Every Catholic should by rights be an imperialist. As Rev. Robert Hugh Benson once wrote, “There were, after all, only two logical theories of government: the one, that power came from below, the other, that power came from above. The infidel, the Socialist, the materialist, the democrat, these maintained the one; the Catholic, the Monarchist, the Imperialist maintained the other.”
Catholic, monarchist, imperialist: That’s our historic platform, and it’s odd, to say the least, to find it criticized by those who position themselves as predating regular “conservative” Catholics—as being the true, authentic paleoconservative traditionalists (the eminent columnist Patrick J. Buchanan is the most popular and formidable of these). ~H.W. Crocker III, Crisis
As I was researching the writings of Rev. Schall in connection with my last post, I stumbled upon Mr. Crocker and his all together tendentious and unserious attack on Pat Buchanan. The article is a few months old, so it may seem as if I am a bit late in drawing attention to it. One might also say that there is little point in arguing with the people at Crisis, as they are firmly entrenched in unquestioning agreement with the administration and the neoconservatives. But it is important that a few things be set straight, most especially about Mr. Crocker’s sloppy and misinformed use of the term empire in the particular religious and Catholic context that he uses it.
It is particularly offensive to me that in the course of this article he would invoke the name of the late Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an admirable and thoughtful neo-Thomist Austrian Catholic liberal whose lifelong polemic against democracy and all mass movements has been an inspiration to me. Assuredly, Kuehnelt-Leddihn would not have found the idea of a monarchy ruling over a variety of nations offensive (the Habsburg system was, in large part, his ideal), but he would certainly have found the current incarnation of what we all conventionally call imperialism disgusting not because of its imperial nature but because of the worship of democracy that makes up the content of the ‘imperial’ mission.
The frequent and indiscriminate use of the word empire tends to confuse matters. In modern English usage, empire began simply meaning a power subordinate to no other, and it was first used by Henry VIII to deny the secular superiority of the Papacy. From the Latin imperium, it implies lawful authority, command and sovereignty. The Greek arche implies more generally authority or rule. The Athenians referred to their dominance over the members of the Delian League as arche, though the Byzantines usually referred to their actual Roman empire as a basileia. In any event, empire need not, and almost never did prior to very modern times, imply rule over colonies or possessions away from the central territories of a realm. Whether it did or not, possessing such things need not make the polity an empire in the meaning that the word later possessed.
Down through the ages, the cause of Empire has not sat well with the Papacy, made famous in its conflicts with Byzantium, the Investiture Contest, the ultimately unsuccessful stuggles of Frederick II and the fratricidal wars between the Italian partisans of the Pope, the Guelfi (who took their name from the old anti-Hohenstaufen Saxon rival, the House of Welf), and the Ghibellini, whose name derives from the Swabian castle and residence of the Hohenstaufen, Waiblingen. The conflict between the two was only pragmatically resolved through the basic identification of the cause of Empire with that of the Papacy under the Habsburgs. By contrast, Orthodox Christians have never been nearly so agitated over empire, as almost the entire history of Orthodoxy has been one of coexistence with one or another Orthodox ruler claiming the mantle of Christian Rome.
The term imperialist, as it is used in medieval histories, has a radically different meaning from the one that modern historians would apply to the varous European colonial ventures, and it is by no means certain that any Catholic authority today would endorse the proposition that Catholics are natural imperialists, if one were to use the term in this older way. That is, the Papacy would surely not want Catholics to accept the thoroughgoing imperialist critique of the Roman See, and oddly enough it would be the traditionalist Catholics who would be least interested in agreeing with the circumscribed, highly non-political role the imperialists imagined for the Pope.
This is all a preface to getting at the unserious nature of the rest of the article and the laughable caricature of paleoconservatism that Mr. Crocker affords us. The basic idea seems to be that Mr. Crocker travesties paleoconservative views about Christian civilisation and foreign policy and then manages to defeat, still with some difficulty, the ridiculous straw-men he has set up.
