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God or Empire?
A response to Sohrab Ahmari.
If I couldn’t be a Catholic, I would join the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Why, you ask? Because of its founder, Tsar Boris I, also known as St. Boris the Baptizer.
Boris was born in 827 A.D., the great-great-grandson of Khan Krum the Fearsome. He was himself baptized in 864, with the Byzantine emperor Michael III (“the Drunkard”) standing as his godfather. His choice of the Orthodox Church over the Catholic Church was nakedly political, as shown by the his conversion to Catholicism in 866—and his reversion to Orthodoxy in 870.
Still, whatever Boris’s beliefs, they were sincere. Immediately after his conversion he set about Christianizing his country, triggering a revolt by pagan boyars (aristocrats), which nearly cost him his throne. Still, he worked tirelessly to convert his subjects. He consulted with churchman all over Europe on how best to reconcile the Faith with the customs of his fierce, freedom-loving people.
In 889, Boris finished his work. He rewarded himself by abdictating in favor of his eldest son, Vladimir, and retiring to a monastery. Unfortunately, the new king was in league with the boyars. Shortly after taking the throne, Vladimir apostatized. He and the boyars began working to crush the young Church and bring back the old gods. I’ll let Norwich take it from here:
In an explosion of rage still almost audible down the centuries, the old King burst out of his monastery, seized back the government, deposed and blinded Vladimir and, summoning a great conference from every corner of his kingdom, bade the assembled delegates acclaim his younger son Symeon as their ruler. Unhesitatingly they did so, whereupon he returned to his cloister never to leave it again.
In 2002, a poll conducted by Bulgarian National Television named Symeon the Great and his father, Boris the Baptizer, among the ten greatest-ever Bulgarians. Vladimir the Apostate did not make the list, but then neither did Krum the Fearsome.
Since the day I first read the story of St. Tsar Boris, I have been a devoted member of his cultus. I love him; I honor him; I beg for his intercession. So, hopefully you won’t think I’m badmouthing him, dear reader, when I point out that he doesn’t quite fit Aquinas’s ideal of the Christian prince.
Bear this in mind when you read Sohrab Ahmari’s essay “Apostolic Empire” in the latest issue of First Things. And read it you should! It’s an important contribution to the debate over “Political Catholicism” (or integralism, or whatever you want to call it).
Technically, the essay is a review of The Church of Apostles and Martyrs by Henri Daniel-Rops, which has just been republished by Cluny Media. Mr. Ahmari clearly sees Daniel-Rops as a kind of forerunner to the Political Catholic movement:
“The Revolution of the Cross,” as the author calls the rise of Christianity, pitted a new doctrine against the ideology of an established imperial order. Sadistic madmen like Nero aside, some pagan rulers recognized this fundamental opposition and proved to be the most ferocious and systematic of the early Church’s persecutors. And yet, just as there was a providential synthesis between Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian revelation in the realm of ideas, so there was a natural kinship between the legal and political practice of Rome and that of the nascent Church. The result was that, notwithstanding the violence meted out by Rome to Christians, the Church came to assume Roman political forms.
For Daniel-Rops, the essence of this unlikely congruity is universalism, beginning with Rome’s drive to subject all nations to its own governing rationality. The Romans built reliable roads linking their vast domains. And down these roads they spread the same legally ordered way of being in the world, whether their subject peoples liked it or not.
I won’t dispute Mr. Ahmari’s reading of Church history. (Marc Barnes did that already, and did it better than I could.) But I would like to make two quick points, both of which are so obvious we might easily overlook them. First, just because something happened, that doesn’t mean it should have. Second, just because it happened once, that doesn’t mean it should happen again.
Broadly speaking, it’s true that the Church became enmeshed with the State over the first four centuries of the Christian era. And, broadly speaking, that’s a good thing. I’m not going to spout any liberal niceties about freedom of religion or the virtue of tolerance. There is no such freedom; there is no such virtue. They do not exist. But there are genuinely Christian reasons to push back on Mr. Ahmari’s position.
Because Church history is not a monolith. There isn’t the “Christian position” on the one hand and the “pagan position” on the other. It may shock you to learn that, historically, Christians were known to disagree among themselves on any number of issues—even politics!
Throughout that history, we find Christians espousing two different approaches to Christianization. One is the political method. This is when the government not only promotes but enforces the Christian faith. The other is the evangelical method, which stresses the need for a free and informed decision to embrace Christianity.
Mr. Ahmari clearly prefers the political method; hence his reference to the need for governments to “spread the same legally ordered way of being in the world, whether their subject peoples liked it or not.” So did St. Boris, Theodosius I, and Charlemagne (at least at first). In general, the political leaders of premodern Europe preferred the political method. And, for obvious reasons, they usually got their way. That’s why the word “Christianization” evokes visions of forced baptisms, holy wars, filial blindings, etc.
