Friday, September 10, 2010

Tocqueville's Optimism for Catholicism

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman and a Catholic, visited the United States of America in 1831 for approximately eleven months. During his visit, he went to the first Catholic basilica, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the autumn of the same year. When he returned to France, his native land, he wrote a book entitled: Democracy in America.

Being well versed in history and in the Catholic Faith, Tocqueville accurately foresaw the challenges American democracy would face. But he also foresaw that Christianity in America would tend towards one of two destinies. "Our posterity," he said, "will tend more and more to a single division in two parts- some relinquishing Christianity entirely, and others returning to the bosom of the Catholic Church."

Indeed, he was quite optimistic that Catholicism is the most compatible, out of all the Christian churches, with democracy. He even dared to contend that Catholicism would be the last viable option for Christians in America.

In his own words:

"Amongst the various sects of Christianity, Catholicism seems to me to be one of those which are most favorable to the equality of conditions. In the Catholic Church, the religious community is composed of only two elements, the priests and the people. The priest alone rises above the rank of his flock, all below him are equal. On doctrinal points the Catholic faith places all human capacities upon the same level; it subjects the wise and the ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak, it listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to one standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God. If Catholicism predisposes the faithful to obedience, it certainly does not prepare them for inequality; but the contrary may be said of Protestantism, which generally tends to make men independent, more than to render them equal.

America is the most democratic country in the world and at the same time it is the country in which the Roman Catholic religion makes the most progress. Men living in democratic ages are very prone to shake off all religious authority; but if they consent to subject to themselves to any authority of this kind, they choose that it should be single and uniform. Religious powers not radiating from a common center are naturally repugnant to their minds…The men of our day are naturally disposed to believe; but as soon as they any religion, they immediately find in themselves a latent desire which urges them unconsciously towards Catholicism. Many of the doctrines and the practices of the Roman Catholic Church astonish them; but they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, its great unity attracts them…our posterity will tend more and more to a single division in two parts- some relinquishing Christianity entirely, and others returning to the bosom of the Catholic Church."


Epilogue on Tocqueville's Optimism for Catholicism:

Why did Tocqueville believe that one of two things would happen with regard to Christianity? Those two things being the relinquishing of Christianity altogether or the return of Christians to Roman Catholicism.

Tocqueville predicted that a competitor of Christianity would emerge and that competitor would be Pantheism- the worship of the earth or the universe. Central to Pantheism is the belief that the universe itself is God. Although you may be unfamiliar with the term, you know the practice well. Today, it is expressed in both the New Age Movement and Environmentalism.

There are three things that are attractive of New Age/Environmental spirituality:
1. The oneness and the interconnectedness of nature. "The Circle of Life," if you will. People are attracted to unity and Pantheism provides that sense of unity.
2. Mystery: Planet earth is full of beauty and the unknown. The stars at night and the immense body of water known as the ocean, gives an aura of infinity.
3. Vague Morality: The reason why the ancient pagan gods attracted the Israelites in the Old Testament was because they were tired of being told what to do by Yahweh. The golden calf didn't give them commandments; neither does "Mother Earth." With New Age/Environmentalism you have the spirituality but not the burden of a well-defined moral code for the individual.

Protestantism, on the other hand, contained within it divisions and contradictions. These contradictions would apparently lead to its own dissolution; that is, the rejection of Christianity all together. The chain reaction is as follows: Religious division leads to skepticism of religion; skepticism of religion leads to religious apathy. Religious apathy is Christianity's terminal illness, at least in theory.

Catholicism, on the other hand, possesses unity, mystery and authority. According to Tocqueville, it can compete much better with Pantheism than Protestantism. The Catholic Church does not bear the burden of the kind of internal contradictions Protestant Christianity bears. It gives a sense of oneness with the Saints and Angels in heaven and with our brothers and sisters on earth. The same Scripture readings are read during the Liturgy throughout the world; the same Communion is being shared, and we follow the lead of the same Shepherd, the Pope.

This is the reason why Alexis de Tocqueville said that Americans will tend toward either the relinquishing of Christianity or a return to the Roman Catholic Church. Let's pray that it is the latter.