April 5, 2005


“Theocrats” for Freedom: What’s faith got to do with it? Plenty. (Rich Lowry, 4/05/05, National Review)

Pope John Paul believed in the connection between truth and freedom. One school of thought — generally, liberal secularist — has held that truth is a threat to freedom: If there is only one true way, it will inevitably squash freedom. Another school of thought — associated with religious reactionaries — believes that freedom represents a threat to truth because it will lead to moral relativism. The pope rejected both arguments.

The secularist view misses that freedom is grounded in truths, in the God-given dignity of man as a rational creature and in our fundamental equality. This is why the pope could say, "God created us to be free." If the idea of freedom is detached from these truths, it has no secure ground, because the strong will inevitably attempt to dominate the weak unless checked by moral truths (see slavery or segregation or communism).

The reactionary view is mistaken too, because freedom, properly ordered, is not a threat to truth. Freedom shouldn't be understood as moral anarchy, which makes freedom impossible. Truth narrows our choices. In Pope John Paul's thought, truth makes dictatorship impermissible, but also abortion and exploitation of the poor — they all offend against human dignity.

What's the difference between the reactionary view and the belief in proper order?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 5, 2005 12:46 PM

45 degrees.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 5, 2005 1:53 PM

If John Paul II believed that truth as understood by the Catholic religion, made dictatorship impermissable; then he was a radical, not a reactionary. Dictatorship and Christianity went hand in hand for a thousand years.

Posted by: Brandon at April 5, 2005 1:57 PM


Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 2:01 PM

Spain from 1492-1973, France before 1789, the Papal States, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Hapsburg Empire until 1848, and lots of others.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 2:04 PM

Kingdoms aren't dictatorships.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 2:09 PM

Lord knows the Catholic Church is not inherently incompatible with political tyranny. Indeed, the Church has itself practiced political tyranny at times. (Although arguably in times when all politics was tyranny.) And the internal power structure of the Church is, at best, a benevolent dictatorship.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 5, 2005 2:20 PM

If they don't have elected parliaments which wield the real power, they are.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 2:20 PM

Religion isn't democratic.

The Church, on the other hand, is always a counterweight to political tyranny, which is why totalitarian have always hated it. However, it can coexist with an authoritarian regime, which is quite another matter.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 2:24 PM


No they aren't. There are plenty of rival institutions even without elective bodies.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 2:25 PM

On the Church as counterweight -

Mother Church is innately inclined to play this role, since she competes with secular tyrants for control of our actions and minds. Given the propensity for so many of us to follow a shepherd ... any shepherd seems better than none ... this is a good thing. As Eli Wallach famously said, "If God hadn't meant for them to be sheared, he wouldn't have made them sheep." Better a benevolent shepherd than an evil one.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 5, 2005 2:40 PM


Why exactly aren't kingdoms dictatorships?

Posted by: Brandon at April 5, 2005 3:12 PM


Name one.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 3:19 PM

Kingdoms developed organically and didn't try to control all aspects of society.

Dictatorships are a modern artificial creation.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 3:21 PM

The Church. Courts. The aristocracy. Merchants. Guilds. Parliaments. etc.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 3:22 PM

The Church cut its deal with the King generally. The aristocracy was subordinate to him. If guildsmen got out of line, they got killed. Parliaments, selected from at least some form of popular suffrage, make my argument.

The Roi Soleil and Felipe II had absolute power.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 4:06 PM

Not a history major were you. Parliaments existed before popular suffrage. That Kings had to cut deals is the point. Subordinates are still rival power centers, or else every government has absolute power and the discussion is meaningless.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 4:14 PM

For there to have been a House of Commons, some commoners had to have some voting rights, n'est-ce pas?

Kings cut deals with the Church. The King got what he wanted, the Church got what it wanted. The people(98+% of the population) got screwed.

There are subordinates and subordinates. The deputy mortgage processor at the Newark office of the FHA has civil service protection and is tough to get rid of no matter how much of a bozo he may be. If a noble got out of line in Feudal Europe, you just killed him and gave his fief to someone else. They didn't have civil service hearings in the 12th century.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 4:25 PM

Bart: Do any of these phrases ring a bell: the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the War of the Roses, Henry VIII, rotten boroughs, the Gunpowder Plot, the sacred rights of property, the King in Parliament, and Parliamentary sovereignty?

Posted by: David Cohen at April 5, 2005 4:50 PM

Parliaments don't require lower houses. Lower houses don't require suffrage. Suffrage doesn't require wide suffrage. The Church is the people.

The deputy mortgage officer experiences more interference from government every day than any medieval peasant did in his lifetime.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 4:52 PM


I never made a claim about perfect League of Women Voters elections, merely some form of popular sovereignty, a check on monarchical power however devised. Once that exists, it ceases to be a dictatorship, but it also ceases to be a monarchy.

