Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Islam, Catholicism and the check against totalitarianism

Revised and reposed for new Sky View readers:

"Let the emperor hear the voice of a free priest…It is unworthy of an emperor to refuse freedom of speech and unworthy of a priest to remain silent…For priests, nothing is so dangerous before God and so infamous before men as refraining from expressing their views.”

-St. Ambrose, (Fourth Century A.D.)

Mohammad was a religious and a political leader. He, along with his followers, conquered other nations by the sword. And henceforth they grew in number through power and conquest. In early Christianity, on the other hand, the followers of Christ were put to the sword and as result, their numbers multiplied. This, I would say, is more miraculous in nature. Conventional wisdom for centuries was that victory was had by killing your enemy. However, the Church grew by leaps and bounds because her members were martyred. Tertullian, an early Church Father from Africa, was confident in this when he wrote to a Roman magistrate who sanction the execution of Christians. Tertullian said,

“You will never destroy our sect [i.e. Church]! Mark this well: when you think you are striking it down, you are, in reality, strengthening it. The public will become restive at so much courage. It will long to know its origin. And when a man recognizes the truth- he’s ours!”

Unlike Mohammad, Jesus Christ never claimed to have political authority. In fact, he drew a sharp distinction between Caesar and God. His kingdom was not to be confused with the State. But this distinction would inevitably lead to conflict between his Church and that political powers that be. In fact, according to St. Augustine, the tension of City of God and the City of Man would endure until the end of time.

For the first three hundred years of Church history, Christians were martyred by the thousands. It was even reported that out of the first 30 popes, 29 died a martyr’s death. This should hardly be a surprised to us. Since the beginning of our his earthly life as an infant, Herod, representing the State, tried to hunt down the new born Messiah in order to kill him. And at the end of our Lord's earthly life, it was Pilate, again, representing the State, who appeased the angry mob by sentencing our Lord to death.

But no matter how corrupt political rulers became, the Catholic Church, beginning with Christ and the Apostles, never discounted the divinely appointed purpose of the State. Even when political regimes exercised hostility towards Christ and his followers, they always held that political authority comes from God and as such, whatever just laws they decreed should be obeyed. As St. Paul said, “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1)

According to Catholic political theology, the authority of the State originates from God. However, this same authority is communicated or given to the people for whom it is meant to benefit. From this, it is the people who decide what kind of government they wish to be subjected to. The main principle here is that State or civil authority exists for the people and it is therefore determined by the people. In fact, it is through the citizenry that political power is conferred on the ruler.

But Islamic autocracies and dictatorships violate these principles. In Islamic nations, political authority is not believed to reside in the people. This is why democracies struggle to find a secure place on Middle Eastern soil. Instead, it is believed by most Muslims that the right to rule comes straight down from God to the State. As for the people or the body politic, they have no share in it. The share in governance bypasses them altogether. Furthermore, Muslim governments are often indistinguishable from the religion of Islam; hence, the lack of check and balance. To be sure, the distinction between Church and State, at the very least, is blurred in Muslim nations.

Unfortunate but true: There is no mechanism to offset or challenge an aggressive Islamic State precisely because there is no single institution possessing moral authority similar to that of the Papacy or Holy See. In any case, the State- Islamic or Christian -needs to be held accountable by an institution of a higher moral and spiritual authority. This is what Christianity provides to the people (By the way, this is why secularism is so dangerous. It takes Christianity and the people out of the equation). In his book, The History of Freedom in Antiquity, Lord Acton expounds on the truly unique role Christ had on the State; a role that Mohammad could not put into effect:

"In the fourth century A.D., there came to be one essential and inevitable transformation in politics. Popular governments had existed, and also mixed and federal governments, but there had been no limited government, no State the circumference of whose authority had been defined by a force external to its own. That was the great problem which philosophy had raised, and which no statesmanship had been able to solve…But when Christ said, 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,' whose words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His Death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it.”

As with Mohammad, the Islamic religion, even up to this very day, is incapable of delivering this service to civilization. The chemical warfare in Syria is case and point. There is no single authoritative Islamic voice to condemn such atrocities. Perhaps this is why moderate Muslims are muddled together with Jihadists in the minds of Westerners. This, no doubt, is due to their lack of religious authority that is so useful in spelling out to the world what Islam is and what it is not.

Absent the accountability and delineation that a singular and uniform religious authority brings to the table, unlimited power naturally accrues to the government. Indeed, where religion and politics converge into one or where religion is absent all together (as with a secular America), very often what we get is totalitarianism. And, as the sad events in Syria attest, innocent people suffer.