Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Freedom And The Church

Good column by Jonah Goldberg.

But given the often abysmal discussion of the John Paul II's legacy and thought, what I think is worth noting is how childish phrases like "left" and "right" are when describing such a man and the institution he represents. After all, the designations of "left" and "right" come from 18th-century France, and the Catholic Church was already a couple centuries from its 2,000th birthday by then.


The most fascinating disconnect between our political categories and the reality of John Paul II was the fact that he was perhaps liberty's greatest champion in the 20th century. That story is well known and needs no repeating here.

But what gets less attention is the fact that it was the Catholic Church that launched the very notion of a sphere of liberty and morality not bound to the state. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Fareed Zakaria recounts in "The Future of Freedom," the Catholic Church remained as an imperfect conscience for rulers who would define the rules of kings as synonymous with the whims of kings. When Emperor Theodosius slaughtered the Thessalonians, Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, was so repulsed he refused to give the emperor Holy Communion. The emperor cried, No fair! He argued that David had done worse in the bible, to which Ambrose replied, "You have imitated David in his crime, then imitate him in his repentance!" Off and on for eight months, the most powerful ruler in the entire world mimicked the biblical David, dressing in rags like a beggar in order to plea for forgiveness outside the Ambrose's cathedral.

Over time, the papacy's moral authority increased. Pope Leo III may have been forced to anoint Charlemagne as Roman Emperor, but by doing so he also cemented the notion that even kings were answerable to a higher authority. When Emperor Henry IV challenged the Pope's power of investiture he ended up, as legend has it, kneeling in the snows at Canossa to beg for forgiveness. It was only in modern times, best symbolized by Napoleon crowning himself Emperor of the French, that this external authority was firmly rejected in favor of his own will-to-power. It is no coincidence that Napoleon is widely considered the first modern dictator.

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