To Rome, one way or another

Although I avoid the news as much as I can, since I get a little too… involved in it, I am aware of the recent health care bill passage and at least some of the reactions it has sparked. Opponents are outraged, appalled, fearing for our country, slamming the President for being a fascist, etc. While all these reactions may be valid responses to certain evils of bill passage, I think a little perspective is needed to keep all of us at peace.

Living in the pocket of a foreigner is eye opening at times, and especially so when it comes to politics. Although neither me nor Chris are political enthusiasts, we have our views. More so I have realized that we have our assumptions shaped by the society around us. Particularly, Americans have the assumption that democracy is the best system and the majority is right.

We were watching Star Wars with our three-year-old daughter, Isabel, the other day. Don’t worry, it was a highly edited version. In episode III, the Republic was being taken over by the soon to be Emperor and Padme says, “This is how freedom dies, with thunderous applause!” Later, when confronting her beloved Anakin about whether he had turned to the dark side, she didn’t seem overly upset at him “killing younglings”. Instead, it was when he turned his back on democracy that she gasped in horror and left him. My parents like most Americans also have this weird idea that Christianity, and goodness itself, is inextricably tied to democracy.

Democracy is a system founded on the power of the vote, but a vote is only as good as the opinion of those who cast the vote. The vote is ruled by the majority, and in the absence of a moral code, the majority is not always right. Effectively, the majority becomes the mighty, and the vote ensures that might makes right.

Another weak point in the American system is that it is not actually a democracy. It is a republic. We elect officials who vote on issues for us, and once they are elected we can do little to affect their vote. Most of the time, our “representatives” are not representatives. These legislators have their own ideas of what is right and wrong and will make laws accordingly. Moreover, we are limited in our choice of those we elect to those who run for office, which in turn is limited to the wealthy or those backed by the wealthy. There may be exceptions, but this is how it generally goes, and most the time Americans vehemently defend this system as if it is, in itself, a righteous absolute or basic human right. It is merely the best we can do right now, and as we have seen recently, it is not nearly good enough.

The reason the democratic ideal in America is failing is that its people are in the midst of a long and painful divorce from the philosophy that has for so long shaped their morality. Far too few people have a clear picture of the history of the world, and the flavors that filled the world in different times. Before Christ came, Rome ruled what was known as the civilized world, surrounded by what they called “barbarians”, those outside of the Roman Empire. Although barbarians were seen as uncivilized, it can be easily seen from Roman culture that nothing during the time immediately preceding the coming of Christ could be called civilized by our standards today. The Roman Empire was a military run society, loosely an oligarchic republic of sorts, but holding all sorts of vicious and inhuman behavior as acceptable. Without a second thought for the value and dignity of an individual human, they practiced forms of brutality like gladiator games, slavery, abortion and cruel punishments like crucifixion. There was corruption in the form of exorbitant taxes, extortion, and distorted sexual behaviors like homosexuality, male infidelity, incest, pedophilia, and prostitution. Although these offenses occur in current times as well, in the Roman Empire they were culturally accepted. The powerful created the laws, and the weak were crushed underfoot, because the society was shaped by the philosophy its people held. Although the ancient Romans had religion in the form of multiple gods like Jupiter, Mars, and Neptune, there was little morality beyond that of the mighty. Strength was admired and victory was noble. Power over others was the highest Roman virtue, and there was no lasting hope for the people, for even the power they possessed was lost at death.

Jesus Christ preached a message of self-sacrifice and eternal hope. He taught us to give our lives for others rather than seeking power over others, and Christ Himself gave His life for the forgiveness of our sins as our perfect example of the love we are to have. In a society that despised the powerless, Christianity thrived because it gave hope in a world of despair. There was meaning in its message of love and resurrection, and so Christians faced persecution, humiliation, and martyrdom against all apparent reason. The Christian civilization that rose from the moral ashes of ancient Rome had a new life. These people sought a moral goodness that was well defined by the Catholic Church who united, strengthened and expanded their society. Slavery faded as a practice until it disappeared, since a Christian could hardly keep a fellow Christian brother as his slave. People were urged to give to the poor, to make sacrifices for God and the Church, to spend their lives in service to others, and to be content with having the necessities of life instead of seeking great wealth. The high middle ages were a beautiful time for the human soul. This was the nature of Christian morality that laid the foundation for our society today.

