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1828

“A Religious Corporation:” Guizot’s Fifth Lecture

“The Church, indeed, taken as a whole, has been constantly changing—constantly advancing—her history is diversified and progressive.”

Editor’s Note

In his fifth lecture, Guizot began his sweeping history of the Catholic Church and its contributions to western civilization.  The Roman Empire was a conglomeration of municipal corporations and as Western Rome receded, bishoprics, monasteries, and churches replaced imperial governing institutions. Our lecturer chastises his enlightened peers, many of whom would scoff that law and order may only emanate from political bodies.  Guizot instead argues that any institutions which coordinate their activities on the basis of serving members’ interests provide the means for an orderly, prosperous society.  Priests replaced aristocrats, missionaries conquered more thoroughly than legions, and the pope’s moral force outshone the emperor’s gravitas. As with all governing institutions, however, the Church, too, calcified over the centuries. What began as a natural, spontaneously-ordered institution itself grew into a tool to protect and advance the interests of those to whom power was granted. While the Church played an historically important role in checking the power of temporal rulers and promoting a morally-ordered society, the pressure of time ensured that she would attempt to monopolize power and bury western civilization in mysticism.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company.  1896.

LECTURE V.: THE CHURCH.

[Church society] was almost completely organized before the close of the fifth century. Not that it has not undergone many and important changes since that period, but from this time the Church, considered as a corporation, as the government of the Christian world, may be said to have attained a complete and independent existence…

The municipal system, in the fifth century, was no more than a fragment of the Roman empire, a shadow without life, or definite form. The feudal system was still a chaos. Monarchy existed only in name. All the civil elements of modern society were either in their decline or infancy. The Church alone possessed youth and vigor; she alone possessed at the same time a definite form, with activity and strength; she alone possessed at once movement and order, energy and system, that is to say, the two greatest means of influence. Is it not, let me ask you, by mental vigor, by intellectual movement on one side, and by order and discipline on the other, that all institutions acquire their power and influence over society? The Church, moreover, awakened attention to, and agitated all the great questions which interest man; she busied herself with all the great problems of his nature, with all he had to hope or fear for futurity. Hence her influence upon modern civilization has been so powerful—more powerful, perhaps, than its most violent adversaries, or its most zealous defenders, have supposed. They, eager to advance or abuse her, have only regarded the Church in a contentious point of view; and with that contracted spirit which controversy engenders, how could they do her justice, or grasp the full scope of her sway?

To us, the Church, in the fifth century, appears as an organized and independent society, interposed between the masters of the world, the sovereigns, the possessors of temporal power, and the people, serving as a connecting link between them, and exercising its influence over all…

In the opinion of many enlightened persons, the very notion of a religious corporation, of a priesthood, of a government of religion, is absurd. They believe that a religion, whose object is the establishment of a clerical body, of a priesthood legally constituted, in short, of a government of religion, must exercise, upon the whole, an influence more dangerous than useful. In their opinion religion is a matter purely individual betwixt man and God; and that whenever religion loses this character, whenever an exterior authority interferes between the individual and the object of his religious belief, that is, between him and God, religion is corrupted, and society in danger…

A religious society once formed, when a certain number of men are joined together by the same religious opinions and belief, yield obedience to the same law of religious precepts, and are inspired with the same religious hopes, needs a government. No society can exist a week, no, not even an hour, without a government. At the very instant in which a society is formed, by the very act of its formation it calls forth a government, which proclaims the common truth that holds them together, which promulgates and maintains the precepts that this truth may be expected to bring forth. That a religious society, like all others requires a controlling power, a government, is implied in the very fact that a society exists.

And not only is a government necessary, but it naturally arises of itself…When matters are left to take their natural course, when no exterior force is applied to drive them from their usual route, power will fall into the hands of the most capable, of the most worthy, into the hands of those who will lead society on its way…The same inequality of faculties and of influence, which gives rise to power in civil society, will be found to exist in religious society. Missionaries, like generals, go forth to conquer. So that while, on the one hand, religious government naturally flows from the nature of religious society, it as naturally develops itself, on the other, by the simple effect of human faculties, and their unequal distribution.

Thus the moment that religion takes possession of a man, a religious society begins to be formed; and the moment this religious society appears it gives birth to a government…

Let us quit religion for a moment, and turn to civil governments. Trace with me, I beseech you, the simple march of circumstances. Society exists. Something is to be done, no matter what, in its name and for its interests; a law has to be executed, some measure to be adopted, a judgment to be pronounced. Now, certainly, there is a proper method of supplying these social wants; there is a proper law to make, a proper measure to adopt, a proper judgment to pronounce. Whatever may be the matter in hand, whatever may be the interest in question, there is, upon every occasion, a truth which must be discovered, and which ought to decide the matter, and govern the conduct to be adopted.

