This article first appeared in the March 1995 issue of Dispatches from The Last Ditch.
Power and sanctity
in forging the West
By RONALD N. NEFF
Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch
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When Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire in 331 from Rome to Byzantium, the empire began its transformation from a Classical, Hellenistic entity to an Oriental, Levantine one. Moreover, as the empire in the East became ever more Levantine, its Western brother became weaker, and when at last Rome's decline was all but accomplished, it was the Byzantine Empire's campaign led by Belisarius in 536 that finally reduced Rome to "a village housed in the vast and crumbling ruins of antiquity, a village ministering to the wants of its bishop, the custodian of an immense historical museum living on the trade of pious tourists...." 
The long-term result of that reduction was that over time a new civilization grew up in Western Europe, and though it borrowed heavily from the Hellenistic world and from the Levant (indeed, its receptivity to other cultures would become one of its hallmarks), it was not a continuation of either.  But in one respect there was a continuation, for within that new civilization there was an institution that had been born in the Levant and had risen to cultural dominance in the Classical world. That institution was the Catholic Church.
So integral was that institution to the new civilization that it is almost a belittlement to say it was within it. It so permeated the new civilization that it is closer to the mark to say that it was its fabric, seam, and dye. It may appear foolish, then, to examine the relationship between the two, for at first they appear inseparable, except conceptually. But if the West is inconceivable apart from the Church in those early years, the reverse is not true. And so it behooves us to look at the Church.
In fact, we must look at two churches. First, there is what might be called the teaching church or the nurturing church. This is the church that teaches the Christian faith and thinks of itself as a person. I shall call this church "she" and treat her with the dignity of a capital letter.
She sees herself as the Bride of Christ, her founder and her head, and as the mother of the faithful. Born in the Levant, she claims to have enjoyed a continuous, supernatural, indeed immortal life since. Her mission is to bear witness to a Gospel originally preached in Aramaic and to transmit that supernatural life to her children primarily by her work, called worship, and by the sustenance, called the sacraments, that flows from it.
To those ends, she has always been highly organized, and in her early years she took the model available to her: a Greek hierarchy governed by an analogue of Roman law. Because she claimed even then to be a living body, an organism, she guarded the integrity of her organization jealously, and after her first 200 years she was the most highly organized entity in the empire, the state itself excepted.
Her organization, her work, and her life were all integral to her vision of herself. Her teachings were precisely defined, and when questions arose about their meaning, her response was to define them more precisely. But throughout the doctrinal controversies of 15 centuries, her members never disagreed on this: there was only one Church, and she had been commissioned to bear true witness to only one Gospel.
It was this Church that touched the moral life of the whole world, that commanded without decree the loyalty of the Orient and later of the West, that spoke to all the world in every language, and that found herself at home throughout the world. She was possessed of boundless confidence, believing herself to be the leaven of the world, that element that brings life to dead grain.
The second church is at first difficult to distinguish from the other one, but it is the one that we are most likely to be thinking of when we talk about the church.
It consists of the personnel of the first Church, the same men who are the children of the first Church, but it consists of them in a nonsacred organization; it is an "it," and I shall treat it with a lower-case letter.
It must be understood that whenever we see an organization of men that commands wealth or the loyalty of other men, we see an organization worth controlling, a potential vehicle for controlling the lives of others. That men will seek the offices of that organization, and that they will use those offices for their own enrichment and to establish hegemony over other men has nothing to do with the organization; it has to do with the demonstrable, familiar, and historical fact that in every place and at every time there are men who like doing that sort of thing, who are good at doing it, and who use the means at hand. They seem to possess native skills that naturally draw them to seek control, not of ineffectual or weak organizations, but of strong and powerful ones. They do not take on the thankless task of building a new organization that then conquers all others; rather they set their sights on existing centers of influence. They may create a small organization as a base of operation, but the prize is the preexisting organization. (Why else did Red Guards set their sights on a putatively conservative Suit denomination such as the Episcopal Church, with its prestige, worldwide organizational network, publishing organs, schools, endowments, investment portfolios and pension funds, loyal membership, and tax-exempt properties?)
The Church, as I said, was well-organized, and it was inevitable that men seeking power should see in her organization a lever for controlling other men. They sought and achieved prominence and office in the Church.
The wealth and the influence they obtained thereby made them de facto masters of the empire, in both the East and the West. But with the decline of the imperial West came the decline of their power there. It was not long before even the bishop of Rome, the pope, was politically weak.
The subsequent history of the West is the history of the recovery of the papacy's power side by side with the growth of power of the personnel of the Church. Those personnel who saw their offices as positions of power needed both the church and the Church, the one to have at their command the organization necessary to govern and the other to enjoy legitimacy.
The Church's personnel, over the years, came as close as anyone has ever come to establishing a Permanent Regime over the West. To the extent they failed, it may have been because their purpose was at odds with the purpose of the Church. That is, the same men who were integral to the war-making states were obligated to preach peace and charity; the same men who were integral to oppression were obligated to preach mercy and justice; the same men who were integral to corruption in high places were obligated to be the instruments and teachers of holiness. The wonder is not that they lost their rule over the West, but that they could hold on to it for so long.
