“It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.”
Letter to Pierre Freslon, 23 September 1853
This dictum of de Tocqueville has been cited a number of times in the current Radio 4 series, Russia: The Wild East. It provides the reason why Russian history over the last thousand years has experimented frequently with giving freedom to its peoples, yet has always returned to the safety of autocracy. (The series is a brilliant background to Russian history. See BBC iPlayer.)
It occurs to me that the recent history of the Church from John XXIII opening his metaphorical window to our post Vatican II disciplines is yet another illustration of the same principle.
We all remember the late ‘60’s and the following decade when the apparent freedoms of the Council led to undisciplined theological ideas, priests appeared to be rejecting their vocations for the alleged fulfilment of marriage, and the laity found the determination to ignore traditional moral teachings – which, in turn, led to a rejection of many ideas and attitudes which the Church had valued in the past.
De Tocqueville would have predicted all of this, just as he would have predicted the enormous efforts of the Magisterium (and Pope JP II in particular) to regain control. He would have expected that the intention of authority would be to “disappear” the reforms, while still claiming fidelity to the Council.
The Czars had the immediate advantage of military force to recover their power – often in a most ruthless way. But in the end the Communist Revolution broke through – although, ironically, it by no means brought democratic freedoms to the people. And we are seeing something similar in the Arab countries around the Mediterranean.
How the Church will balance out personal spiritual freedom within the framework of a divinely ordered institution is not yet clear – at least to me. Church membership in the West has fallen dramatically, and many of those who remain within, and not only layfolk, appear to follow a privatised form of Catholicism at odds with the formal position. They are both inside and outside the Church at the same time. But this is no solution. How does the Church remain faithful to its mission while preserving the proper freedoms of its membership?