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Historia Ecclesiastica

Empires Lost and Regained

On Paul VI and world government.


That non-confessional liberal democracy was Saint Paul VI’s preferred form of government is a popular, if inexact, notion. Unlike his predecessor Pius XII, who had warned against democracies not “based on the immutable principles of the natural law and revealed truth,” Paul VI certainly welcomed political liberalism, deeming it best among the realistically available options in Europe at the time, and encouraged Catholics to participate in its rites and observances in the hope that the system could be not altered or replaced but rather improved.

But at the same time—and this is what people often miss—Paul realized the obsolescence of liberal democracies and noted the increasing transfer of power from nations to international organizations. For instance, in Altissimi cantus, an apostolic letter issued in December 1965 on the septuacentennial of Dante’s birth, Paul VI recalled that, for Dante, “there are two powers (Church and Empire) destined by God to lead men to happiness, the former to heavenly happiness, the latter to happiness here on earth; and since their ends are different, even if subordinated, they are one independent from the other in their respective ambits, but, once confusion is avoided of the sacred and the profane, and their mutual collaboration is asserted, it is clear that in rebus fidei et morum [in questions of faith and morals] the emperor is subordinated to the Supreme Pontiff and both are at the service of the res publica christiana. . . . A universal monarchy is necessary. This monarchy—as conceived in the Middle Ages—requires the existence of a supranational power that promulgates a single law for the custody of peace and concord among people.”

So far as summarizing De Monarchia goes, so good; but then the pope added that Dante’s understanding of universal temporal sovereignty “is in no way a utopia, as it may appear to some, but is actually finding some fulfillment in our times through the United Nations.”

It was not the first time that he had made this point. In an address two months earlier before the U.N. General Assembly, the pope had offered his “praise and support” to the U.N. for establishing “fraternal collaboration between nations” and “a system of solidarity that will ensure that lofty civilizing goals receive unanimous and orderly support from the whole family of nations.” He admonished the U.N. to adopt Christianity explicitly:

The edifice you are building does not rest on purely material and terrestrial foundations, for in that case it would be a house built on sand. . . . To put it in a word, the edifice of modern civilization has to be built on spiritual principles, for they are the only ones capable not only of supporting it, but of shedding light on it and inspiring it. And we are convinced, as you know, that these indispensable principles of higher wisdom cannot rest on anything but faith in God.

A few lines later he clarified for his pluri-religious audience that he was referring not to any “god,” but to the God Saint Paul preached in the Areopagus.

There is, however, an inescapable tension between this universal political order, explicitly envisioned as Catholic or at least Christian, and the encouragement to Catholics to play by the rules of secular constitutions in their countries. How can Christianity, being one among the competing voices in the polis, become the cornerstone upon which the global system will be built? A safe conclusion here is that Paul VI was using categories borrowed from his friend, mentor, and occasional ghostwriter Jacques Maritain.

Maritain had definite ideas about the origin and role of European liberal democracy. In an address in New York City in 1949, he posited that democracy was fundamentally Christian (in his words, “developed under the consciousness of Christian leaven”). While Locke and non-Christian authors may have shaped its course somewhat, Maritain believed that democracy is ultimately based on the Gospel “values” of “brotherly love,” “God’s charity diffused into the hearts of men,” and personal charity “for the entire human race.” Maritain granted that democracy could easily veer into barbarism, but he was optimistic that a Christian presence would keep it rightly ordained. In fact, he was quite confident that Christianity could co-operate with the state to ensure that the “secular conscience” remained anchored in Gospel values. For Maritain—and there’s strong reason to suspect that for Paul VI too—there is a common civic consciousness that matures over time and, if properly directed, eventually assents to fundamental Gospel values. In consequence, secular democracy is a natural stage in the spread of Christianity. From there to the assertion that a universal Christian political order can grow from secular democracies with an active Christian laity only a small leap is needed.

Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Maritain’s own onetime mentor, was among the many to denounce—without mincing his words—the errors in this approach:

The principle upon which the liberalism of which we speak rests is that it is only by persuasion that true religion should be propagated and flourish and that, in these conditions, many will embrace it, indeed, with all the more freedom and confidence, given that one would not be obligated to embrace them, for the truth ever prevails over error.

From the times of His Holiness Pius IX, all the Popes without exception have responded: Certainly, on the day of the last judgment truth will prevail over error, but in the present life, in many men, dominated by their lusts and pride, error ends up prevailing over the truth if one accords, even in Catholic countries, the same rights to false religions as to the true religion. Many thus come to doubt the elementary truths of religion, which are the most profound and most vital, like the Our Father. In the first generation, the number of unbelievers, atheists, and divorced is not very great. However, in the fifth generation and sixth generation, their number becomes considerable, and the consequences of mixed marriages disastrous for faith. No one can deny this fact. An irenicism that refuses to recognize this itself leads to skepticism.

The debate is now largely moot because political Maritanianism has been abandoned. The Christian democratic movement that it prompted has converted to the world rather than converting it, and Europe is significantly further from being a Christian unity now than in Maritain’s time. Countries that defined themselves by the traditional Catholica doctrina such as Spain or Portugal no longer do so, having become in the 1970s non-confessional regimes with the open support of the Vatican. Theological excesses abounded in the process, such as when Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, the archbishop of Madrid and an unwitting Jeffersonian, instructed his flock to separate their two vocations of “working as Spaniards” for their country and “praying as Christians” to God. So much has the pendulum swung that recent popes have repeatedly spoken against “exaggerated laicity, the heritage of the French Revolution” (Pope Francis) and an “excessive secularism” (Pope Benedict).