Very often, however, the saints were stridently opposed to the political method. Some simply found it unethical. They would agree with St. Gregory the Great, that “humility and kindness, teaching and persuasion, are the means by which to gather in the foes of the Christian faith.” At other times, though, their concerns were purely practical.
For example, in 772, Charlemagne implemented a policy of forcibly baptizing the Saxons. When they resisted, he sent his armies into Saxony with orders to burn their crops. This went on for years and years, with the Franks slowly starving the Germans for refusing to accept Christ.
Charlemagne’s chief advisor, St. Alcuin of York, openly and loudly dissented from his master’s policy. “Let people newly brought to Christ be nourished in a mild manner, as infants are given milk,” he said, “for instruct them brutally and the risk then, their minds being weak, is that they vomit everything up.”
As Tom Holland recounts in Dominion, Charlemagne and Alcuin liked to argue about religion or politics while enjoying a hot bath together. And, in the course of one such soak, Alcuin won Charlemagne over. Eventually, the king rescinded his policy of forced conversion in Saxony.
To be clear, neither Alcuin nor Gregory believed the Germans had a “right” to be pagan. They did not. They weren’t proto-liberals. They simply opposed forced Christianization, on both ethical and practical grounds.
Those seem to me like solid grounds to me. Yet I’m sure Mr. Ahmari would point out that, at the end of the day, forced conversions worked. Europe was Christianized, after all. And while he may not support the starving of obstinate Germans, he would take this as proof that the State is capable of bringing us closer to Christ—whether we like it or not.
I won’t dispute that, either. I’ll just point out that that post-Christian America is a different sort of place than pre-Christian Europe.
Like the Church, pagan Europe was deeply religious and extremely hierarchical. That’s true of the barbarians even more than the Romans (another “unlikely congruity,” maybe). What’s more, religion was not seen as a matter of personal preference, but of public policy. The barbarians usually saw their ruler as a sort of high priest. The Romans often saw theirs as a sort of god.
Anyway, peasants weren’t in the habit of forming their own views on the supernatural. If the chief told them to worship Odin, they worshiped Odin. If he told them to worship Jesus, they worshiped Jesus.
That’s why the early Christians were always preaching in royal courts. It’s not because they enjoyed moving in high society. It’s not because the Apostles perceived some mystical affinity between Catholic and Roman “universalisms.” It was just easier to convert the local poobah, and then let him convert everyone else.
You’ve probably noticed already, dear reader, but we don’t live in that kind of society anymore. As moral and spiritual authority go, our rulers have a negative balance. We don’t look to the State for religious leadership. Just the opposite. That’s why “political Catholicism” failed the only time it was ever really tried—in Spain, from 1936 until 1975.
Now, let’s be clear: it is good that Franco won the Spanish Civil War. Only a communist or a coward would say otherwise. The Second Republic was a Soviet puppet-state committed to wiping out the Catholic Church in Spain. They butchered priests, monks, nuns, and laymen all over the country. Hollywood and academia glamorize those Americans (like Hemingway) who volunteered in the Republican Army, and that’s despicable. It’s evil. Whether or not Franco was the “good guy,” the Republicans were definitely the bad guys.
Still, at the end of the day, Franco failed. It didn’t matter how many privileges he piled on the Church, or how many laws he passed reinforcing Christian moral norms. As soon as the Caudillo died in 1975, Spain was swept into the modern world. Today, fewer than one in ten Spaniards attend weekly Mass. Even the Scots are more regular kirk-goers, and they haven’t had a good theocrat since Cromwell.
If anything, the Franco regime probably turned people off of the Church. Unlike the Medievals, we Moderns are fiercely independent. We hate being told what to do. We insist making up our own minds, even (or especially) when we have no idea what we’re talking about. We hate being preached to and propagandized. Franco didn’t get that. I’m afraid Mr. Ahmari and his comrades don’t, either.
So, how do we reclaim the West for Christ? I think we have a better role-model than Charlemagne, or even Boris the Baptizer. I’m thinking of St. Boniface.
We all know that Boniface cut down an oak tree, which was believed to be sacred to the god Thor (or maybe Odin), and used the wood to build a church. That’s how he lived. The story of how he died might be less well known.
Just as the sun was dawning on June 5, 754, Boniface and his company were attacked by a band of Saxon pirates. The Christians drew their swords—all except their leader, Boniface, who ordered his companions to lay theirs down. They had come to preach the Gospel, not to shed blood—innocent or otherwise. His companions did as he asked and, as they knelt to pray, the missionaries were hacked to ribbons.
