Lord Acton (1834-1902) was a nineteenth-century English historian, a Liberal Catholic who intensely disliked the counterrevolutionary direction down which the Church was headed under the leadership of Blessed Pius IX. He is a hero to many modern men and women who share his Enlightenment outlook on society, politics, and especially the meaning of freedom. These include the directors of a powerful and well-heeled American think tank, the Acton Institute, which has an enormous influence in Catholic circles around the entire western world.
Acton is most well-known through his teaching that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely. This dictum, repeated by constitutionalists and libertarians alike, is supposed to force those of us who justify Church and State use of power to face honestly the unpleasant truth about ourselves: that we are on the low road to becoming despicable tyrants or friends of tyranny. But it seems to me that a solid Catholic analysis of the Power Dictum leads to a quite different conclusion: that it is actually this teaching of Lord Acton which tends to corrupt, and the absolute dedication to promotion of his beliefs, represented by foundations like the Acton Institute, which corrupts absolutely. For the Actonian PD, in practice, reflects a Gnostic and Manichean vision totally incompatible with the one taught by the holy babe born in Bethlehem.
Gnosticism is an ancient world view which argues that matter is evil and brought into being through the work of wicked demigods. It is the antithesis of the Christian belief that Creation is the loving gift of a good God who even offered it redemption once human sin caused His supernatural plan to go astray. Mani (216-276), a Third Century Persian religious leader, gave his name to the most successful Gnostic movement known to history. Manicheanism has owed its strength through the ages to the writings and organizational ability of its founder and his disciples. Both have promoted an extremely effective strategy of superficially accepting the varied religious and cultural beliefs they encounter in their missionary labors, and then deconstructing and redefining them to serve their own subversive purposes.
Manichean Gnostics were very powerful in certain parts of Western Europe in the early Thirteenth Century. Many Christians were fooled by their policy of subtle cooption of familiar religious language to teach a message alien to orthodox Catholicism. But the Manichean Mayor of a well-known central Italian town found to his chagrin that one of his fellow-citizens had hit upon a sure-fire way of checkmating otherwise highly successful Gnostic maneuvers. The city was Assisi; the citizen, St. Francis; his tool, the crèche. St. Francis knew that thorough going Gnostics cringed at the thought of everything connected with childbirth and its announcement of the arrival of yet another lump of wicked matter into the universe. He counted on the fact that Manicheans from Assisi would turn away in disgust at the sight of the crèche, just as they literally spat at the feet of all pregnant women crossing their path. And when they did so, they would proclaim themselves to be implacable enemies to truly believing Christians, all of whom reacted lovingly to the babe in the crib, even when they could not grasp the import of intellectual attacks on the Incarnation.
The message of that Incarnation is one of the need to redirect the entirety of fallen Creation to the glorification of God. Such a redirection is made possible through what St. Irenaeus calls the “recapitulation” of everything in Christ, the Word Incarnate. This recapitulation entailed Christ’s “gathering up” of each and every aspect of existence into one sublime effort to nurture and raise human persons to eternal life with the Trinity. That enterprise required recognition and redemption of all natural goods and relationships, in the manifold ways that history had developed and meshed them together, and with due respect for the intricate hierarchy of earthly and supernatural values.
A number of the great Church Fathers of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, the Cappadocian St. Gregory of Nyssa prominent among them, were fully awakened to what this message meant for Greco-Roman culture. They showed how an opening to the teaching of the Babe born in Bethlehem involved a new study of the thoughts and achievements of their civilization, from the time of Homer onwards, to see whether they might be mobilized to aid the task of salvation. What was required for the success of such an enterprise, they realized, was a docility to supernatural correction of their natural culture’s flaws, and a readiness to allow grace to guide its insights to uses much more exalted that anything it was capable of imagining when left purely to its own earthly devices.
One of the most important elements of the Greco-Roman Tradition that the mainline of the Church Fathers appreciated and sought to mobilize for Christ was its clear sense of the importance of familial and state authority. The value of such authority for identifying and gaining possession of all that was beautiful in human life, the evils befalling men who fled from its corrective application, and its troublesome and seemingly insoluble problems, were brilliantly presented in the writings of the great men of classical culture, its Hesiods, Solon the Lawgivers, Platos, and Aristotles.
Far from rejecting their brilliant insights, Christianity, with its teaching of submission to the authority of the Babe of Bethlehem, seemed to the Church Fathers to confirm them. Greco-Roman Christians were compelled to study, purify, complete, and transform what their forebears had already said and done in this realm. The Christian task was one of showing how a disciplining and coordination of all of the natural authorities, developed by complex and troublesome human experience under the supernatural authority of the Incarnate Word and His Church, could assure an infinitely more successful movement towards the True, Good, and Beautiful; a march from darkness to light which would be sublimely beneficial for society as a whole, all of its individual members, and the very holders of authority themselves.
Men and women presented with the opportunity or need to wield a social authority built upon natural Greco-Roman foundations and purified by Christian teaching and grace, do not tend to be corrupted by it. What they tend to become, instead, is much more aware of the enormity of the burden that such authority places upon them to serve those subject to their control. Yes, it is very possible that this heightened sense of awareness may then lead them into a sinful hunt for ways of fleeing clear responsibilities, or cynical and hypocritical masquerading of abuse of power. On the other hand, it is also very possible that it will guide them down the pathway to sanctity.
Those who meditate on the lessons of the crèche know that Mary and Joseph are there to press them down this road to holiness through willing acceptance of authority. The blessed couple of Bethlehem said “yes” to a sublime authority over Christ which it exercised for quite some time, raising the God-Man to adulthood and providing us the model for the Holy Family in the process. All parents and fathers of nations who embrace their varied forms of social authority under analogous circumstances can be transformed in Christ and attain personal perfection through their decision. They can become ever more conscious of flaws they need to overcome in order to fulfill their responsibilities to their charges properly. They can, under the pressure of that responsibility, become ever more aware of inner talents that they had no previous knowledge of possessing.
