Legitimate Authority, Arbitrary Power, and Protestantism
(The Angelus, November - December 2017.)
Legitimate authority is a rational and good thing, beneficial both for the maintenance of temporal societies as well as for the flourishing and even the sanctification of all their individual members. The power wielded by a mugger over his victims is quite a different matter: egotistical, irrational, arbitrary, and devastating to the dignity of every human person, the criminal included. Traditional Catholic Christendom, using both supernatural and natural tools, taught the meaning of legitimate authority very clearly and promoted its proper use at all levels of social organization. Dominant modern naturalism, in contrast, teaches and promotes the art of an anti-social and anti-individual mugging as the height of human progress.
If the men and women of the ascendant Christian society of the past had been told of the victim fate that was in store for them should they swallow the full message of modernity they might well have instantly spat it out of their mouths like a piece of tainted meat. Alas, many of them gorged on this poison instead. They were tempted to do so because of the sugar coating applied to it in the early stages of its confection by Martin Luther and his progeny. For Luther and Company made the path to becoming mugging victims seem downright lovely, by associating it with their understanding of a true Christian piety; one that was said to be rejected by the wicked Papists. In short, he and his Protestant followers promoted a social vision sanctioning a “pious mugging”, with legitimate authority in a Catholic Christian sense as its first intellectual target, and with each and every society, along with all of its individual members, as its ultimate day-to-day victims.
This is not the place for a full discussion of the Catholic understanding of legitimate authority, which was itself heavily influenced by prior rational Greek influences. Suffice it to say for the moment---and this with reference not just to pre-Reformation thought but also to the insights of nineteenth and twentieth century writings dealing with the question in the aftermath of Luther, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution---that Catholics understood legitimate authority to be valuable for two complementary reasons. On the one hand, the ravages of sin indicated to them the individual’s “negative” need for social guidance and correction to fend off the evils he inflicted upon himself and his fellow man. On the other, the reality of a Redemption that was offered to men only through their incorporation into Christ’s Mystical Body demonstrated to Catholic thinkers the individual’s “positive” dependency upon social authority for his personal perfection and eternal wellbeing. If there were no submission to Christ and His Mystical Body there would be no passage to becoming sons of God. And if there were no submission to the complex mesh of temporal social institutions capable of imitation of the example of Christ and His Mystical Body, there would be no recognition that the Incarnation confirmed the crucial importance of all things natural, and the role that the authorities of the entire “society of societies” constituting Christendom, from family to state, was meant to play in teaching men their duties and leading them to heaven.
A Catholic understanding of the value of all of nature---society and social authority included---had its enemies from the first moments of Church History. These became ever more vocal as the full meaning of a complex Christian society came into focus, along with all of the mistakes, sins, and hypocritical actions of Church leaders and believers claiming to promote it. And yet despite such deep roots, it was only when “all those anti-intellectualist, anti-institutional forces that had plagued and hindered the medieval Church for centuries” were “institutionalized in the new reformed Christian Church” that they truly were to begin to “have their fling” (P. Hughes, A History of the Church, Sheed & Ward, 1949, III, 529).
There are two major reasons explaining this long gestation, the first of which was the fact that the original anti-incarnational attack was a Manichean one, based upon an outright condemnation of a material Creation whose goodness was confirmed by God through the Incarnation and Redemption. This assault was too shockingly direct to get a serious grip on Catholic spirits. It went straight for the jugular, in a way that St. Francis of Assisi, with his popularization of such practices as that of the construction of a Christmas crèche---something the anti-materialist Manicheans with their loathing of the body were bound to despise---was able to defuse.
What Luther did was to present the principle of the wickedness of life as the product of Original Sin, thereby placing the responsibility for the total depravity of the world squarely on the shoulders of men rather than the Christian God. Man had to be humiliated so that God could be exalted. It was this much less radical, much more “pious” sounding, God-friendly and sinful-man-flaying argument that guaranteed him a hearing from late medieval believers overwhelmed by the seemingly incurable evils around them but still convinced that Creation was the product of a supremely good Trinity.
