Benedict in America


Perhaps not since Alexis de Tocqueville (1805—1859) visited our shores have we received as a guest from Europe so illustrious a proponent of Classical Liberalism as when Pope Benedict XVI arrives on April 15th. Indeed, if that philosophy can be said to be the founding principle of our country, we can turn around the old cliché of describing someone as “more Catholic than the pope” and say the Holy Father is “more American than the president.”

Benedict’s five-day visit to America, his first as Pope, will be much shorter than Tocqueville’s nine-month journey in 1831 and ’32 that produced Democracy in America, the single greatest book written about our country and one of the classics of political philosophy. The book, in which from the American experience is discerned both the promises and perils of liberal democracy, was of great influence on the Pontiff.

In a 1992 speech then-Cardinal Ratzinger made upon being inducted into the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France quoted by Alejandro A. Chaufren in Benedict XVI and Freedom, he said “Democracy in America has always made a strong impression on me.” He added that to establish “an order of liberties in freedom lived in community, the great political thinker [Tocqueville] saw as an essential condition the fact that a basic moral conviction was alive in America, one which, nourished by Protestant Christianity, supplied the foundations for institutions and democratic mechanisms.”

(It might not be too much to suggest that both Benedict and Tocqueville share the same appreciation that Catholic Joseph Sobran wrote of in 2002 in Protestant America, in which he argues that “so gracious a majority deserves more grateful minorities than it has received.” Referring to Benedict’s predecessor, Mr. Sobran even jokes, “Protestants are so unassuming that even the Pope hasn’t apologized to them.”)

The Tocquevillean influence on the Pope is evident in his first encyclical and is particularly strong in these sentences from paragraph 28 of Encyclical Letter “Deus Caritas Est” excerpted below:

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.

The Principle of Subsidiarity, to which Benedict refers, “holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization” and is rightly hailed as “a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.”

“The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions,” says the Pontiff in the same paragraph of his encyclical. In a recent Time article, The American Pope, we are reminded that the Pope “entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of: an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society in which faiths and a faith-based conversation on social issues are kept vital by the Founding Fathers’ decision to separate church and state.”

Of course, this vision goes back further than Tocqueville and the Founders. Earlier this year, referring to The City of God by Saint Augustine, the Holy Father said, “Even today, this book is the source used to clearly define true secularism and the jurisdiction of the Church, the true and great hope that gives us faith” (quoted in Pope: St. Augustine Defined “True Secularism”).

More evidence of Benedict’s Tocquevilleanism can be found in the beatification last year of Blessed Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, reported on by Sandro Magister and Dario Antiseri in Blessed Liberty: The Posthumous Miracle of Antonio Rosmini. From the article:

He was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal during a period — the mid-19th century — when liberalism, for the Church, was synonymous with the devil. In his book “Filosofia della politica [Philosophy of Politics],” Rosmini expresses his admiration for “Democracy in America,” the masterpiece of his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, a founding father of faith-friendly liberalism.

Rosmini anticipated by more than a century the statements on religious freedom affirmed by Vatican Council II. He was a critic of Catholicism as a “religion of the state.” He was a tireless defender of the freedom of citizens and of “intermediate bodies” against the abuses of an omnipotent state.

It is not surprising, therefore, that those spreading Rosmini’s thought in the Catholic camp today are above all the proponents of a form of liberalism open to religion, which in Europe has its leading figures in the “Vienna school” of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek.

Tocqueville likely would not recognize the America that Benedict will visit next week, or perhaps he would: Tocqueville and the Tyranny of the Majority. Whatever the case, let the above serve as an illustration of how far America has strayed from its founding values.

The Rockwellian understanding, as quoted by Karen De Coster, of “religion as the bedrock of liberty, property, and the natural order” is being lost as churches sell themselves out to become “faith-based organizations” at the service and on the payroll of the State. The subsidiaritarian vision is surrendering to increasing centralization. Most troubling, our representative republican democracy is transforming into a Jacobinical State hell-bent on imposing “democracy” abroad.

This papal visit is more than needed at a time when there has been no shortage of prominent American Catholic neocon war apologists who have seen themselves as “more Catholic than the pope” in trying to twist the Just War Doctrine to justify a very un-American war on Iraq. Expounding upon Pope John Paul II‘s forceful antiwar statements before the war began, then-Cardinal Ratzinger clearly reminded Americans, “The concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” His clear teaching fell on deaf ears, not only in the White House but among Catholics who should have known better. After the war began, he was reported to have shaken his fists in the air, angrily shouting, “Basta!” — Enough!

Hope, let it be remembered, is the second of the Theological Virtues, and let us then hope that in the person of Pope Benedict XVI Americans will see a reflection of what we once were and could be again.