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McCarthy – Decentralism and Statism in the Experience of Christendom

Decentralism and Statism in the Experience of

by John P. McCarthy

Let us begin by defining our terms. Decentralism and statism are
self-explanatory. The former means confining political power to as local a base
as possible. The later means granting to the political authority ascendancy over
all aspects of human life. Decentralization works to inhibit statism, since even
where a local regime might have totalitarian aspirations, its limited territory
and size would inhibit its pretensions.

Christendom refers to a specific territory, Europe, especially Western
Europe, during a specific historical period, from the collapse of the Roman
Empire to the Protestant Reformation, when there was a common religious creed,
despite ethnic, linguistic and geographic differences. Then an individual’s
concept of membership was to Christendom more than to a nation or state.

Many good Liberals, especially in the nineteenth century, characterized
Christendom as a theocracy, the epitome of centralization and statism,
especially because of the suggestion that political authority emanated from the
Pope. However, while there was that theocratic proclivity in Western
Christendom, it was more the exception than the rule. In fact, the historical
record of Christendom, and the heritage of Christendom that continues, probably
more in the United States than Europe itself, should indicate that Christendom
was a major supporter of decentralization and opponent of statism.

The very theological premises of Christianity militate against statism
and favor decentralization. This is despite and, indeed, because Christianity is
a universalist religion. Most pre-Christian religions were religions of a
specific people or state. The Christian mandate was to convert the world. That
could be seen, and no doubt was by some, as a directive for conquest and global
uniformity. But, as the Founder succinctly put it, His Kingdom was not of this
world. The Christians were not to construct a terrestrial utopia, but to preach
a message with relevance to the next world. In addition, Christ said to “Leave
to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are
God’s.” That meant there were limits to Caesar’s authority. Caesar, that
is, the State, was neither the source of authority nor the determiner of right
and wrong. Those two themes, that Christianity did not provide a specific
political agenda as to how societies should be organized, and that the State was
not the repository of values, would be enduring characteristics of Christendom,
despite occasional lapses into that peculiar form of centralized statism–

The central message of Christianity, the Incarnation, that is, God
becoming man and bearing all the physical, psychological and mental features of
mankind, including a brutal death, meant that the Christian message was not
entirely otherworldly, but was a realistic formula for the world as it was. Its
disciples were not etherial and/or passive beings acquiesing in predestined and
circular determinism. God had entered the world and grace was available to
transform the world, not according to an ideology, but according to principle
and a way of life.

Christianity’s early experience was one of martyrdom, martyrdom
occasioned by the refusal of Christians to worship the civic Gods of the Roman
Empire. The Roman authorities regarded their refusal to share the civic
religion, more than their specific Christian beliefs, as subvervise. All that
changed when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire,
to the chagrin of “conservative” Romans who saw that as the begining of the
end. The eighteenth century historian, Gibbons, would reconstruct their lament
in his argument that the Christian virtues of resignation and meekness, the
message of the “Beatitudes,” were contradictory to what made the Empire.

But St. Augustine would confront those who saw Christianity as
politically unconstructive with his monumental “City of God,” which
reaffirmed the extraterrestrial vision of Christianity and freed it from linkage
to any specific worldly political entity. However, when the Empire did collapse
in Western Europe, the Church, which had drawn organizational and administrative
competence from the Empire, inevitably was called upon to fill the institutional

The Church’s response in dealing with post-Imperial Western Europe was
to assert values other than those
of the political authority, but not to impose a societal blueprint. British
historian and cultural anthropologist Christopher Dawson has demonstrated how it
sought to transform existing institutions, customs, and heritages with a
Christian perspective, or allow actual grace to work its way in the existing raw
material of human society.

Warrior kings of the Celtic and Germanic tribes were gradually–very
gradually–made to look upon themselves, at least in theory, as repositories of
justice rather than being simply warlords. Their acceptance of consecration at
their coronation imposed a sense of obligation, a sense of duty, as Burke put
it, not shared by shameless democracies. Local pre-Christian shrines for
naturalistic dieties were “baptized” and made into holy wells, and centers
for popular devotion to Christian saints. The influence of Christianity
guaranteed that the servile system of feudalism, with its element of contract,
even if permanent and inheritable, would work toward ultimate liberty rather
than regress into slavery. The
ability to excommunicate kings and emperors was an important restraint on
absolute political power.

The Courts of Canon Law, that is, those courts that enforced church law,
whether it be about internal church organizational questions, or doctrinal and
moral matters, including marital–and, inescapably, probate– issues, played an
important role in the Middle Ages. Admittedly the concept of a church court
having coercive power would appear outrageous in a pluralist society, especially
the concept of its jurisdiction being determined by the clerical status of
plaintiff or accused rather than just the matter at issue. This practice gave to
clerics an immunity from other tribunals somewhat comparable to that claimed by
contemporary academics and artists, who accept public largese but not
supervision by the state.

But the medieval Courts of Canon Law must also be viewed in a more
positive light. They had emerged from the tradition of the written and
proclaimed Roman Law, and were light years more advanced in procedural matters
than the folk or even royal courts that had determined guilt or innocence by
ordeal, battle, or by the social weight of referees for plaintif and accused.
Furthermore, the Canon Law Courts worked as a restraint on the growing claims by
kings to have a monopoly on justice, especially the fruits of justice, that is,
the fines that were paid. Thomas a Beckett, slain on the orders of Henry II, was
a martyr for the independence of the clerical courts from royal intrusion. Three
and a half centuries later, Thomas More would be a martyr for the principle of
the autonomy of the Church in proclaiming its moral teaching against the
aspirations of Henry VIII to overrule its decision on his marital status.

