One person who would have been able to make a valuable contribution to the discussion of religious freedom in The Japan Mission Journal this year is David Nicholls (1936-1996), with whom I had many stimulating discussions during his long years as Vicar of Littlemore. Our conversation turned on Newman and theology more than on the topics of political philosophy, a subject I had little feeling for. I scanned his collection of books, now lodged in the David Nicholls Memorial Library, with little desire to “take and read.” More directly theological were his later ambitious essays on the political influence of religious conceptions in recent centuries, yet now it is to his classic study The Pluralist State that I find myself turning.
The flurry over a lecture given by Archbishop Rowan Williams in February 2008, “Civil and Religious Law in England,” was the immediate occasion of my renewed interest, since the lecture reflected some aspects of David Nicholls’ thought. But the ideas of The Pluralist State turn out to have a bearing on many recent political and ecclesial developments. On the political front, these include: the difficulties that European countries have experienced in integrating immigrants and their customs; the hollowing-out of American democracy and the failed attempt to impose an abstract notion of democracy in Iraq; the damage done by heavy-handed government intervention in the running of schools and universities in Ireland, the U. K. and Japan; the ever-decreasing influence of workers’ unions; the ever-tightening grip of capitalism and the business model at the expense of participatory politics and the State’s assumption of its social responsibilities. On the ecclesial front I think of frictions between Church and State on constitutional and legislative issues, and also of how collegiality, subsidiarity and representation have been inhibited in the postconciliar Church, with a resulting enfeeblement of episcopal leadership and priestly ministry. Though I have read scarcely any of the numerous books quoted by David Nicholls and Rowan Williams, I venture some observations in the hope that they may help others as untutored as myself to find their initial bearings amid these confusing debates.
How Should People be Governed?
For many people the domain of politics reduces to two realities: on the one side, the vast impersonal apparatus of the State, which can become a menacing Big Brother, and on the other, over against it, the solitary individual, who can hope to affect this Leviathan only very rarely, in the seclusion of the ballot-box. Many Governments seem to like it like this, as is seen in the way they try to keep the people from having clear insight into the working of the State. Media manipulation, as in Bush’s America or Berlusconi’s Italy, is one way to disempower the citizen; bureaucratic opacity and boredom, as in Japan, is another. The depoliticization of young people, their reduction to the status of docile consumers, is a great betrayal, and is no doubt one of the reasons why quality political leadership is hard to find. The Church has played its part in this disempowering of youth by firing young people up for narrow causes, such as the crusade against abortion, while discouraging any critical engagement with social injustice such as was urged by Gaudium et Spes, Populorum Progressio and the much-maligned movements of Liberation Theology.
A democracy in which the citizen feels powerless is a threatened democracy. It is prone not only to totalitarian tendencies from the top but to the upsurge of irrational mob psychology from the bottom. Living in a democracy should be a constant political education, a growth in all the political virtues. If these virtues atrophy, their place is taken by primitive forms of social behaviour, of the kind that democracy was supposed to overcome. Here again a Church that places huge emphasis on mass rallies and no emphasis on consultation and dialogue has made a negative contribution to democratic culture.
The theory of the pluralist State is based on “belief in the vitality and the legitimacy of self-governing associations as means of organizing social life and the belief that political representation must respect the principle of function, recognizing associations like trade unions, churches and voluntary bodies” (Hirst, p.2). Since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc left-wing thinkers have been looking back to “cooperative or associative forms of socialism, such as those advocated by nineteenth-century writers like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Peter Kropotkin” (Nicholls, p. xi). For Proudhon, centralization was a kind of parasitism, hollowing out the texture of social life. He wanted a restructuring of society “in alliance with the decentralizing counter-tendencies perceptible in the depths of economic and social development, and also in alliance with most interior of all revolts, slowly growing in the depth of the human soul, the revolt against massed or collectivized loneliness” (Buber, p. 41).
Much of this chimes with the social doctrine of the Church. Nicholls (p. xiv) quotes Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno : “It is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.” This principle is repeated in John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than concern for their clients… In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need” (par. 48). The idea goes back to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, though Garry Wills claims that Leo was enthusiastic about trade unions only because he thought of them on the analogy of medieval guilds.
