Thursday, March 08, 2012

Catholics and de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

ONE OF THE MOST prescient secular observers of the political order in the United States was the French politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), in his classic book De la démocratie en Amérique (known in English as Democracy in America), published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. He made a number of observations and predictions in this book:
  • The United States and Russia would be the two major world powers.
  • Slavery in the United States would be only stopped by acrimony, and that freed blacks, while nominally having the same freedoms and privileges as other Americans, would be subject to segregation. The Indians, due to their undemocratic traditions, would be forced to assimilate into the wider culture.
  • The democratic foundations of the U.S. would be threatened by increasing industrialization, since men could no longer support themselves and their families by their personal ownership of property, but rather by relying on earning wages controlled by others. A new industrial aristocracy would be formed.
  • The role of women in American society would diverge dramatically from Europe.
  • Individuals would become increasingly isolated and more alienated from the wider culture.
  • The emphasis on equality would stifle the intellectual life of the nation, particularly in the arts and sciences. The flourishing of both in the latter part of the 19th century, taking place after he wrote his book, seemed to contradict this prediction, but events closer to our current age rather confirm it, where “political correctness” stifles the intellect when making works of art, and which turns science away from the pursuit of the truth to instead supporting political agendas.
  • The burden of taxation would eventually be largely put upon the broad middle class, often to pay for the needs of the poor.  The laws of the land would continue to break up the accumulated wealth of the middle class.
  • Democracy would lead to increased materialism in the U.S., which would lead to the acceptance of the religious doctrine of pantheism, which would lead to tyranny. We see this in the New Age and the uncritical acceptance of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. De Tocqueville thought that this tendency ought to be strenuously opposed, by returning to authentic Christian doctrine.
  • The ignorant and the violent would dominate party politics, with prejudice taking the place of wisdom.
  • Democracy would lead to an excessively optimistic idea of the perfectibility of Man.
De Tocqueville saw religion as being the foundation of democracy. During his day, but unlike ours, the  Christian sects preached roughly the same morality. The U.S. was overwhelmingly a Protestant country, but Catholics were a significant minority, and were seen as being anti-American. His view is different:
I think that the Catholic religion has erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy. Amongst the various sects of Christians, Catholicism seems to me, on the contrary, to be one of those which are most favorable to the equality of conditions. In the Catholic Church, the religious community is composed of only two elements, the priest and the people. The priest alone rises above the rank of his flock, and all below him are equal.

On doctrinal points the Catholic faith places all human capacities upon the same level; it subjects the wise and ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak, it listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to the same standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God. If Catholicism predisposes the faithful to obedience, it certainly does not prepare them for inequality; but the contrary may be said of Protestantism, which generally tends to make men independent, more than to render them equal.

Catholicism is like an absolute monarchy; if the sovereign be removed, all the other classes of society are more equal than they are in republics. It has not unfrequently occurred that the Catholic priest has left the service of the altar to mix with the governing powers of society, and to take his place amongst the civil gradations of men. This religious influence has sometimes been used to secure the interests of that political state of things to which he belonged. At other times Catholics have taken the side of aristocracy from a spirit of religion.

But no sooner is the priesthood entirely separated from the government, as is the case in the United States, than is found that no class of men are more naturally disposed than the Catholics to transfuse the doctrine of the equality of conditions into the political world. If, then, the Catholic citizens of the United States are not forcibly led by the nature of their tenets to adopt democratic and republican principles, at least they are not necessarily opposed to them; and their social position, as well as their limited number, obliges them to adopt these opinions. Most of the Catholics are poor, and they have no chance of taking a part in the government unless it be open to all the citizens. They constitute a minority, and all rights must be respected in order to insure to them the free exercise of their own privileges. These two causes induce them, unconsciously, to adopt political doctrines, which they would perhaps support with less zeal if they were rich and preponderant.

The Catholic clergy of the United States has never attempted to oppose this political tendency, but it seeks rather to justify its results. The priests in America have divided the intellectual world into two parts: in the one they place the doctrines of revealed religion, which command their assent; in the other they leave those truths which they believe to have been freely left open to the researches of political inquiry. Thus the Catholics of the United States are at the same time the most faithful believers and the most zealous citizens.
Certainly things have changed, especially since 1968, following the widespread rejection of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the Church’s doctrine on parenthood. Particularly, the pantheism that developed in many Protestant denominations — making them lose their Christian character — is now widely found in the Church. Until lately, even many of our bishops accepted the consequential shift towards totalitarianism in government.

Democracy used to be a system of local government where the citizens would decide amongst themselves whether or not a school would be built, or a road paved. Now it means something else, being a code-word for a centralized, all-powerful, relentlessly anti-religious state, where all of the people can vote, but none of the people but a few have real power. This is an unnatural state of affairs.

De Tocqueville bluntly stated that there will be two main factions in the future United States: Papists defending liberty and the irreligious clamoring for dictatorship, forcing the Protestants to one side or the other. This has been a long time coming, and we are seeing the development of this ultimate factionalism today:
America is the most democratic country in the world, and it is at the same time (according to reports worthy of belief) the country in which the Roman Catholic religion makes most progress. At first sight this is surprising. Two things must here be accurately distinguished: equality inclines men to wish to form their own opinions; but, on the other hand, it imbues them with the taste and the idea of unity, simplicity, and impartiality in the power which governs society. Men living in democratic ages are therefore very prone to shake off all religious authority; but if they consent to subject themselves to any authority of this kind, they choose at least that it should be single and uniform. Religious powers not radiating from a common centre are naturally repugnant to their minds; and they almost as readily conceive that there should be no religion, as that there should be several... The men of our days are naturally disposed to believe; but, as soon as they have any religion, they immediately find in themselves a latent propensity which urges them unconsciously towards Catholicism. Many of the doctrines and the practices of the Romish Church astonish them; but they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, and its great unity attracts them. If Catholicism could at length withdraw itself from the political animosities to which it has given rise, I have hardly any doubt but that the same spirit of the age, which appears to be so opposed to it, would become so favorable as to admit of its great and sudden advancement. One of the most ordinary weaknesses of the human intellect is to seek to reconcile contrary principles, and to purchase peace at the expense of logic. Thus there have ever been, and will ever be, men who, after having submitted some portion of their religious belief to the principle of authority, will seek to exempt several other parts of their faith from its influence, and to keep their minds floating at random between liberty and obedience. But I am inclined to believe that the number of these thinkers will be less in democratic than in other ages; and that our posterity will tend more and more to a single division into two parts — some relinquishing Christianity entirely, and others returning to the bosom of the Church of Rome.

[Book translated by Henry Reeve, Esq.]
We see today that the various sects find themselves more clearly on one side of the line or the other, standing with Rome or standing in opposition to her.

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