This does not mean, however, that Paul VI’s political thinking is entirely irrelevant now. Divested of Maritanianism, a subtle yet relevant strain persists—one for which he does not usually get credit, namely his revival of Dante’s political vision laid out in De Monarchia. Unfairly belittled when compared with the Commedia, De Monarchia is a masterpiece in its own right. In it, Dante argues that just as God’s creation as a whole expresses an ordo universalis, the ordering of the world towards the common good simultaneously requires a universal monarchy (or emperor) and a spiritual leader (the pope). For Dante, these two powers derive directly and independently from God, and while the emperor is subject to the pope in spiritual things, the ordering of temporal things falls entirely within his purview. Saint Paul VI’s intuition—delineated in Altissimi cantus—was that Dante’s structure could actually be replicated, with the United Nations playing the role of an impersonal universal emperor.

That Pope Francis has elaborated on this notion is perhaps unsurprising. He admires both Paul VI and Jorge Luis Borges, whose Nueve ensayos dantescos remains by modern standards the canonical introduction to Dante for readers in the Spanish-speaking world. (Not only is Francis an avid reader of Borges but the two men were once close—in a widely reported story, during one of their encounters an already blind Borges asked a compliant Jorge Bergoglio to do the favor of shaving him.)

Some of the language in Borges’ Ensayos echoes in Candor lucis aeternae, the apostolic letter that Pope Francis issued in 2021 to commemorate the septuacentennial of Dante’s death. In Candor, Pope Francis quotes from a passage in Paul VI’s Altissimi cantus that emphasizes the mutual independence of the empire and the Church, but also the need for both of them to co-operate:

Writing at a time of grave international tension, the Pope sought constantly to uphold the ideal of peace, and found in Dante’s work a precious means for encouraging and sustaining that ideal. “The peace of individuals, families, nations and the human community, this peace internal and external, private and public, this tranquility of order is disturbed and shaken because piety and justice are being trampled upon. To restore order and salvation, faith and reason, Beatrice and Virgil, the Cross and the Eagle, Church and Empire are called to operate in harmony.”

Subtly but unmistakably, Francis has applied Dante’s view to international affairs. First, in Fratelli tutti, the pope encourages the United Nations, or some organization like it, to assert itself as the “world authority equipped with the power to provide for the global common good.” This global authority—the pope has refrained from using the term “empire”—need not be a person and must be both “regulated by law” and given further powers to ensure that it can address hunger, poverty, health conditions, and war, while at the same time not being co-opted by powerful national or economic interests.

Second, while the pope stops short of saying that this global power should follow Christian principles or natural law, he hopes it, along with all international actors, will respect certain basic “convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love.”

Third, and perhaps most telling, this world organization will not encroach on the powers of the pope, who remains the spiritual head of all humanity and asserts himself as such. Since the Protestant revolution and its criticism of the Alexandrine Bulls of Donation of the Americas to Spain and Portugal, it has been unusual for popes to assert their spiritual leadership over the nations explicitly, even though papal documents addressed to all peoples are issued every now and then (think of Pius XII’s Christmas message in 1944 or John XXIII’s Pacem in terris). Pope Francis, however, actually speaks regularly not just to, but on behalf of, the entire human race. This happened most visibly in his Act of Consecration of Russia and Ukraine to Our Lady in March 2022:

We have strayed from the path of peace. We have forgotten the lesson learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two world wars. We have disregarded the commitments we made as a community of nations. . . . We chose to ignore God, to be satisfied with our illusions, to grow arrogant and aggressive, to suppress innocent lives and to stockpile weapons. . . . Queen of the Human Family, show people the path of fraternity. . . . The people of Ukraine and Russia, who venerate you with great love, now turn to you. . . . Therefore, Mother of God and our Mother, to your Immaculate Heart we solemnly entrust and consecrate ourselves, the Church and all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine.

Pope Francis’s participation in the international concert is not just heavily indebted to Dante. Consciously or otherwise, he is also operating with some of the same concepts that Pius XI used in Ubi arcano Dei consilio in 1922. In Ubi arcano Pius XI rebuffed the League of Nations for its veering away from Christianity and urged the world to conversion: “No merely human institution of today can be as successful in devising a set of international laws which will be in harmony with world conditions as the Middle Ages were in the possession of that true League of Nations, Christianity.” Ubi arcano also openly trod into legal terrain: “There exists an institution able to safeguard the sanctity of the law of nations. This institution is part of every nation; at the same time it is above all nations. She enjoys, too, the highest authority, the fullness of the teaching power of the Apostles. Such an institution is the Church of Christ.” Fratelli tutti inched away from a similar pronouncement, but papal declarations during the last century on the lawfulness of certain wars, global immigration, and environmental protection confirm that it remains of consequence. It has not, however, been deployed to its fullest extent, and, judging by the signs of the times, it is unlikely to be in the foreseeable future.

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