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“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion” - The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism
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Article Index
“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion”
The Church and the New Barbarism
The Theory and Practice of Political Religion
Burleigh’s Project
The Totalitarian Political Religions
The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism
Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe
Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood
Aron’s Faith Without Illusions
All Pages

The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism

In an important chapter in Sacred Causes entitled “The Church in the Age of the Dictators” Burleigh provides an exhaustive account of “the murderous conflict between church and state” in Mexico, Spain, and Soviet Russia during the interwar period. It is easy today to chastise the church for its hesitancy in accommodating itself to the full range of “liberal” and “republican” movements and regimes. But Burleigh reveals just how “illiberal” various forms of republicanism could be (the murder of 7,000 clergy in republican Spain between July and December 1936 is the most chilling manifestation of this phenomenon.)

While responding forthrightly to ferocious anticlericalism in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s as well as to the persecution “raging within the unhappy borders of Russia,” Pope Pius XI continued Leo XIII’s policy of semi-neutrality with respect to forms of government. Burleigh recounts, for example, how the Vatican initially accepted the establishment of the Spanish Republic in 1931 with equanimity. The Vatican also showed much more moderation and good sense than the Spanish episcopacy in its dealings with Franco during the Spanish Civil War (the Vatican was rightly suspicious of Franco’s alliance with the Falangists, a secular movement of the totalitarian Right). Nonetheless, even the profoundly antitotalitarian Pius XI, a persistent and eloquent critic of the totalizing aspirations of the pagan state, remained deeply suspicious of liberal or bourgeois republicanism in its dominant forms. Not enough distinctions were made, and constitutional democracy was identified with the most extreme versions of philosophical liberalism. The Catholic Church in the United Kingdom and the United States provided the most notable exception to this antidemocratic tendency in Catholic thought.

As Burleigh shows, the church had an honorable record in fighting totalitarian political religions because it knew exactly what was at stake in the ideological “sacralization” of politics. However, it underestimated the moral resources of constitutional democracy and overestimated the prospects for Catholic “corporatism” in countries such as Austria and Portugal. At the end of the Second World War, the pontificate of Pope Pius XII “decided to abandon its prudent agnosticism towards forms of government in favor of democracy.”

This change was motivated in part by a deepening appreciation of the crucial role of “human rights” in the proper defense of human dignity (a “Christian democratic” position theorized by the influential Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain). In addition, a more liberal and activist ethos had arisen out of Christian currents in the resistance movements during the Second World War. There was also the need to mobilize Catholics for active citizenship and the defense of basic liberties against the Communist threat in France, Germany, and Italy after 1945. Burleigh tells this important story with the requisite nuance and scholarly care.

In chapter 6 of Sacred Causes (“The Road to Unfreedom: the Imposition of Communism after 1945”) Burleigh tells the other half of the story: the brutal imposition of Leninist-Stalinist totalitarianism on unwilling peoples in east–central Europe after 1945. The chapter provides an exhaustive account of the various assaults on the churches in the newly “liberated” Europe. Burleigh makes the heroism and moral grandeur of persecuted leaders of the Catholic Church such as cardinals Mindszenty, Beran, and Wyszynski known to new generations who will surely have never heard their names. Burleigh’s conclusion to this chapter is worthy of extended citation, not least because it reminds us of the crucial role of the churches in providing a space, however limited, for “civil society,” and in preserving an image of the moral order in societies that had been brutalized by ideological lies.

Burleigh writes: “Within a remarkable short time totalitarian rule had been reimposed on half a continent using a combination of force and fraud. . . . Although they were subjected to relentless assault from state-sponsored atheism, the Christian Churches remained the only licensed sanctuaries from the prevailing world of brutality and lies. Appropriately enough . . . they played an important role in the overthrow of Communism forty years later.” (SC, 344 )

The Catholic Church’s positive accommodation to liberal democracy was a matter of both principle and prudence and reveals that august institution’s deep-rooted capacity for self–renewal. But the church’s “Christian Democratic” turn also occurred on the eve of an immense cultural revolution that revealed the self–radicalizing propensities of democracy in the modern world. It was not an auspicious conjunction. I am, of course, referring to the cultural and political transformation of the 1960s. This revolution unleashed powerful antinomian and demotic forces lurking beneath the surface of seemingly complacent bourgeois societies.

The churches were lamentably slow in appreciating what was at stake in a full accommodation to the forces of late modernity. A hedonistic youth culture became the order of the day and authoritative institutions were challenged everywhere. The Catholic Church’s salutary efforts at aggiornamento, of liturgical, spiritual, and theological renewal, all too often degenerated into what Maritain, no reactionary himself, suggestively called “kneeling before the world.”

As believers had a harder time replicating their beliefs among their children, prominent Western churchmen flirted with progressivist ideologies and turned a blind eye to the fate of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Most ominously, Christians had an increasingly difficult time articulating the ontological and moral structure that alone provides a sturdy foundation for the liberties and obligations of men. Burleigh tells the story with his characteristic élan and does justice to all the appropriate nuances.

But this issue cries out for a more searching reflection on the promise and risks inherent in the church’s accommodation to democratic modernity. Were the antinomian excesses of the 1960s inherent in the propensities of democracy itself? Were they bound to come to the forefront once the traditional elements of our societies lost their vigor and self-confidence? More fundamentally, how much has the cultural revolution of the 1960s undermined the continuity of Western civilization? Did a new civilization—antitraditional, hostile to political and social authority, and essentially non-Christian—come into being during those heady and tumultuous days? These questions arise naturally, so to speak, from Burleigh’s own exposition. They highlight the difficulties inherent in any unqualified assent of the Christian churches to democracy, not as a form of government, but as a comprehensive or total way of life.

Last Updated on Friday, 09 October 2009 13:00