French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe

In a letter to the editor of First Things, my brother Benedict objects to Pierre Manent’s claim that while Western Christianity was born in an imperial form, it “found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called ‘Christendom,’ then ‘Europe:’”

To me, the nation-state does not mean heroic unity in the face of foreign invasion, but World War I: the destruction of the supranational Danube ­Empire and the creation by violence and forced emigration of homogenous nation-states. […] For Dante, it was precisely the inability of Christendom to unify under a single emperor, Ottoman-style, that was its downfall. Nothing illustrates the failure of the loose federal Christendom model better than its inability to unite against the external threat of the sultan’s armies. French national interest, Venetian national interest, Hungarian national interest prohibited a united effort, and the result was the Ottoman conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula and untold suffering for its Christian inhabitants.

As the example of Dante shows, Medieval Christendom all the way to the end was inspired by the imperial ideal of a universal temporal order. Virgil can be said to be the “father of Europe,” partly because of his imperial ideal was subsidiarist ideal that left room for local piety. And the Roman Church— from Pope Gelasius’s Famuli vestrae pietatis to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’— has never given up the ideal of a universal temporal power, corresponding in some way to her universal spiritual power.

The ideal was, however, never fully realized, and was made almost impossible by the forces that brought the Middle Ages to an end. Arguably the estrangement of Byzantium and Rome had already made the ideal of empire unattainable, but it was the Reformation that made even a semi-empire in the West practically impossible. And sadly “French national interest” had an important role in making the Reformation possible, preventing it from being reversed, and preventing the emergence of a post-Reformation empire in the parts of Europe that remained Catholic.

However much the medieval popes and emperors quarreled, they always shared a basically imperial idea of Christendom. The quarrel between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII on the other hand was quite a different thing: it was (among other things) a quarrel between an imperial and a national ideal of human of common life. This was the beginning of the end of the Medieval Christendom. There followed the Avignon exile of the papacy, and then the conflicts between France and the Habsburgs. If France had supported the emperor in the 30 Years War, it is likely that the Reformation could have been reversed. Even afterwards, “French National Interest” continued to make a semi-empire in Catholic Europe impossible. Charles VI losing the War of Spanish Succession to the French was almost as great a blow to the Holy Roman Empire as Francis II formally dissolving it under the pressure of Napoleonic French aggression, less than a century later. Fittingly, it was Charles VI, who left one of the most beautiful symbolic monuments of the empire: the Karlskirche. I celebrate Mass in the Karlskirche from time to time for Una Voce Austria, and it always makes me reflect on the nature of Christendom.


The Karlskirche

As Friedrich Polleroß has pointed out, the Karlskirche is meant to remind us of the Solomonic Temple, the temples of pagan Rome, Hagia Sophia, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The classical portico stands for the heritage of imperial Rome, the two great pillars stand both for the for the pillars of Hercules and for Jachin and Boas. The pillars of Hercules show that the empire is to stretch to the ends of the earth. But Jachin and Boas show that the emperor is the new Solomon; above the classical portico is a dome reminiscent of the cupola of St. Peter’s— the Holy Roman Empire exists for the exaltation of the Holy Roman Church.

Pierre Manent is of course right that the EU is antithetical to the true spirit of Christendom, but it is ironic that he praises French nationalism as conformable with that spirit. Oddly enough, the EU was largely put together by Frenchmen. It is even said that Alexandre Kojève was an influence, after his dream of a Latin (i.e. French) Empire failed to materialize.

Postscript: lest I be accused of Francophobia: France is awesome.


My Review of Houellebecq’s Soummision

As promised, I have now completed a review of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel:

Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Soumission has generated so much commentary since its publication on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders that many readers will already know the basic outline of the plot. Seven years from now France comes under the power of a Muslim party, and a quiet process of Islamization sets in. Politicians and journalists who know only the outline have assumed that Houellebecq’s story is islamophobic, but careful readers of the book have agreed with his own protestations that this is not at all the case… Read the rest on Ethika Politika

Michel Houellebecq on France’s Distributist Future

I recently listened to an audiobook of the German translation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Soumission— which, as most readers will know, is about Muslim party taking power in France. I am working on a review, and have been checking my favorite passages in the French original. I hope to complete the full review soon, but in the mean time here is a  rough translation of some passages in which Houellebecq discusses distributism. The main objective of the new government is to strengthen the family, and for this purpose they turn to distributism:

Apart from this superficial agitation, France was in the midst of rapid development and profound change. It soon became clear that Mohammed Ben Abbes [the new Muslim president of France] had other ideas apart from Islam; in a press conference he declared to general astonishment that he was influenced by distributism. Actually he had already mentioned this multiple times during his campaign, but since journalists are very naturally inclined to ignore information that they cannot understand, these statements were not passed on to the public. This time he was the sitting president of the republic so that it was necessary for them to bring their research up to date. And so the public learned over the next few weeks that distributism was an economic philosophy that had been developed in England at the start of the 20th century by thinkers such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.  […] An essential element of political philosophy introduced by Chesterton and Belloc was the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, no association (whether social, economic or political) should have charge of a function that could be assigned to a smaller association. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, provided a definition of this principle: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

