The great 19th-century British historian of liberty, Lord John Acton, stood tall against the tyrants of yesteryear and his own day. He admonished modern civilization against ceding too much power to unquestioned singular authority. He said no one was exempt from his modicum of moral wisdom: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” No one, not even the pope.
Lord Acton openly discussed his moral anthropology of corruption in a series of letters he exchanged with Anglican vicar and Cambridge papal history scholar Mandell Creighton, who later became the Bishop of London. Had he not died at 57, Creighton was expected to succeed the Church of England’s powerful primate in Canterbury.
Acton argued it was a lethal combination to increase the worldly power of our leaders, whether religious or political, while making them ever more unanswerable to popular objections of their decrees. He said autocratic rule naturally corrupted ambitious men wrongfully playing overlords, even if legitimately crowned, mitred, and having earned their white cassock and ferula in conclaves. The human tendency to total corruption, Acton believed, was anthropologically certain for absolute rulers of earthly empires, kingdoms and city states.
Dusting off his April 5, 1887 letter to Creighton, composed 17 years after Vatican Council I’s limiting of papal infallibility to ex cathedra pronouncements on faith and morals (while exclusive of matters of science and economics), Acton pled:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Acton did not stop here. He qualified his presumptions within a larger epistemological and ethical framework about corruption and power, since he believed Creighton had too generously given free passes to the behavior of certain Renaissance popes (such as the controversial and licentious Alexander VI), in his A History of the Papacy: The Great Schism to the Sack of Rome. Acton writes to Creighton:
Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Acton’s undaunted pen paved the way in the 20th century for Western society’s loathing of dictatorial regimes, inspiring their overthrow during two global conflicts and a 44-year-long cold war that toppled National Socialism, Fascism, and Communism. Acton, who was famously refused entry into Cambridge for being a faithful Catholic, believed in only one All-Knowing and Absolute Power. This was none other than God, who legitimized from above our governance below which, for Acton, was always limited to protect our individual liberty.
Now only if Acton would have been also famous for his damning conclusion that there was “no worse heresy than the office that sanctifies the holder of it”, another class of white-robed men (not the pope this time) would be kept in check for illegitimate power grabs during the coronavirus pandemic.
These are the scientific and health experts who, vested in the trappings of lab coats, have been granted free rein of influence over sweeping political and economic measures to lockdown the populus. However, the average citizen should not mistake the men in white brandishing sticks of medical prophecy for cassocks and papal staffs.
In effect, Acton would expect everyday people to hold all white-robed men accountable for rushing to dogmatic pronouncements, even more so when based on feeble observations, yet with drastic global political and economic consequences. Acton would accuse us of “canonizing” the holders of chairs in virology and infectious disease, of allowing them to make the same vainglorious errors that once so easily arose from the Chair of Peter in Rome. There is no reason to passively grant absolute power and unquestioned authority to Chief Medical Officers, Surgeon Generals, and WHO Senior Councillors.
Science may be inaccurate, shifting
We have given our white-robed leaders titles of major influence over entire nations and the common good. We do this while fully aware that the even “greats” of science, including Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein, have often advanced widely-accepted erroneous theories that were later rejected and superseded.
Thomas Kuhn, the late American philosopher of science, introduced the notion of paradigm shift. His rationale was that the history of science demonstrates that there have been many progressions and debunking of “scientific certainties” thanks to open and honest debate within research communities. Kuhn was not a relativist. He believed in the positive advancement toward the truths of nature by way of consensus.
This is why earth-centered astronomy was slowly but definitively scrapped by a heliocentric model. This is why we accept “breakthroughs” in science and medicine when substituting “spontaneous generation” for “insemination”; “the expanding earth” for “tectonic plates”; and “blank slate intelligence” with “genetic predisposition.” The list of paradigmatic revolutions goes on and on, all made possible as human wisdom advances in parallel with improved technology that enhances our powers of observation to verify conclusions. With COVID-19, virologists and infectious disease specialists had not even isolated, “seen” or genetically mapped the novel virus’s crown until just a few months ago. Yet they are already rapidly creating models, based on minimal data, to make facile projections on infection and mortality rates.
Fox News Television commentator Tucker Carlson argued on April 22, “We are currently living through the largest and most expensive experiment ever conducted in human history. We have spent trillions of dollars and crushed millions of people purely on the guess that a nationwide lockdown would save us from the coronavirus. Has it worked? Was the guess correct? Let’s look at the data.”
Carlson does not exaggerate when he called the lockdown the biggest, most costly “experiment” ever. It is. Worse, it has cost more than just money, but the freedom of the average citizen to respectfully disagree with the white-robed elite. Carlson says we’d “better not complain” unless we want public health czars label us as plague spreaders and be hunted down. “If anyone complains on-line they are likely to be censored by the tech companies and in public they could be arrested. And a number of them have been… Dissent has been banned.”
Why, then, do we detach ourselves from personal scientific research, evading our independent study of hard data? Why to do we entrust the white-robbed ruling class to do all of this for us and to advise our political bosses based on their findings and not ours, especially when the virus is so novel to the scientific community?
