responses to Church and Politics

  1. Stephen K says:

    There is nothing more unfavourable to the clerical Church than socialism

    This sentence caught my attention. A lot of what you, Father, went on to say expanded on it. You acknowledged, further on, that the cause of anti-clericalism might be clericalism. As you suggest everything has its own reaction.

    Given the composition of your commentariat, I won’t provoke a diatribe on political philosophical grounds, but will simply make a comment from my own personal perspective. The strong links between traditionalistic religionists and what is variously labelled as conservative, neo-conservative, neo-liberal, free-marketist, fascist or plain old garden variety right-wing politics both hurts me and leaves me untouched. It hurts me because I would like to extract or amputate what I see as aesthetic quality from what I see as ideological ugliness and realise I cannot, and it leaves me untouched because I also recognise, in part because of my own pedigree (to my shame today), but also in part from my contemplation of history, that Christianity in its institutional existence has always been conservative – what might be termed the ‘Constantinian thesis’ – and inclined to favour the powerful and cruel against the weak and vulnerable.

    All humans are susceptible to idolatry; we each have our own idol which we may mistakenly call “God”. Many times it is simply projection of ourselves. But in one way or another, we are so prone to fall into the trap of worshipping something, a something, that cannot possibly be, as Paul Tillich would call it, the very “ground of being”. In the Catholic Church, the idol is……the Catholic Church; and it is my surmise that Anglo-Catholics, or anyone pursing the “Catholic” ideal – Roman or not – is very vulnerable to the same idolatry.

    I recall very vividly in the seminary of Econe (c.1973) the professor insisting that the supreme Catholic doctrine was that the Church was visible. From this all other doctrines flowed. He was right. If you have the eyes to see and the mind to think, you will see this doctrine manifest, sometimes obviously, sometimes less so, in all the textbooks, all the tools, all the catechesis. Don’t jump up, dear co-readers, objecting that Econe was not typical. That would be grossly inaccurate; that would be silly. The whole point of Econe then at least was that it WAS typical.

    The reason I am reverting to this theme is because Father Chadwick’s post is a sad one. It seems to be trying to find a middle ground for traditionalists like himself between political right-wingery and socialism. I don’t think such a thing is possible. I think, regrettably, that the whole religious project of “Tradition” boils for most adherents down to keeping things of a certain flavour going; and the flavour is hierarchicalist, clericalist, worldly-powerful, very comfortable with keeping the poor in their place.

    I have been watching a series – on video – made in the early 2000s called “Touched by an Angel”. I find it very, very moving. But there is no doubt that it is not in any way traditional. I explained to my friend with whom I have been watching them, that its central basic theological premise and doctrine is that “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it” (as the angel Monica says to one person).

    In traditional Christian terms, or should I say, in traditionalist history, this expression of the Christian message amounts to a heresy, because for centuries, people have been lambasted by their clergy for their sins and God has been presented as a God of non-love; a God of penal sentence. Forget the subtle arguments – let’s face it – Christianity is in many people’s minds a religion of “shape up or ship out”. God is no different from any of the pagan deities to whom propitiatory sacrifices must be made.

    I think I said in a previous post-response that perhaps Christians should stop veiling their political or social philosophies under the title of “Christianity”. It seems to me that we are at root either right- or left- wingers of some description, and, finding ourselves compelled to argue our case, try to strain support from the Gospels or Tradition for our positions. I think we are probably dishonest in so doing. Besides, it places Jesus in a very difficult position: he satisfies none of us. If he was God, then we have all spectacularly failed to respect him; perhaps it’s time to either admit (i) we don’t understand or have a clue what or who he was; (ii) he was a Jew of his own time and we have made something grotesque of him; or (iii) we wouldn’t recognise God if we fell over Him and his Certificate of Authenticity.

    The sad truth is, or so it seems to me, is that the politics of Christianity is enough to make one give up Christianity (or what passes for it).

    • When I wrote this posting, I had a feeling of emptiness in myself. I wondered how long I would still have anything to discuss. I have agonized for years about living the priesthood but without the clerical image. It doesn’t suffice to wear lay clothes, but to rethink the whole notion of priestly vocation and identity. No doubt, Tyrrell went through all these thoughts during his dying days at Storrington.

      The trouble with the two main political ideologies is that one encourages domination and power, leaving the poor unable to buy or rent housing or to feed themselves, and the other, socialism, “runs out of other people’s money”, or rather flattens humanity out into an amorphous and de-motivated mass of those who are gifted being able to excel. It seems to me that the only times when there is some virtue in life is for about twenty years after a major war when the rebuilding has to be done – not only of houses, churches, shops and public buildings, but a sense of identity and pride in one’s own achievements. In England, with the Conservatives, house prices and rents are even more hiked up. I could never afford to go back to England to live! If we got Jeremy Corbyn, then everyone not wanting to live in a grotty flat in a tower block would be taxed out of existence to feed the “entitled”.

