The safety of autocracy

“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?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The safety of autocracy

  1. I’m a bit surprised to find such a superficial appraisal of the post-conciliar era in a blog that for many years has offered a fair number of true jewels. Do you seriously think that it all goes down to “regaining control”?

  2. Dear Quentin, my one point is that the enormous complexity of the pre- and post-conciliar times goes far beyond the simplistic point of gaining / losing / re-gaining control.

    Secondly, insofar as we frame the discussion within a most worldly fight for power, we lose sight of what is essential to the Church. I explain myself: Would have been possible for anyone to make sense of Jesus’ message overhearing the apostles’ quarrels about who should be first?

  3. Quentin says:

    Nelson, that all makes things clearer. Two points: first, I was speculating about de Tocqueville’s prediction, not mine. However I do think that regaining control (not ipso facto a bad thing) was a big part. I just mention at random Veritatis Splendor, and the habit of appointing “safe” bishops. There are many others examples.

    Second, and of more substance, the Church being a human organisation as well as a divine one, is susceptible to the characteristics of a human organisation. If we ignore that we cut ourselves off from learning the lessons of history. There is a splendid current example in the USA John Jay Report on sexual abuse. I quote:

    ‘Individual characteristics do not predict that a priest will commit sexual abuse of a minor. Rather, vulnerabilities, in combination with situational stresses and opportunities, raise the risk of abuse.

    The “situational” nature of the abuse by clergy is comparable to that of police officers who brutalize people. The stress of the work, the perils of isolation and a lack of oversight are factors that contribute to “deviant behavior”’

  4. Dear Quentin, I just don’t have too much to add for I think you are not addressing my central concern – quoting myself: “Would have been possible for anyone to make sense of Jesus’ message overhearing the apostles’ quarrels about who should be first?”

    • Quentin says:

      Nelson, I feel that you are trying to get at something here and I am not sure what it is. If the listener heard no more about Jesus’ message than the apostles arguing, they wouldn’t anything valuable from it. If they knew and understood his message they would presumably ask themselves whether or not the apostles attitude was consistent with it. And make their decision accordingly.

  5. st.joseph says:

    Veritatis Splendour. The Encyclical Letter, Blessed Pope John Paul 2nd to all the Bishops of the Catholic Church regarding certain fundamental questions of the Churches Moral Teachings, I think is an essential read not only for the bishops, but by every Catholic.
    The first chapter ‘Teacher What Must I Do’ I found interesting reading about True Love.
    The end of the introduction says ‘ taking the form of a necessary discernment about issues being debated by ethicists and moral theologians. The specific purpose of the present Encyclical is this;to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based on Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met.

    I live in a rural area surrounded by 3 dozen families, mostly retired,and I am the only Catholic in the community.
    I must say that of all the non-catholics ,only one church going Anglican,I have never found any reason to believe that they are not living in a ‘state of grace’they are helpful,
    non judgemental, lovingly caring for their children and grandchildren,good morals.they never question my faith, only and always interested in it.And put themselves out for each other,when one family has problems with illness.They shop for each other etc. And most of all believe in God.
    So why are some catholics disatisfied with the Church?

  6. mike Horsnall says:

    I think both of you are being a bit vague -which is a shame because there is something quite interesting if elusive here. Firstly Quentin you have discussed the church in terms of historical power politics alone-quoting de Tocqueville’s political philosophy applying it to the church and then adding a codicil concerning political abuse in the church in order to make your point and ,methinks, stretch it a little to fit. As far as I can see Nelson is trying to differentiate between purely human power driven behaviour-producing arguings-and the thoughts words and deeds of the living God -which are not subject to coercion and cannot be dominated by political will alone…hence the example of the disciples…You seem to be both skirting round the same idea but from opposing ends. This is interesting because much discussion on this site also seems to revolve around the viewing of the church as a pragmatic organisation struggling to survive by the steady issue of edicts and demands for support. Yet that is not how we are, or should not be so. If we give in to such a view of the church then we should not be too surprised when ‘situational’ abuse arises..for such abuse is only partly a product of isolation -the fault lies deeper in clericalism which stems as much from the willingness and desire of the laity to be intimidated and to hand over its God -lashed and bound-to a brutalising clergy. I thinkBenedict is well aware of this and will be wanting answers of Ireland when he visits.

