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Chapter Six


It is now more or less a commonplace that the French Revolution was two revolutions in one. A revolt started by the aristocracy against the monarchy's attempts to reform the anchien régime became a revolution by a section of the educated middle classes, who in the name of the rights of man and democracy, wrested power from the king and aristocracy, to be followed by a social revolution in which an urban proletariat tried to wrest power from the educated middle classes. The first succeeded. The triumph of the second was delayed for over a hundred years, and when it finally took place, under the banner of socialism, in a country at the opposite end of Europe, it turned out to be not the triumph of the proletariat, but of professional revolutionaries and an intelligentsia ruling for the supposed benefit of the proletariat, with a rigour far surpassing that of any of its previous masters.

Are democracy and socialism, then, opposed political theories or part and parcel of the same thing? The answer is a bit of both. The goals are the same  human happiness through the reign of liberty, equality and fraternity. The differences are about priorities. Should liberty and the rights and interests of the individual come first, or equality and the rights of the collectivity? Let us take a closer look.

Democracy  What Is It?

When we ask ourselves what people today mean by democracy, we find two conflicting conceptions tumbling about in Western minds. I will call them common-sense democracy, which is not democracy in the literal sense, and theoretical democracy, which is not in the literal sense practicable.

For most people, common-sense democracy means political systems like those of the United States, the United Kingdom and France. There must be separation of powers; rulers are elected for limited periods to make them attentive to the wishes of the ruled; all adults have the right to vote; public office is open to anyone who cares to compete for it; decisions are by majority vote; no one can be arrested without a warrant or left in prison without trial, and the law is the same for all. We speak of it as "representative government." Some of the features listed are found in different types of government. I have mentioned them because they are in most people's minds when thinking about what they believe to be the special virtues of democracy.

The underlying ideas are that government should to some degree be for the benefit of all and that a people or society is something organic: a union of families and individuals who, while having many things in common, including a common history and culture, also fall naturally into like-minded groups with different views and interests.

Common-sense democrats, one could say, do not believe in government by the people, but in the greatest degree of consent, consultation and representation of the people consistent with stable and effective rulership. If we look at them without preconceptions, we see that common-sense democracies are more like the mixed systems favoured by St Thomas, combining monarchical, aristocratic and popular features.

This is especially true of the United States and the present French Republic. Political systems are not always what they seem. The United States and France, for all that they are called democracies, are really elected monarchies limited by powerful representative institutions. England is a republic with a powerless hereditary president. Soviet Russia, though atheist, resembled a theocracy; the same men decided what was to be believed as well as how the country was to be run.

The French revolutionary tradition has propagated some of the principles of common-sense democracy, but it did not originate them. What it did originate, basing itself on Rousseau, was theoretical democracy.

The basic principles of theoretical democracy are that there exists such a thing as "the people," an aggregate of equal units all having the same needs, thoughts and will; that together they are the source of truth, right and the power to command obedience; that the people should rule, either directly by intervening day to day in the details of government, with no decision being taken without their knowledge and consent, or in the sense that the rulers are merely their mouthpieces. For a man to have to submit to an authority other than his own is an affront to his dignity and a limitation of his humanity.

There is a close connection between Rousseau's idea of democracy and Luther's concept of the Church as a people acting together directly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Rousseau's difficulty was that, in leaving out the Holy Spirit, he could not explain why the people should always be of one mind and will. Hence his second most famous idea.

By what right can the collective mind and will compel the individuals, absolutely free by birth, who make up the people, obey its authority and laws? Because of the social contract. Having freely (in the person of his  remote ancestors?) entered into the contract, the free individual remains his own master because the collective mind and will are now his mind and will. Can he withdraw from the contract? No. It is for keeps. Those who disagree with the collective mind and will are no longer part of the people. They have become severed limbs, enemies of the people. The people is . . . the majority? Those with the right ideas? Here theoretical democracy becomes evasive.

The theory of the social contract is an attempt to explain the origin of society and political authority without God; to show why men and women who are assumed to be subject to no one but themselves should accept laws manifestly coming from outside them, and not always to their liking. It is assumed that social living is artificial, not natural.

Owing to the influence of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in Western education, many common-sense Western democrats, when they talk about democracy, unfortunately often have a number of these ideas in mind too. This intermingling of two discordant conceptions of democracy (common ­sense and theoretical) based on fundamentally different principles, explains most of the confusion surrounding the subject and not a few of the world's present political difficulties.

