Human nature, absolute power, and America – Catholic World Report

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Perhaps the most profound lesson from history is that unchecked rulers or dominant groups—of whatever political, religious, ideological, ethnic persuasion—cannot resist abusing power.

Human nature, absolute power, and America – Catholic World Report
A full moon rises over the U.S. Capitol building in Washington Jan. 28, 2021. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The historical evidence is plentiful. Yet, we are reticent to accept the deeper truth.

Perhaps the most profound lesson from history is that unchecked rulers or dominant groups—of whatever political, religious, ideological, ethnic persuasion—cannot resist abusing power and the human rights of those outside the dominant group or party.

This is hard to accept as a universal principle. Sure, we accept it when it’s the Nazis or Stalin or the Khmer Rouge. But if the people that I prefer controlled things, then problems would be solved and wrongs would be made right. Thus said the supporters of the Caesars, Napoleon, Ayatollah Khomeini, and many others.

But human nature is such that only strong checks on power can prevent the eventual abuse of power. Would that it were otherwise, but history consistently and compellingly tells a different story. Moreover, unchecked power and its attendant social rot sooner or later produce revolutions, wars, and civil wars.

Atheists assert that this human condition emerged from a God-less universe and God-less evolution on planet Earth. Catholics assert that mysterious original sin is the root of human disorder, that Jesus Christ blazed a path out of this disorder, and the saints follow this path. Sadly, many people continue to follow the big bright boulevard to destruction. Dominant groups and parties invariably support or acquiesce to agendas, policies, programs, and pogroms that persecute outsiders and dissenters, ranging from subtle persecution, to assigning second class status and rights, to virtue slavery, to actual slavery, to extermination. Only substantial checks, rooted in goodness and reason, on rulers and dominant groups can moderate such persecution.

Pre-Reformation Europe was not without such abuses of power—by the nobility, by nation against nation, tribe against tribe, even by Church leaders and Catholic rulers. But there were checks on the power of rulers and dominant groups, especially a consistent Christian ethos across Europe. As caretaker of this Christian ethos, the Church, in spite of human frailty, often served as a check on the power of rulers and dominant groups.

The Reformation, ostensibly to stem Church abuses, had the practical effect of marginalizing, if not doing away with, the Church as a check on the power of rulers and dominant groups. It also led to replacing a universal Christian ethos with ambiguity, playing into the hands of rulers such as Henry VIII, Napoleon, and many other Reformation and post-Reformation tyrants. Gone were popes who reined in strongmen like the Holy Roman Empire’s Henry IV and England’s Henry II.

And not just popes in Rome, but local bishops and strong abbots of community-anchoring monasteries. Why else were such pains taken by Reformation rulers to destroy monasteries and to install accommodating religious leaders? Lost in dozens of competing creeds was an unequivocal Christian ethos on which human dignity could be anchored.

America, in her founding, sought to embed new checks on power and on dominant groups with three independent branches of government, by balancing federal and state powers, and by invoking a generalized Protestant Christian ethos. This was so even as many founders understood that such limited checks on power were chiefly dependent on a critical mass of virtuous citizens. To a degree, American checks worked, far better than America’s detractors assert, yet far from the shining city on the hill that many patriots like to imagine.

In the 20th century, even a generalized Protestant Christian ethos eroded quickly. “Liberty with virtue under God” was replaced by “Liberty with obligation to the bureaucratic state,” leaving America with fewer checks on the power of the bureaucratic state and dominant groups and parties.

Effective checks on power foster messy public debates, impede charismatic leaders and dominant parties, often produce two steps forward and one (even two or three) steps backward rather than steady “progress,” impose limits on the bureaucratic state, protect the weak and unwelcome. In a word, truly effective checks are bound to frustrate all of us at one time or another.

The path to holiness that Jesus established through his salvific work is, ultimately, the sole remedy. Until then, we need many effective checks on rulers, bureaucracies, and dominant groups. Otherwise, abuse of power and tendency to corruption are nearly inevitable—and absolutely devastating.

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