One form of community that should have a vibrant political presence is that formed by teachers and students. University debates are the nursery of budding politicians. But it seems that university administrators today are more fearful of student unrest than of State interference. As in the Church, structures of university life are increasingly dictated by the administration rather than by the community of learning; this looks functional but is ultimately dysfunctional. As reported in The Independent, February 29, 2008, a slew of official reports in the U. K. and Holland shows that State interference in the running of schools, through micro-managing the syllabus, is undercutting the quality of education. One would welcome similar analyses in Japan. The same problem no doubt prevails in universities, which have succumbed to State interference in such matters as the Research Assessment Exercise and have lost a great deal of their traditional independence and dignity. Here State intervention has gone hand in hand with an ascendancy of the business model and the imposition of utilitarian economics on the values of education. A restoration of pluralistic structures within the academy, as within the Church, is something that is required for the health of democracy itself.
A Centralized Church
Unfortunately the most powerful movement for a dispersal of power amid different functions within the Church, namely the Conciliarist movement based on the decree Haec Sancta of the Council of Constance, met its final defeat with the rise of ultramontanism confirmed by Vatican I. Yet the interpretation and the dogmatic status of Haec Sancta remain one of the unresolved riddles of church history, and new controversies may yet blaze up from the embers of this old one.
Centralization of decision-making in the Vatican, with the effect of discouraging the initiative and leadership of bishops, has left the Church ill-equipped to deal with problems requiring a co-ordinated and effective response. The sexual scandals are what spring to mind, but the same ineffective structure of government has been damaging to many aspects of church life: the liturgy, the transmission of the faith, the provision of ministry, and, above all, engagement for justice and peace. As Lamennais said: “With centralization, you have apoplexy at the center and paralysis at the extremities” (quoted, Nicholls, p. 30). The damaging effects of centralization can also be seen in the forthcoming new translations of the liturgy and in the Motu Proprio restoring the Tridentine Mass, which seems to have started a simmering liturgical civil war that will go on for a long time.
Vatican II offered “general principles about such matters as regional episcopal conferences” but “failed to make institutional arrangements to put these into effect, leaving it to a Curia which was generally opposed to the idea” (Nicholls, p. 123). Indeed, there has been a sharp decline in the status of episcopal conferences since their moment in the sun in response to Humanae Vitae in 1968. As Massimo Faggioli shows, a string of Vatican documents has whittled away their authority. The appointment of bishops, meanwhile, has become a less rather than more participative process since the Council; ancient European arrangements that gave the local church a stronger role in this have been scrapped; the perceived decline in the quality of episcopal leadership is due not only to the dwindling pool of candidates and the refusal of the difficult role by many, but also to the preference of Rome for yes-men.
Are there signs of a strong reaction to this? Could we be living in a pre-revolutionary moment? To quote Kropotkin: “New ideas germinate everywhere, seeking to force their way into the light, to find an application in life; everywhere they are opposed by the inertia of those whose interest it is to maintain the old order; they suffocate in the stifling atmosphere of prejudice and traditions”; hence the necessity of a revolutionary whirlwind which will sweep away all this rottenness, revive sluggish hearts with its breath, and bring to mankind that spirit of devotion, self-denial, and heroism, without which society sinks through degradation and vileness into complete disintegration” (Baldwin, pp. 35-6). But Kropotkin failed to see that “in the social realm, in contrast to the political, revolution has no creative force, but only the force to dissolve, to liberate and to lend power. That is, it can only bring to completion what has already taken form in the womb of pre-revolutionary society” (Buber, p. 89). Things did seem to be taking form in the Church after Vatican II, but quite possibly these creative conceptions have been successfully aborted.
