Monday, December 29, 2014

Repost: The Link between Politics and Religion in Pre-Modern Christian Communities

In Christian societies of the past, rulers recognized one or another form of Christianity as true in their capacity as representatives of the public reason. A community, if it is to be a community at all, must have some shared values and final commitments, which will always be in some sense theological and mythological, and it only makes sense that the political organization of the community will act on and defend these values and commitments. [... This] is still true today, but we now believe in liberalism and individual autonomy rather than Christianity. With all of this in mind, I think we need to understand that a heresy like, say, Catharism was not simply a matter of private opinion, but was instead a real challenge to the legitimacy of both the religious and political structures of the community and would have sought to establish a new state of affairs in which its own assumptions were normative. In this situation, it is obvious that rulers have a legitimate interest in defending orthodoxy.

So, contrary to the imaginings of some [...], the past was not some age of perpetual night in which sinister inquisitors went around gleefully condemning miserable peasants to be burnt at the stake for their ignorance of some recondite point of doctrine. It is also obvious that most Christian societies in the past were not fascist, though obviously this assumes that "fascist" is being used here as anything more than a meaningless smear, and that people were not one poorly worded statement away from being burnt for heresy.

In fact, if one looks at how Catholic rulers who had to deal with significant numbers of both non-Christians and non-Catholics dealt with these issues, I think one will find many examples of a fair degree of tolerance. For instance, Muslims and Orthodox Christians were treated very well under the Norman rulers of Sicily, and even in the Frankish Levant, Catholic rulers gradually became relatively tolerant and flexible. According to the twelfth-century Syriac Patriarch of Antioch Michael the Great, "although the Franks were in accord with the Greeks concerning the duality of Christ's nature . . . they never sought a single formula for all the Christian people and languages ["Christian people and languages" is in itself a pretty interesting formulation, by the way], but they considered as Christian anyone who worshipped the cross without investigation or examination." Over time, Catholics in the Levant in some cases worshipped together with local Christians or came together with them in devotion to the same saints. Since the local Christian communities, even if heretical from a Catholic perspective, did not represent an inherent threat to the religious and political orders established by the crusaders, they were given a fair degree of toleration and in some cases could do quite well in the new order.

Anyway, all of this is simply to say that I think some [people] are improperly universalizing a thoroughly modern dichotomy of public and private spheres and that this is why they are having such a difficult time understanding Christian societies of the past without caricaturing them. When fulfilling his role properly, a Catholic ruler was not just going around having people burnt for "private" opinions, but was defending the religious and political order of the community from movements that challenged both, as the two were not clearly distinguished. Eventually, religion would, at least nominally, be neutralized as a realm of political struggle while other realms would come to the fore as arenas for conflict, but I don't really see how this represents anything like moral progress. Of course, this isn't to say that heretics in the past were always treated justly or that one must support the death penalty for heretics, which would obviously lack any real meaning in modern society, but I think we should at least try to understand why Christians in the past thought and acted in the way they did without resorting to a lazy narrative of progress.


Source: Crusading Philologist, October 25, 2014 (09:51 p.m.), comment on Melkite, "Is It the Will of the Holy Spirit that Heretics Should Be Burned?," Fish Eaters Traditional Catholic Forum, October 22, 2014,

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments ad hominem or deemed offensive by the moderator will be subject to immediate deletion.