According to
Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy, the state is a natural institution.  It has as its natural end the provision of
goods that are necessary for our well-being as rational social animals, but
would not be otherwise available (such as defense against aggressors).  According to traditional Catholic theology,
the state also serves functions relevant to the realization of the supernatural
end of salvation, such as protecting the Church. 

However,
while these things are true of the institution of the state in general, they do
not entail the existence of any particular state.  That is to say, while the natural law and our
supernatural end require that there be states, they don’t require that there
exists Germany, specifically, or the United States, or China.  For the most part, the same thing is true of
empires.  Nothing in natural law or in our
supernatural end requires that there be a British Empire, specifically, or a
Mongol Empire.

The Holy
Roman Empire is philosophically interesting because it did have a special status under natural law and in the supernatural
order.  Or at least, it did according to
one view.  There is nothing abnormal or
contrary to the natural or supernatural order of things that the Mongol Empire or
Yugoslavia no longer exist.  But on the
view I’m describing, there is something
abnormal, and contrary to natural law and the supernatural order, that there is
no longer a Holy Roman Empire.  Indeed,
on this view of things, given that the natural and supernatural orders require
that there be such an empire, it is not quite correct to say that the Holy
Roman Empire no longer exists.  It is
more accurate to say that it is dormant.

Dante’s peak

This all may
sound strange, so let’s try to understand it. 
Start with a line of argument developed by Dante Alighieri (who was a
philosopher and theologian as well as a poet) in
Monarchia.  The state, though taken by Aristotle to be
the perfect or complete society, cannot in Dante’s view be the highest level of
political order.  For just as there are
bound to be disputes between parties within a state, there are bound to be
disputes between states.  And there would
be an imperfection in the social order if there were no way to resolve these
disputes justly (as opposed to simply resolving them by force).  So, there is a need for a higher-level
political authority whose role is to settle these disputes – an emperor to
which even the different kings are subject.

Now, if this
higher-level authority is himself just one higher-level authority among others,
then he and those others might also find themselves disputing with one
another.  And there would therefore be
need for some yet higher-level
authority to resolve those
disputes.  This regress can terminate
only in a single highest-level authority – a world monarch or emperor standing
at the peak of political authority, with jurisdiction over all kings. 

Dante holds
that, because such an emperor would have no equal, and thus no rival, he would
be capable of ruling more disinterestedly and thus more justly.  A common recognition of and subordination to
his authority – and not merely the force of arms – would also provide mankind
with the unity of wills that is the precondition of true peace.

Before
continuing, it is worthwhile to pause to consider a potential objection.  You might think such argumentation would
justify globalist projects of the kind to which traditionalists are hostile –
the United Nations, the Great Reset, and the like.  But you would be wrong.  Remember, reasoning of the kind Dante is
engaged in is in the broad tradition of classical philosophy and natural
law.  A world empire of the kind he
envisions would be one governed by, and governing in light of, that
tradition.  For guidance, it would look
not to John Rawls, Bill Gates, and the like, but to the likes of Plato,
Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.  And a
world empire that governed contrary to that natural law tradition would be a
world tyranny – a grotesque
counterfeit of what thinkers like Dante envisioned.

The Roman way

Now, the
fact that there are unjust states does not undermine the legitimacy of the
institution of the state itself. 
Similarly, the possibility of an unjust world empire does not undermine
the legitimacy of the notion of a world empire per se.  Original sin has
corrupted all social institutions, but we can see through it to determine what
the uncorrupted versions would look like.

That brings
us to the model in terms of which the tradition I’m describing conceptualized
the idea of a world empire – the Roman Empire. 
Such a model might seem ironic, given that we’re talking about the Christian tradition, and the Roman
Empire had persecuted the Church. 
Indeed, the New Testament devotes a whole book – the Apocalypse of St.
John – to a characterization of that empire as a satanic force of oppression.  Don’t forget, though, that the New Testament
– in Romans 13 – also characterizes the very same empire as God’s servant,
instituted to uphold justice.  As with
any other state, it wasn’t the empire itself
that was bad.  What was bad were the
corrupt ends to which the empire had
been put.  And the conversion of the
empire to Christianity could remedy this corruption.  Not perfectly, of course (nothing human is perfect).  But through the influence of the Church,
grace could heal fallen nature, in the case of the empire as in the case of any
other institution damaged by original sin.