Robert Blair Kaiser, in a sleazy, immature and uncharitable novel, puts forward the idea that church decentralization could adopt the model of the “twenty-one autochthonous Churches inside the Catholic Church, some of them very ancient, like the first-century Melkites of Lebanon, with a longer history than the Roman Church. They are all in communion with the pope, but they have their own governance, their own patriarch, their own priests (some married, some not), their own liturgies in their own languages” (p. 122). Kaiser has a hopeful epigraph from Goethe: “Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.” He points to the revolutionary potential of the internet, which is allowing lay Catholic voices to be heard for the first time; though currently dominated by extreme conservatives, the Catholic blogosphere should in time move toward balance, as the Anglican one has. Autochthony would correspond to the views of Figgis, who “argued in favour of power being dispersed within the church among semi-autonomous national churches, and to smaller units like dioceses and monastic communities, and was particularly insistent on stressing the role of small groups in the church” (Nicholls, p. 13). Given the unlikelihood of these utopian perspectives, we can only hope that restive hierarchical voices, such as those of Cardinals Martini, Kasper and Lehmann, Archbishop Zollitsch and Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, augur a future in which there will be functioning church forums for open discussion.
The Church, as a community in history, with a mission not only for its own flourishing but also for challenging and changing the world, cannot be a mere “ism” vaguely shared by subscribers here and there. It has to give itself body and organize itself as a community. If this community lacks vital bonds and becomes merely an assemblage of isolated individuals regulated by an impersonal and inaccessible governing body, then it is dysfunctional and on its way to being dead. Full, adult participation is of the essence of church membership – participation in the inner life of the Church as a community, and participation in the Church’s mission to the world. When one reads of the Church’s “freedom of action” in Dignitatis Humanae (par. 13) one should think not of the freedom of hierarchs to intervene in politics, but of the freedom of the people of God to make their creative contribution to building up a just and peaceful human community.
People fear calls for the freedom of the Church because they see church action on society as uniquely focused on private morality, and they are not happy with the practical effects of this. In Italy, over the Christmas season, I heard the word ingerenze many times, referring to the constant interference of the Church, in the person of the Pope and of Cardinals Bertone, Ruini and Bagnasco, backed up by vocal politicians such as Senator Paola Binetti, in the running of the country. A quite powerfully argued book by a biologist and a philosopher (Castellacci and Pievani) warned of the peril this posed to Italian democracy. To a list of successes which include the shelving of the proposed civilian partnership law, the Church can now add the fall of the Prodi government and the likely return of Berlusconi, who seems to have a hot line to the Vatican and whose right-hand man, Gianni Letta, received the title of Gentleman of His Holiness on February 16, 2008. The threatened protests that prompted the cancellation of the papal visit to La Sapienza University were probably a response to this church activism.
A participative church could change this negative image, by its production of manifest good works. Every time bishops make statements that have no basis in representing a participative community they either sound ineffectually preachy or simply out of touch, as in the case of a recent statement from the Catholic communications office in Ireland deploring as “contrary to the common good” the reduction of Value Added Tax on condoms (more expensive in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe). Ad hoc reactions without proper reflection on the concrete context are not a responsible exercise of authority. Being seen to be “doing something,” to be “standing for something,” is not what authority is about.
Clashes of Church and State
In the above-mentioned lecture, Rowan Williams argued that the self-governing traditions of certain religious communities should enjoy the same kind of respect as those of the Church of England, whose “daily operation is in the hands of authorities to whom considerable independence is granted.” He pointed out that there is “uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes” and about the right of religious believers to opt out of certain legal provisions, as in “the problems around Roman Catholic adoption agencies which emerged in relation to the Sexual Orientation Regulations last spring.”
Freedom of conscience is the overriding concern of the Archbishop. As he said in his address to the General Synod the week after the controversial lecture: “We have taken it for granted that the law protects the consciences of religious believers… However, there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular. I think we ought to keep an eye on this trend; and if we do, we shall have to do more thinking about the models of society and law we work with.” The overriding of Catholic scruples by the Blair Government did indeed show little respect for freedom of conscience. The recognition of the right of gay couples to adopt may be an excellent development, but its speed – given how recently homosexuality has been decriminalized – should have counselled patience with the deep-seated qualms of the Church. The pluralists believed that “a strong doctrine of conscience is an indispensable underpinning for a solid liberalism” (Nicholls, p. 25); a nanny State that tends to replace conscience with diktats of political correctness will not encourage the development of a free conscience. The questions arising here are delicate ones, which can perhaps never be definitively resolved. Individual objections of conscience are already something society is likely to find troublesome: think of the pacifists imprisoned during World War I; or the recent case in Italy of a man who, fearing he had made his spouse pregnant, ran to get a “morning-after pill” at a hospital pharmacy, where the man in charge lectured him on the evil of abortion and only met his request under physical duress, later reporting him to the police. When objections of conscience are lodged not by individuals but by institutions, Church-State tensions will flare up.