      I don’t see how the way of Christ has anything to do with the two ideologies. To quote a joke, Ivan meets Boris on Red Square in Moscow. One asks the other: “What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?” The answer was “In capitalism, man exploits man, and in communism, it’s the other way round”. It’s an old one, but so true. Christ’s message came somewhere else.

      I know about the “visibility” stuff, from Robert Bellarmine saying that “the Church is as visible as the Republic of Venice”. Then it is simply a human society, a kind of super-kingdom to keep kings and emperors under control. If that’s the Church, then it is worthless and has to be discarded. Perhaps it is sad that I “keep a middle road”, but what happens if I don’t. I convert to Rome or become an atheist? My own instinct is to be as much outside politics as possible rather than seek a “centrist” ideology.

      The politics of Christianity is enough to make one give up Christianity (or what passes for it)”. The trouble is that it would have to be replaced with something. None of us can live in a vacuum.

  2. T Graham says:

    Do you think that Christians should strive to extricate themselves from all and any political allegiance or political philosophy? I’m intrigued by Erik Peterson’s “Monotheism as a Political Problem” which has been interpreted as arguing that there is no possibility of a form of earthly power that can justify itself as Christian.

    • If we go along with conventional wisdom when considering the Church’s history, Christianity should have survived no more than Gnosticism. It is a religion of kindness and weakness. History has always vindicated the Vlad the Impalers, the Ivan the Terribles, Stalins and Hitlers of this world. Their idea was one of strength and the destruction of the weak. No wonder the Nazis despised Christianity, as do many people of our time for exactly the same reason. God does not destroy the wicked and nor do the weak and downtrodden get justice or mercy. Sometimes, the evil gets so great that people revolt against it, but it is generally conquered by something much worse.

      I come back to the same notion as expressed in John Gielgud as the Grand Inquisitor. The kind of Christianity that succeeded was the politics of power, domination and control. It seems natural to man as to many other species of animals like dogs and wolves. We are hard-wired to dominate or submit, and suffer for our weakness. Man is worth his money and ability to dominate. Plato would have liked to put the wise into power, but what wise man would want to be in power?

      It seems to be the same problem in Islam. The ideology of the “head choppers” hates anything spiritual or mystical, and they would persecute Sufis as much as Christians. Their religion is all about something akin to the Nazi apocalypse and the great Götterdammerung of scorched earth. They are only interested in power and domination. I know of no earthly power that could call itself “Christian” unless Christ was a Pharisee, ordered St Mary Magdalene stoned to death, refused to forgive sins or heal cripples on the Sabbath and overthrew Herod to make himself king of Israel.

  3. ed pacht says:

    What makes Christianity such a difficult thing to accept and follow (especially for professed
    Christians) is its utter incompatibility with the ways in which humanity tries to manage its affairs. When Christianity becomes political, it ceases in some measure to be Christian and when politics becomes infused with the spirit of Christ, it ceases to be truly political.

    What on earth do I mean by that? Well, the very foundation of human governance is the use of power, of asserting strength to force the acceptance of ones views. The governing principle of socialism, of free-market capitalism, of any conceivable middle ground, or of such odd left/right fusions as Nazism and Italian Fascism is the use of strength to enforce what one considers as ultimate principles and to discourage or eliminate opposing views.

    This applies just as thoroughly to advocates of strong central government and centralized economic planning as it does to “do-it-yourself” approaches like unregulated free-market ideologies or advocates of arming oneself against the government. In fact, ideology itself, even when not yet in practice, is the exercise of verbal or ‘logical’ power to force another to ones own position. And I could go on and on about the identical phenomena within church bodies – ecclesiastic politics.

    None of this is the way of Christ. The Sermon on the Mount is impractical and unenforceable – pretty much impossible to follow – yet there’s nothing metaphorical or optional about it. Christ spoke simply and forthrightly and meant what He said. Possible or not, this is the minimum of what He requires of us. It’s a rejection of power. “My kingdom is not of this world.” He could call down a legion of angels, but refused to do so. He could have driven the Romans from Israel, but allowed the Romans to kill Him. It’s a rejection of power and an affirmation of what any sane man would call weakness that has demonstrated the real strength of God in a fallen world.

    Christianity survives and will continue to survive, not through power structures built upon it, not through the strength of brilliant minds, but through the witness of weak human beings who hear the message that it bears (in spite of the posturings of the powerful) and attempt to live the message on the humbles of knowing their own failures.

    Paul says, “When I am weak, I am strong,” Peter calls on us to prefer one another. Jesus calls out. “Take up your cross and follow me,” and marches off to an inglorious death. And we … we flex our muscles. Something doesn’t compute.

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