Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Reformation Day: Bringin' It

Tom says, "[a]ll right, Rick!  Let's have a good old fashioned Protestant-Catholic brawl on Reformation Day."  Here we go! 

Oh wait, I don't think we disagree (that much)!  Tom writes:

[T]he Reformation emphasized the importance of individual conscience, which certainly plays an important role in arguments for political freedom.  (I know, I know, unmitigated individualism leads to (a) the need for a Hobbesian Leviathan to control things and (b) unrestrained wants for which people demand big government to make provision and (c) the destruction of intermediate institutions; and the Reformation brought all that on.  We'd have to have a long conversation about whether Protestantism meant unmitigated conscience, and what the status of conscience was in medieval Catholicism, and probably some other things as well.)

I guess in posing my thesis -- "Contrary to widely held belief, the Reformation was, on balance, a bad thing for political freedom." -- I was thinking about (a), (b), and (c). 

Tom also makes a nice point about the connection between the fact of disagreement (i.e., the reality of pluralism) and political freedom.  I am not sure, though, that I agree with Tom that "the fact of disagreement" is something for which the Reformation is responsible.  I mean, there was disagreement (lots of it!) before, during, and after the Reformation, and I'm not sure there was really more pluralism in England under Elizabeth and James than under the pre-divorce Henry.

It seems to me that our understanding of political freedom depended largely on the medieval struggle (described by John Courtney Murray, and also wonderfully by Harold Berman) for the "Freedom of the Church," that is, for the principle that the political authority is not the sole authority.  It seems to me that meaningful political freedom depends largely, if not entirely, on a thick civil society, on competing norm-generating communities, and on ideas of limited government.  We owe these latter ideas, in particular, to the Church's rejection of secular authority's claims over the Church.  The Reformation, in a nutshell, not only eradicated the "middle man" between the individual and (speaking anachronistically, I know) the state, but also undermined the primary check on the state's ambitions.


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