The Consequences of Catholicism for Political Theory

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s an endemic debate over what people are saying when they refer to ‘the west’. Is the west defined by its whiteness, its wealth, its liberal democracy? Should we call it the ‘highly developed countries’, the ‘advanced economies’, the ‘first world’, or the ‘global north’? I think most of these terms misses what is distinctive about this set of places. The countries we think of as ‘western’ are all countries where Catholicism was once dominant but is now in varying levels of retreat. Western countries are ‘post-Catholic’.

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Catholicism has certain distinctive effects on a place. Crucially, Catholicism situates politics as subordinate to morality. In medieval Catholic states, the monarch derives authority from the pope or from divine right. This means the monarch’s legitimacy depends on the monarch having the right moral orientation. In other parts of the world, politics and morality were more heavily enmeshed. In the Byzantine Empire, the emperor was supreme in both religious and temporal matters. In the Islamic world, the caliph combined both political and religious authority. In China, different dynasties embraced and promoted the teachings of many different schools of thought at varying points. It was only in the Catholic west that politics and morality were firmly separated, with the former rendered clearly subordinate to the latter.

Because Catholicism made politics subject to religion, it became especially important for its theology to be clear. If the legitimacy of the regime depends on the regime having the right moral orientation, a moral consensus must be maintained and articulated. Any breakdown in the consensus over religion would threaten to destroy the political consensus, too. So in the Catholic world, heresy became extraordinarily taboo. The effect of this was to make Catholicism steadily more rigid over time. Its theology became enormously detailed and ornate, but it also became less flexible. Eastern rulers could adjust moral and religious emphases to suit their political needs, but Catholic rulers were in a moral straightjacket. Over time, the tensions between the Catholic moral vision and the political imperatives faced by Catholic rulers intensified. Catholic kingdoms consolidated their power, and monarchs sought to reduce their dependence on Catholicism for legitimacy. This led to state-sponsored Protestantism, as well as the promotion of secular humanism.

The trouble is that abstractions like the good, the true, or God are inherently difficult for human beings to concretely define. Attempts to capture them conceptually necessarily lead to simplification and distortion. But because Catholicism had become the dominant legitimation paradigm for medieval states, it had to articulate precise conceptualizations of irreducibly abstract ideas. This was understandable–without precision, how could we know the king really was legitimate? But the subordination of politics to morality compelled Catholics to develop a theology that was too precise to be accurate. In other words, by trying to subordinate politics to morality, Catholics were forced to subordinate morality to politics.

The excessively strong, excessively precise claims of the Catholics led to the repudiation of these claims by the Protestants and humanists. This tore apart the Catholic consensus and badly undermined political legitimacy. For a while, Protestants and humanists tried to replace Catholicism with another precise account of good/truth/God. But because precise accounts necessarily distort these abstractions, it was impossible to convince the public to embrace these substitutes with anything like the level of conviction with which Catholicism had once been embraced.

This forced post-Catholic states to make their peace with a level of moral pluralism. But post-Catholics could not have the same attitude to pluralism which the Romans or Persians or Chinese had. In these ancient empires, politics and morality were inseparably bound up with one another, and therefore as long as religious views remained compatible with the law they posed no deep problems. In the post-Catholic world, the state was still expected to justify itself in reference to morality. Without a moral consensus, the basis of the state’s authority was in jeopardy. So when post-Catholic states embraced pluralism, they had to embrace pluralism as a morality in itself, so that this morality could take on the role which Catholicism had previously played. This, ultimately, is what liberalism is–a kind of pluralism fashioned into a morality to which the state might be answerable.

A liberal state, therefore, is one in which the state must demonstrate a commitment to pluralism to demonstrate its moral righteousness. This means that the liberal state demonstrates its moral righteousness by refusing to take specific moral positions that might undermine pluralism. It is, in other words, committed to a morality of not being committed to a morality. For post-Catholics, this is a dissatisfying compromise. The state remains committed to morality, but it is committed to a morality of amorality.

To make this liberal morality feel more substantive, it had to become more elaborate and precise. Liberal theorists replaced the commitment to good/truth/God with commitments to desire satisfaction and to autonomous choice. By claiming that the liberal state satisfies our desires or gives us autonomous choices, the liberals can argue that the state is delivering on something meaningful beyond mere pluralism. Yet at the same time, because our desires and autonomous choices are varied and often mutually conflicting, the liberal theorist is able to argue that the state must protect a plurality of desires and choices rather than pursue any particular set.

