Sovereign is he who destroys the exceptional

Vatican II famously tried to move beyond seeing the pope as a solitary sovereign, not least when the council rightly and thankfully rebuffed Paul VI’s request to say that the pope was accountable to God alone.

Readers of 20th-century political thought may recognize my title as a riff on a line of the infamous Carl Schmitt, whose controversial book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty begins with the claim: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In light of several recent developments in the Roman Catholic Church, it seems best to amend Schmitt to take account of bishops in Rome and North America abusing their apparent sovereignty to harm or destroy what is exceptional—whether in Anglican-use parishes, the Order of Malta, or many other recent examples presently to be mentioned. 

Before getting to examples, it is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on the concept of sovereignty and its purposes. In the fall of 2012 I was invited to do just that when asked to give a lecture to the Orthodox Theological Society of America, that year meeting in St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, which is Orthodoxy’s flagship academic institution in the Western world. I chose to look at the concept of sovereignty as it migrated from post-revolutionary political thought in France to influence (and corrupt) both Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Church through the crucial 19th century, when so many nation-states (Romania, Greece, Serbia, and above all Russia) were coming into their own, and when Catholics were grappling with papal jurisdiction at and after Vatican I. 

Both Orthodox (in their notions of autocephaly) ecclesiology and Catholic ecclesiology (in notions of papal jurisdiction at Vatican I, and then especially in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, where the language of “sovereign pontiff” abounds) have smuggled in political notions of sovereignty to defend what they thought to be the integrity and independence of the Church from both real and perceived depredations at the hands of revolutionaries—French initially, and then, derivative of them in many ways, American, Russian, and others. 

In my research I uncovered one crucial figure in all these developments: Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821). Though a Frenchman by language and culture, he was actually at the time a subject of the king of Piedmont-Sardinia, whose ambassador Maistre would be to the Russian court for many critical years, where he influenced Russian Orthodox ecclesiology and in turn used his Russian experience to argue against Catholic ecclesiology becoming anything like the Orthodox. Maistre has been grossly misunderstood over the years, but recent scholarship (especially that of Richard Lebrun and Carolina Armenteros) has helpfully shown him to be a very complex figure—an absolutist when it comes to monarchy and papacy, but also a Scottish Rite Freemason with strong “libertarian” tendencies in some areas, possessing an overriding streak of political pragmatism concerned above all, as we would say today, with “law and order” in the aftermath of the massive bloodshed and chaos unleashed by the French Revolution against the Catholic Church.

Maistre’s most famous polemical work Du Pape was wildly popular through the 19th century (it went through seventeen printings between 1819 and 1900), and played no small role in shaping ultramontane thought at Vatican I. A widely influential work in political and theological thought, it was also a deeply personal one: Maistre sent a copy to the papal nuncio in Venice in the hopes the nuncio would forward the book to Rome as a gift to the pope: “I would be very happy, your Grace, if you can again . . . put my person, my writings, my zeal and all my strength that I possess at the feet of His Holiness, whose very loyal, philosophical, political and theological subject I am.”

This kind of sentimental officiousness is by no means limited to Maistre’s private correspondence. Du Pape is shot through with it, as when Maistre—an early and unabashed booster of the personality cult of the papacy so deplorably present in our own day—says that “One feels [the] real presence of the sovereign pontiff on all points of the Christian world. He is everywhere, he is mixed up in everything, he sees everything, in the same way that he is looked at from all sides.” 

All these and other theologically problematic claims culminate in what is surely the most appalling and heretical suggestion in Du Pape: “If it were permitted to establish degrees of importance among things of divine institution, I would place the hierarchy before dogma, since it is indispensable to the maintenance of the faith.”

This is all nonsense, of course, and many theologians and Vatican officials in his own day rightly and quietly dismissed Maistre’s zeal as de trop. But—revenge of the repressed indeed!—it is highly influential nonsense widely believed by many today, even including not just certain papal courtiers and apologists, but most alarmingly certain bishops. 

If you have any doubt that such papist (a label Maistre proudly insists on even more than “Catholic”!) claptrap is alive and well today—and, worse, such a practice of omnipresent papal micromanaging is alive and well throughout the Church and beyond—then you have not been paying attention during debates over Amoris Laetitia. Nor have you spent time talking to certain traditionalist religious orders in South America, certain (recently dismissed) staffers and members of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Discipline of the Sacraments, or certain members of the Order of Malta. 

Nor, for that matter, have we understood enough what is at work in recent developments among other bishops imitating their brother in Rome to ride roughshod over the rights of liturgically traditional Catholics in Illinois, and Anglican-usage Catholics in Texas. 

In all these cases I would suggest we are seeing an outworking of ideas of episcopal (and especially papal) “sovereignty” in ways that critics of Maistre in his own day found problematic, and theologically literate critics of our day even more so. For the fundamental theological problem with ideas of sovereignty (even of popes and bishops) is that it is a crude form of “monotheism,” that is, the unitary sovereign God on whom earthly—papal, episcopal, and monarchical—sovereigns pattern themselves is not the Triune God whom Christians worship, but a solitary divinity operating in solipsistic isolation. 

Put in simpler practical terms, this current pope, and not a few of his brother bishops, seem content to assume, and to act as though, they and they alone can determine doctrinal and disciplinary matters, including questions of sacramental and liturgical theology and practice. The views of others—whether in the episcopate, presbyterate, or laity—are irrelevant. Those views are not sought; such views, if expressed after the “sovereign” acts, are scarcely to be entertained. The better course is to get some underling to rubbish them and to question the “loyalty” of those refusing to knuckle under to the “sovereign’s” decisions. 

Vatican II famously tried to move beyond seeing the pope as a solitary sovereign, not least when the council rightly and thankfully rebuffed Paul VI’s request to amend Lumen Gentium to say that the pope was accountable to God alone. Vatican II didn’t just reject that stupid idea. It did much more by trying to awaken in the Church a way of thinking about ecclesial life as a communion of persons patterned on the Trinitarian communion of divine persons: the Church as icon of the Trinity. 

In the Trinity, while the Father is the source and origin—the monarchia—he never acts by himself or in his own self-interest (an unintelligible notion in the endlessly self-gifting Trinitarian economy!). He always acts with the Son and Spirit, and they too never act on their own. The Father, that is, never pulls rank, never asserts his “sovereignty” in such a way as to run roughshod over the Son and Spirit. Why do bishops today not behave likewise?  

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).