June 23, 2011
Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism
Thank you, Robby, for your post about the liberal/conservative divide in present day “democratic” politics and culture. I am grateful for your cogent expression of some important points, and I think you have expressed them well including your acknowledgment that there are instances in which the divide does not prohibit people of good will who hold different perspectives from recognizing and acknowledging the valuable contributions that can be made by those with whom some views—be it political, social, cultural, economic, religious, etc.—are not shared but still appreciated.
I would like to offer a few complementary thoughts about the worry to which Robby refers. Is the worry real, or is it not? Is the present-day dominant Western culture that considers itself democratic inching toward authoritarianism? In this culture are the God-given rights of conscience and religious belief so vital to the foundation of democracy being pushed aside? Robby relies upon one example to reinforce his worry, the emerging case from Washington, DC.
I am sure that Professor John Banzhaf, III of the George Washington University Law School thinks he means well and is acting consistently with liberal and democratic ideals codified in the DC Human Rights Act by challenging The Catholic University of America’s decision to restore student residences to single-sex dorms.
Here it is relevant to take stock of something which CUA President John Garvey did while still Dean of Boston College’s Law School and President of the Association of American Law Schools when he raised the need for “institutional pluralism” in the American academy of the present age. Yet, Professor Banzhaf thinks otherwise by arguing that CUA will be violating the DC law presumably on the basis of discrimination in housing or public accommodation. The day that this kind of allegation against a Catholic institution could be taken seriously in one of the greatest Western democracies has been forecasted in the past.
In 1960 Christopher Dawson contended that even the Western democracies, which would include the United States, had the potential for becoming totalitarian states through an aggressive assertion of state authority. As he said:
the modern state exerts no less authority underground in the subway and the air raid shelter than it does on the earth and in the air. The totalitarian state—and perhaps the modern state in general—is not satisfied with passive obedience; it demands full co-operation from the cradle to the grave. Consequently the challenge of secularism must be met on the cultural level, if it is to be met at all; and if Christians cannot assert their right to exist in the sphere of higher education, they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture but out of physical existence. That is already the issue in Communist countries, and it will also become the issue in England and America if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them.
It strikes me that John Garvey, a friend to many of us here at the Mirror of Justice, is doing the very thing that Dawson exhorted, that is, to defend the right to exist in the sphere of higher education in a Catholic, Christian manner. But he is not without opposition. Professor Banzhaf appears intent on denying him and CUA that very right that is logical, reasonable, and essential to the raison d’être of Catholic higher education by relying on the tools that the state has provided, perhaps unintentionally, to declare that student housing that is designed to cultivate the virtuous life is in fact discrimination in housing and/or public accommodation.
But the foreshadowing does not end with Dawson’s warning from over fifty years ago. Let us fast forward to the 1990s when Blessed John Paul II occupied the Chair of Peter and exercised his office. He understood the concerns that Dawson expressed in his 1991 encyclical letter Centesimus Annus wherein he said:
Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the “subjectivity” of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility. Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. (italics supplied)
A few years later in 1995 in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul reiterated his concern about the inopportune evolution of democracy when he stated:
In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the “common home” where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State...
So what is one to do regarding these and other developments in the great democracies of today where long-held values and traditions are merely tolerated if they are not, in fact, designated for annihilation?
First we must pray to our merciful God for guidance and His generous assistance. Second, we can muster the wisdom with which God abundantly blesses us to chart a prudent but firm course through the political, social, and cultural storms of our own times. And third, as Robby has suggested, we can reach out in friendship to those with whom we may not share Christian belief and certain values but nevertheless possess the same dislike of authoritarianism.
Critics may argue that the Church is authoritarian and what is asked in my third point is therefore nonsense. But is it, is it really? I suggest that the Church is not authoritarian. She is an authority without question, but she is the Body of Christ who seeks that which is good for all members of the human family by propostion rather than imposition. On the other hand, it seems that, for the time being, Professor Banzhaf is intent on imposing his understanding of democracy, which seems an awful lot like a thinly disguised totalitarianism, on the Christian community that calls itself The Catholic University of America.
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