When Mr. Buchanan has written or spoken on foreign policy, advocating reasonable withdrawal from the Islamic world’s affairs, he has done in the conviction that intervention there is ruinous for our country. As a patriot and a Christian, his duty to his own country comes first, and he is not obliged to sacrifice the good of his country in the hopes that it might better another nation. There is no question that American intervention in the Islamic world will be bringing the light of Christ to them–it is not on the agenda, nor will it ever be under this administration or any future one, so long as the dominant language and thought of Americans is that of a general secular liberalism. Except for that evangelical cause, there is no remotely compelling reason to send our sons to rule lands in which we have no real interests.
The modern mission civilisatrice was a whitewash applied to colonial efforts undertaken with no interest or concern to convert other nations, and looking at Algeria, for example, one has to conclude that the French, like the British elsewhere, utterly failed to bring anything more than the technical and scientific knowledge of the West to these people. That knowlede is all very well and good, but it has nothing to do with the core principles or virtues of Christian civilisation; it is a good fruit, but one that can be overindulged, and it is not the soul of our Christian culture. No one is so arrogant as to believe that our culture can be grafted whole onto those of others.
It is not a question of lacking confidence in the superiority of our civilisation, at least when our civilisation is healthy and true to its heritage–surely no one would accuse paleoconservatives of anything other than disregarding or regarding as unimportant the accomplishments of other civilisations. The question is whether wasting our lives and resources on fruitless attempts to expand a genuinely godless secular democracy and geopolitical hegemony has anything to do with the Christian culture we seek to preserve or restore. Evidently, it has nothing to do with it, except as its permanent and unrelenting foe.
To begin thinking about our duty to the world is getting a bit ahead of things: Americans would need to develop an entirely different ethic and way of life from the one we have, and the basic problem is that no such ethic can exist in a people convinced of its right to dominion. Fat, arrogant and self-indulgent people do not become the selfless adventurers fighting in godforsaken deserts for King and country, as it were, and our entire system of values does not create such a people. The 19th century is over, the Great Game was a colossal waste (and precisely the kind of intra-European squabbling that precipitated the moral and cultural horror of the last century) and Rudyard Kipling was highly overrated. And people accuse the paleoconservatives of living in the past!
Mr. Crocker is actually being terribly unfair to Mr. Buchanan in more ways than one. Mr. Buchanan has more than once affirmed the value of Western colonialism in the past, especially when contrasted to the sorry state of some of these lands under self-rule, but he has always maintained–entirely in keeping with the American tradition to which he belongs–that this role is not, and never has been, ours. Our great foray into self-conscious empire in 1898 was followed by a three year war of brutal subjugation, anti-Catholic bigotry and butchery in the Philippines. Let Mr. Crocker chew on that. It seems clear that, of all people, Catholics in America (as the Orthodox today are beginning to learn as well after fourteen years of policies increasingly hostile to Orthodox lands) have no reason to desire the hegemony of an America basically opposed to a Catholic social and political order, as modern America so plainly is and TR’s ‘imperial’ America was.
As anyone should know, the greatest evangelical triumphs in much of Christian history did not require conquest but were achieved outside the borders of established Christian polities through the work of the Church. Indeed, missionaries were as much a nuisance to the materialist imperialists of the 19th century as they were a support: unlike the ‘national greatness’ men of their day, they possessed moral judgement that recognised inhumanity towards the subjugated when they saw it. The Church has never really needed the crutch of political dominion, and does not need it now. That might change Mr. Crocker’s mind a bit. That is, of course, if Mr. Crocker’s references to Catholicism at the beginning were not simply the throw-away lines they almost certainly were.
What the blithe apologists for domination and hegemony tend to forget is the frequent oppression and violence wielded against the subject peoples who were ‘benefiting’ from the tender mercies of the Europeans. Such absolutely uneven power relations are bound to corrupt the ruler and turn the subjects against everything he represents. If the moral justification of the dominion is the improved status of the people being dominated, surely the villainies perpetrated in the course of that domination wreck the entire enterprise! The genius of ancient kings was to organise their realms but otherwise leave their subjects in their native customs in peace: this is the key to successful rule, even if it not the key to civilising another people.
