Tocqueville's Influence on "Deus Caritas Est"

Interview With Samuel Gregg of Acton Institute

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GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan, APRIL 3, 2006 ( The social philosophy of a 19th-century Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, may have contributed to the thinking of Benedict XVI and parts of his encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est."

So says Samuel Gregg, director of the Center for Academic Research at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

Gregg shared with ZENIT how the encyclical's warning against the state's temptation to be an all-encompassing bureaucracy corresponds with what Tocqueville called "soft despotism."

Q: Who was Alexis de Tocqueville? Why is his thought notable?

Gregg: Count Alexis de Tocqueville is perhaps one of the most important social philosophers of modern times.

Born in 1805 into one of the oldest French aristocratic families, Tocqueville grew up in the shadow of the French Revolution -- a revolution, I might add, that guillotined several of his relatives.

Despite this, Tocqueville recognized that there was no going back to the ancient régime. He was, however, appalled by the ferocity of the violence unleashed by the Revolution, especially against the Catholic Church.

Another paradox is that though Tocqueville was a practicing Catholic, we know from his correspondence that he struggled with the question of faith for his entire life.

What Tocqueville did not, however, question was the pivotal role played by Christianity in creating and sustaining societies that aspire, as John Paul the Great once wrote, to be both free and virtuous.

In terms of books, Tocqueville is most famous as the author of "Democracy in America," a text that many regard as containing the most enduring insights into democracy's promise and its challenges.

The book draws heavily from observations made by Tocqueville during his visit to the United States in 1831 and 1832, in which he traveled the length and breadth of the country.

"Democracy in America" is especially penetrating when it comes to describing Christianity's role in grounding the young American republic in basic moral principles that helped to prevent this free society -- with the obvious and terrible exception of slavery -- from degenerating into anarchy upon which it is so easy to establish dictatorship.

Q: Why do you think Tocqueville influenced the thought of Benedict XVI, especially in "Deus Caritas Est"?

Gregg: St. Augustine's "City of God" was a background influence on Tocqueville's thinking, and Benedict XVI has never disguised St. Augustine's profound effect on his own work.

But more concretely, there were several occasions before his election as Pope when Joseph Ratzinger mentioned his admiration for Tocqueville's thought.

In a 1992 speech, for instance, Cardinal Ratzinger described Tocqueville as "the great political thinker" and remarked that Tocqueville's "'Democracy in America' has always made a strong impression on me." He also underlined Tocqueville's insistence that democracies cannot sustain themselves without widespread adherence to "common ethical convictions," which, in America's case, had been provided by Christianity.

As far as "Deus Caritas Est" is concerned, I'd suggest a particularly Tocquevillian influence may be found in Paragraph 28. Here, Pope Benedict underlines the folly of allowing the state to absorb all social activity and letting it evolve into an all-encompassing bureaucracy that is incapable of discerning people's deeper moral and spiritual needs.

In "Democracy in America," Tocqueville suggested that democracies were especially susceptible to this temptation and could develop the characteristics of what is called soft despotism.

This despotism, Tocqueville argued, was one in which the democratic state slowly but surely suffocated all the independent and spontaneous initiatives arising from that complex of free associations we often call "civil society" -- associations that are, in most situations, far more effective in addressing people's problems than bureaucracies.

Q: How does "Deus Caritas Est" explain the collective charitable and humanitarian work of the Church as distinct from mere social services?

Gregg: "Deus Caritas Est" makes it very clear that Christian charity must address the whole of the human person and not just our material needs if it is to be distinctly Christian. The Church's charitable work, the encyclical explains, also expresses the fact that the pursuit of justice is always inadequate unless it is accompanied by love.

Lobbying for larger government projects or dispensing welfare checks won't relieve, for example, the pain associated with unfaithfulness, substance-dependency and other forms of self-destructive behavior.

These difficulties demand prolonged personal assistance, a dedication that relies heavily upon our choice to love those in need, in a very tangible way.

In this light, we should not be surprised that the encyclical is very critical of those who argue that poverty will be solved simply by creating just social structures.

Those who think this way, Benedict contends, have fallen for the great materialist lie that man lives on bread alone and, to that extent, are no different from Marxists.

For this type of thinking is to deny, the encyclical states, all that makes us distinctly human -- our moral and spiritual dimension, and especially our need for love. Justice is important. It's even a virtue. But it can't substitute for Christian love.

Q: Given what the encyclical says about the importance of work done by charitable institutions and each individual, do you see the encyclical as a call for Christians to increase their efforts to help the poor?

Gregg: On one level, Benedict XVI is certainly asking Christians to do more to assist those in need. There is always more each of us can do.

But the real challenge posed by the encyclical to Christians is to ensure that Christians' charitable work remains unashamedly Christian. This means, as the encyclical stresses, that it can never be allowed to develop into mere political activism.

Politics, for Catholics, ultimately concerns the common good, but it can't encompass the whole of the common good and we all know of instances when political activity has done enormous harm to the common good.

An associated challenge identified by "Deus Caritas Est" is the perennial temptation for Christian charitable work to become secularized in its motivations and methods.

That's why Pope Benedict emphasizes that Christian charities must be "credible witnesses to Christ."

On a practical level, this accent on being manifestly Christian means that Christian charities cannot act in ways that contradict the Truth revealed by Jesus Christ and imparted to the world by his Church.

In heavily secularized environments with strongly secularist expectations, this is an everyday challenge for Catholics, but it is a cross that we should not be afraid to embrace.

Q: As the Church responds to Pope Benedict XVI's call for a deeper awareness of the communal dimension of the Church's charitable efforts, what are some practical suggestions for applying the principle of subsidiarity?

Gregg: For Catholics, the principle of subsidiarity is rooted in the Church's conviction -- and, I'd note, the natural law insight -- that if we are to flourish precisely as human beings ought to flourish, then we need to be able to make free choices for the Truth and to act accordingly.

In that way, we literally achieve the self-mastery, or what St. Paul calls the liberty to which Christians are called, that reflects our choice to live in the truth known through faith and right reason.

Subsidiarity involves helping people to achieve this end, but without literally taking over the lives of those we are attempting to assist.

To take over another's life is to exercise our own soft despotism over people who, like everyone else, are called upon to exercise to the best of their ability their innate capacity for rational free choice for good and against evil.

And soft despotism is no substitute for community. It is in fact deeply dehumanizing.

One practical suggestion arising from this would be for Christian charities to consider which of their projects conform to this aspect of subsidiarity and to identify and reform those which do not.

Another, perhaps more challenging suggestion is for Christian charities to ask themselves whether their own activities are excessively reliant upon government funding.

Not only does such funding often limit the ability of Christian charities to make their own choices about how best to help the poor, but it's no secret that such funding increasingly comes with strings attached -- strings that in some hyper-secularist contexts often require funding recipients to act in ways that directly contradict the Church's moral teaching.

Once we start down that path, our capacity to witness to Christ is compromised.