That was the
idea, anyway.  Now, one reason the Roman
Empire suggested itself as a model to medieval theorists of world empire is
that it was an actually existing example of such a thing – or an approximation
to one, anyway.  A single emperor had
jurisdiction over other kings.  A common
citizenship, legal code, and language united diverse countries and
ethnicities.  A common cult united the
different religious traditions – albeit it was, before the conversion to
Christianity, a false and idolatrous worship.

But it
wasn’t just that the Roman Empire happened to be there as a concrete
example.  Scripture was taken to reveal
it to have a special world-historical role. 
As James Bryce points out in his chapter on the theory of the Empire in
his book The
Holy Roman Empire
, the grounds for this judgement were found in
the book of Daniel.  The fourth beast of
Daniel’s famous vision, and the legs and feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s, were taken
to represent the Roman Empire.  And these
images in Daniel are also intended to represent the last of a series of world-dominating empires that would exist
before the coming of the Messiah.  The implication,
for the Christian theologian, is that any empire that would exist in the heart
of Christendom before the time of Christ would in some sense be a revival of
the Roman empire – either in a
healthy, normative form (a Christian
or Holy Roman Empire) or in a
corrupted, persecuting form (an empire of Antichrist). 

As early and
medieval Christian thinkers saw things, Greek philosophy had prepared the way
for the Gospel by discovering through natural reason the fundamental truths of
natural theology and natural law.  And in
a parallel way, Roman governance had prepared the way for a sound social and
political order.  In both the realm of
thought and the realm of practice, the pagans had made indispensable
contributions that the Church could adopt and perfect.

Houses of the holy

It is often
claimed that the Catholic Church abandoned integralism at Vatican II.  And yet Pope St. John Paul II’s Catechism teaches that:

The duty of offering God genuine
worship concerns man both individually
and socially.  This is “the traditional Catholic teaching on
the moral duty of individuals
and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.”  By constantly evangelizing men, the Church
works toward enabling them “
to infuse the Christian spirit into the
mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they]
live.” 
The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the
love of the true and the good.  It
requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists
in the Catholic and apostolic Church… Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship
of Christ over all creation and in particular
over human societies. (2105,
emphasis added)

and

Every institution is inspired, at
least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the
point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of
conduct… Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s
origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. 
The Church invites political authorities to measure their
judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man:

Societies not recognizing this vision
or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek
their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some
ideology.  Since they do not admit that
one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to
themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny,
as history shows
.
(2244, emphasis added)

The clear
implication of such passages is that the Catholic faith ought to inform the
governance of a society, and that when it does not, totalitarian secular
ideologies tend to fill the vacuum.  Such
teaching is not surprising given the doctrine of original sin.  To suppose that a just society is possible in
the absence of any guidance from the faith smacks of a kind of “social
Pelagianism.”

But
integralism per se is not our topic
here.  The point is rather to elucidate
the theory of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Catholic doctrinal principles
still reflected in the Catechism are
those that informed the theory of the empire.

In general,
grace does two things.  First, it
remedies the defects in the natural order that have resulted from original sin,
at least partially restoring what would have existed had the Fall not
occurred.  Second, it directs nature to
an even higher, supernatural end – the beatific vision.  Now, in theory at least, the Christianization
of the Roman system would accomplish such ends. 
First, it would remedy the tendency of fallen rulers to govern for the
sake of their own glory, or for the sake of acquiring wealth, or for the sake
of some other unworthy end.  It would
teach them to govern instead for the glory of God and the good of their
subjects (that is to say, in obedience to the first and the second greatest of
the commandments, respectively).  Second,
it would assist the Church in her supernatural mission of saving souls, by
protecting her from enemies, both foreign (such as the relentless military
assaults on Christendom arising from the Islamic world) and domestic (such as
heretical movements like Albigensianism).

Needless to
say, this didn’t always work out too well in practice.  But that was the theory.  The practice suffered in part because of a
common theological problem – a failure to respect the difference between the
spheres of nature and grace.  An
occupational hazard of theologians is either to collapse the supernatural into
the natural or to absorb the natural up into the supernatural (thus
“destroy[ing] the gratuity of the supernatural order,” as Pope Pius XII put it).  Similarly, in politics there is always a
danger that the state will meddle in the affairs of the Church, or that the
Church will take over functions and judgements that rightly belong to the
state. 

The theory
of the Empire held that, rightly understood, the Empire and the Church are like
body and soul, both necessary for a complete order of things and cooperating
with and assisting one another, but each nevertheless having its own
distinctive role.  This certainly did not
entail a separation of Church and
state, any more than the soul and body ought to be separated or kept
hermetically sealed off from one another. 
But it did entail a distinction
between Church and state, and between those matters that are primarily the
concern of the former and those that are primarily the concern of the latter. 