Luther’s “pious” incarnation of what was actually a deadly, anti-Christian vision of the total depravity of the man-corrupted natural world could not help but undermine the validity of temporal social institutions of all kinds. After all, the human authorities guiding them would logically have to be considered subject to the same hopeless corruption as men engaged in other endeavors from the very outset of their activity. And yet this supposed exaltation of God and humbling of human pretensions was to prove to be the key to unleashing that truly sinful, irrational, individual willfulness, long festering in the bowels of the medieval western world alongside the attack on the Incarnation, and ensuring the modern replacement of legitimate authority with the arbitrary power of the mugger.
The second reason for the long gestation was the fact that Luther simply happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time. In fact, the broad strokes of what was to happen were already crystal clear in the thought of some of the fourteenth century precursors of Luther and his progeny, from whom much of their “pious mugging” ideas and practices was taken. The precursors in question were Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275-c.1342), the Nominalist philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), and the mystical and millennial-minded group of Franciscans called the Spirituals, all of them embittered by the worldly actions of a wicked Papacy abusing Christendom in the name of transformation in Christ.
Their alliance appeared to encourage a deeply pious concern for the majesty and rights of a God whose clear and simple will, supposedly grasped quite easily by the apostolic church, had been obscured by a naturalist perversion of things spiritual, manifested in rationalist, legalist, and theological and philosophical speculation, manipulated by impious popes and their arrogant, earth-focused minions. Moreover, it coupled this concern for a return to spiritual purity by a call for intercession on behalf of God’s thwarted will through the work of the pious Holy Roman Emperor; the man that Marsilius’ most famous book labeled The Defender of the Peace.
Unfortunately for the cause of Truth, the alliance in question eliminated from the intellectual baggage of the supposedly pious Emperor everything from speculative theology, philosophy, and basic logic that could identify the divine will in a manner that might require some change of the human will of the “defender of the peace”, or even merely distinguish the former from the latter. The will of God thus clearly became whatever its earthly agent decreed that it was, with no consideration of the broader judgments of Faith and Reason regarding the divine plan recorded through the ages.
Just to make matters more complicated for the inevitably more pious world to come, an imperial will that for all practical purposes had become indistinguishable from the will of God was then said to be dependent upon still other willful earthly forces. The appeal to the pious imperial will was itself justified with reference to an underlying grant of imperial authority emerging from “the Roman People”. Furthermore, this “People” was then shown to be “formed” to provide the desired imperial authorization through the work of the Emperor’s intellectual and mystical advisors; men who, however, were equally stripped of theological, philosophical, and logical blocks to the equation of their arbitrary judgment with “God’s” clear and simple will.
Nominalists like Ockham and politicos like Marsilius saw themselves as “no nonsense” men, and this made them contemptuous of authorities lacking demonstrable physical power. Given such circumstances, it seems that identification of the “clear and simple will of God” inevitably had to fall into the hands of whatever earthly power happened to be the momentarily strongest. The intellectual and mystical forces opposed to the arrogant, naturalist, speculative Catholic vision would ally themselves with this “strongest force” and then justify its tyranny, “forming” the “People” to understand that its victimization was actually just what they always wanted and that they must happily accept it.
Such an argument meant that insofar as concern for some sort of overriding Christian order remained vivid in believers’ minds---and it did---the possessor of pure physical power, however parochial his willful desires might actually be, nevertheless still had to be justified by the more intellectual and spiritual members of a Triple Irrational Alliance as a God-friendly “Defender of the Peace. In short, in a world still touched by aspects of the Christian message, the intellectual word merchant, the mystic, and the thug ultimately needed one another to go about their willful work, so as to rationalize an irrational victory. But the results might not be exactly what any of the parties to the arrangement fully wanted, and they might, in consequence, constantly be on the lookout for a better deal with changed partners.
