February 8, 2006


A Tocquevillian in the Vatican (Samuel Gregg, D.Phil. (Oxon.), 2/07/06, Acton Institute)

Upon Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the Papacy in April 2005, many commentators correctly noted that Benedict XVI’s self-described theological “master” was St. Augustine. The fifth-century African bishop is widely acknowledged as a giant of the early church whose life and writings are counted, even by his detractors, among the most decisive in shaping Western civilization. Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is full of citations and themes drawn from Augustine’s texts.

The encyclical’s publication appears, however, to confirm that another, more contemporary thinker has influenced the way that Benedict XVI views religion in free societies and the nature of the state. That person is the nineteenth-century French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.

The author of classic texts such as Democracy in America, Tocqueville’s own relationship with Christianity is best described as “complex.” Raised in a devout French aristocratic family, Tocqueville was appalled at the French Revolution’s assault on the Catholic Church -- an attack involving looting of church property and violence against clergy and laypeople alike. But Tocqueville also disapproved of the post-Revolutionary clergy’s tendency to attach itself to political absolutism. On a personal level, Tocqueville oscillated between doubt and faith for most of his life.

What Tocqueville did not doubt, however, was religion’s importance in sustaining free societies. This theme is addressed at length in Democracy in America. More importantly, it has attracted Joseph Ratzinger’s attention. Upon being inducted into the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France in 1992), then-Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America has always made a strong impression on me.”

Describing Tocqueville as “le grand penseur politique,” the context of these remarks was Ratzinger’s insistence that free societies cannot sustain themselves, as Tocqueville observed, without widespread adherence to “des convictions éthiques communes.” Ratzinger then underlined Tocqueville’s appreciation of Protestant Christianity’s role in providing these underpinnings in the United States. In more recent years, Ratzinger expressed admiration for the manner in which church-state relations were arranged in America, using words suggesting he had absorbed Tocqueville’s insights into this matter.

More important than Democracy in America here is the undeservedly forgotten Memoir on Pauperism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 8, 2006 11:49 AM

We just keep finding more and more reasons to like this guy.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 8, 2006 7:35 PM

Yeah, I have to say I already like B16 better than JP2.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 8, 2006 8:29 PM

Woops, forgot to add that he sounds like he'd fit right in here. OJ, can you get him to hook up?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 8, 2006 8:30 PM

Matt, He's an OSB, "Ora et Labora" It's on my hs class of 1965 ring. The Benedictines saved civilzation, even though OJ thinks it was his Pilgrims. Monte Cassino has been rebuit, so will Western Civilization.

Posted by: jdkelly at February 8, 2006 8:44 PM


Right on, the Benedictines are heroes.

However, OJ could be right -- there's no reason to believe Western civilization has only been saved once.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 8, 2006 9:01 PM

Aren't these works in the public domain, online?

Posted by: RC at February 9, 2006 7:26 AM