What the State sees as discrimination against homosexuals in the adoption agencies controversy does not count as “unjust discrimination” in the eyes of the Church, which finds itself obliged in conscience to close down this service. Recently Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor fired the board of a Catholic hospital who were meeting government expectations about the provision of advice on contraception, abortion, gender-change operations. How are such crises to be avoided? Channels of communication between Church and State should be cultivated. The Church seeks Concordats with the governments of the new European nations. But the Church might also make a bigger effort to consult the faithful, so that when the hierarchy lobby the Government on such matters they can be seen as representing the wishes of the people. When we defend the freedom of conscience of Catholics, we should be careful not to attenuate the hurtful and damaging effect that freedom can have on those affected by the refusal of services. In some cases the State is justified in stepping in, just as it is justified in taking over the medical treatment of children whose parents believe blood transfusions are immoral.
The danger of militant secularism and anti-clericalism is no doubt real, but we see it in better perspective when we first celebrate the blessings of the secular State. Those, including Catholics, who have benefited from reforms in State law enacted in the teeth of fierce church opposition will appreciate these blessings. The State has provided a space for freedom of conscience in such cases, so that there is a certain irony in the Church’s now taking a stand on freedom of conscience, in connection with the very areas in which it denied freedom of conscience when it had the influence to do so. It seems that even St Thomas à Becket resisted State interference in defence of some dubious clerical privileges. In the quarrel of Church and State it is unlikely that either side is completely right or completely wrong.
Also, one wonders if such quarrels are really dealing with what is most urgent. The Church should have a wider, positive view of the social good, so that it never gets into the situation where it seems to be quibbling merely about its own privileges. Church customs and practices should have only a small importance in a Church that is labouring to enact an integral social vision. The decline of Marxism is very much to be regretted, since it challenged the Church to think about society in a comprehensive way, and it gave a vigilance, tension and urgency to church social teaching that it has since lacked. Since the Vatican turned its back on Liberation Theology, its social discourse circles obsessively around the question of abortion, and it has been unable to address any other issues of social justice with equal consistency and penetration.
Civil and Religious Law
In his controversial lecture, Rowan Williams said that Islamic countries have “some concept of common good that is not prescribed solely in terms of revealed Law, however provisional or imperfect such a situation is thought to be. And this implies in turn that the Muslim, even in a predominantly Muslim state, has something of a dual identity, as citizen and as believer within the community of the faithful.” What might be found disturbing here is the suggestion that religious law is a higher class of law than ordinary secular law. In the Catholic Church discussions of law are today usually cast in deliberately universal terms (natural law), so that they no longer depend on religious revelation for their force. Canon Law itself has a rather secular cast, as a rational regulation of church roles and rights and of the sacraments (including marriage). I think few would argue that Canon Law trumps secular law or has a higher validity.
Enlightened Muslims, Rowan Williams continues, recognize that “our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a ‘covenant’ between the divine and the human (as in Jewish and Christian thinking).” Here again one may object: is it so obvious that belonging to the church community is fundamental and non-negotiable in a way that belonging to the human community in general is not? Would Jews and Christians, or even liberal Muslims, claim this today? Williams himself warns against “an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangement is a kind of betrayal” and sees an equal danger “when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.”
“Citizenship in a secular society should not necessitate the abandoning of religious discipline, any more than religious discipline should deprive one of access to liberties secured by the law of the land, to the common benefits of secular citizenship.” As several commentators pointed out, this raises the spectre of a cafeteria approach to law, where one shops around for the best legal deal, sharia in one case, secular law in another, thus having the best of both worlds. “It might be possible to think in terms of what she [Ayelet Shachar] calls ‘transformative accommodation’: a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that ‘power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents.’” This seems to presuppose a somewhat debilitated notion of State authorities, reduced to the status of “power-holders” and subjected to a market economy of supply and demand. Is it a good idea to void State government of moral authority?