At a
minimum, though, the Empire would intersect with the Church insofar as the
Catholic faith was its official religion, and insofar as the emperors (most
famously, those of the House of Habsburg) were always Catholic.  For since the Church, like the individual
human being, has a temporal aspect as well as a spiritual one, it needs
protection from worldly threats.  The
soul needs the body, and the Church needs the Empire.

The emperor’s new clothes

Well, again,
that was the theory, anyway.  But in the
wake of Napoleon’s triumphs, Francis II, last of the Holy Roman Emperors,
renounced the throne and dissolved the Empire (though retaining the office of
Emperor of Austria).  This had the
advantage of ensuring that the title of “Holy Roman Emperor” was not one that
Napoleon could usurp.  But as Friedrich
Heer judges in his
own book on the Empire
, the dissolution of the Roman system was “an
act for which [Francis] had no legal justification.” 

Indeed, as I
have said, the theory of the Empire implies that it cannot be dissolved, not
exactly, because the natural law and supernatural order require that there be
such an institution.  The most that can happen
is that the Empire becomes dormant, perhaps for a long period of time.  Nor was this unprecedented.  After all, after the Western Roman Empire
collapsed in 476, more than three centuries passed before it was (according to
the theory) restored by Charlemagne in 800. 
(Though of course, the Eastern Empire continued, and Justinian
temporarily restored the Western empire in the 500s.)  It has been just over two centuries since
Francis’s abdication.  Might some
Charlemagne of the future pick up the crown a century or so from now?  Stranger things have happened.  (According to a medieval legend,
a Last Roman Emperor will arise to repel the enemies of the faith before the
coming of Antichrist.)

What can be
said with certainty is that, where the satisfaction of a natural need is
frustrated, it will tend to manifest in distorted forms.  Hence, if the Empire is something required
for human well-being, we would expect corrupt approximations to it to
arise.  And arguably that is indeed what
we have seen.

In a
recent article
, I discussed Plato’s classification of five basic
types of regime, one just and four increasingly unjust.  The just regime is that of the Philosopher-Kings, oriented toward the
Good and ruled by reason.  The first and
least bad of the unjust regimes is timocracy,
oriented toward military glory and ruled by the spirited part of the soul (the
part moved by considerations of honor and shame) rather than by reason.  Next and worse, we have oligarchy, oriented toward the accumulation of wealth and ruled by
the desiring part of the soul, though by desires of a bourgeois (and thus
somewhat more disciplined) kind.  Yet
worse is democracy, which as Plato
understands it is oriented toward the egalitarian satisfaction of desire – no desire
being regarded as any better than the others – and is thus ruled by the lowest
common denominator of the basest desires. 
Finally and worst, we have tyranny,
an outgrowth of the anarchy into which democracies tend to collapse.  It involves the most ruthless sort of
egalitarian democratic soul imposing its will on the others.

Now, what
immediately displaced the Holy Roman Empire was the empire of Napoleon, which
can be seen as a timocratic empire,
the point of which was to advance the glory of Napoleon himself qua
conqueror.  The British Empire,
meanwhile, might be seen as having been essentially oligarchic (in Plato’s sense) insofar as its orientation was toward
commerce.  That is even more true of the
Pax Americana that succeeded the British Empire, the United States being an
empire in everything but name.  And as
American economic power has increasingly shifted away from an emphasis on
manufacturing to the information economy and the dissemination of American
popular culture, it has come to approximate something like a democratic empire, an empire of
egalitarian desire. 

But the
dissolution of national loyalties has also begun to move this empire’s center
of gravity outside the United States.  Indeed,
it seems that the heart of this evolving oligarchic-cum-democratic empire will
ultimately not be found in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley, or perhaps any
other specific location.  It will be
dispersed throughout the world, a vast network of governments, multinational
corporations, and NGOs, whose leaders are all committed to the same basic
program – liberation, equality, and an ever increasingly radical sexual
revolution.

Plato
indicates what this kind of system is likely to morph into, as does St. John.  And while it might be characterized as a
Roman empire of sorts, it is more like the pre-Christian version, and most
definitely not holy.

Related
posts:

Tyranny
of the sovereign individual

Liberty,
equality, fraternity?

A
clarification on integralism

Continetti
on post-liberal conservatism

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