Friday, October 7, 2016

Quest for Church

"Mr. President, may I be?"
Last week I passingly mentioned an author who deserves more thought than a brief allusion in a post about liturgy. Robert Nisbet wrote a doctorate at Berkeley in 1939 and, with a few other authors, eventually published a book that contributed to a coherent conservative political thought in the 20th century. Like the "Wizard of Piety Hill" and unlike William Buckley he was more interested in social problems and social institutions than in Washingtonian affairs. His specialty as a sociologist was the history of these societal institutions. To winnow his thought into the generic "government bad, free market good" strain undersells his tremendous insights. If anything he understood the post-industrial society which followed the War to be just as vacuous as the New Deal welfare state it replaced. His Quest for Community focuses on the role of government as the great social leveler (like a bulldozer), but the commentary applies to all forms of centralization. Contrary to the ravings of modern libertarians, he understood that individualism was the consequence of centralization because it eliminated "intermediary" layers of society where people traditionally derived their identities.

I cannot say with certainty whether or not he was a Catholic, but his writing betrays a strong sympathy for the place of the Church in pre-Reformation Europe and he penned articles for Crisis in the 1980s. Much of his commentary from Quest for Community readily applies to contemporary isolation created by social media, but also to the loss of identity among Catholics in the Church, not merely individuals, but priests, too; the loss of minor orders, local chivalric chapters (not the Knights of Malta), respect for the primacy of tradition as an authority can all be read into Nisbet. Rather than interpret his writings I have reproduced the most illuminating passages below for conversation in the comment box.

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"....powerful processes of rationalization and bureaucratization....have led, Weber declared, to a supremacy in modern times of the impersonal office and of mechanical systems of administration within which the primary unities of social life have become indistinct and tenuous."

"....there is agreement upon certain social characteristics of the Middle Ages, irrespective of the moral inferences to be drawn from them. The first is the pre-eminence in medieval society—in its economy, religion, and morality—of the small social group. From such organization as family, gild,village community, and monastery flowed most of the cultural life of the age.... The reality of the separate, autonomous individual was as indistinct as that of centralized political power. Both were subordinated to the immense range of association that lay intermediate to individual and ruler and that included such groups as the patriarchal family, the gild, the church, feudal class, and the village community."

"In the Middles Ages, allowing for all obliquities and transgressions, the ethic of religion and the ethic of community were one. It was indeed this oneness, so often repressive of individual faith, so often corrupting to the purity of individual devotion, that the religious reformers like Wyclif, Hus, Calvin, and others were to seek strenuously to dissolve."

"Two points only are in need of stress here. The first is the derivation of group solidarity from the core of the indispensable functions each group performed in the lives of its members.... The second point to stress is that the solidarity of each functional group was possible only in an environment of authority where central power was weak and fluctuating.... It is indeed this curtailment of group rights by the rising power of the central political government that forms one of the most revolutionary movements of modern history."

"At the back of this decline of religious communalism are certain decisive conflicts of authority and allegiance. These are conflicts, if we like, between the individual and Rome, dramatized by Luther's nailing of the theses to the church door. But, more fundamentally, they are conflicts between Church and sect, between Church and family, between State and Church, and between businessman and canon law. The Reformation becomes a vast arena of conflict of authority among institutions for the loyalty of individuals in such matters as marriage, education, control of economic activity, welfare, and salvation. Basically, we are dealing with two momentous conceptions of religion: on the one hand, a conception that vests in the Church alone control of man's spiritual, moral and economic existence; on the other, a conception that insists upon restricting the sphere of religion to matters of individual faith and transferring to other institutions, notably the State, responsibilities of a secular sort."

"In Protestantism there has been a persistent belief that to externalize religion is to degrade it. Only in the privacy of the individual soul can religion remain pure. There has been little sympathy for the communal, sacramental, and disciplinary aspects of religion. Protestant condemnation of the monasteries and ecclesiastical courts sprang from a temper of mind that could also look with favor on the separation of marriage from the Church, that could prohibit ecclesiastical celibacy, reduce the number of feast days, and ban relics, scapularies, images, and holy pictures."

"Three principle elements of Christianity were left in Protestant theology: the lone individual, an omnipotent, distant God, and divine grace."