“The best argument for faith schools from the point of view of any aspiration towards social harmony and understanding is that they bring communal loyalties into direct relation with the wider society and inevitably lead to mutual questioning and sometimes mutual influence towards change, without compromising the distinctiveness of the essential elements of those communal loyalties.” I don’t think that the Catholic and Protestant schools in Northern Ireland had such an effect. David Nicholls discounts this analogy: “Separate schools in the province are just part of a system of domination” (p. 95), yet those most insistent on maintaining such schools have been the Catholic bishops. If faith schools were obliged to take in a large quota of non-believers there might be more to be said for their promise in creating social harmony.
A distorting mirror is held up to this argument by Giacomo Samek Lodovici, in Avvenire, February 2008, when he argues that “The State should guarantee that left-wing parents can send their children to left-wing schools, liberals to liberal schools, Catholics to schools of Catholic inspiration” and that what is at stake is not the protection of Catholic interests but the freedom of families to educate their children according to their own values and principles. Don Franco Barbero ironically observes that in that case we will need to open schools for Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, racists, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, etc. “This would be merely ridiculous if this clerical propaganda were not smuggling in as freedom a conception that divides citizens into corporations in aggressive competition with one another, maniacally obsessed with expanding their own territory rather than building spaces open to the encounter with diverse cultures.”
The democratic ideal of equality before the law seems to be rather short-changed in Rowan Williams’ references to “citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability” and warnings that its imposition “has often brought violent injustice in its wake (think of the various attempts to reduce citizenship to rational equality in the France of the 1790’s or the China of the 1970’s)” – this reference to times of State terror is hardly the best way to bring out the nature of contemporary democracy. The ideal of equality is described as “a mechanism whereby any human participant in a society is protected against the loss of certain elementary liberties of self-determination.” But the word “mechanism” seems to void modern democracy of its philosophical foundations and to devalue the long struggle that established them. Society, we are told, is not “an uneasy alliance of self-determining individuals arguing about the degree to which their freedom is limited by one another and needing forcible restraint in a war of all against all – though that is increasingly the model which a narrowly rights-based culture fosters, producing a manically litigious atmosphere and a conviction of the inadequacy of customary ethical restraints and traditions – of what was once called ‘civility.’” Again, this seems somewhat caricatural. Minorities fighting for rights have had to be “litigious” and have not found “civility” a sufficient guarantee of those rights. The recent successful legal cases on employment discrimination against the Bishop of Hereford and Wycliffe Hall suggest that “customary ethical restraints and traditions” may entail injustice, though the church authorities may be tempted to regard these cases as an unwarranted intrusion of civil law.
“A defence of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperilled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework.” The danger of this is that the “loosening” could in practice entail a surrender of the universal rights. In some cases a “tightening” is rather what these rights call for, when for instance academic freedom is imperilled in church controlled universities or faculties.
To speak of “the reluctance of a dominant rights-based philosophy to acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration in procedures or practices that are in tension with the demands of particular religious groups: the assumption, in rather misleading shorthand, that if a right or liberty is granted there is a corresponding duty upon every individual to ‘activate’ this whenever called upon” is to invite suspicion. A religious group that refused to activate the defence of the rights of Jews or blacks would rightly be penalized by the State, no matter the religious justification they might claim for their refusal to embrace the State’s morality. So-called “reproductive rights” and rights of sexual minorities are more controversial where they clash with church teaching on the sacredness of life and on marriage, in which case the Catholic Church argues that they are not rights at all. The law against blasphemy, insofar as it tramples on the rights of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, would seem a clearer case where the churches should, as a matter of moral duty, activate these rights by calling forthrightly for its abolition, instead of musing that its too sudden abolition would send the wrong message.
“The refusal of a religious believer to act upon the legal recognition of a right is not, given the plural character of society, a denial to anyone inside or outside the community of access to that right.” Here the word “right” is used in a merely legal sense, and does not imply that the rights are given moral recognition by the Church. In practice, the Catholic Church does attempt to deny, both to those inside and those outside the Church, access to the “rights” conferred by the State when these conflict with the natural law. This is logically more consistent.