The distinction I have tried to draw here sounds, I confess, somewhat artificial. It is as though, as a libertarian, I am attempting to claim that the oppression done by the officials of the Church was somehow distinct from what the Church is and was. One of my friends has said that the only reason the Church is not guilty of much social crime these days is that it hasn't the power: we do not praise a serial murderer in prison for having given up a life of murder.
And there would be merit to the objection of ad hoc artificiality, except that my distinction parallels a distinction every libertarian makes in another field, and a comparison of the two while not exact, which no parallel can ever be is nevertheless instructive.
I speak of the free market.
All of us have had the experience of hearing the market condemned for the state's actions. The market causes business cycles; the market causes famine; the market causes unemployment; it oppresses the poor; it is cruel and must be restrained by the state. But our studies of history and economics have taught us to distinguish between market actions and state actions, even when the two are taken by the same people. We see businessmen whether in history or in the news investing and innovating, and we say that those are their market activities. We see the same businessmen manipulating government and, through its power, their chosen fields of endeavor, and we say that their actions were political; they were not the market at work.
The distinction serves us well, but it is difficult to see it if you are not accustomed to looking for it. We understand the need indeed, the benefit of banking, but when we see it perverted by bankers, we do not condemn banking. We see industrialists seeking regulations that will strangle their competitors, but we do not condemn industry.
Why is the market susceptible to manipulation and misuse? Because in a modern society, that is the locus of wealth and potential power. If society were so arranged that power resided in piano playing, the Dark Suits would all be pianists. If the principles of health were the bedrock of our activities, they would be doctors and pharmacists. Chiropractors and acupuncturists would wear fatigues and lead rebel bands in the hills until they were coopted by the AMA.
As society grows and expands by virtue of trade, it is trade that must be seized by those who would rule. If society should again become centered on the Church, senators will seek out monks as advisors and campaign managers.
In short, then, we do not come to understand the operation of the market by studying the predation of Dark Suits. Rather, we come to understand the nature and consequences of their actions by trying to understand the operation of the market. We do not reject what the market has to teach us because businessmen make pacts with the state.
That is not to say that students of Western history must be theologians, although possessing some theological training should help us to understand our history better. Can we understand the conflict between Henry II and his Archbishop of Canterbury without it? Can we understand the persecution of the Waldensians or the Protestant Reformation or Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon or the rise of the Bourbons in France without it? To some extent, we certainly can. But if understanding history means penetrating the motives of men, we must attempt to understand not only those motives that are common to our own lives and our own day but also those other motives that have become less familiar.
Ideas have consequences, we often say, and the same is true of ideas that have a looser hold on society than they did yesteryear. Without an accurate, if less than encyclopædic, knowledge of them, it is possible to completely misunderstand what is before our eyes. The Church being the teacher of faith and morals, her teachings must be seen as preeminent among the ideas that have affected Western history. We cannot know what those ideas are by studying only the men who held them; we can try to infer the shape of the former from the latter, but it's a risky business: if we were to attempt to understand painting without theology, we should have no way of knowing whether Michelangelo depicted the creation of man by God or of God by man. In history we likewise risk inferring imperfectly.
One thinks of the Spanish Inquisition. Modern eyes can see only intolerance and the effort of the kings of Spain to consolidate their power; a better-informed viewer can perhaps see that the role of Jews during Spain's wars against the Moors, and in Moorish society in general, partially explains Spain's desire to be rid of both peoples. A viewer yet better informed will understand that the conflict between European Iberian and Moor was not merely a struggle for power on the Iberian Peninsula; men of the day did believe what they professed, and their beliefs were not merely a cover for baser motives. Even so, all the dynamics of baser motives were at work, and they were among the motives of the personnel of the church.
But if we want to understand what the Church had to say about the Inquisition, we will have to learn something about her teaching regarding salvation and the confession of sins, and about the relationship between heresy and the Christian commonwealth. We shall have to discern the Church's teaching of the authority of the pope to understand what was going on both when he rebuked the Kings of Spain because of the Inquisition and when they responded that his Holiness would please be so kind as to recuse himself from Spain's internal political difficulties.
But whereas the Person of the Church can help us understand the actions of her personnel, the reverse is simply not true: their actions tell us nothing about her dogmas. Most particularly, they tell us nothing about whether the dogmas are true or the norms of piety effectual. To be sure, we like to see men practicing what they preach, and the history of the personnel of the church is replete with men who did not. We may be thankful that they did not preach what they practiced.
Consider this parallel with the market: Alan Greenspan wrote an article 30 years ago in favor of the gold standard.  There is nothing in his policies as a state official that would ever suggest the principles set forth in that article, but that fact does not tell us whether what he wrote is true or false. His current actions do not even tell us whether he was sincere when he wrote that article. (And because he has entered the political arena, we shall never know.) But familiarity with the workings of cause and effect in the free market can tell us whether he (and we) can expect his actions to have their desired consequences. It can tell us what other consequences they may have.
In short, when we read that the church has engaged in oppression, we can agree; but that claim does not tell us what the Church teaches. It does not tell us whether the Church is who she says she is. And it does not tell us whether what she says is true, any more than the actions of a supposedly free-market Federal Reserve chairman tell us anything about the dynamics of the free market. Ω
Posted April 3, 2002.
Published 1995 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.
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