    • Quentin says:

      Mike, I think you are right in drawing attention to a polarisation which benefits from closer investigation. I wonder if I dare use another analogy. As human beings we act broadly in a human way. For example the “laws” of psychology and sociology are useful tools to understand us, or predict what we will do. As redeemed human beings we are engraced by being children of God and ordered towards salvation.
      By analogy, the Church militant is an organisation which can properly be examined according to the secular “laws” of organisations, notwithstanding its founder and its founder’s guarantees.
      All this stems from the fact that we are an incarnational Church in which the natural and the supernatural are joined in one entity. Thus, to take a simplistic example, the tendency of power towards corruption is a human aspect of the Church: the proper use of the power given to the Church by Christ is a supernatural aspect.

  7. I find illuminating Mike’s comment. Thanks.

  8. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, you ask, How does the Church remain faithful to its mission while preserving the proper freedoms of its memberships?
    The Second Vatican Council, I thought was for the laity to evangelise,to bring the Truths out to the world. I used to feel when I was a teenager that catholics kept their faith to their selves, not our rules, but the beauty of it. This is why there was so much misrespresentations about the Churches teachings,catholics didn’t speak about it.
    I was always known amongst my friends as the catholic girl,and I did not mind that!
    They didn’t mind that either.
    I was a normal teenager,in London, rock and roll, ice skating, Soho coffee bars, etc,
    and always proud to be a catholic. I felt emancipated with Vat 2,it seemed to open up the Church to me. So where did it all go wrong.
    I wouln’t say it was because we had too much freedom, that wasn’t what the Council was about. I had plenty of freedom before the Council. I believe it was a loss of the sense of sin, plus disobedience, with the laity wanting the freedom to choose their own set of morality and lifestyle,and also the freedom to speak out against authority ‘I will not serve’. In other words Satan having his hey day! This was also in the seminaries, also the femenists movement , contraception ,these things all contributed to the loss of the one True Faith.
    Lack of proper instruction in the schools etc.I believe now it is down to the laity to evangelise. Starting with parents.
    We will all have our different opinions on this, taken from our different experiences. This is just mine.

  9. John Nolan says:

    Alexis de Toqueville is basically saying that revolutions happen when things begin to improve. It goes some way to explaining why Louis XVI was overthrown whereas Louis XIV was not; likewise Nicholas II and Nicholas I. Both the French and the Russian revolutions were counter-productive, the latter spectacularly so.

    The same reasoning applied to the Church might go as follows: In the late 1940s Pius XII instigated a reform of the liturgy whose first fruits were the new order of Holy Week in 1955. Things were gradually improving until a well-meaning but weak and vacillating pope (Paul VI) ushered in a revolution, which his predecessor had unwittingly unleashed by summoning a General Council (akin to Louis XVI’s summoning of the Estates-General in 1789)

    And after the revolution comes the reaction …

    • st.joseph says:

      What reaction are you speaking about here John?

      • John Nolan says:

        Well, continuing the French Revolution analogy, Benedict XVI might be a Thermidorian and his successor a Bonaparte. But such exercises, although intellectually interesting, don’t necessarily lead anywhere.

  10. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, the example you give of the human aspect and the supernatural aspect of power (forgetting what happened in past events and human failings).
    Where would you think it is today in the Church, and how do we know where the Holy Spirit is working for the welfare of the people.

  11. Quentin says:

    The problem as I see it, is that we never know for sure. Remember the saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” We can only make our best human judgments. We don’t even know how we stand ourselves with regard to God. We may hope that we are in a state of grace, but we don’t know certainly.

    I could make a list, so could anybody who knows Catholic history, of occasions, in the past and in the present, where there has been abuse of authority at high level in the Church. But you could just as easily respond by saying that God brought good out of it in the end. And who could deny that possibility?

  12. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin for your reply.
    I remember visiting Stoner years ago, and reading A Summary of St. Edmund Campion’s ‘Ten Reasons For renouncing the Protestant and embracing the Catholic Religion’ Prepared in 1581.
    No 4 struck me at the time an appropriate answer to the misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council. To Quote: ‘Ignoring the guidance and decisions of Councils of the Church.
    Councils had been over 15 centuries the Church’s traditional problem-solving mechanism whose output, guided by the Holy Spirit has been essential to the growth and unity,until that time, of the Church.
    ‘If ever the Spirit of God has shone upon the Church, then surely is the time for the sending of divine aid when the most manifest religiousness, ripeness of judgement, science, wisdom, dignity of all the Churches on earth have flooded together in one city, and with the employment of all means divine and human for the investigation of truth,implore the promised Spirit that they make wholesome and prudent decrees’,.