“It would be a pity if the immense advances in the recognition of human rights led, because of a misconception about legal universality, to a situation where a person was defined primarily as the possessor of a set of abstract liberties and the law’s function was accordingly seen as nothing but the securing of those liberties irrespective of the custom and conscience of those groups which concretely compose a plural modern society.” Here the Archbishop praises the recognition of human rights and in the next breath speaks of abstract liberties that should not be imposed in defiance of the custom and conscience of religious groups. If the rights are genuine and are well-founded, how can the State accept that some groups have the right to refuse to recognize them? If they are merely “abstract liberties” why would these groups have any problem with them at all? In practice, they are concrete liberties, such as the liberty for gay couples to adopt children, and it is unconvincing for a religious group to say: “we do not contest your right but we leave it to the State to look after it, while we reject it in our own practice.” A simpler Church/State clash is preferable: “we reject your right because we believe the State is mistaken in recognizing it.”
The Archbishop may be thinking on the model of the rules of a club – a golf-club that might refuse to accept women members or a university that might insist on its dons being celibate (as in nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge). Here the universalism of rights threatens to destroy the traditional identity of the club. (A piquant example is the way the recent Sexual Orientation legislation has made exclusively gay venues illegal.) Unfortunately, it is difficult to uphold a right to discrimination in these circumstances without opening the door to more clearly invidious forms of discrimination: clubs that exclude foreigners, Jews or blacks.
The Moral Purpose of the State
The furore stirred up by the Archbishop’s thought-provoking lecture was due in part to media spin, the Islamophobia of the War on Terror, mob hysteria, his own remarks in a BBC radio interview and his apparent underestimation of the weight attached to his words as a pillar of the Establishment, which must greatly impede his right to free speech. But perhaps also there is an inarticulate feeling that bishops and theologians have gone too far in recent years in their claims to have overcome the blind spots of the Enlightenment, and that the real task of the Church is to embrace more fully the truths discovered in the Enlightenment, in particular as regards intellectual freedom and freedom of conscience.
In general, it seems that Rowan Williams’ view of the Enlightenment and the secular State is more influenced by the outlook of Radical Orthodoxy (the theological movement led by his student John Milbank) than by Figgis, for whom “one of the consequences of political pluralism… was an acceptance of the idea of a secular state. A particular church is seen, socially and politically, as merely one among many religious, non-religious and anti-religious groups in the state and, as such, it can claim no special privileges” (Nicholls, p. 96). John Milbank sees the autonomy of the secular as a heresy reaching back to Aristotle and enshrined in contemporary social theory. He argues instead for a theological grounding of the political. In the Archbishop’s lecture, too, there are touches of a postmodern historicization and relativization of universal human rights: “So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions [my italics] about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law… There is a bit of a risk here in the way we sometimes talk about the universal vision of post-Enlightenment politics. The great protest of the Enlightenment was against authority that appealed only to tradition… Its claim to override traditional forms of governance and custom by looking towards a universal tribunal was entirely intelligible against the background of despotism and uncritical inherited privilege [my italics] which prevailed in so much of early modern Europe.” The implication seems to be that the Enlightenment ideals are not entirely intelligible in themselves.
Rowan Williams is loth to see political constitutions as a repository of moral wisdom: “The important springs of moral vision in a society will be in those areas which a systematic abstract universalism regards as ‘private’ – in religion above all.” Surely such landmark political documents as the American Constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are equally important springs of moral vision? He suggests that the ultimate source of these is religious as well: “Without certain themes consistently and strongly emphasised by the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths, themes to do with the unconditional possibility for every human subject to live in conscious relation with God and in free and constructive collaboration with others, there is no guarantee that a ‘universalist’ account of human dignity would ever have seemed plausible or even emerged with clarity.” This can be maintained, but it should not detract from one of the points the Enlightenment would make about human dignity: that it is not dependent on scriptural revelations but stands on its own feet, autonomously. Figgis, too, “did not base his politics on a religious foundation, but upon a humanist belief in the importance of human personality” (Nicholls, p. 26). Perhaps the best thing a Christian can do is to allow that belief to prevail, and to keep the Christian perspective on humanism out of political discourse.
