Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre I: Introduction

Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre I: Introduction April 3, 2008

genewolfe.jpgBut the people who urge these arguments are doing no more than setting themselves up as judges over the judges appointed by the Autarch, judges with less training in the law and without the authority to call witnesses. They demand that we disobey the real judges and listen to them, but they cannot show that they are deserving our obedience.

–Gene Wolfe [1]

For several of the centuries preceding Vatican Council I, political thinkers developed new notions about authority and sovereignty, and their ideas had a tremendous amount of influence over Europe. The Catholic Church often found itself in conflict with the proponents of the developing political tradition; she debated with them the implications and value of their teachings, especially because she understood the kind of impact these theories would have on the Church and her notions of authority.

Certainly an important example of this conflict took place in France. Many French politicians and ecclesial authorities declared their allegiance to France and France’s political sovereignty over and above their allegiance to the Pope in Rome. The dispute which was to follow was one between the supporters of French sovereignty, the Gallicans, and those who supported the authority of the papacy, the Ultramontanists. They were, in part, debating the application of the Enlightenment’s political theories within the Church. While the Gallicans acknowledged some form of papal authority, they also believed that it was limited, and papal decrees would have to be ratified and accepted by local ecclesial authorities to be binding.

Central to the debate were ideas of political theorists such as Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. bodin_jean.jpgJean Bodin was one of the first modern systematic thinkers on sovereignty; his theories were foundational for what followed. He believed that a society needed to be unified for it to preserve social order, and that this order could only be preserved by a leader invested with supreme authority[2]. This leader could not be limited by any other human person, but would be (in theory) a subject of a higher divine authority. Although Hobbes was not French, he had a major influence on the developing debate over authority and sovereignty as it would take place in France; like Bodin, he believed that a state could be properly preserved only by the establishment of a unified central and supreme authority. But Hobbes had to deal with a different problem than Bodin. He believed that the world was a world at war, and everyone should be seen to be in conflict with everyone else. Living in such a world would be dangerous at best. Therefore, societies form around a sovereign who works to bring order and to put to an end to the conflict through his designated authority. Hobbes therefore developed a form of the social contract theory; he wanted it to be one where the people within a society established a covenant to accept a leader, a sovereign. But he wanted this sovereign to be invested with absolute authority, because he is seen to need it in order to do his duty, which is to protect society.[3] Although many would not agree with Hobbes when he made the sovereign absolute, they would find his covenant-foundation for sovereignty to be useful. It would influence the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who would develop a more sophisticated social contract theory; Rousseau would move the context away from Hobbes’ absolutism into a more democratic one. To some extent, he was to say that it is the general will of the people, and not of one individual national sovereign, which is to govern an individual state. [4] Certainly he encountered many critics, with most of them pointing out the difficulty a large state would have if it were run by his teachings. Others philosophers, like John Locke, tried to suggest a middle way, where the state itself could be seen as supreme, run by the will of the majority, but one which must also keep and preserve the natural rights given to all, and not just those who are in the majority. [5]

Within this milieu, papal authority was put to the question, and it was asked, what authority does the pope possess? Why does he have this authority? What limits, if any, are there on his authority? Is he an absolute sovereign over the Church, or should he be seen as a representative of the people who leads by moral authority?

The declaration of papal infallibility at Vatican Council I can be seen as a response to these questions. However modern the question and response were, by the time papal infallibility was declared at the council, many people took its response as completely traditional and not anything new. In one sense this certainly was the case. It was a presentation of traditional papal authority. But it was put into a new context, one which was contingent upon modern political theories, and this means that it was not as purely traditional as many assumed it to be. Since it engaged a new way of explaining papal authority, it brought with it, new ideas and new connotations, ones which would demand responses and would find some at Vatican Council II.

The “tradition” from which it developed can be seen as starting in France, where Ultramontanists, responding to Gallican sentiments, adapted modern political thought to declare the absolute authority and sovereignty of the pope over the Church. [6] Papal infallibility was eventually seen as a corollary to his absolute authority. Count Joseph de Maistre was one of the first to connect the absolute sovereignty of the Pope with infallibility. When he wrote, his ideas were not readily accepted at the Vatican; indeed, they were often ignored. But when the debates on papal authority which continued in France moved abroad, his works would be read and have a significant influence on many within the Church. [7] They provided what seemed to be a reasonable response to the question of papal authority. While he helped influence the way the debates on papal authority were to take place, people are not familiar with him and his thought; they are more familiar with the results of those debates than the context in which they took place. To better understand Vatican I and the question of papal authority, it is important to understand the kinds of thought which were being discussed prior to the council. Because of his influence on those debates, and how he influenced Ultramontanists who were to have important roles at the council, Joseph de Maistre, an often neglected figure in the contemporary world, is an important figure for us to consider and reflect upon. [8] By doing so we can better appreciate the results of the council, some of the cultural aspects by which the council must be read from to get a proper interpretation of its teachings, and finally, the role that one’s political philosophy can have in ecclesial debates.


[1] Gene Wolfe, Sword and Citadel. The Second Half of the Book of the New Sun (New York: Orb Books, 1994), 21.
[2] Jacques Maritain, “The Concept of Sovereignty,” in The American Political Science Review vol. 44, no. 2 (1950): 344-6.
[3] G. A. J. Rogers, “Hobbes, Sovereignty and Consent,” in Rivista di storia della filosofia, vol. 59, no. 1 (2004):245.
[4] Alfred Cobban, “New Light on the Political Thought of Rousseau,” in Political Science Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 2 (1951): 275-6.
[5] John T. Scott, “The Sovereignless State and Locke’s Language of Obligation,” in American Political Science Review, vol. 94, no. 3 (2000): 550 – 52.
[6] Herman J. Pottmeyer, Towards a Papacy in Communion: Perspectives from Vatican Councils I & II (trans. Matthew J. O’Connell; New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), 53.
[7] Ibid., 54.
[8] Jerry von Arx in the introduction to his edited volume on Ultramontanism said that scholars,  often critical of the Ultramontists, do not appreciate the background from which they came, and so not only do they not understand the movement, their distaste for it prevents them from doing so. “The sources of this blocked understanding are not hard to find, at least from our side of historical understanding. The results of the ultramontane victory are still very much with us in the Church of the twentieth century, and few who write or take the trouble to think about the history of religion, either within or without the Roman Catholic Church, are pleased with all of those results. And so almost inevitably, a distaste for ultramontanism in its present garb has colored our perception of the emergence of the fashion in the last century.” Joseph von Arx, S.J.ed., Introduction to Varieties of Ultramontanism(ed., Jeffrey Von Arx, S.J.; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 2. It is important to recognize that my study is not meant to demonize or to glorify Joseph de Maistre and his views, but to provide a way for one to have a balanced understanding of his teachings so that it can serve as a historical point of contact to the time period in which the declaration of papal infallibility at Vatican Council I was made. Moreover, I believe that many of his views still find resonance within the Catholic Church, and so we should not study Joseph de Maistre for the sake of history, but also because it will help understand the foundation for much which is discussed and debated to this day. Finally, I would like to point out that I find much in de Maistre’s writings which I agree with, much which I find repulsive, but throughout all of them, I see the work of a genius struggling to deal with difficult issues which have not yet been sufficiently examined by society at large.

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