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The Limits of Reason II: Vatican I

Divi Filius: Church and State

In ancient times, each Roman emperor was Divi Filius, a ‘son of God’: the ‘divine’ Caesars persecuted the early Christians for refusing them a pinch of incense. The French Revolution saw a reversion to ancient attitudes. The aftermath of the revolution witnessed a revulsion against ‘classical’ rationalism in favour of sentiment, history and even tradition. ‘Traditionalism’ was a form of pietism, which became very popular in France in the nineteenth century: Traditionalists held that all of our knowledge of God derives from an original revelation by God, which has been filtered through the Chinese whispers of human transmission. It was a period of reaction against intellectualism, for the devout held that Enlightenment rationalism was to blame for the French Revolution, in which countless clerics, aristocrats and simple lay Catholics were murdered. Hard-core traditionalists rejected the scholastic apparatus of rational proof for the existence of God and insisted that it is only by Tradition, which traces back to God’s original revelation, that we can know about God. Louis Bautain (1796-1867) was one such traditionalist. A professor at the University of Strasbourg, he taught, like some Church Fathers, that Christianity is the only true philosophy, and indeed, that only Christian faith makes philosophy possible at all.

Felicite de Lamennais (1782-1854) was another traditionalist. From studying the traditions of human civilization, Lamennais came to think that people are naturally religious and would continue to worship God outside of the protection of State establishment. Lamennais advocated the disestablishment of the French Church because he thought it the best way to avoid the subjugation of the Church to the State. His initiatives were rebuffed by Pope Gregory XVI in 1834, with Mirari vos. The encyclical denounces Lamennais’ notion of disestablishment as a mirage which would not result in the spread of Christian faith, but in mass indifference to religious claims.

Realistic anxieties about governmental pursuit of control over the Church played a role in the development and clarification of Catholic teaching about faith and reason in the nineteenth century. If Christianity is said to be purely a matter of faith, and faith is defined as private opinion, then there are no good grounds for why it should have any public influence or for why its own institutions should not be governed by people with better credentials to be called reasonable. When religion is seen as a matter of private opinion most people become indifferent to it, since more people are interested in truth than in other people’s private opinions. On the other hand, if Christianity is said to be a matter of reason alone, then it would make more sense for its activities to be determined by reasonable people such as a government’s civil servants rather than by an esoteric club of clergy and ministers.

Prussian governments pursued the logic of State domination of the Churches by drawing ever more tightly the boundaries of what may rationally be said. In France it was the traditionalists and Jansenists who tended to marginalize the Church from public influence. Nineteenth-century encyclicals’ denouncing of rationalism and indifferentism denote these errors as causes of ‘civil strife’.

Doctrines only develop after some implicit Christian thinking is explicitly denied. The new possibilities for controlling institutions (like universities, churches, monasteries, religious orders and courts of law) which emerged in the nineteenth century led to socially influential redefinitions of faith and reason. The Church had to defend itself against being absorbed into the secular State. So it had to deny the absolute claims of reason. The Church also had to remind believers that God is mysterious. By denying the right of the State to define everything on secular terms, the Church defended its own existence.

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