Boniface hated heathenry but loved the heathen. He knew that nothing mattered but the conversion of sinners. He also knew that nothing could convert sinners except the living God. He gave up everything he had for that mission, including his own life. But he used the proceeds to win Germany for Christ.
That’s why St. Boniface, not Charlemagne, is known as the Apostle to the Germans. The emperor put his trust in Empire; the saint put his trust in God.
But I’m afraid that, by mentioning St. Boniface, I’ll out myself as one of those Christians whom Mr. Ahmari derides for their “fatalistic over-eagerness for ‘martyrdom.’ ” He laments that,
In response to our crises, some Christians have been tempted to return to the “catacombs,” or even to see the Church “purified” down to mustard-seed size as a prelude to healthier growth. Rather than seek to envelop modern civilization, such as it is, they would build smaller communities characterized by intense piety, homespun institutions, and a readiness for ostracism.
This is an implicit attack on Rod Dreher’s idea of the Benedict Option, as well as Mr. Barnes’s vision of a New Polity. Mr. Ahmari must also know that the “mustard seed” line comes from Benedict XVI, of blessed memory.
For whatever it’s worth, I’m a proud mustard-seeder. And I think I can speak for my comrades when I say that our end-goal is the same as Mr. Ahmari’s. We, too, want to “envelop modern civilization.” We simply have different ways of going about it.
Again, like St. Gregory, we believe that “humility and kindness, teaching and persuasion, are the means by which to gather in the foes of the Christian faith.” And, like St. Alcuin, we want to be gentle with converts and potential converts. If we “instruct them brutally,” there’s a good chance they will “vomit everything up,” as the Spanish did in 1975.
But what specific steps would we take to bring about a revival of the Faith? Probably the same steps the Apostles took: teaching, preaching, and outreaching.
First, we inculcate Christian truth in our children. This is why forming strong Christian communities is so important. Second, we share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our neighbors—ideally in partnership with groups like St. Paul Street Evangelization. Third, we perform the Corporal Works of Mercy. As Tertullian said of the Early Church, “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See how they love one another,’ they say.”
Even the way we live can be a powerful witness. St. Francis of Assisi didn’t really say, “Preach always; when necessary, use words.” But it’s sound advice. I’ve encountered dozens of young men and women who converted after experiencing one of these “intentional communities,” places where Christians are committed to growing together in spiritual, moral, physical, and intellectual excellence. These folks didn’t understand Christianity—at least, not at first—but they wanted to be part of the Christian thing.
What’s more, effective revolutionaries have always known that, before we can transform society (for better or worse), we must transform ourselves. For instance, as Ian Huyett pointed out last month in Staseos, the vision of a “New Hebrew”—a “courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier” forged by honest landwork—was integral to the Zionist movement’s early success.
Yet Mr. Ahmari generally discourages these methods. He warns against placing too much emphasis on personal sanctity or evangelizing non-Christians. Rather, we should be more concerned about enacting “reforms to the material order to make their lives a little easier.”
Mr. Ahmari also warns us about the dangers of lifestyle rightism. That’s his term for a conservative subculture that stresses the need for healthy living, spiritual formation, and community-building. The lifestyle rightists are creating an army of “New Christians.” They’re transforming themselves, in order to transform society.
Working out and studying Scripture are good things, Mr. Ahmari concedes. Yet he argues that lifestyle rightism also “misdirects its adherents, shifting them away from collective action and the shared pursuit of common goods toward essentially private goods (some of which aren’t good at all).”
So, what does Mr. Ahmari actually want us to do with ourselves? He doesn’t say. And this is a common complaint about Political Catholicism. It asserts that we should seize the levers of power and create an illiberal Christian theocracy. Well, all right. But how do you seize the levers of power? The answer seems to be, “By writing tweets and op-eds about the need to seize the levers of power.” We talk about how we’d use the State to punish our enemies and hope our enemies decide to give us control of the State.
Somehow, I don’t see that quite doing the job.
Here, I think, is the long and short of it:
Political Catholicism is hard in theory, but it’s easy in practice. It promises that we can fundamentally trasform the modern world by conforming to it as closely as possible. All it demands of us is “collective action,” which seems to mean “doing nothing at all.”
The alternative, which is laid out by Gregory and Alcuin—call it Evangelical Catholicism—is easy in theory but hard in practice. It requires us to be in the world (the real world, with people and trees and cars and whatnot), but never of the world. We’re supposed to abjure wealth, fame, and power in favor of prayer and fasting, simplicity and service.
I hope I’m not misrepresenting Mr. Ahmari and his comrades. And, if I am, I hope they’ll set me straight. In the meantime, I think we should seek first the kingdom of God, preaching the Gospel to every creature, while keeping unspotted from the world. If that makes us “quietists”—well, then, we’re in good company.