Efforts to put a reference to Europe’s Christian roots into the EU Constitution are resisted even by Christians, in part because they seem to imply a devalorization of the Enlightenment. If Europe were to say, “Thanks to the Bible and the Church we know our human dignity,” it would be returning to that state of not yet having come of age from which the Enlightenment delivered it. It would be an equal distortion to say, “Against Bible and Church, we assert human dignity,” even though in practice the Enlightenment had to struggle against Bible and Church, which posed a long series of obstacles to religious freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion and expression, and even freedom from slavery. “Toleration, then, was not achieved by any single [religious] group, but by the failure of any group to predominate sufficiently to crush the rest; toleration was thrust upon us” (Nicholls, p. 35). One can relativize and overcome Enlightenment hostility to Christianity by pointing to an ultimate accord between Christian and Enlightenment ideals, but one should not seek to relativize the ideals themselves by claiming that the Church had recognized them all along and had integrated them into a broader religious vision.
Rowan Williams wants to deconstruct “crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment” – the former is more enlightened and the latter has more of a local and cultural flavour than we imagine. “Legal universalism, when divorced from a serious theoretical (and, I would argue, religious) underpinning, can turn into a positivism as sterile as any other variety.” Perhaps the Blair government applied the law without serious theoretical underpinning, but surely in normal advanced societies there is a deep body of reflection behind the law. To argue that this needs to be theological as well is again to undermine the self-justifying character of natural and secular values. The Archbishop’s approach is very “Augustinian,” but later Christian reflection bears the deep imprint of Aristotle, and it is this rather than the mere desacralization of the State that lays the foundation for modern democracy.
In his 2005 David Nicholls Memorial Lecture, “Law, Power and Peace,” Archbishop Williams took up the pluralist vision of “diffused governance and interdependence” and opposed the idea of “a single sovereign power, beyond challenge, something that is not only a final court of appeal but in some sense a source of legitimacy for other groups. Here the law of the state is a universal and impersonal tribunal, before which every individual stands on a perfectly equal, neutral footing.” Sentences like the last will be pounced on as an attack on the democratic ideal (much breached in the observance) of equality before the law; but as the sequel makes clear, this is not what the Archbishop has in mind: “The faith community – like other self-regulating communities – has to be seen as a partner in the negotiations of public life; otherwise, the most important motivations for moral action in the public sphere will be obliged to conceal themselves; and religious identity, pursued and cultivated behind locked doors, can be distorted by its lack of access to the air and the criticism of public debate.” But rather than insist that religious motivations are the most important, should not the Church be encouraging a strengthening of autonomous civic motivations, conscious that an ethics tied to religion by leading-strings is not a fully mature one?
“The ‘lawful’ state is not one in which sovereign authority delegates downwards but one in which the component overlapping but distinct ‘first-level’ communities and associations that make up the state are assured that their interests are both recognised and effectively brokered.” The desacralized secular State is aligned with Christianity: “One of the effects of Christian theology and practice is the emergence of the ‘secular’ state, the state that has no absolutely given claim on ultimate loyalties yet can rightly claim to be ‘lawful’ to the extent that it faithfully enables the negotiation of diverse communities in a peaceful context.” But is the State a mere arbitrator? Surely as the guardian of justice it has a stronger claim on our loyalty, and on our vigilant critique when it fails in its vocation?
“The Christian denial of sacred ‘givenness’ to any political order should make us as wary of any such universal sovereignty [embodied in international law] as of any sacred claims for this or that national polity. There is, ultimately, only one sovereignty which is theologically grounded, and that is Christ’s.” Here the sacral State is something of a straw man; the sovereignty of the state is not “theologically grounded” because it does not need to be; its grounds are in natural ethics and justice. Moreover, a desacralization of Church authority should also be carried out. As Newman wrote in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “If either the Pope or the Queen demanded of me an ‘Absolute Obedience,’ he or she would be transgressing the laws of human nature and human society. I give absolute obedience to neither” (quoted, Nicholls, p. 26).