The first business of government is to seek this truth, is to discover what is just, reasonable, and suitable to society. When this is found, it is proclaimed: the next business is to introduce it to the public mind; to get it approved by the men upon whom it is to act; to persuade them that it is reasonable. In all this is there anything coercive? Not at all. Suppose now that the truth which ought to decide upon the affair, no matter what; suppose, I say, that the truth being found and proclaimed, all understandings should be at once convinced; all wills at once determined; that all should acknowledge that the government was right, and obey it spontaneously. There is nothing yet of compulsion, no occasion for the employment of force. Does it follow then that a government does not exist? Is there nothing of government in all this? To be sure there is a government, and it has accomplished its task. Compulsion appears not till the resistance of individuals calls for it—till the idea, the decision which authority has adopted, fails to obtain the approbation or the voluntary submission of all. Then government employs force to make itself obeyed. This is a necessary consequence of human imperfection; an imperfection which resides as well in power as in society. There is no way of entirely avoiding this; civil governments will always be obliged to have recourse, to a certain degree, to compulsion. Still it is evident they are not made up of compulsion, because, whenever they can, they are glad to do without it, to the great blessing of all…Government, by addressing itself to the understanding, by engaging the free-will of its subjects, by acting by means purely intellectual, instead of contracting, expands and elevates itself; it is then that it accomplishes most, and attains to the grandest objects. On the contrary, it is when government is obliged to be constantly employing its physical arm that it becomes weak and restrained—that it does little, and does that little badly.

The essence of government then by no means resides in compulsion, in the exercise of brute force; it consists more especially of a system of means and powers, conceived for the purpose of discovering upon all occasions what is best to be done; for the purpose of discovering the truth which by right ought to govern society, for the purpose of persuading all men to acknowledge this truth, to adopt and respect it willingly and freely. Thus I think I have shown that the necessity for, and the existence of a government, are very conceivable, even though there should be no room for compulsion, even though it should be absolutely forbidden.

This is exactly the case in the government of religious society. There is no doubt but compulsion is here strictly forbidden; there can be no doubt, as its only territory is the conscience of man, but that every species of force must be illegal, whatever may be the end designed. But government does not exist the less on this account. It still has to perform all the duties which we have just now enumerated. It is incumbent upon it to seek out the religious doctrines which resolve the problems of human destiny; or, if a general system of faith beforehand exists, in which these problems are already resolved, it will be its duty to discover and set forth its consequences in each particular case. It will be its duty to promulgate and maintain the precepts which correspond to its doctrines. It will be its duty to preach them, to teach them, and, if society wanders from them, to bring it back again to the right path. No compulsion; but the investigation, the preaching, the teaching of religious truths; the administering to religious wants; admonishing; censuring; this is the task which religious government has to perform. Suppress all force and coercion as much as you desire, still you will see all the essential questions connected with the organization of a government present themselves before you, and demand a solution. The question, for example, whether a body of religious magistrates is necessary, or whether it is possible to trust to the religious inspiration of individuals? This question, which is a subject of debate between most religious societies and that of the Quakers, will always exist, it must always remain a matter of discussion…

Instead, then, of reproaching the Church, the government of the Christian world, with its existence, let us examine how it was constituted, and see whether its principles correspond with the two essential conditions of all good government…

Not only is the Church entirely free from [the concept of caste,] but she has constantly maintained the principle, that all men, whatever their origin, are equally privileged to enter her ranks, to fill her highest offices, to enjoy her proudest dignities. The ecclesiastical career, particularly from the fifth to the twelfth century, was open to all. The Church was recruited from all ranks of society, from the lower as well as the higher, indeed, most frequently from the lower. When all around her fell under the tyranny of privilege, she alone maintained the principle of equality, of competition and emulation; she alone called the superior of all classes to the possession of power. This is the first great consequence which naturally flowed from the fact that the Church was a corporation and not a caste…

The Church, indeed, taken as a whole, has been constantly changing—constantly advancing—her history is diversified and progressive. Can it be doubted that she was indebted for this to the admission of all classes to the priestly offices, to the continual filling up of her ranks, upon a principle of equality, by which a stream of young and vigorous blood was ever flowing into her veins, keeping her unceasingly active and stirring, and defending her from the reproach of apathy and immobility which might otherwise have triumphed over her?…

The ordination of priests, for example, the power of raising a man to the priestly office, rested solely with the superior. He alone made choice of the candidate for holy orders… At Rome, the pope was elected by the college of cardinals; and, at an earlier date, even all the Roman clergy had a voice in his election. You may here clearly observe, then, the two principles, the choice of the inferior by the superior, and the election of the superior by the subordinates; which were admitted and acted upon in the Church, particularly at the period which now engages our attention. It was by one of these two means that men were appointed to the various offices in the Church, or obtained any portion of ecclesiastical authority.

These two principles were not only in operation at the same time, but being altogether opposite in their nature, a constant struggle prevailed between them. After a strife for centuries, after many vicissitudes, the nomination of the inferior by the superior gained the day in the Christian church. Yet, from the fifth to the twelfth century, the opposite principle, the election of the superior by the subordinates, continued generally to prevail…

With regard to the second condition of a good government, namely, a respect for liberty, that of the Church leaves much to be desired.