"At times, to be sure, as in the Geneva of Calvin, the organizational side of the new religion could be almost as stiff as, and perhaps more tyrannical than, anything in the Roman Church. There is indeed a frequent tendency among historians to overlook the sociological side of early Protestantism.... almost from the beginning, the spread of Protestantism is to be seen in terms of revolt against, and the emancipation from, those strongly hierarchical and sacramental aspects of religion which reinforced the idea of religion as community."

"As Protestantism sought to reassimilate men in the invisible community of God, capitalism sought to reassimilate them in the impersonal and rational framework of the free market. As in Protestantism, the individual, rather than the group, becomes the central unit. But instead of pure faith, individual profit becomes the mainspring of activity."

"In the beginning, in France, England, and elsewhere, the State is no more than a limited tie between military lord and his men. The earliest distinct function of the king is that of leadership in war. But to the military function is added, in time, other functions of a legal, juridical, economic, and even religious nature, and, over a long period, we can see the passage of the State from an exclusively military association to one incorporating almost every aspect of life."

"The modern State is monistic; its authority extends directly to all individuals within its boundaries. So-called diplomatic immunities are but the last manifestation of a larger complex of immunities which once involved a large number of internal religion, economic, and kinship authorities."

"The political rulers may have been less interested in the theological elements of either Catholicism or Protestantism than they were in breaking the secular power of the Catholic Church, but the consequence was nevertheless a favorable one to such men as Luther."

"To Rousseau the real oppressions in life were those of traditional society—class, church, school, and patriarchal family. How much greater the realm of individual freedom if the constraints of these bodies could but be transmuted into the single, impersonal structure of the General Will arising out of the consciousness of all persons in the State."

"Contemporary prophets of the totalitarian community seek, with all the techniques of modern science at their disposal, to transmute popular cravings for community into a millennial sense of participation in heavenly power on earth. When suffused by popular spiritual devotions, the political part becomes more than a party. It becomes a moral community of almost religious intensity, a deeply evocative symbol of collective, redemptive purpose...."

"The Roman emphasis on legal centralization, upon the superiority of the ruler to all other forms of authority, including custom, and the general political perspective of Roman law could not but have had strong appeal to one of the Politiques."

"It follows that no association within the commonwealth can be allowed to enjoy an independent existence in the sphere of public law."

"Faith in God and incentives toward religious piety were held by the early Protestants to lie in the self-sufficing individual, even as incentives toward work were declared by the economic rationalist to be similarly embedded in the very nature of the individual. Hence, the Protestant leaders gave little direct attention to the social reinforements of conscience and faith."


  1. "In the beginning, in France, England, and elsewhere, the State is no more than a limited tie between military lord and his men. The earliest distinct function of the king is that of leadership in war. But to the military function is added, in time, other functions of a legal, juridical, economic, and even religious nature, and, over a long period, we can see the passage of the State from an exclusively military association to one incorporating almost every aspect of life."


  2. These quotes show the reasons why I've admired Belloc and Chesterton for promoting Distributism, and how the Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XI were at least right in their promotion of social justice, decrying all the errors of the modern state.

  3. There is one thing that has remained from my days as a young libertarian: an enduring hatred for the omnipresent Hobbesian leviathan of the modern "democratic" state (a state which is, no doubt, supported and encouraged by the forces of the evil one). The difference now, as an anarcho-distributist with monarchist sympathies (Death to the Tricolor! Vive le Roi!), is that I know it is not enough to merely topple it. Man must re-learn what life is with the "intermediary" and "lesser" institutions in which he was meant to live. How sweet and light is the yoke of the Church and a local mayor/noble compared to that of a faceless "free and elected" government that takes whatever it wishes for "freedom"!

    It will likely never happen in my lifetime, but leviathan will die. It will consume itself like the mythical Ungoliant.

    "My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people." - JRR Tolkein

  4. It is too bad that the Popes who knew that intermediaries in the political and economical realm were good for protecting the individual, didn't apply that to the liturgy, but thought the opposite. It is ironic that they somehow thought that more centralization would protect the liturgy from drastic changes and keep tradition, but as we have seen, that only led to the most drastic changes and abolishing tradition.