Yet a century or so before the Reformation, this high Christian society began to face the inevitable poisoning of corruption from those who still sought power instead of goodness. The Reformation protested the corruption for good reason, but the Reformers lost sight of the cause of the problems, and broke with the institutional authority of the Catholic Church, rejecting and revising all her teachings rather than just the corrupt practices. Over the next century, the separation became permanent, and the Christian institution that had for so long directed the society around it was weakened. Five centuries after the Reformation, Christian society is even more fractured and its influence on the philosophy of secular society has steadily decreased.

There is now a battle going on between those of differing philosophies. The Christians, more and more so only the conservative Christians and I believe eventually only the Catholic Christians, hold to value and dignity of individual human life. We oppose abortion and euthanasia. We call for right action and fairness toward all people. We desire goodness rather than power. Those who hold secular philosophies are not without morality, but they are without an absolute morality. They retain a vestigial morality like a distant memory of their ancient religion, but the grounds for what they believe is right and wrong shift as their position shifts. They legalize and fight for the right to infringe on the lives and dignity of others when it is convenient for them to do so. The life of an unborn and unwanted child is seen as insignificant only because it has no ability to defend itself, and in the absence of Christian morality, might makes right. Power is sought and the strong make the rules. The majority wins in a democratic society, and without the foundation of Christian morality the majority will not care for the weak and powerless. As the moral tide of our society continues to turn away from the Rome of the Catholic Church, it is returning to the barbarism of ancient Rome.

As individuals, we make a choice whether to live for ourselves as the Romans, or to live for each other as the Catholic Christians. The world and our country are made of individuals, but we cannot make their choice for them. Though their failing morality and hence our failing democracy saddens us, it should not make us despair. Our hope is not, nor has it ever been, in our own power to create a perfect society or perfect governmental system. Our hope is in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, His death that we share that we may also share in His glory and resurrection. Though the world around us falls further from goodness, it is only a sign of the movements of society as a whole, and the light of Christ has never failed to shine in the darkest places at the darkest times. We are His light, and whatever governmental laws are passed, we will still act in accordance with the laws of God.

Let us try to keep this all in perspective when the health care bill fails to uphold righteousness in many respects. We can also be thankful for the improvements it has made, since it is criminal to drop an insured just as they need the insurance they have paid so long for, or to not cover a child on a pre-existing condition when they need care. Above all, we can be grateful that Christ has come and changed us, so that we are no longer barbarians, and have through Him the ability to be in this world and not of it.

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11 Responses to To Rome, one way or another

  1. agellius says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s already illegal to drop a sick person’s coverage “just when he needs care”. It would be outright fraud to do so since that’s precisely the service he has been paying his premiums to obtain.

    As far as preexisting conditions, it’s simply crazy to let people pay nothing for health insurance for years, and then suddenly let them obtain it just when they get sick. If that were always allowed then no one would ever purchase insurance and the insurance companies would have no money to pay for treatment once it was needed.

    That being said, you are absolutely right that democracy is not necessarily the best system. In fact I think it may well be the worst, the reason being that it gives everyone the idea that we’re all equal in every way, therefore no one has the right to tell anyone else what to do or not to, believe or not believe, all opinions are equally valid, etc.

    Given our fallen nature, in my opinion democracies cannot fail to become worse and worse, morally and religiously, as time goes by. People need to be governed, and those who govern need divine guidance. When the guidance comes from the very people who need guiding, Lord help us.

  2. Stacey says:

    Though I avoid the news casually, I avoid political debates like the plague 🙂

    I’m not surprised you have this view of democracy, considering you’re a fan of Belloc. Unfortunately, there is no objective way for a society of people holding opposing views to choose leaders with “divine guidance” as you say, and we have seen historically that even those who do have God’s guidance in divine things should not be given worldly power. The conversion of society as a whole is what we must pray and strive for, otherwise, it’s not an objective right that is made law, but whatever the most or mightiest desire. Though I think these things may be good to hope for, as I tried to say in my post, the success of our government is not our main concern. It’s the salvation of souls that is our priority.

  3. agellius says:

    I promise not to turn this into a debate, but I will just clarify my point a bit (hopefully).