    In fact all of the 10 sounds to me familiar to our time. I am no expert on Church History, this is why I ask the question. What went wrong with the real message of Vatican 2, that it could be so much taken out of context, especially when Pope John XXIII in his inaugeral address to the Council fathers explained quite clearly that the purpose of the Vatican Council was most certainly not to change doctrine, which as he emphasizes, is unchangeable, but rather to enunciate the eternal truth of the Faith to the modern world.
    My own thoughts on it is that the laity (some) took the opportunity to become protestant whilst remaining Catholic-as you mentioned in your opening post-.One foot in and one foot out.

  13. mike Horsnall says:

    Underlying all this is a basic issue. Does God belong to the church?The answer is surely not! But somehow we act as if God does and by doing so drag God down to human level. This is neither desirable or neccessary since God came quite willingly as a man some years ago-trouble was he was so unlike the church that we crucified him. God then belongs not to the Chrch nor the priest, nor is God tame…Yet isn’t it the case that God lives in the church-in the eucharist and by his Holy Spirit who speaks unceasingly through the word of God and the hearts of men and women…doesnt this mean that the church IS God? I don’t think the issue is one of protestant/catholic..foot in foot out..rather that the complexity of it all boggles our tiny minds.

    • Quentin says:

      Mike, when we hit mind-boggling mystery we may follow Christ’s methods and use metaphor. In this case I would choose “I am the vine, you are the branches.” That describes the relationship between Christ and the Church best for me, but you may have others which you find helpful.

      • mike Horsnall says:


        Yes its probably my favourite too-makes sense somehow in a satisfying kind of way-particularly in the context of eucharist.

  14. st.joseph says:

    Mike the fact is- that it is a matter of Catholicism or Protest-ism.
    The Martyrs died for our Faith-Lest We Forget.
    I dont believe that they died for a human level of belief, but followed in Jesus’s footsteps up Calvery.
    Would anyone do that in England to-day!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      No St Joseph but they were doing it in China a plenty till only recently-and many of them were’nt Catholics. God is not a catholic.


      • st.joseph says:

        Mike I am not ignorant to the fact of Christians dying
        for their faith, this is why I particularly mentioned England.
        I appreciate thefact that the Martyrs died for the Faith,when the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was being abused. and Our Blessed Mother.
        Where would we be today if they didn’t. I am sure you will be
        thankful like myself, we are able to celebrate the Eucharist’
        where the Lord comes to us (in the Catholc Church) Body Blood Soul and Divinity.
        So God may not be a Catholic, but He certainly is Truly Present in our Tabernacles. Flesh and Blood.!
        So tell me why has He chosen to do that for His Church??
        No thank,God we dont have to die for our faith to-day, but it is our duty to defend it.
        It is good to be evangelical and proclaim the name of Jesus,but there is other work to be done in our Church.

  15. st.joseph says:

    Also Mike, I did not ask that as a question’Would anyone do that in England to-day.
    It was a statement. I dont think one can answer that, until the time came to do so!

  16. John Nolan says:

    Europe generally, and France in particular was being pulled towards revolution on the one hand and order on the other in the period 1815-1870, against a background of rising nationalism and unprecedented technological progress. Alexis de Tocqueville was essentially a liberal (in the 19th century sense of the word) and would have agreed with Gladstone that revolution destroyed the political stability that fostered progress and improvement. In 1848-9 he came down on the side of order. Like Lord Acton he warned against the tyranny of the majority.

    Quentin mentions the abuse of authority at high level within the Church at certain times. The blatant nepotism of Renaissance popes was certainly an abuse. But what about the great reforming popes of the eleventh century like Leo IX and Gregory VII, both subsequently canonized? From an Orthodox or Protestant standpoint they were exceeding, not to say abusing their authority.

  17. Horace says:

    The Tablet has an interesting editorial which touches on this subject :-
    “Dangers of Clericalism” 21 May 2011

    • st.joseph says:

      Horace, I dont read the Tablet! Am I able to see that article on the Web Thank you.

      • st.joseph says:

        One time I was unable to view the Tablet or the Universe on line.Now it seems to be possible.
        I managed to read the ‘Dangers of Clericalism’.
        A few controversial issue’s there!
        But just their opinion., as always!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s