Western culture, the church, and questions for modern times

“I am not arguing that the Church fostered limited government in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. In principle, the government that it fostered was unlimited in its scope. I am arguing, however, that the Church worked assiduously to hem in the authority of the Christian kings and that its success in this endeavor provided the foundation for the emergence of a parliamentary order. Indeed, I would go further. It was the Church that promoted the principles underpinning the emergence of parliaments. It did so by fostering the species of government had emerged within the church itself. Given that the Church in the West made clerical celibacy one of its principal practices (whether it was honored in the breach or not), the hereditary principle could play no role in its governance. Inevitably, it resorted to elections. Monks elected abbots, the canons of cathedrals elected bishops, the college of cardinals elected the Pope.”

Paul Rahe takes on American Catholicism’s Pact With the Devil with an historical perspective of the Church’s moral authority citing the Magna Carta and the underpinnings of modern law and governance practice. He notes the uniqueness of the Church compared to Eastern and Islamic cultures. The current brouhaha about health care is used as an example of a decline he sees in the moral authority. “In my lifetime, to my increasing regret, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has lost much of its moral authority. It has done so largely because it has subordinated its teaching of Catholic moral doctrine to its ambitions regarding an expansion of the administrative entitlements state.”

It is the matter in the parable about boiling a frog. Good intentions in small doses can accumulate with unintended consequence.

“In the process, the leaders of the American Catholic Church fell prey to a conceit that had long before ensnared a great many mainstream Protestants in the United States – the notion that public provision is somehow akin to charity – and so they fostered state paternalism and undermined what they professed to teach: that charity is an individual responsibility and that it is appropriate that the laity join together under the leadership of the Church to alleviate the suffering of the poor. In its place, they helped establish the Machiavellian principle that underpins modern liberalism – the notion that it is our Christian duty to confiscate other people’s money and redistribute it.”

There is another fable about standing by while some crime took another, and then another, until, finally, the criminals come for you and you have no one to assist in your defense. Rahe cites a Roman Law about waterways: “That which touches all should be dealt with by all.” The issue at hand is trying to pretend that only the selected target of governmental overreach is touched and the remainder of the citizenry will be left along. It seems that the Catholic Church is finding out that that seldom is the case.

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