    You write, ‘Unfortunately, there is no objective way for a society of people holding opposing views to choose leaders with “divine guidance” as you say, and we have seen historically that even those who do have God’s guidance in divine things should not be given worldly power.’

    All I meant was that those who govern need divine guidance, period. I was not implying that the pope or bishops should be worldly governors. In other words, authority is vertical: The people need to be governed by an authority, which authority in turn is governed by God’s laws. Obviously this is the ideal and we may not have very much hope of seeing it in practice, at least not very often and not consistently over time.

    Nevertheless democracy, or at least American-style democracy, prevents this from ever occurring since it reverses the order of authority: The people need to be governed by an authority, but the authority, instead of being governed by God, is governed largely by the people, i.e. by public opinion (which in turn is subject to various forms of manipulation). This idea is condemned by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical “Libertas”.

    I certainly agree that the success of temporal government is not our primary concern, which is the salvation of souls. But I think the two are often related on some level. The manner of governance can affect how easy or difficult it is to live morally, and how much respect is given to the gospel, which in turn can affect the likelihood that people will be inclined to hear and heed the gospel.

  4. Stacey says:

    It’s good to hear your thoughts on this, agellius. Obviously, I don’t have many people to bounce these kind of ideas off of except Chris. I think you and I are in agreement as to the ideal situation where people are governed with divine guidance, but that it may be a practical impossibility. When I said what you quoted, I was thinking of the passer bys and comment readers who may mistake what we were saying for a call to return to the obviously not workable system of the Middle Ages in which positions of ecclesiastical authority were sought for political authority, bought with wealth in search of power. With that line, I wasn’t saying anything against your views on democracy, I was just trying avoid any debate over the health care bill, since so many people get really passionate over it (not to say I don’t).

  5. agellius says:

    I had some additional thoughts on this. You can choose not to post it if you don’t want the thread to go too far along these lines.

    You write, ‘I think you and I are in agreement as to the ideal situation where people are governed with divine guidance, but that it may be a practical impossibility.’

    I don’t really mean “divine guidance”, which to me implies God directing or inspiring leaders to act in certain ways. What I mean is “governed by the divine laws”, in other words being forbidden by those laws to govern in ways which tend to encourage immorality or which hinder the spread of the gospel. So the question is, which form of government is most susceptible to being governed by divine laws?

    People can disagree on that, but the thing about a monarchy is that although it can be bad if the monarch ignores the divine law, nevertheless the monarch is free (in theory) to follow divine law if he so chooses; whereas in a democracy elected leaders *must* cater to the will of the people in order to remain in power, even when the will of the people is wrong. Which is why millions of babies are still being slaughtered every year.

    One monarch might legalize abortion and the next might ban it, according to his conscience. But in a democracy it just goes on and on. Not to mention divorce, contraception and gay marriage (which, due to manipulation of public opinion through media and the educational establishment is only a matter of time).

  6. Stacey says:

    agellius,

    I don’t mind wayward threads at all. I think I agree with you when you make the distinction about divine guidance, but I’m not sure. Obviously, there are problems in every situation.

    In the first case, we have the example of Moses, who was a man directed by God. This would have worked well, but the problem was he was not listened to by the people. Eventually, the people called for a monarch instead of judges of the divine law. Interesting.

    On the other hand, if we wish to be governed by divine laws, we must first discern and agree on them. Which was a much simpler thing when all of western civilization was Catholic. Now, that’s pretty much impossible.

    If we have a monarch, like you say it’s one person’s conscience making decisions. One person’s unreliable conscience. Not great.

    In a democracy, it’s many people’s unreliable consciences or desires making decisions. Definitely not guaranteed to be right.

    So in the end, I think unless everyone sincerely converts to the Catholic Church and everyone is guided by that sure and stable Christian morality, then no system will work. And if everyone does convert and is guided by those morals, then any system should work 🙂

  7. agellius says:

    Excellent point about Moses. In fact all your points are good ones. But I’m not sure we are talking about the same thing. You can point to a lot of monarchies that didn’t work. But I can’t point to a single democracy that has worked. In fact I contend that democracy simply can’t work.