Two bad principles here met together. One avowed, forming part and parcel, as it were, of the doctrines of the Church; the other, in no way a legitimate consequence of her doctrines, was introduced into her bosom by human weakness.

The first was a denial of the rights of individual reason—the claim of transmitting points of faith from the highest authority, downwards, throughout the whole religious body, without allowing to any one the right of examining them for himself. But it was more easy to lay this down as a principle than to carry it out in practice; and the reason is obvious, for a conviction cannot enter into the human mind unless the human mind first opens the door to it; it cannot enter by force. In whatever way it may present itself, whatever name it may invoke, reason looks to it, and if it forces an entrance, it is because reason is satisfied…

We again discover here that character of discordance, of diversity, of strife, to which I formerly called your attention, as the fundamental character of European civilization…Governments do not profess to carry their rule further than this. With regard to human thought, to the human conscience, to the intellectual powers of man; with regard to individual opinions, to private morals,—with these they do not interfere: this would be to invade the domain of liberty.

The Christian church did, and was bent upon doing, exactly the contrary. What she undertook to govern was the human thought, human liberty, private morals, individual opinions. She did not draw up a code like ours, which took account only of those crimes that are at the same time offensive to morals and dangerous to society, punishing them only when, and because, they bore this twofold character; but prepared a catalogue of all those actions, criminal more particularly in a moral point of view, and punished them all under the name of sins. Her aim was their entire suppression…The Church, then, by the very nature of its undertaking, combined with the nature of some of the principles upon which its government was founded, stood in great peril of falling into tyranny; of an illegitimate employment of force. In the mean time, this force was encountered by a resistance within the Church itself, which it could never overcome. Human thought and liberty, however fettered, however confined for room and space in which to exercise their faculties, oppose with so much energy every attempt to enslave them, that their reaction makes even despotism itself to yield, and give up something every moment. This took place in the very bosom of the Christian church…And yet where can we find a society in which individual reason more boldly developed itself than in the Church? What are sects and heresies, if not the fruit of individual opinions?…

When at the fall of the western empire, when, instead of the ancient Roman government, under which the Church had been born, under which she had grown up, with which she had common habits and old connections, she found herself surrounded by barbarian kings, by barbarian chieftains, wandering from place to place, or shut up in their castles, with whom she had nothing in common, between whom and her there was as yet no tie—neither traditions, nor creeds, nor feelings; her danger appeared great, and her fears were equally so…

But even when they had become settled and converted, even after the growth of some common ties between them, the danger of the Church was not over. The brutality, the unthinking, the unreflecting character of the barbarians were so great, that the new faith, the new feelings with which they had been inspired, exercised but a very slight empire over them. When every part of society fell a prey to violence, the Church could scarcely hope altogether to escape. To save herself she announced a principle, which had already been set up, though but very vaguely, under the empire; the separation of spiritual and temporal power, and their mutual independence. It was by the aid of this principle that the Church dwelt freely by the side of the barbarians; she maintained that force had no authority over religious belief, hopes, or promises, and that the spiritual and temporal worlds are completely distinct.

You cannot fail to see at once the beneficial consequences which have resulted from this principle. Independently of the temporary service it was of to the Church, it has had the inestimable effect of founding in justice the separation of the two authorities, of preventing one from controlling the other. In addition to this, the Church, by asserting the independence of the intellectual world, in its collective form, prepared the independence of the intellectual world in individuals—the independence of thought. The Church declared that the system of religious belief could not be brought under the yoke of force, and each individual has been led to hold the same language for himself. The principle of free inquiry, the liberty of individual thought, is exactly the same as that of the independence of the spiritual authority in general, with regard to temporal power.

The desire for liberty, unfortunately, is but a step from the desire for power. The Church soon passed from one to the other. When she had established her independence, it was in accordance with the natural course of ambition that she should attempt to raise her spiritual authority above temporal authority. We must not, however, suppose that this claim had no other origin than the weaknesses of humanity; some of these are very profound, and it is of importance that they should be known…

The spiritual power, finding itself thus in possession of all the intelligence of the age, at the head of all intellectual activity, was naturally enough led to arrogate to itself the general government of the world…

For some centuries past men might speak, with a degree of confidence, of temporal power; but temporal power, at the epoch of which we are speaking, was mere brutal force, a system of rapine and violence. The Church, however imperfect might be her notions of morality and justice, was infinitely superior to a temporal government such as this; and the cry of the people continually urged her to take its place.

When a pope or bishop proclaimed that a sovereign had lost his rights, that his subjects were released from their oath of fidelity, this interference, though undoubtedly liable to the greatest abuses, was often, in the particular case to which it was directed, just and salutary. It generally holds, indeed, that where liberty is wanting, religion, in a great measure, supplies its place. In the tenth century, the oppressed nations were not in a state to protect themselves, to defend their rights against civil violence—religion, in the name of Heaven, placed itself between them. This is one of the causes which most contributed to the success of the usurpations of the Church…

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