Catholics & “Red Caesar”
Catholics should legitimately mourn the failure of the American republic and the rise of a Caesar of any stripe.
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is a professor of education administration and the director of the Educational Leadership doctoral program at Western Kentucky University.
My entire life the political Left has been on a mission to delegitimize every point of view that is right of center. Political philosopher Yoram Hazony has described how this delegitimization effort, by which liberals regard every center-right position as fascist, racist, or imperialist, serves a strategic purpose: if conservative views are beyond the moral pale, they can be discarded without meaningful debate and their proponents can be shunned, deplatformed, and silenced.
Recently, Leftist writers have accused conservatives of embracing the concept of a “Red Caesar” — a dictatorial ruler who will emerge from our current political chaos to impose order. Writing for The American Mind, Casey Wheatland demolishes the notion that conservatives desire to see the rise of a Red Caesar. That fact that conservatives can see the clear possibility of a strong man, whether from the red or blue camp, rising to power given the shambles in which our republic currently finds itself, does not mean that is what conservatives want.
Wheatland goes on to describe how the American Founders themselves clearly worried about such a possibility. John Adams, in particular, predicted such an outcome if the American people should cease to be a “moral and religious people.”
What are postliberal Catholics to make of the possibility of a “Red Caesar?”
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The Catholic faith has thrived under all sorts of regimes, from democracies to monarchies, and even, by God’s grace, under various totalitarian regimes. Ours is a faith that was, after all, born under, and despite fierce persecution, ultimately flourished within an actual system of “Caesars.” With this in mind, the power and influence the Church has over the regime’s shape should not be neglected. St. Augustine, writing in The City of God, articulated an early Catholic theory of the relationship between Church and state, noting that each was a separate, if fundamentally interdependent, realm. In other words, the Church’s actions have a great deal of influence on the civil political system.
States exist to create a moral and social order in which human beings can worship God and become holy and a “diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1901). Liberal democracy is far from the only political system for creating such a moral order, and as Polish Catholic political philosopher Ryszard Legutko has argued, has distinct disadvantages.
When it comes to the “liberal” part of liberal democracy, it is important to remember that popes over the last two centuries have repeatedly condemned liberalism’s assumptions about the nature of human beings and the role and purpose of the state. Here, liberalism refers to the modernist worldview that insists on an artificial bifurcation of the sacred and secular and the elevation of the individual as the foundation of the entire social and political order. From Pope Gregory XVI’s condemnation of liberalism and religious indifferentism in 1832 (Mirari vos), Pope Pius IX’s 1864 condemnation of modernist errors (Quanta cura), and numerous encyclicals by Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. Pius X, the Bishops of Rome have made clear that a social and political order that purports to give man full autonomy to make their own claims of truth is fundamentally flawed.
Liberalism is far from the same thing as democracy. At least since the end of the 19th century, the Catholic Church has shown a clear favoritism toward democratic governance structures. Pope Leo XIII in particular distinguished Christian democracy as distinct and different from political liberalism and economic socialism. In Graves de communi re, Pope Leo argued that a democratic society ordered according to Christian principles was much better suited to support human flourishing than the competing systems of communism or unfettered capitalism (and, one would presume, some form of dictatorial Caesarism).
Catholics insist that any government authority respect the two pillars of magisterial social teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity is the principle that all human beings must be treated with dignity and respect and that various economic and political obligations should prevail accordingly. Subsidiarity is the principle that mechanisms of the government should always be established at the most local level possible (see Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Caritas in veritate). Pope Leo XIII seems to suggest that a self-consciously Christian, democratic state is the optimal regime for maximizing solidarity and subsidiarity.
In that sense, Catholics should legitimately mourn the failure of the American republic and the rise of a Caesar of any stripe. But as Wheatland argued, to predict such a failure, to even expect it given the corruption of our current political and economic regime, is not to welcome it but to see clearly that the arc of liberalism appears to be coming to its end. Indeed, according to Legutko, totalitarianism inevitably arises from liberalism’s assumptions.
In 2002, Pope Benedict XVI, then writing as Cardinal Ratzinger in his role as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, noted that, “the Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that is based on a correct understanding of the human person … the democratic structures on which the modern state is based would be quite fragile were its foundation not the centrality of the human person” (The Participation of Catholics in Political Life).
Sadly, in the two decades since Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, we have seen just how fragile democracy has become as the integrity of the human person has been torn apart by the regime of political and economic liberalism and its associated social pathologies.
Catholics should fight to replace this regime with a genuine Christian republic, but if a Caesar emerges instead, Catholics should not fear. “Be not afraid,” Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly admonished, echoing Sacred Scripture. Though trials may come, God will protect His people and His Church, until they can help shape a political order that seeks to honor human dignity, subsidiarity, and solidarity once again.
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