(Au-delà de cette agitation superficielle, la France était en train d’évoluer rapidement, et d’évoluer en profondeur. Il apparut bientôt que Mohammed Ben Abbes, même indépendamment de l’islam, avait des idées ; lors d’une séance de questions à la presse, il se déclara influencé par le distributivisme, ce qui plongea ses auditeurs dans un ébahissement général. Il l’avait à vrai dire déjà déclaré, à plusieurs reprises, au cours de la campagne présidentielle ; mais les journalistes ayant une tendance bien naturelle à ignorer les informations qu’ils ne comprennent pas, la déclaration n’avait été ni relevée, ni reprise. Cette fois, il s’agissait d’un président de la république en exercice, il devenait donc indispensable qu’ils mettent à jour leur documentation. Le grand public apprit ainsi au cours des semaines suivantes que le distributivisme était une philosophie économique apparue en Angleterre au début du xxe siècle sous l’impulsion des penseurs Gilbert Keith Chesterton et Hilaire Belloc. Elle se voulait une « troisième voie », s’écartant aussi bien du capitalisme que du communisme – assimilé à un capitalisme d’État. Son idée de base était la suppression de la séparation entre le capital et le travail. La forme normale de l’économie y était l’entreprise familiale ; lorsqu’il devenait nécessaire, pour certaines productions, de se réunir dans des entités plus vastes, tout devait être fait pour que les travailleurs soient actionnaires de leur entreprise, et coresponsables de sa gestion. […] Un des éléments essentiels de la philosophie politique introduite par Chesterton et Belloc était le principe de subsidiarité. D’après ce principe, aucune entité (sociale, économique ou politique) ne devait prendre en charge une fonction pouvant être confiée à une entité plus petite. Le pape Pie XI, dans son ency- clique Quadragesimo Anno, fournissait une définition de ce principe: «Tout comme il est mauvais de reti- rer à l’individu et de confier à la communauté ce que l’entreprise privée et l’industrie peuvent accomplir, c’est également une grande injustice, un mal sérieux et une perturbation de l’ordre convenable pour une organisation supérieure plus large de s’arroger les fonctions qui peuvent être effectuées efficacement par des entités inférieures plus petites.»  [Soumission, pp. 201-202, 210])

Fanaticism vs. Devotion

In a comment on my last post Michael Bolin does a good job of defending the Newman passage that I used to show that one should not be for moderation in religion, even in false religion. Nevertheless, I think Samantha Cohoe is right that the passage is not applicable to the case of St Paul before his conversion. Even after one has dismissed the bogus moderate/extreme distinction in religion one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Jeremy Holmes provided the following distinction on Facebook (quoted with permission): Continue reading

“The poor and the despised: this is who we must defend ourselves against?”

In my Charlie Hebdo piece I tried to understand how the anti-bourgeois left will use the affair to promote it’s agenda. Obviously, I have little sympathy for the positive ideals of the heirs of Robespierre and Lenin. But their negative critique of bourgeois society, and their sense of the crying injustice done to the weakest and poorest is very powerful. There is much distortion in it, yes, much misunderstanding, a good amount of inconsistency and self-contradiction; but there is also much truth, and this is the source of the enduring allure of radical leftism. By far the most powerful and moving piece on the Charlie Hebdo murders that I have read is by Sam Kriss. Much of what he says is questionable, but much more of it is clearly true: Continue reading

Charlie Hebdo and the Secularist Long Game

place des terreaux

Ah birbone! ah dannato! ah assassino! Villain! Wretch! Murderer!’  shouted Renzo, striding up and down the room, and grasping the hilt of his dagger every so often…. He stopped suddenly in front of the weeping girl, looked at her with sad and angry tenderness, and said: ‘I’ll make sure he never does a thing like this again.’ ‘No, Renzo, no! — not that, for the love of Heaven!’ cried Lucia. ‘God is the God of the poor and oppressed; but how can you expect him to help us if we do evil?’ (Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, ch. 3)

The cliché that evil begets evil is true not only in it’s obvious sense (that righteous anger and zeal for justice can quickly turn to  hatred, revenge, and unlawful violence), but also in the sense that such reaction itself provides occasion for the long term strategies of well meaning but thoroughly mischievous movements. Continue reading

Solemn Professions of French Dominican Sisters with Bishop Athanasius Schneider

EinkleidungAn acquaintance of mine from southern Austria is a postulant with the „Dominicaines du Saint-Esprit“ an “Ecclesia Dei” community of Dominican sisters, who teach in schools. She sent me some pictures of the solemn profession of some sisters. The the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan Msgr. Athanasius Schneider, O.R.C. celebrated the Mass of Profession. Among the sisters professing vows were two Austrians — Mère Marie Barbara and Mère Maria Lucia. There is a long tradition of Austrians going to France in search of a particularly fervant religious life– Bl. Otto of Freising the son of St Leopold of Austria, for instance, went to Morimond Abbey. What is it with France and religious communities? Even in these days there is an extraordinary flourishing of various communities that have returned to the sources of religious life.

