The Case for Republican Ecclesiology

My friend Stephen Klugewicz has a post on the virtues of republicanism and the dangers of strong executives that has me wondering about what the laws of nature teach about the polity of the church. He writes:

The figure of Brutus—the assassin of the tyrant— cast a long shadow over American history. “Brutus” became the pseudonym of one of the most famous Antifederalist authors (probably Robert Yates of New York), who wrote essays in opposition to the proposed Constitution of 1787, which he believed dangerously consolidated power in the central government. In setting up their own republic, the American Founders looked to the Roman Republic as a model for what they should be and to the Roman Empire embodied by Caesar as a portent of what they feared the republic could become. Americans feared that liberty was fragile and that the republic could be undone by the ambition of one man.

The Framers of the American Constitution were indeed wary of the rise of a Caesar —after all, King George III was in their minds—and designed the presidency with great care in an effort to prevent any abuse of executive power. Under the Articles of Confederation, there had been no executive, no judicial branch. The government consisted of a unicameral legislature, which lacked, among other powers, the authority to tax either the people directly or the states. All that the Congress could do was request money from the states. It was the perceived weakness of this government that sparked the call for the Philadelphia convention of 1787.

Ironically, the title of the post is “The American Republic and the Long Shadow of Rome.” This is ironic because when Americans of the founding generation thought of Rome they did not merely think of Cato or Caesar or Brutus. They also thought about Boniface VIII or Clement VII. And when they thought of the Roman pontiffs, the sacred kind, they were not thinking of republicanism. For what the papacy represented to most Americans — all the way down to Vatican II — was not republicanism but monarchicalism of the most absolute kind, as in God’s vicegerent on earth (who delegates the civil sword to the magistrate).

The irony grows when you consider the reasons Klugewicz offers for fearing a strong executive in the form of one man:

In setting up their own republic, the American Founders looked to the Roman Republic as a model for what they should be and to the Roman Empire embodied by Caesar as a portent of what they feared the republic could become. Americans feared that liberty was fragile and that the republic could be undone by the ambition of one man.

(He also mentions that republican virtues included frugality, honesty, and humility. “To indulge in luxury and ‘baubles’ was seen to be effeminate, the opposite of being republican. Patriot leader Samuel Adams, the archetypal ‘old republican’ who made it a point to dress simply, pined for the creation of a “Christian Sparta” on the American continent.”)

The American founders were suspicious of Roman Catholicism in part for precisely the reasons that informed republicanism, namely, the danger of too much power in one officer’s hands.

In the ecclesiastical realm, objections to monarchical structures generated conciliarist efforts to reign in papal supremacy, reforms that the Protestant Reformers would later invoke. The logic seemed to be the same in both cases — beware the centralization of power in one executive. Lord Acton gave this outlook a slogan when he, a Roman Catholic in England, said in response to the claims of papal infallibility, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Of course, the Roman Catholic answer to ecclesiastical republicanism, I suppose, is that the charism of the papacy makes all the difference. Absolute power in the hands of one man is conceivably benign when bestowed and preserved by the third person of the Trinity.

Even so, Roman Catholic teaching of late (at least) suggests that the doctrine of charmism can be reconciled with ecclesiastical republicanism. For instance, the Callers observe that when bishops speak as a whole they have the charism of are infallibility. Another points out that the charism of infallibility extends to the entire people of God. “The Charism of infallibility belongs not uniquely to the Bishop of Rome, but to the Church. This includes the Pope, the Bishops, and the faithful.”

If the charism is not reserved to the pope but extends throughout the church, then a republican ecclesiology, one that places checks and balances on the executive branch, would seem to be possible even for the Roman Catholic Church. Without it, the divergence between celebrating the infallible papacy and decrying the imperial presidency hearkens back to the dissonance that Roman Catholics in the U.S. once experienced when the papacy was not enthusiastic about republican governments.