Unfortunately, by the thirteenth century, the Papacy made theoretical
assertions that it was the source of determining the political legitimacy of
kings and emperors. However, so vain an aspiration was an indication of hubris,
as in the next century the Popes found themselves the virtual hostages of the
French Kings. There then followed the scandal of the Great Western Schism, which
at one point saw three rival claimants to the Papacy. Ever since the Papacy’s
coercive political power has been continually restricted, first being limited to
the shrinking Papal States and, today being confined to the few score of acres
making up the Vatican. But the moral authority seems to have magnified in
inverse proportion to the decline in political power, both within the Church and

The Wars of Religion that followed the Reformation were a scandal to
believers. The most tragic consequence of the Reformation was the shattering of
the unity of Christendom and the subordination of churches, both Protestant and
Catholic, to absolute states, all monarchies. Henry VIII and Louis XIV were
virtually identical except for the later professioning a nominal link to the
Church while insisting on absolute control over hierarchical appointments. The
ultimate consequence of royal absolutism was the replacement of the kings as the
source of authority by the nation state with its earthly religion of

Significantly, the Papacy opposed Louis XIV’s expansionism and directed
prayers of thanksgiving on hearing of the defeat of Louis’ satellite, James
II, at the Battle of the Boyne. The Irish Protestant victors unfortunately were
unappreciative and imposed the Penal Laws on the Catholics of the island. A
fragile alliance of the Papacy and Whiggism (Whiggism of Burke’s kind) began
with the opposition to the French Revolution, which had abandoned all restraint
on the assertion of authority by the political process. The French
Revolution’s logical successor, Napoleon, whom some Whigs sought to appease,
was ultimately brought down by the forces of older Europe, including the Church.

Tension persisted throughout the nineteenth century between the Church
and Liberalism because of the Church’s identification with the forces of
reaction who sought to restore or preserve the pre-revolutionary order and who
were inhospitable to the irrepressible industrial revolution and capitalism. At
the time few perceived that the medieval heritage of restraint on political
authority, of decentralization and balance of power, was being best continued in
two essentially Protestant areas of the world, Britain and the United States.
Ironically the political-social institutions that today can boast of distinct
roots with medieval times, that is, with Christendom, are the Papacy, the
federal union of the United States, and the British Monarchy and Parliament.

By the end of the nineteenth century more thoughtful observers were
begining to perceive that revolutionary liberalism carried to its full would
bring on the absolute state. For example, the utilitarians had argued that the
free market best met the happiness of the greatest number of people, but their
intellectual descendants, the Fabian Socialists,
argued that the masses had to be guided by the state to realize what was
happiness. One of their apostles, Graham Wallas, called his formula of social
organization The Great Society. In other words, Liberalism no longer
sought liberty, but instead a perfect society, the very thing the Church, in its
wisdom and understanding of human nature, knew could not be achieved in this

The era in which the New Liberalism, that is, statist liberalism,
emerged, the later part of the nineteenth century, has been best chronicled by
that master historian, Carlton Hayes, in his classic work, A Generation of
. Liberty, never mind religion, was subordinated to the pursuit
of progress and development guided by the infallible certainty of science. The
forces that seemed destined for triumph were those characterized by modernity,
industrialism, and political centralization, as was evidenced in the wars of the
1860’s and 1870’s. Prussia and Sardinia had triumphed in the achievement of
German and Italian political unification and the victory of the North in the
Civil War had forever foreclosed the option of withdrawal from the American
Union. The door was open for state-capitalism with all the instruments of
protectionism, imperialism, and expansionism in the name of modernization.

This was the era and those were the abuses which provoked Hilaire Belloc,
with his English radical and French Jacobin roots, to begin to fear and forecast
the Servile State. He was joined in his apprehensions by the democratic
radical and Little Englander, G. K. Chesterton, who asked What’s Wrong with
the World
in succinctly describing the ascendancy of philosophical and
socio-psychological determinism at the expense of belief in liberty or values.

That perceptive sociologist, Robert Nisbet, acutely analyzed the
phenomena that accompanied modernization: the disruption of traditional and
local communities and the urbanization of western society. As a consequence
there has appeared mass man, molded not by tradition and prescription, but by
universal education and the mass circulation press, able to exercise the
franchise, and ready to follow such enthusiams as nationalism, racism, and

The twentieth century has been the tale of the latter horrors being
carried to the fullest extreme in the “modern” regimes of Stalin, Hitler,
and Mao. The defeat of Nazism and the collapse of the Soviet Union should not
blind us into the confidence that we are at the comfortable “End of
History.” There continues the totalitarian potential in the Third World. The
unification of the European Community is scarcely the civilizational unity that
Christendom implied, but rather an administrative and economic union in which
authority appears increasing distant from the populace, never mind not being
seen as subordinate to any higher, other-worldly source. Fortunately the
sentiment is strong in America, especially among those who consider themselves
Christians, that the state is not the repository of human value. Enough of us
still insist that the role of the state must remain limited to protection and
justice, and not to the making of a perfect society designed by politically
correct social engineers.

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