It was this supposedly pious union of the intellectual word merchant, the mystic, and the thug---whose victory historical circumstances had rendered hopeless in the fourteenth century---that was effectively incarnated through the Protestant Reformation. That incarnation was effected in three steps. First of all, Luther’s God-exalting, man-humbling, anti-rational, and ultimately anti-incarnational Nominalist philosophical training was transformed by his conversion to the use of Humanist methodology. It was then transmitted to the world in a rhetorically charged and vulgarized form, exuding conviction of its godly, apostolic teaching regarding the total depravity of sinful humanity. Secondly, Luther’s anti-incarnational position not only met with opposition from the Roman Church, but also immediately unleashed a tidal wave of totally logical deductions concerning the wickedness of man and nature that he personally considered stark raving mad. This led him to wish to impose his individual, quite illogical and rather conservative will on the logic of the revolutionary movement he had generated, and simultaneously to reject both the Catholic position as well as the radical interpretation of his principles by his opponents.
Finally, stymying the “Papists” and the “enthusiasts”---as he called the wild men---while protecting his own “limited” but always potentially explosive radicalism (i.e., his “conservatism”) required the help of practical physical force. The current emperor, Charles V---Marsilius’ favored “Defender of the Peace”---was of no value in this regard. He had made his anti-Lutheran Catholic convictions all too clear. On the other hand, many German princes, terrified by the unusually great strength of the contemporary Empire, and on the hunt for some justification for opposing it, were more than pleased to become what Luther called “necessity bishops” and to take the steps required to construct a new and more pious Christian world. These involved crushing the wicked Roman Church with its incarnational vision, appropriating the lands of the Whore of Babylon to build up their own anti-imperial power in the process, and also happily eliminating the various radicals that the more conservative reformer detested.
But the German princes were also ready to call halt to any of Luther’s projects that did not fit with their own now liberated, parochial, political willfulness. They became his “Defenders of the Peace” in the common project of enforcing God’s “clear and simple will”, by tugging him down directions he did not necessarily wish to go, and with the international imperial authority that the “conservative” Luther actually still somehow respected rendered more and more impotent and unable to control them in the process.
Moreover, while bitterly upset by various princes’ manipulation of his message to suit their own parochial material purposes, Luther’s own teaching demonstrated that his bile was, once again, ultimately illogical in character. For he himself had logically deduced that the totally depraved natural world had to be controlled by the arbitrary will of the state authorities to prevent what he personally deemed to be an unacceptable anarchy. And, despite his eagerness to unleash these princes to call a halt to religious developments he disliked, he nevertheless continued firmly to maintain the basic anti-incarnational principle that allowed the radicals to drive home their more logical commitment to its full implications. This guaranteed the survival of radical insistence on the total depravity of the very state power that was being used against them. It guaranteed their continued hunt for protection of their “pious” cause from different thugs whose power they would, in turn, be unable logically to defend when still more logical and more radical forces “piously” opposed to their will condemned them. And the unfolding of the social consequences of the anti-incarnational principle of total depravity would then continue---as we know that it has continued---until all the legitimate authorities of all legitimate societies open to correction and transformation in Christ were assaulted, with a myriad of different thugs, backed by their intellectual and mystical propagandists, all convinced of their “piety” (or its equivalent naturalist virtue), emerging to replace them.
Philip Hughes, in the same passage briefly cited above illustrating the effects of Luther’s incarnation of the anti-incarnational principle long gestating in medieval Christendom, accurately notes what it is upon which our modern naturalist world is firmly constructed: “Enthronement of the will as the supreme human faculty; hostility to the activity of the intelligence in spiritual matters and in doctrine; denial of the truth that Christianity, like man, is a social thing; all the crude, backwoods, obscurantist theories bred of the degrading pride that comes with chosen ignorance, the pride of men ignorant because unable to be wise except through the wisdom of others….”
And it is this construction that makes it obvious that when Christ is not King of the Universe, with His earthly reign guided through legitimate societies ruled over by legitimate authorities ranging from the Church through the State and down to the family, that His throne is usurped by muggers and whatever time serving intellectuals and mystics willing to work in union with them to do the necessary work of praising the “piety” of their man-destroying tyranny.
Martin Luther: thanks, but no thanks.
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