The history of France is so frustrating because France has such authentic greatness, and corruptio optimi pessima. As Thomas Merton remarks in The Seven Storey Mountain. 

And yet it was France that grew the finest flowers of delicacy and grace and intelligence and wit and understanding and proportion and taste. Even the countryside, even the landscape of France, whether in the low hills and lush meadows and apple orchards of Normandy or in the sharp and arid and vivid outline of the mountains of Provence, or in the vast, rolling red vineyards of Languedoc, seems to have been made full of a special perfection, as a setting for the best of the cathedrals, the most interesting towns, the most fervent monasteries, and the greatest universities.
But the wonderful thing about France is how all her perfections harmonize so fully together. She has possessed all the skills, from cooking to logic and theology, from bridge-building to contemplation, from vine-growing to sculpture, from cattle-breeding to prayer: and possessed them more perfectly, separately and together, than any other nation. Why is it that the songs of the little French children are more graceful, their speech more intelligent and sober, their eyes calmer and more profound than those of the children of other nations? Who can explain these things?

The Sovereign as the Personification of National Unity

As today is Bastille Day and I happen to be in France I want to post something fittingly royalist. I have just been reading Alan Fimister’s fascinating book on Catholic social teaching and the founding of the EU: Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe. According to Fimister, Robert Schuman –  the French foreign minister considered the “father” of the EU – so closely conformed to the model of politician that Pope Leo XIII envisioned that “if he were a saint of the dark ages historians would assume his ‘life’ was largely fictional” (p.28). This means that he was a republican — that is, he was part of the movement of “ralliement,” of rallying to the Republic on the basis of the fact that a republican form of government is not per se contrary to the natural law. Nevertheless, Schuman account of how the sentiments of patriotism were first wakened in his heart is just what a monarchist would desire. It was in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where Schuman happened to have been born:

It is in Luxembourg that I acquired the first notions of patriotism. It was in 1890 under the Grand Ducal balcony. The people acclaimed Grand Duke Adolf who came to make his solemn entry into the capital. I was a little boy of four years old lost in the crowd. I was enflamed by its enthusiasm and taken up in its pride. With everyone else I sang -as best I could [tant bien que mal]- the Fierewonn : ‘Wir welle ja ken Preisse sin’ – before all else we didn’t want to be Prussians. I only came to know the Marseillaise later. Henceforth I knew what it is to love one’s country, and the attachment to the sovereign who personifies and guarantees the unity, continuity and independence of the nation. (p. 145)

This is a marvelous demonstration of St Thomas’s principle that the common good exists primarily in the sovereign:

Since love looks to the good, there is a diversity of love according as there is a diversity of the good. There is, however, a certain good proper to each man considered as one person, and as far as loving this good is concerned, each one is the principal object of his own love. But there is a certain common good which pertains to this man or that man insofar as he is considered as part of a whole; thus there is a certain common good pertaining to a soldier considered as part of the army, or to a citizen as part of the state. As far as loving this common good is concerned, the principal object of love is that in which the good primarily exists; just as the good of the army is in the general, or the good of the state is in the king. Whence, it is the duty of a good soldier that he neglects even his own safety in order to save the good of his general. (De virtutibus, q. 2 a. 4 ad 2)

On the Elections in France

In a recent post I wrote that I’m not an admire of leftist politics, but I’m not an admire of what passes for a politics of “the right” nowadays either. The sort of populist, quasi-Bonapartist nationalism espoused by parties like the Front National in France and the FPÖ in Austria is a bore. Nevertheless, I was sorry that Marine Le Pen went down in the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday. Whatever her shortcomings, she is one of the very few European politicians who dares to say anything against abortion. Gallia Watch posted the following clip of Marine Le Pen being interviewed by a “feminist” journalist. The journalist suggests that it is ironic that while Le Pen’s career is only possible because of feminism, her platform is inimical to “feminist values”. “What feminist values?” asks Le Pen. Well, abortion rights for instance, answers the journalist. And then, as Galllia Watch puts it, “Marine gets angry”:

Just for that I wish that she had made it to the second round. By sheer chance I was in Paris during the first round of the 2002 election when Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the second round with less votes than his daughter received on Sunday. But this time around the Front National was a victim of its own success; 2002 had an historically low turn out, since everyone just assumed that Chirac and Jospin would make it to the next round