    As you say, any system of government would work well if most people were converted. But I submit that we already know ahead of time that “most people” will never be converted. This is the basis of the distinction drawn between the Church and the world, or Augustine’s City of God and the City of the World. Those who are truly converted in their hearts will always be a minority who are persecuted, mocked, or at least looked at by the world as if they were crazy. As St. Francis de Sales said, “The world holds us to be fools; let us hold it to be mad.”

    It is in the context of this assumption that I say a monarchy, in theory, is a form of government better suited to ruling in a manner conducive to living a moral life and spreading the gospel. It may or may not have “worked” in one place or another, or in one context or another. But a democracy simply *can’t* work in the long run, because the majority will always be unconverted.

    I admit the American democracy didn’t do such a bad job during its first century or so. But that’s only because it was living on moral and cultural capital left over from its Catholic, monarchical past. The further it got from that past, the more its culture degraded, the more hostile it became towards the gospel, and the less it created conditions conducive to the moral lives of its citizens. This is because original sin simply took over, since there were no forces to counteract that occurring: Since the people were “the boss”, what they said went — not always, but ultimately, over time, since it was necessary to win their votes to stay in power.

    A monarch can be a bad person, of course. But what is true of “the majority” — that it will always be unconverted — is not true of individuals. Any individual is capable of conversion, whereas the majority will never be converted. Therefore it is at least possible to have good monarchs a fair bit of the time. Just think: One good monarch, even if he ruled only ten years, could save ten million babies from execution. And the bad ones? Well, how much worse could they possibly be than our own government, which over the past 40 years has averaged a million slaughtered babies a year?

    Suppose instead of governments we were talking about the best way to build a ship to travel to Alpha Centauri. One design calls for it to run on nuclear power and be made of lightweight, high-strength titanium alloy, costing $2 billion to build; whereas the other calls for it to be made of wood and utilize a gasoline engine, and will cost only $50,000. Someone might say, “A human being will never survive the trip to Alpha Centauri anyway, so we may as well use the wood-and-gas ship since it’s a helluva lot less expensive.” If you assume that neither one will work, then it makes no difference which one you choose. But if you’re going to make the effort at all, why not use the design that has the better chance at least theoretically?

  8. agellius says:

    By the way, although I was started on my anti-democratic path by Belloc, what pushed me over the edge were lectures by Drs. John Rao and Jeffrey Bond, which are available at keepthefaith.org. Particularly the ones about Pope Leo XIII and the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX.

  9. Chris says:

    Agellius,

    A monarch can be a bad person, of course. But what is true of “the majority” — that it will always be unconverted — is not true of individuals. Any individual is capable of conversion, whereas the majority will never be converted. Therefore it is at least possible to have good monarchs a fair bit of the time. Just think: One good monarch, even if he ruled only ten years, could save ten million babies from execution. And the bad ones? Well, how much worse could they possibly be than our own government, which over the past 40 years has averaged a million slaughtered babies a year?

    I’m not sure I buy this. I think your position rests on an idealized notion of monarchy. Yes, a good monarch could right a lot of wrongs, but a bad monarch could decide to purge the land of religion entirely, putting those to the rack who would dare even to think the name of Christ. Just the same, a democracy (or republic, in the case of America) does not have to be ruled by an immoral mob. Nothing is stopping Catholics from gaining the majority and shaping the country in accord with Catholic teaching.

    In reality, monarchy and democracy have the same potential for both good and evil, and one does not have any more of a “better chance” than the other, even in theory. The idealized notion that a monarch, because it is a position held by one person, is easier to convert would likely fail in reality because one first has to gain access to the monarch in order for conversion to be proposed. Those who control such access are many, and may make it impossible for conversion to happen. The people are therefore still at the mercy of the mob.

    Ultimately, I think it is worth remembering in such discussions that Christianity is not about realizing some kind of political or social ideal. It’s about living out the will of God in daily life, no matter what political regime is in power. This may cost you your life, or it may afford you the freedom to help God persuade others to conversion. Either way, our true King is not of this world.

  10. agellius says:

    Hi Chris:

    I don’t have a problem with you not buying it. As I said before, people can disagree on the best form of government. It’s not something I claim to be able to prove conclusively.

