a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew


Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 18th, 2008

I’m not especially well-informed about the history of the Catholic Church, the Reformation, and the Counterreformation. I therefore simply direct readers to an interesting set of posts by Mick Arran:

Arran argues that there are instructive historical parallels between the great shipwreck of the Catholic Church on the rocks of the Reformation and today’s American political scene. In a nutshell, by failing to root out and punish corruption in its midst, the American political establishment of the late 20th and early 21st centuries strongly resembles the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, and is inviting a similar period of steady decline.

Arran points to Ford’s pardon of Nixon for and Bush’s pardon of Weinberger as akin to the Catholic Church “General Council” failures to end abuses like selling “benefices” and self-enrichment:

…not once, but twice, American presidential administrations have defamed and trampled on some of the most serious and solemn provisions of the Constitution of the United States WITHOUT LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF ANY KIND FOR ANYONE INVOLVED. But most especially there was no action whatever taken against those at the top levels of govt who had ordered those violations: the president and the vice president. Is it any wonder that the Bush Administration felt free to do whatever it wished, to violate US law, the Constitution, and Congressional orders lawfully given? To do its business entirely in secret, refusing even to let the Congress itself know what it was doing? The lesson they had learned and learned well was that a president could ignore laws, the Constitution, Congress, the judicial branch, and the people themselves WITHOUT FEAR THAT THEY WOULD EVER HAVE TO PAY A PRICE FOR THEIR CRIMES.

The price to the American people may be intangible, but it is serious, Arran writes:

Nixon, Iran/Contra, and now George W Bush, have taught us that we have no protection from runaway govt. That our politicians can violate the laws with impunity. That powerful men are allowed to do in the US as they have done everywhere else – betray the law, betray the people, betray their trust, lie, steal, even kill – and they will never have to pay the price for their illegal, unethical, immoral acts…

(I’ve argued something like this myself (“No regrets, no second guessing”), on the occasion of Gerald Ford’s funeral:”So popular headlines like “Healer of Wounds” seem wide of the mark to me. I can’t recall where I read this over the last few days, so the metaphor isn’t mine, but one might fairly say Ford bound up a festering wound of executive lawlessness, leaving an infection that flared up over and over again over the next decades.”)

But Arran argues it’s bound to get worse if we don’t recognize the problem:

Yet as bad as all that is, we have not yet hit bottom. If we return to the example of the Catholic Church in the previous post, we know that this is but the beginning of an unrelenting and inevitable process of decay if we insist on imitating their “move on”, “get past it” policy of denial and avoidance.

Without meaning to be arch, if there’s a problem with this analysis, it’s that viewed in the cold light of logic, it’s probably unpersuasive to an establishment figure like a Tip O’Neill or a Bob Wright back in the Reagan/Bush years, or a Pelosi, a Hoyer, or even (“even”) an Obama now to tell them that if they don’t shape up, the system is in for hundreds of years of decay. In the long run, we’re all dead; in the short run, they get to run things and glow in the fame and other rewards of doing so — even if everything gets a little worse with each ensuing decade.

What I take away from Arran’s essays is more that the refusal to address corruption, and the obsession with heresy, may presage a “Reformation” of our own. Stepping away from his precise historical analogy, one might also or alternatively label the Watergate hearings and Nixon resignation (followed by, e.g., landmark FISA and FOIA legislation) as a kind of “mini-Reformation” — setting aside Ford’s pardon for the sake of argument. The good news would be, then, that perhaps we’re farther along in Arran’s narrative than he thinks. The bad news would be that we’re in the middle of a kind of mini-Counter Reformation.

As it happens, Tom (“casualt”) at “Danger West” just pointed to a short argument by Razib at “Gene Expression” that also looks at some of this ecclesiastical/political/Catholic history, but instead asking what it was that prevented Catholicism from becoming merely the “Mediterranean sect” of Christianity — a region- and/or ethnicity-bound creed similar to Greek or Armenian Orthodox ones. The answer was a determined Hapsburg dynasty — the Holy Roman emperors. The Hapsburgs relentlessly rolled back Protestant “inroads” where I hadn’t even known they’d existed (Austria, Hungary), though as often by institutional force as by military force: nobility in the regions could choose between the new faith and continued privileges — and often chose the latter. That too, is instructive, if not especially cheering.

Needless to say, none of these parallels can be definitive, but organizations and establishments tend to defend themselves and their privileges, even at the cost of their countries or professed values. If the United States has had highwater marks before in idealism, intellectual vigor, and elan, our own era is not yet among them. I’m left once again with the lame but inescapable conclusion that if we want change, it will be up to us — and not our political and media leadership — to achieve it.

3 Responses to “Reformations”

  1. mick Says:

    The good news would be, then, that perhaps we’re farther along in Arran’s narrative than he thinks.

    I hope so but the signs of a Reformation-style rebellion are very weak. It seems to me that our own complacency and need for denial will have the same function in moving us into decay as the Emperors had on Catholicism. (It isn’t quite true to say the Holy Roman Emperors were responsible; the “Mediterranean sect” had hundreds of churches and a well established hierachical structure 400 years before Charlemagne. It’s true that they weren’t safe from erasure until his conversion but the HRE’s were relative latecomers.) It will be long, slow, and painful. So, as you point out so deftly, why should they worry about it?

    They won’t. That’s why we have to. I wouldn’t expect Nancy or Harry or Barack to take such a long-range argument seriously. I wouldn’t expect them even to read it. It wasn’t truly aimed at them, as you must know. It was an argument (sideways, I admit) for doing it ourselves and an example of the way we have to start thinking if we’re going to save our country from the authoritarians and barbarians who are already inside the gates.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    It’s interesting how a variety of posts and analyses point to the same “fish rots from the head but the whole fish rots” (old Jim Henley title) syndrome: Your posts that we’re discussing. The Andrew Bacevich interview with Bill Moyers was particularly good — well, that’s not quite the right word… honest, bracing. The billmon post on Georgia that Nell mentioned, which cited Bacevich. My own “No more important priority,” about the Dem platform on Iran. “Pouting at Putin,” by Chazelle at “Tiny Revolution.”

    Some of it’s people reading eachother and the same stuff. But I think Bacevich particularly is a national resource now; I wouldn’t mind him moving to Maryland and taking on Mikulski if no one else will.

  3. There was no such thing as deficit spending « Danger West Says:

    […] August 19, 2008 Posted by casualt in History. trackback The big difference between the current rot, and the rot of past times is that today we have all these neat financial tricks to keep things afloat. Back in the day […]

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