The trouble is that liberalism still depends on our continuing to believe that we want other people to get what they want even when it’s not what we want. We have to believe that it’s good for other people to get what they want or what they choose. But liberalism cannot provide us with an account of the good. It’s predicated on the idea that there is too much disagreement about what’s good, and therefore the state must avoid taking a stance on questions of this kind. This means liberalism depends on there continuing to be a thin consensus about the goodness of pluralism. If it does anything to defend that consensus, it risks being seen to violate the very thing it’s attempting to defend. So insofar as it defends this consensus, it must not be seen to do so. This means that liberalism must worry about heresy, but it cannot be seen to worry about it.

It is all too easy for liberalism to lose its ability to secure this consensus. In recent times, moral anti-realism has spread throughout the post-Catholic states. As it spreads, the liberal consensus about the goodness of pluralism decays. More and more people do not see why they should respect the desires of others when those desires conflict with their own. If morality isn’t real, and all that exists are desires, then all desires are equal, and that means there is no reason to defer to desires that are compatible with pluralism. If you have the power to override other people’s desires and no belief in moral realism, there’s nothing which reliably stops you from steamrolling them, nothing which reliably keeps you within liberalism.

This is why liberalism is fundamentally a post-Catholic ideology–it cannot work in a context of full atheism, in which good/truth/God have been rejected. In a context where these things have been wholly rejected, we return to the principle of might makes right. By trying to flesh liberalism out and make it feel more substantive, the liberal theorists have moved more and more people away from good/truth/God toward an emphasis on desire satisfaction and autonomy. But why should a person prioritize other people’s desires or autonomy over their own? This question has long bothered liberal moral philosophers, like Henry Sidgwick and Derek Parfit. Parfit ultimately answered this question by positing irreducibly normative truths. By arguing that we are the kinds of beings that respond to object-given reasons, Parfit argued that we cannot help but recognize the importance of the good. This is an appeal to the kind of comprehensive, meta-ethical theory of the good which liberalism does not permit the state to embrace. If we take it politically, it is a move away from grounding the state on a defense of desire and autonomy as such and back toward grounding it on some shared understanding of the good.

But the old problem hasn’t gone away–we cannot get a consensus on an account of the good which is precise enough to provide a convincing account of political legitimacy. Ultimately, the attempt to subordinate politics to morality forces morality to become too precise to be accurate, and therefore to become too unconvincing to substantiate politics. So while this Catholic move has enormously enhanced the role of morality within post-Catholic societies, it has also forced this morality to develop in an ultimately self-defeating way. Once the Catholic move is made and politics is subordinated, it becomes very hard to return to a world in which politics and morality are mutually enmeshed, where morality is something provisional on which we publicly agree. Enmeshed morality always seems too political to have the transcendent force which post-Catholic morality has, and yet post-Catholic morality is too rigid and unstable to sustain the legitimacy of polities in the long-term.

Post-Catholic societies are unable to return to the ancient understanding, in which good/truth/God are considered too amorphous to be concretized into a dogma. In those ancient societies, a working, ever-evolving, limited public morality was fashioned through the state and its laws. We cannot be satisfied by that, and so we reach for a kind of moral certainty that we cannot have. The more certain we try to make good/truth/God, the harder it is to believe in good/truth/God, and we recoil from dogmatism into nihilism. This pushes people to doubt all abstractions, believing only in what they can experience. For these people, there is nothing but psychological motivations, and no particularly strong reasons to prefer some motivations to others. The world of moral absolutism becomes a moral vacuum, and the vacuum yields a frustrating dearth of meaning, forcing the creation of new substitute dogmas. Secular ideologies–like nationalism–step into this breach. In this way, post-Catholic societies are trapped in an endless cycle of dogmatism and nihilism. Unable to accept more humble, provisional conceptions of the core moral and theological abstractions, they are forced to generate an endless series of unstable rigid paradigms. For this reason the post-Catholic world always stands on the edge of a knife. It is enormously dynamic, able to create an endless series of ideologies, but at the cost of its stability. It must constantly make new dogmas because it cannot make anything stick.