Everyone knows that government by "the people" is impossible. Even with the most representative of institutions, the real ruling is done by a relatively small number of men and women. They also know that fifty-one per cent approval of a policy or measure does not make it right. And in what sense is an activity like the formation of public opinion, whether by the media or the intelligentsia, a democratic undertaking? Is it not rather an aristocratic one? If a writer or thinker first forms public opinion on a topic and the people then vote accordingly, whose will has prevailed? The people's or the writer's? Voltaire was in no doubt. "Opinion governs the world and philosophers govern opinion"  though the kind of philosophers he had in mind should more properly be called publicists.

Indeed leadership of any kind is hard to reconcile with the notion of government by the people or popular sovereignty. Most nations and cultures have been hammered or moulded into shape by remarkable men who, whether good or bad, tend to appear unexpectedly on the stage of history like rabbits out of a conjuror's hat. 22

In spite of this, theoretical democracy is widely seen as the ideal. This is why we have so many well-intentioned liberals seeking to realise the principles of theoretical democracy within the framework of our common sense democracies until they crack at the seams. Such liberals feel guiltily that the will of the majority ought somehow to make wrong things right, even if it doesn't; that the people ought to rule, even if they can't; and that liberty and equality ought to be maximised even if the attempt is going to burst the seams of democracy. The breakdown of parliamentary democracies in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was partly attributable to this cause.

Where does the Church stand?

"By her mission and nature, the Church is not bound to any one culture, or to any political, economic or social system." 23 She blesses any legitimate social or political institutions in so far as they embody the principles of her social teaching (which we will come to shortly). With regard to democracy, one could say that she supports the common-sense kind against the theoretical kind. In today's world, common-sense democracies seem to provide the best framework for achieving that balance between individual and community rights which the Church's social teaching calls for.

The aspect of common-sense democracies which the Church does not endorse is their attitude to "popular sovereignty." Common-sense democracies have now taken over from theoretical democracy the notion that sovereignty (the right to command obedience) comes from "the people" or the majority vote, not from God. In so far as they accept this principle, first passed into law by the French constituent assembly in June 1789, modern states have moved from a Christian foundation to an atheist-humanist foundation. We can therefore see the French Revolution as incorporating three not two revolutions: a political revolution, a social revolution, and a metaphysical revolution, as the transference of power from God to Demos has been called. 24

The fact that many Catholics now think that democracy (however understood) is the only legitimate form of government, that majority opinion ought not to be opposed (except when it is an opinion with which they disagree), and that the Church should be restructured "democratically”, is another example of how much more their minds are formed by the teaching of the Enlightenment and the Revolution than by the teaching of the Church.

Socialism and the Social Teaching

Until Rousseau came along, no one except the odd philosopher had thought it necessary to presuppose an aboriginal social contract in order to explain why people lived together in families, tribes and nations. They took it for granted that human life had been social from the start. So the rise of socialism can be seen as first of all a reaction to the libertarian individualism of Rousseau and the economic individualism of Adam Smith (the good society results from each man pursuing personal self-interest.) It was also, of course, a reaction to the horrors of early industrialism. Individually, the poor were weak; but united they could be strong.

Anyone who has ever thought about the subject is familiar with the three basic socialist principles: co-operation rather than competition at work; as equal, or a nearer-to-equal distribution of the products of work; and communal ownership. The emphasis is on interdependence. Equality and brotherhood take precedence over liberty.

Before the French Revolution, the men and women who had put these basic principles into practice in the most thoroughgoing fashion had been Europe's monks and nuns. We also find movements like the Diggers of the English Civil War (1640s-1650s) attempting to realise them in non-religious context. Then, after the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies had driven most monks and nuns from their homes in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, some of the first attempts to apply the basic principles in a secular setting were made by the early socialist Robert Owen, who founded a number of co-operatively organised communities in Great Britain and the United States in the 1820s and '30s. The word "socialism" came into use around 1835. Owen's communities eventually failed. But the 19th and 20th centuries have seen the foundation of countless similar co-operative and communal enterprises with a strongly utopian or religious bent.

Socialism's partly religious origins have influenced all subsequent forms of socialism, the irreligious included. They also explain its attractions for certain Catholics. If monks and nuns can live by what looks like a blueprint for the kingdom of heaven as well as a quick fix for horrendous social conditions (if you forget about original sin), why shouldn't everyone else be made to?

So socialism begins as a theory of ownership and human relations, and only becomes a theory of government when the attempt is made to apply the basic principles to whole societies and nations.

Fourier and Saint-Simon (a descendant of the malicious duke and  diarist at the court of Louis XIV) were among the first thinkers to draw up plans for a "rationally" organised industrial society. Their primary interest was efficiency and productivity. Saint-Simon's system foreshadowed the corporate socialism of Mussolini and early fascism. It emphasised class co­operation under the leadership of captains of industry and scientists.