“The nineteenth century confidence…that the state had the right to require and pursue its own moral goals,” Williams claims, “survived the thirties with great resilience – only to collapse after 1945 with surprising rapidity.” This does not sound right; the founding documents of the United States uphold moral values; the Proclamation of the Irish Republic espoused the moral goal of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” Both Nicholls and Williams are a little ambiguous here, sometimes speaking as if the State has indeed a substantive moral mission: “The very idea of the coexistence of moral communities in a complex state could be seen as itself a convergent morality of sorts, and one with a theological underpinning. It is good for first-level communities to see their account of the social good set in the context of other such accounts, good for it to have to argue its case… It is good because it represents the best security we have against uncriticised, sacralised power in the political realm.” Again, paradoxically, the “theological underpinning” the Archbishop refers to here turns out to consist only in desacralization. If we need to talk of theological underpinning for the moral purpose of the State, a more positive account might be preferable, for instance, stressing the theological merits of keeping open a space of dialogal relationship with those of other faiths or none. “If the state does indeed have a kind of moral interest, as I have been suggesting, it is twofold – an interest in securing the liberty of groups to pursue their own social goods, and an interest in building in to its own processes a set of cautions and defences against absolutism.” Again this denies to the State a more positive moral aspiration. It could be demoralizing to those entering politics, which is reduced to a kind of management. (On different historical conceptions of the State’s moral purpose, see Reus-Smit.)
“Despite its regular collapse back into theocratic dreams, the Christian tradition rests upon a strong conviction that no political order other than the Body of Christ can claim the authority of God; and the Body of Christ is not a political order on the same level as others, competing for control, but a community that signifies, that points to a possible healed human world.” But insofar as the State claims the authority of natural law, of justice, its sovereignty has deeper foundations than are here suggested. “In spite of the massive counter-movements of the twentieth century, Communism and the Third Reich, the drift of modern society seems inexorably away from any commitment to the state as morally purposive reality.” To associate the moral purposiveness of a State with evil dictatorship is surely to stretch paradox to breaking point.
David Nicholls attacks delusions of collectivism, an omnicompetent State, and coercive State morality (p. 8), but this need not undercut a positive moral and educative mission of the State toward its citizens. An excess of scepticism that strips the State of its dignity and its god-given vocation could be as dangerous politically as glorification of the State. Pluralists are suspicious of State morality: “Sometimes the state may go beyond its role as the mediator, attempting to pursue some national goal which it will illegitimately impose upon its citizens. It will speak of a ‘common good,’ or a ‘general will,’ or a ‘public interest,’ which is an all-embracing substantive purpose to be followed by the state as a whole… So far as there is a common good worth considering it is structural rather than substantive in nature” (Nicholls, p. 15). The French Republic pursues the goods of liberty, fraternity, equality. Surely it is reductive to claim that these are only structural and not also substantive. Nor could one say that they are illegitimately imposed or that educating children in these ideals is illegitimate indoctrination. “There has been no generally agreed conclusion about what are the proper concerns of government” (Nicholls, p. 18), but a country’s Constitution may dictate some respectable concerns, having substantive moral content.
R. N. Baldwin, ed., Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, New York: Vanguard, 1927.
Martin Buber, Pfade in Utopia: Über Gemeinschaft und deren Verwirklichung, Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1985 (originally 1945).
Carla Castellacci and Telmo Pievani, Sante Ragioni, Chiarelettere, 2007. For discussion see : http://chiarelettere.ilcannocchiale.it/?id_blogdoc=1695905.
Massimo Faggioli, “Prassi e norme relative alle conferenze episcopali tra concilio Vaticano II e post-concilio (1959-1998),” in Alberto Melloni and Silvia Scatena, ed., Synod and Synodality: Theology, History, Canon Law and Ecumenism in New Contact, Münster: LIT, 2005, pp. 265-296.
Paul Q. Hirst, ed., The Pluralist Theory of the State, London: Routledge, 1989.
Robert Blair Kaiser, Cardinal Mahony: A Novel, Phoenix, AZ: Humble-bee Press, 2008.
Ghislain Lafont, Imaginer l'Eglise catholique, Paris: Cerf, 1995.
John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
David Nicholls, The Pluralist State: The Political Ideas of J. N. Figgis and his Contemporaries, Second Edition, London: Macmillan, 1994.
Christian Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State, Princeton University Press, 1999.
Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, Dublin: Colomba, 2007.
Rowan Williams, “Law, Power and Peace: Christian Perspectives on Sovereignty,” 2005, http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/16031.htm.
---- “Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective,” 2008, http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1575.
---- “Presidential Address to the opening of General Synod,” 2008, http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1583.
Garry Wills, Why I am a Catholic, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
From The Japan Mission Journal 62/1, March 2008