The short answer is that scientific reasoning is very often “above our pay grade.” What do we know? We’re not “the experts”. So we easily concede and delegate responsibility, as Carlson says, because “we have no choice [to do] what they tell us again and again” even if “there is no [deep] scientific record to consult.”
We bet all our money on them in the race to prevent and cure, counting on their evidence as grounded in reality. But if the scientists are wrong and we continue in lockdown mode for months? What is the risk of our wager? It is nothing short of economic depression, the scrapping of natural rights-based constitutions, and “famine of biblical proportions” according to warnings from The Guardian. So there is incentive to read and digest a few of their clinical studies and white papers.
Science or scientism?
It seems the most authoritative and powerful scientists have “got religion”, zealously preaching what we should do and demanding their flock follow orders. Over half of sovereign nations have now joined the shelter-in-place-bandwagon thanks to white-robed dogmatic pronouncements. Because of their religious-like passion, ironically real practicing faithful have been shut out of their temples. Each day the god of Scientific Reason is sends its commandos to raid Christian altars (as most notably in Italy, France, and Spain) in the name of preserving “something higher”: public health.
The obvious danger is that fallible science has succeeded in convincing the masses of its moral agenda: that preserving the body has priority over the spirit. In essence, white-robed men have become priests of the empirical while snubbing the transcendent, while worshipping the secular common good before bowing to a common God. Yet science, in and of itself, cannot justify any moral fervor.
According to Acton Institute research director, Samuel Gregg, the total reduction of all truth and judgment to empirical scientific inquiry can become a quasi-religion called “scientism.” The problem with scientism, according Gregg, is that the empirical sciences cannot tell us “why we should pursue the natural sciences in the first place” because it is a “non-empirical question that requires a non-empirical answer.” As Gregg writes in his 2019 book Faith, Reason and the Struggle for Western Civilization:
Scientism’s Achilles heel is that it is based on what philosophers call a self-refuting premise. The truth of the claim—‘no claims are true unless they can be proven scientifically’—cannot itself be proven scientifically. You need to deploy other forms of reasoning to make such arguments. But these are forms of reasoning that scientism considers unreasonable.
“We don’t, for instance,” said Gregg “engage in medical research simply because we want to know why penicillin kills germs. We want to know why penicillin kills germs so that we can promote and protect human life and health. [We know] human life…is considered good and worthy of protection from disease” outside of scientific inquiry.
The fact remains: science more often wrong that it is right
Scientific history proves that quick conclusions on radical hypotheses are often disastrous. We have seen manned-rockets explode after last-minute tweaks in jet propulsion theory to go higher and faster. We have witnessed entire water systems poisoned because of reengineered micro filters. There are numerous other examples. And now we are attempting to change the spin of the earth with curve-flattening projections and radically enforced social protocols?
The singular fact remains that science is often more wrong that it is right. That is its nature. If science advances uninhibited, as accurate on the first verification of hypotheses, then the incentive to experiment would diminish immensely. It would be as if angels were in our labs.
Let us never forget that last few months began with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci stating on January 21 that COVID-19 “‘is not a major threat to the people of the United States” then re-pivoting his slipshod judgment weeks later ordering President Trump to direct us all to shelter in place for an indefinite period to avoid catastrophic consequences.
As the U.S. plans to reopen its economy, Fauci now projects a fall outbreak but with “different outcomes” because of better preparedness. Will he be right or wrong? How can we make sense of all the muddled anecdotal advice on therapies proposed, denied, re-proposed and re-denied? It’s like a game of ping-pong between the white-robed advisors, whose game is then upended by the CDC quietly changing its protocols. What confidence do we have in all the back-and-forth of therapeutic recommendations on hydroxyl-chloroquine, z-pack, zinc sulphate, high-dose Vitamin C and Vitamin D, and in claims that even nicotine is a valid prophylactic?
Can our white-robed leaders admit they have no scientifically proven idea what they are talking about and consequently commanding us to do? It’s like asking a Roman for directions, who infamously points you down several wrong streets for fear of seeming as ignorant as you, the tourist.
The bottom line is that the so-called indubitable dogmas of science are so few and far between, like those of religion. That is why Acton’s hard-lined approach to absolutism led to sweeping ecclesial reform and political courage. This is not to say, of course, that we never arrive at truths of the material world. But we must admit that science is often a slow and bumbling field of study. We know we can make some reasonable claims about COVID-19, but no doubt we are in our rookie season of observation. The white-robe men should be on their knees entrusting their noble research to the Grace of an Omniscient and Omnipotent God.
Let us heed the wisdom of Lord John Acton. We should not rush to claim reason’s radical and unquestioned power to govern the material world and its free inhabitants. We must acknowledge that power is not justified by weak knowledge, and admit that when our wits are as dull as butter knives they only spread further ignorance and panic.
(Editor’s note: Mandell Creighton was incorrectly identified as “Mendell Creighton” in this essay. Additionally, Dr. Anthony Fauci was incorrectly identified as head of the Centers for Disease Control; he is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. These errors have been corrected. )
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