Most monarchs like Louis XIV, Charles Quint or Felipe II had no such limits. The fact that you have to use strictly English exceptions speaks volumes.

The medieval peasant had to give a percentage of his crops to the feudal lord, do work in his property for free, fix his roads for free, and even allow him to screw his wife on his wedding day before he could( the droit de seigneur). Now some civil service environments, like the Post Office, are difficult and uncomfortable workplaces, but there aren't too many postmasters who get to screw the postman's wife on her marital bed, before the husband does.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 5:03 PM

The people, yes. But also a competing power structure. And people's energy/commitment is a finite resource. Even for hypomanics.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 5, 2005 5:05 PM


Weren't you arguing the King was absolute, not mere lords? And you must get your history from the movies if you think any Lord wanted some peasant girl, never mind took notice of their existence.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 5:11 PM

Sorry, that's from Robert Darnton of Princeton who has discussed the period in pretty good detail over the years. Most local lords or hobereaux(en francais) weren't much. They were like slumlords or ward heelers. A 16 year old peasant girl was just what the doctor ordered even if she had less than half her own teeth and smelled like an ox. It was the Dark Ages. Nobody had more than half their own teeth and they all smelled like oxen.

Why would a feudal lord be any less likely to screw his serfs than a Southern slaveowner would screw his slaves, and the evidence of that surrounds us?

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 5:22 PM

Geez, so now you're down to complaining ab=ut unfairness from guys at the level of tenement owners? Not much left of your argument that the King controlled every facet of life is there?

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 5:25 PM

Two separate arguments.

The King had absolute power controlling whatever he wanted to control, but the local nobles could do Oppression Plus, adding onto the sufferings of the peasantry already imposed by the King. If the King wanted taxes, they collected them or they got killed and the King got someone else to collect them. If they wanted to extort more from the peasants than the King wanted, nobody stopped them.

In Sicily, this created the Mafia as a local resistance to the rapacity of feudal nobles.

Posted by: bart at April 5, 2005 5:47 PM


Not all modern dictatorships try to control all facets of life. Franco didn't. Pinochet didn't. Somoza didn't. Peron didn't. And not all Kingdoms had the same level of need to "cut deals". They tried to control everything they could and usually only stopped when they met resistance.

My point was that the Church has not historically objected to dictatorship. Only to those that would not "cut deals" with it. Only by the unwarranted assertion that the "Church is the people", can you pose the church as a defender of liberty under such regimes.

Posted by: Brandon at April 5, 2005 6:43 PM


Louis 14 is not representative of all monarchies.

In fact what Louis created was "absolute monarchy" -- which refers to what happened in France, and for a time it was feared was happening in England, in the 17thc. That is, it was an early modern phenomenon.

A far cry from the previous history of monarchy.

Which OJ is spot on about.

Another point -- absolute monarchy developed only after kings like Louis had consolidated their authority over all previously competing societal organizations -- including the Church which had, like guilds, lesser lords, etc, stood against the State for centuries, carving out their own rights.

I'd in fact argue that a precondition for the rise of early modern absolute monarchy -- itself very much a precursor of modern dictatorship (replace annointed by God with annointed by the workers or the volk etc) -- was the decline in the power and authority of the Church.

Back to the history books with you Bart.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 5, 2005 6:45 PM


They were authoritarians responding to emergency situations, not totalitarian dictators. For instance, they preserved the Church because they knew such social institutions would be vital when they devolved power back to the people.

The Church is the enemy of totalitarianism, for obvious reasons.

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2005 7:58 PM

Bart: It only takes one counter-example to disprove a rule.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 5, 2005 8:35 PM


Your response indicates that you only consider totalitarians (communist and fascist) to be dictators. That is a much more limited definition that I would use. I consider any unelected leader, with no legislative body to share power and no method of removal save violence, a dictator.

And the only way Somoza was going to "devolve power back to the people" was the way the Sandinistas did him in - by blowing him up.

Posted by: Brandon at April 5, 2005 11:21 PM

Yes, the definition has changed over time and is rather mushy. Today it really only applies to totalitarians, not authoritarians.

Posted by: oj at April 6, 2005 12:46 AM

An authoritarian is a dictator who does what Orrin likes. If you are, however, among the Unchosen, it's impossible to see any difference from that and a common or garden variety despot.

The Church was certainly despotic. Still is. It was and always will be an enemy of personal self-respect and dignity.

Orrin is fantasizing about happy peasants. If they were so contented, why the constant jacqueries?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 8, 2005 2:23 PM

The church is the only source of dignity. It gave us democracy. The peasants didn't.

Posted by: oj at April 8, 2005 4:14 PM