Mainstream socialists, in contrast, remained attached to the principles of theoretical democracy: the powerful were not to be trusted; power should be with the people; the people or workers must be the directing force. There was also an important terminological change: communal ownership came to be identified with state ownership. The state must own the means of production and exchange. All of them? The different schools of socialism can be distinguished by the degree of state ownership and control they advocated.

If history followed logic, the next step would have been something like the modern welfare state. But this was beyond the reach of 19th century socialist parties. So the welfare state only arrived about thirty years after the setting up of the first fully socialist state, by revolution in 1917, had given the governments of Europe a fright of such almighty proportions that they are only now recovering from it. The Russian revolutionaries called their system communism, but it makes more sense to call it despotic socialism.

Despotic socialism, which justifies its claim to be democratic by an appeal to Rousseauistic theory coupled with linguistic sleight of hand (the party incarnates the popular will) is, in essence, the imposition on a whole people of a way of life that can only be effectively lived by freely consenting small groups with a strong religious motivation. Lacking that motivation and consent, the rulers are confronted with the same difficulty as Calvin at Geneva, and the French revolutionaries in Paris. Can people be brought to live at a high level of virtue solely by government authority and police surveillance?

Marxism is simply the most wide-ranging and devastating attempt to answer the question in the affirmative. It is surely delightfully ironic that it should have collapsed in Europe in the 200th anniversary year (1989) of the outbreak of the French Revolution, and that it’s aged and exhausted rulers should have been referred to by the Western media as "conservatives."

Nevertheless, despotic socialism remains a standing temptation not only for rulers faced with serious economic difficulties, but also for generous-hearted young people suddenly confronted with extreme poverty on a massive scale for the first time.

How far can socialist aims and ideals of a non-Marxist stamp be partly  incorporated into common-sense democratic systems without denaturing them or ruining them economically? This is the question the majority of the world's nations, new and old, are now facing.

To understand what the Church has to say on the subject, we have to distinguish between socialism as a philosophy of human relations and ownership of property, and socialism as a theory of government. The Church has a social philosophy and social principles but no specific social and economic plan, just as she has principles of just government without being committed to any one political system.

The first of those principles is what she now calls the principle of solidarity. The principle of solidarity does not exclude reasonable competition or the notion of social order or hierarchy, but it puts the accent on co-operation. It says that, whatever the economic or social set-up, men should live together as brothers, not fight or try to over-reach each other. Neither cut-throat free enterprise nor class struggle can be the mechanism of social progress; only ethics can. Without ethics there can only be social regress.

The principle of solidarity is an extension of Leo XIII's principle "Capital needs labour, labour needs capital" to every sphere of life. To summarise what she has in mind, the Church has recently been using the word "socialisation." No society ought to be socialist. But the institutions of every society should reflect the fact of its being a "commonwealth" or "common weal." There seems to be a certain affinity here with the thinking of "Christian socialists" like the 19th century Anglican, Frederick Maurice.

Secondly, the Church recognises only two absolutely necessary and unchanging social units or unities: the family ruled by parents, and the social whole (tribe, community, nation or state) ruled by a legitimately established government. Between these two there can be any number of other public or independent bodies and associations running social and economic life, side by side or in ascending order according to the principle of subsidiarity (a higher body ought not to do what can be done just as well by a lower body).

The fact that the family is the smallest social unit does not, however, mean it is the least important. On the contrary, all other associations exist for the benefit of families and individuals. The family is the place where the future citizens receive their deepest formation, in personal virtue and social living. Societies, like those in the West, that undermine family life are simply piling up bombs in their basements.

The elements in socialism which first attracted the Church's condemnations were the revolutionary methods of gaining power advocated by the most influential 19th century socialists: their plans for total state  control, and their denial of the right to private property. "Property is theft," said the French socialist Proudhon. 25

The Church allows the overthrow of tyrannical rulers by force only in extreme circumstances. To paraphrase Pius XI, the "cure must not be worse than the disease." As for total state control, the Church will not allow that God has given any man or group of men the right or power to establish the universal reign of justice. That will come later and be His doing. What He has decreed in the meanwhile seems to be that mixture of sufficient authority and liberty enabling men to seek and serve Him freely in peace and tranquillity.

For the same reason, she has always defended the right to private property. Many have seen this as a championing of the well-off. But there are millions of small property owners throughout the world who, by Western standards, are poor. In championing men's right to private property, the Church is championing their liberty and independence. The expression "wage-slave," for the property-less worker, still has meaning.

