Breidenbach, “Conciliarism and the American Founding”

In the book, “Silence,” by Shusaku Endo, concerning the, shall we say, cool reception of Jesuit missionaries in Japan, there is a powerful line uttered by the despairing old Jesuit about Japanese resistance to Christianity: “This country is a swamp…a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot, the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

I thought about this in reading historian Michael Breidenbach’s careful and superb article (which I am late in noticing), Conciliarism and the American Founding (unfortunately behind a pay wall, but well worth it). Breidenbach argues that the extension of toleration to Roman Catholics in America was highly unusual: so what explains it?

Breidenbach points to one issue in particular: early American Catholics’ rejection of papal infallibility and their preference for “conciliarism”–the location of true ecclesiastical power in councils rather than in popes. Breidenbach writes, “Conciliarists provided important intellectual contributions to the transition from the hierocratic, church-over-state arrangements of the Middle Ages to early modern theories on the juridical separation of church and state.” Conciliarism smoothed the way for Catholics to “fit” their religion within the overarching political theory of the United States (including, I would add, its potent and still-thriving civil religion), and in consequence made toleration for their views more probable. Breidenbach includes a long and illuminating history of the Jansenist defense of conciliarism in 17th century France–again, well worth your time–that was important in the development of conciliarism.

Connected to the conciliarism of American Catholics was their rejection of any political aspirations for the Church–a kind of non-interventionism which rendered them possible subjects for toleration in the new American dispensation. The civil state was the unquestioned sovereign for these Catholics, not the Church.

Breidenbach writes as a historian, of course, and does not openly praise or condemn these developments. The plant of Christianity (and Catholicism specifically) obviously did not encounter the same type of soil that it did in Japan. The soil changed the plant–made the plant accommodate itself to the soil’s demands, or else die. Indeed, it is often said that in America, all religions become Americanized, and the talk of conciliarism reminds me a bit of Professor Sally Gordon’s discussion of the flattening out (hierarchically speaking) of Christianity in America once it adopted the corporate form. Breidenbach’s article made me wonder, in the long run and as the American state continues to grow, which soil actually will prove the less hospitable. Read Breidenbach!

Besançon, “Protestant Nation”

The eminent French historian, Alain Besançon, specialized early in his writing life on communist Russia. One of his better-known themes is that the Soviet Union was one of the first cases of the purely “ideological” regime–the regime founded solely on political ideas disconnected from the lived experience of its people. Besançon has more recently written interestingly and controversially about Islam, arguing that Islam is neither a “revealed” religion nor a “natural” religion (in the way Roman paganism was), but instead represents a “third way”–as embodying “the natural religion of the revealed God.”

Here is a new book in which Besançon turns his attention to the United States: Protestant Nation: The Fragile Christian Roots of America’s Greatness. The publisher is St.Besancon Augustine’s Press.

Alain Besançon’s studies, over decades, on Russia, France, Islam, and art have convinced him that “that nothing is comprehensible if one neglects the religious choices that determine a historical destiny.” His aim is to comprehend the most powerful nation on the earth, and he was convinced that Protestantism was the key to America. The question of Protestantism and its origins implicated, in turn, the origins of the Reformation and thus the problem of the moral and political meaning of Christianity itself. And Besançon traces theological dynamic that was to stamp the Reformation, behind Luther’s break with Rome, to the late medieval nominalists’ failure to maintain the fragile communion that Thomas Aquinas had articulated between love and intellect.

This then is the ambition of this elegant and magisterial essay: to explore the question of the spirit of America as bound up with the most fundamental and most problematic promise of Christianity: the union of heart and mind. This exploration leads the reader, after a deft analysis of Nominalism, through a luminous tour of the sources of modern Christianity that includes the revival of speculative mysticism in authors such as Meister Eckhart and Tauler, the devotion moderna, the main figures and movements of the Reformation proper, a brilliant digest of Anglicanism, and a survey of Puritanism in England and America. This uniquely synoptic exploration concludes with the emergence of a democratic religion of humanity, a faith whose future is as uncertain as its grasp of the modern spirit’s Christian sources that Alain Besançon has so judiciously laid bare.