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Catholic Political Thought

  Catholic political thought has profoundly affected the development of Western political institutions. The systematization of Roman Catholic canon law from the 12th to the 15th centuries and its interpretation during the Middle Ages and after especially influenced the development of Western liberal constitutional and legal traditions. The canonists originated the systematic application of universal moral codes to legal questions, and were directly responsible for clarifying how constitutional monarchy, secular authority, elections, corporate bodies and consent could and should operate within a system of natural (as opposed to divine) law, and they were indirectly responsible for developing the idea of sovereignty. Even the idea of ‘subsidiarity’, the maxim that decisions should be carried out at the most appropriate level in the organizational hierarchy, is owed to the Catholic schoolmen. The synthesis of Aristotelian ideas and Christian revelation carried out by St, Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) was the apogee of medieval Catholic thought. Aquinas argued that states had positive roles to play, not simply in preventing war, but as expressions of divine providence; politics could and should be guided by Christian ethics.

The primary changes in Catholic political thought since medieval times reflect the transformation of the relationship between the church hierarchy and the temporal authorities. The internal struggle between conciliarism and papalism represented reformist challenges to the church\'s authority. Conciliarism emerged as a means of solving the Great Schism in the early 15th century. However, papal supremacy returned following the crises of the Protestant Reformation. In the post-reformation era, following the Treaty of Westphalia, the partial restoration of Catholic influence in Europe led to a renewed challenge to papalism by the Gallican and Jansenist movements in 17th-and 18th-century France. The conciliarist challenge to papal absolutism was aided by the French Revolution after which Napoleon concluded a concordat with Pope Pius VII in 1801 in which the state assumed ultimate control over church property and administration.

In the 19th century, within the diminished temporal realm of the Vatican, papalism regained the ascendancy under Pius IX, who restated the doctrine of papal infallibility, and denounced socialism, non-denominational education and civil marriage and other products of democratic and secular political thought in the Syllabus of Errors (1864). However, a more modernist approach was articulated by some Catholic corporatists towards the end of the century, who recognized the need for the Church to adapt to industrial society, democracy and class conflict. Authoritarian Catholicism consolidated its position during the inter-war years when key figures seemed to embrace the same conservative, anti-republican, anti-communist doctrines which gave rise to fascism in Italy, Germany and Austria. However, the tacit acceptance of the early fascist movements discredited the church when the excesses of the Nazi régime were made public. Once again, a crisis of legitimacy undermined papal authoritarianism and a new era of conciliarism emerged under the Second Vatican Council of Pope John XXIII and his successor Paul VI. The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) represented not only a return to conciliarism within the church but also a significant liberalization of church doctrine from one of doctrinal absolutism to relativism, advocating ecumenism, subjective morality, a liberalization of the liturgy and the legitimacy of theological dissent; moreover Catholics now clearly accepted democratic and some types of socialist politics.

The new theology was a recognition of the declining acceptance of Catholicism\'s legitimacy as the universal Christian church. The influence of modern Catholic political thought within a given society is affected mainly by two factors: the level of modernization (or secularization) and the strength of competing ideologies or religions. But whatever their impact might be Catholics increasingly develop their political thinking under the influence of local and secular politics rather than papal or canonist influences. BO\'L

Further reading J.H. Berman, Law and Revolution: the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition; , N. Novak, Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions: Freedom with Justice; , W. Ullmann Medieval Papalism: the Political Theories of the Medieval Canonists.



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