However she does not regard private property as an unqualified right. A man may not for instance, just for the hell of it, burn his Rembrandts, or tear up a pile of bank notes. Property is to be seen first of all as a stewardship. It should also be distributed as equitably as possible. Great concentrations of wealth can be infringements of other men's right to property. The just wage and the just price should also limit the free pursuit of wealth. Economic life should not be left entirely to the operation of blind forces or conflicting egoisms.

To get these points across, the Church has recently been speaking about private property having a "social dimension" (it must be used in ways that benefit our neighbour or at least don't harm him) and emphasising the biblical doctrine of the universal destination of earthly goods.

The universal destination of earthly goods does not mean that everything belongs equally in equal amounts to everybody. It means the world was nude for the benefit and enjoyment of all, and that everyone has a right to an equitable share.

To sum up, if we look at the social and political changes, revolutions included, of the last two hundred years, carried on in the name of liberty, equality. fraternity and democracy, what we see running like a crystal stream through the thickets of horrors and follies is a confused quest for a system of laws and institutions which will protect the rights and interests of the weaker  or less gifted members of society without stifling the energies and enterprise of the strong or talented, which are also necessary to the common good. This is the Christian thread at the heart of modern political history. Governments and social and economic institutions are meant by God to be for the advantage of all, not just a few But how is the goal to be realised? Should it be by limiting or increasing the powers of the state? This is where madness begins.

The main madnesses are thinking that government is basically an evil which can one day be done away with; that its chief business should be promoting liberty and equality rather than the common good; that there is a single political formula for all situations; that politics can do the work of ethics and religion; and that at the end of the road lies a socio-political paradise.

These madnesses underlie the attempts to harness the Church to the promotion of different forms of political or social "emancipation," of which South American liberation theology was until recently the most notable. Liberation theology can be seen as the last and most radical version of the early 20th century Protestant social gospel. The main thrust of Christian practice should be raising the poor everywhere at least to a minimally reasonable level of prosperity. Poverty in the sense of destitution can and should be abolished.

Before the Industrial Revolution, such an idea would have seemed inconceivable to most people. Distributing what wealth there was more widely had had its advocates, but not abolishing poverty as such. The mass of mankind had always been poor, and with the scarcity of resources at the time, it was difficult to see how it could ever be otherwise. However, as the Industrial Revolution gathered strength, there was a change of mentality. What had once seemed inconceivable, now seemed possible. By the 1960s, the idea that through "development" the poor countries of the world could eventually be raised to the level of the rich West was almost a commonplace among people concerned with these matters. Development meant turning ancient agricultural countries and civilisations into efficient industrial ones through loans, gifts and technological advice from the West. "Development," said Pope Paul, "is the new name for peace," introducing, thereby, an additional idea  that war is principally due to want. 26

These are not notions that can be dismissed lightly, or even dismissed at all. The idea that everyone is meant to share in the good things of life, provided they have not in some way disqualified themselves through  their own free will, is, as we have seen, a thoroughly Christian one. The Church's problem has been this: she is not in the business of producing utopias, but she is in the business of making men righteous and binding up the wounds of the afflicted. How was she to get her children to see the difference? The rise of liberation theology was the most notable example of her lack of success in the 1980s.

As a specific teaching, liberation theology began in the 1960s when certain heterodox Latin American theologians with strong social views became disenchanted with Pope Paul VI's belief that poverty could be overcome by "development?' Development was too slow a process. They wanted wholesale relief for the poor now. So they inevitably turned to revolution. But their radicalised social gospel is not just "Catholicised" Marxism of the Soviet brand. From Marx, certainly, they took over the idea of class conflict as the mechanism of social progress. But the rest of their system, as will become clear in a later chapter, is the Lutheran biblical critic Rudolf Bultrnann's religious modernism in a political mode. 27

The Church, in liberation theology, exists to establish "the kingdom"  a kingdom of equality and peace.28 But the Church, according to the liberationists, is not herself the kingdom, not even, as Vatican H says, "the seed of the kingdom?' She exists to serve the kingdom, to help bring it about. This at least is true of the "institutional Church," the Church's leaders with their rules, regulations and "structures" like dioceses and parishes. However, over and against the institutional Church stands the "people's church," the "popular church." In the popular church, the people are organised in small communities 29 under lay leaders, who in turn take their cue from "pastoral workers" (clerical or lay), for whose instruction and guidance, we are told, liberation theology was developed (not in the first place for academics or the people themselves). From the pastoral workers, the members of the small communities learn to interpret the Bible in the light of their experiences and life situations through which they discover  the Bible's principal message: man's right and duty to agitate for his total liberation from every form of oppression, starting with the unjust social and political structures of his own time and place. Eventually this will lead to the liberation of the entire universe from suffering and limitation. The two things are part of a single cosmic process.