One can have dominion over extensive swathes of the earth, or one can effectively propagate one’s civilisation through missions, a sterling example at home and perhaps emigration (the last being the only way in which Britain significantly succeeded in its colonial enterprises, and which on at least one prominent occasion hurt the empire rather badly). One cannot have both, and no one ever has had both for very long. It is the choice between the Assyrians and the Byzantines: one’s identity can be defined by one’s conquered territories and the extent of conquest, or it can be defined by the actual cultural and intellectual production that enlightens the world, even though the territorial control of the state may continually shrinking. The Byzantine state all together failed in the end under enormous strains, but its civilisation succeeded in ways that might have been unimaginable in 330. Spare me if I find the exhortation to become effectively more like an Assyrian or a Mongol uninspiring and strangely at odds with the entire good heritage of Christian civilisation.
Yet the Byzantine state endured for an amazingly long time–1,100 years–and it did this not through going out to bring order to every corner of the world, but in preserving its resources and avoiding giving battle whenever possible. The Byzantines were living testimony for a millennium that one could better secure one’s state through diplomacy and the pursuit of peace than the willingness to fight all comers. The two great, all-out wars of Byzantine history ended up gaining the empire nothing and losing it a great deal. The Habsburgs, for what it is worth, to tip the hat to our Catholic friends, generally pursued a similarly restrained foreign policy, the epitome of which was the great Metternich.
The Rev. Benson quote above is actually a very good one, quite similar to one that the man who would become Fr. Seraphim Rose made before he became a hieromonk. It is one very much in keeping with my own view that one cannot coherently be a traditional Christian, acknowledging God as sovereign over all, and endorse the mass, chthonic, rebellious doctrine of democracy. Clearly, one cannot be an imperialist, in this higher sense of the word, for the cause of materialism, secularism and democracy. Yet these seem to be the things our hegemony offers the world at the present moment. It is vital to remember that there can only ever be one Christian emperor, who claims universal jurisdiction. To have that emperor, one must have a king and one certainly cannot go on prattling about democracy.
What is important to remember is that the sort of ’empire’ America today possesses lacks all legal and religious force: a Catholic (or Orthodox) could no more admire or support a French or Spanish secular dominion over other nations based on hubris than an Orthodox person could have regarded the Soviet Union’s role as a superpower as the aggrandisement of an Orthodox empire. There must be religious content, legitimisation and lawful authority behind a ruler for him to become even a pretender to a particularly Christian empire. That is, after all, what we’re talking about, isn’t it? A Christian empire?
If not, then there’s no need to take the argument seriously: fundamentally secular empire with social gospel trimmings, which seems to be where Mr. Crocker ends up by the end of his article, has nothing in its favour except the force to compel obedience. There is nothing in this that a Christian of any tradition would find admirable. No people worthy of dominion, to use the language of the imperialists, wastes its vital energies fixing the problems of hostile and foreign nations: the sole justification Mr. Crocker has for us to galivant around the world is to fix its problems, the sheer goodness of which makes the carnage and domination involved all right. Neither is this really a call to empire, but a call to be the world’s handyman or physician.
The Spanish Monarchy at least made a serious effort at embodying the principles of a Catholic monarchy, but assiduously avoided describing itself as an empire (which properly belonged, by Catholic reckoning, to the Austrian branch of the family), even though it has become today the almost universal term for their series of colonies around the world. When a government seizes territory by main force or exploits it commercially, which many understand to be imperialism, the government is not really an empire. If that government has pretensions to supremacy, but lacks the legitimacy for it, it has become the equivalent of a dominatio, a tyranny, which was the name applied to the rule of those Roman generals who seized power for themselves, exceeded the proper authority of imperium granted to them and ruled without recourse to the law.
A political sovereignty, as imperium came to mean, might or might not conquer neighbours, but the ’empire’ expanded only in the sense that the extent of the state expanded. The idea of having a series of subordinate colonies feeding the metropole is an entirely modern and mercantile one, which has literally nothing to do with ancient or Christian conceptions of empire. This is all the more true when the hegemony, as it might more properly be called, makes no pretenses of using its domination to spread the Gospel.