    But that doesn’t mean I won’t reply to your criticisms. : )

    I don’t see where you get the idea that my notion of monarchy is “idealized”. I have admitted, several times I think, that there can be bad monarchs. My main point is just that since democracy is based on majority rule, and the majority will always be unconverted, democracies will always be “of the world”. If you disagree with that, maybe you could provide me with an example of a democracy that has been, and remained, Christian in character, and has not legalized abominations and horrors such as abortion, divorce and homosexual marriage, nor appears likely to do so at any time in the foreseeable future. And I will give similar examples of monarchies.

    I know well that our primary concern is the salvation of souls and not particular forms of temporal government. But as I’ve said, and as several popes have said, the two are not entirely disconnected. It’s the job of a legitimate government to protect the well-being of its people and contribute to creating an environment that promotes it. Nothing is more important to the well-being of a people than the ability to hear the gospel preached and to live a moral life, in order to attain salvation (let alone temporal happiness). Governments that legalize pornography, contraception and divorce (and I could go on and on) do not contribute to creating an environment that promotes the moral life of its people; in fact they cause obstacles to the moral life to abound. How many souls have fallen into mortal sin as a result only God knows for sure, but there’s no doubt that it’s many, many, many. Therefore I consider it a mistake to completely separate the primary concern of salvation from the secondary concern of government forms, as if they have no relation to each other.

    That being said, this is a discussion in theory only. I am most definitely not advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government, just talking about what form of government I think would be best for living the Christian life.

  11. agellius says:

    Here is an excerpt from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas, which I think supports several of the things I have been saying (though it doesn’t mention monarchy):

    ’18. There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the *fatal theory* of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. Nature herself proclaims the necessity of the State providing means and opportunities whereby the community may be enabled to live properly, that is to say, according to the laws of God. For, since God is the source of all goodness and justice, it is absolutely ridiculous that the State should pay no attention to these laws or render them abortive by contrary enactments. Besides, those who are in authority owe it to the commonwealth not only to provide for its external well-being and the conveniences of life, but still more to consult the welfare of men’s *souls* in the wisdom of their legislation. But, for the increase of such benefits, nothing more suitable can be conceived than the laws which have God for their author; and, therefore, they who in their government of the State take no account of these laws **abuse political power** by causing it to deviate from its proper end and from what nature itself prescribes. And, what is still more important, and what We have more than once pointed out, although the civil authority has not the same proximate end as the spiritual, nor proceeds on the same lines, nevertheless in the exercise of their separate powers they must occasionally meet. For their subjects are the same, and not infrequently they deal with the same objects, though in different ways. Whenever this occurs, since a state of conflict is absurd and manifestly repugnant to the most wise ordinance of God, there must necessarily exist some order or mode of procedure to remove the occasions of difference and contention, and to secure harmony in all things. This harmony has been not inaptly compared to that which exists between the body and the soul for the well-being of both one and the other, the separation of which brings irremediable harm to the body, since it extinguishes its very life. (Emphasis added.)’

    LIBERTAS PRAESTANTISSIMUM, ON THE NATURE OF HUMAN LIBERTY
    ENCYCLICAL OF POPE LEO XIII JUNE 20, 1888
    http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13liber.htm

    And now that I’m looking at Libertas, there is also this from paragraph 15:

    ‘For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man’s individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that **all this is in contradiction to reason**.’ (Emphasis added.)

    And this from paragraph 16:

    ‘Moreover, besides this, a doctrine of such character is most hurtful both to individuals and to the State. For, once ascribe to human reason the only authority to decide what is true and what is good, and the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed; honor and dishonor differ not in their nature, but in the opinion and judgment of each one; pleasure is the measure of what is lawful; and, given a code of morality which can have little or no power to restrain or quiet the unruly propensities of man, a way is naturally opened to universal corruption. With reference also to public affairs: authority is severed from the true and natural principle whence it derives all its efficacy for the common good [i.e. the divine law]; and the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority. Now, this is simply a road leading straight to tyranny. The empire of God over man and civil society once repudiated, it follows that religion, as a public institution, can have no claim to exist, and that everything that belongs to religion will be treated with complete indifference.’ [Do I hear an amen?]

    Clearly what Pope Leo describes is the type of democracy that we have, and clearly he doesn’t think it’s good, nor even indifferent, but positively bad.

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