That the world is full of injustices of every kind, no one will deny, nor men's right to correct them by legitimate means in so far as they can, without committing further or worse injustices. But that anyone can read the Bible and think that this is its main or only message is incomprehensible. What mainly strikes one is how closely the liberation theologians' message resembles that of the Jewish zealots of New Testament times, whose influence was one of the reasons so many of Christ's hearers failed to understand Him? 30

As for the stages through which the revolution must pass, or the way society will be organised once all oppressive structures have been laid low, liberation theology is, unlike Marxism, deliberately silent. Truth, for liberation theology., is discovered in and through action. Set the revolution going and the necessary next steps will automatically reveal themselves. 31 Likewise with the organisation of "the kingdom" when it arrives. One has to admit that this is an ingenious way of avoiding a lot of very tiresome questions.

Liberation theology was at the height of its influence between the second meeting of the Latin American bishops' conference at Medellin in 1968 and the third meeting at Puebla in 1979, at which John Paul II started the process of defusing it. In the mid-1980s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome issued two documents, the first detailing its errors, the second setting out the Christian notions of freedom and liberation. 32 Since then liberation theology has suffered two blows: the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, which has temporarily discredited rapid revolutionary  solutions; and the departure of large numbers of the South American poor into the Protestant sects. They wanted to hear about a better life in the next world rather than an improbable paradise in this one. 33

This does not mean, however, that liberation theology's underlying principles are no longer operative. They are apparent in radical feminism, which is already proving even more troublesome, and they have also played a part in the middle-class North American and European religious revolt, which is hardly surprising seeing that, in spite of the Latin American liberation theologians' claims to the contrary, their theology is just a by ­product of European political modernism. 34

The main difference between the two groups is that the European and North American middle classes, having just about all the political, economic, and social advantages they could want, agitate against ecclesiastical rather than social and political "structures." With Fr Hans K
üng as their Bolivar, they look kindly on political liberationism abroad, and at home favour priestess parishes or small groups under lay leadership, either because this helps to blur the distinction between clergy and laity, or because they accustom the faithful to women in apparently "priestly" roles. Dutch Catholics immediately after the Council were the first to pioneer this view of the Church, which has appropriately been called "Dutch elm disease." The "We are Church" ("Wir sind Kirche") movement of the mid-1990s in Germany and Austria is another example of the same mindset, which, as we shall see later, has its roots in Bultmann's ideas about Christian origins.


22. A similar process of moulding is presently being conducted by the European Commission in Brussels. If European union succeeds, even after a referendum, the moulding will have been essential to the final outcome.

23.    Gaudium a Spec, 42.

24.  I am indebted for this tripartite distinction to Geneviève Esquier of the French Catholic weekly L'Homme Nouveau.

25. What is Property? 1840.

26. In so far as the idea of abolishing poverty includes the idea of  "abolishing" the poor, it is an idea, I suggest, which Christians need to look at carefully

27.   The principal liberation theologians were Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrtno, Juan Luis Segundo.

28.   Is "the kingdom" to be in this world or the next? Or does the first glide into the second without a break? These questions are left hanging in the air.

29.   Small or basic communities, cossumatausts de base. It is necessary to distinguish between the heterodac and politicised basic communities of liberation theology, and the many small communities now scattered all over the world, who meet for religious Instruction or prayer under lay leadership because of a shortage of priests. These the Church encourages.

30.   Christ "did not wish to be a political Messiah who would dominate by force... His kingdom does not make its way by blows." (Dignitatis Humane, 11).

31.   This idea comes from the "critical," anti-dogmatic Marxism of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research founded in 1923 in partial opposition to what its members regarded as crude and unsophisticated Soviet Marxism. Frankfurt Marxism was Marxism for sophisticated Western intellectuals who did not like being dictated to. They "unearthed" and gave pride of place to the writings of the supposedly more "libertarian" and less dogmatic young Marx. The best known member of the Frankfurt school was Herbert Marcuse, who became an American citizen in the 1930s, and the hero of American student radicals in the 1960s.

32.    Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation, August 1984. and Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation. March 1986.

33. Was this flight a sign of the times? If so, there has been considerable reluctance to read it.

34. The Tubingen Catholic theologian. Johann Baptist Metz, a pupil of Karl Rahner. and member of Concilium's editorial board, was among the leaders of the movement rejected Pope Paul's reliance on development as the proper method of social Progress and turned to revolution instead.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version: 16th February 2021


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