Nineteenth-century counterrevolutionary Catholics were part of a movement of rediscovery of the fullness of the Christian past leading them back to the insights of Church Fathers regarding the message of the Incarnation and the consequences for human perfection of the full cooperation of nature and grace. They eagerly applied what they learned to one of the burning questions of their own day, the relationship of authority and individual freedom. Article after article in journals such as the Jesuit review, La Civiltà Cattolica emphasized the conviction that strong natural and supernatural authority was a precondition for the perfection of personal liberty as well as all other human goods. For obedience to the fullness of authority was bound to ensure the fullest opportunity for self-correction and introduction to the Truth that really set men free. Rejection or limitation of the fullness of authority, on the other hand, entailed an opening to passion and a stubborn commitment to ignorance which was certain to work in favor of the strong, at the expense of the weak, but to the ultimate disadvantage and perdition of both.
When the right of command, or authority, is exercised in all its fullness, then all individuals, even the most weak, may use in all fullness their own rights; with the result that the fullness of liberty corresponds precisely to the fullness of authority….”1
“And the truth is that this freedom, as any other unlimited liberty not circumscribed by anything, is nothing other than the privilege agreed upon for the strong to assassinate the weak. In this case, the freedom of the strong is offended, since he is given the arbitrary ability to abuse his faculty, and the freedom of the weak is offended, as he remains the undefended victim of the abuse.2
Contemporary Catholics who have been led by their respect for the Incarnation to become conscious of the sublime importance of social authority for the work of raising society and men to God have precious little opportunity to wield this tool in any influential manner. What small authority they still possess, whether over themselves, their families, or their friends, should, however, be exercised to hammer out warnings against all dangers threatening corruption of mind and soul. And hence we return to what this article announced at the outset: the need to identify Lord Acton’s tendency to corrupt, and institutes absolutely dedicated to spreading his ideas to corrupt absolutely.
A full discussion of the problem represented by Acton would require a theological, philosophical, and historical analysis of Protestantism and the Enlightenment, as well as an examination of the all too great influence these have had even in Catholic circles in the past few centuries. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that he, like the mainstream of heretical modern man, cannot endure nature as God really created it, nor the still more exalted goal given to it through Christ’s Redemption. Acton is particularly revolted by the crucial, positive role played in Creation and Redemption by social authority, both natural and supernatural. He wants to get rid of this role, and, in order to do so, he maligns it as something which tends to aim its possessors towards corruption.
But it is necessary at this point to note something very central to the particular corruption toward which the Actonian system actually tends. Acton speaks of “power” and not “authority”. If what he really intended to say was that a raw, stubborn, unbending power tended to corrupt, he would have been correct, and would not have encountered the criticism that he did from nineteenth-century counterrevolutionary opponents in the Catholic camp. Unfortunately, what Acton meant by “power” was precisely the activity of that mesh of social authorities, guided by a sense of philosophical and religious responsibilities and hierarchical organization, developed by Greco-Roman culture and Catholic thinkers tying natural wisdom together with the message of the Incarnation. It was this mesh that had, through its tendency to heighten awareness of the burden and the exalted mission of authority, tamed illicit strength and hemmed in its possible misuse at the hands of passionate and ignorant men. What Acton, in his assault on a social authority incorrectly identified as raw power was, in fact, urging, a flight from an accurate and responsible use of a tool demanded by God and well-developed, as a “seed of the Logos”, in the natural world of Greece and Rome. What he was really calling for was creation of a social jungle in which the kind of truly raw power that ultimately destroys both the strong and weak would happily flourish. This wicked power, which definitely does tend to corrupt, and, if absolute, corrupt absolutely, would then be limited by absolutely nothing substantive. How could it be? For every effective attempt to control its evil would involve the use of authority of some kind or another, be it philosophical, religious, or traditional, and would be condemned by Acton as a step backwards into tyranny! The irony of this position is only surprising to someone unaware of the whole syllabus of ironies of the modern world that Acton loved so deeply. Remember, just to take one other example, that this civilization is one that praises as a glorious founder of the modern commitment to human liberty a Luther who believed that the concept of free will was a total absurdity.
I identified Acton’s position as a Gnostic one. On second glance, this appears to me as unfair to the Gnostics. They were much more logical in their approach. Acton is a selective and illogical enemy of nature as it really is, aiming his ire primarily at the essential tool of authority. It would, therefore, perhaps be better to label him a semi-Gnostic. But I stand by the comparison of the Acton Institute dedicated to the spread of his ideas in the Catholic world with Manicheanism. Like so many other conservative Catholic organizations today, it works with familiar Christian language. It can even defend itself against the charge of Gnosticism by pointing out how much it loves money. Meanwhile, it systematically works to deconstruct the essence of the Christian message and redirect it to the service of its own subversive purpose: the equation of our Faith with an unnatural, semi-Gnostic, Enlightenment concept of a self-destructive freedom destined to ensure the victory of the strong over the weak. For this is the ultimate goal of Acton’s contemporary followers: to make it seem that God created and redeemed the world in order to make it safe for the exercise of a raw power masquerading as true freedom.
If the sole consequence of an individual’s exercise of intellectual or spiritual authority today were to be the enlightenment of merely one other person to the tendency to corruption represented by Actonian thinking, this, to my mind, would be sufficient to justify his entire existence. Dangerous as that thinking is, it can still be defeated by the liberation of a handful of souls who understand the real power for transformation of the world contained by the Catholic message. And if a Catholic who senses its dangers despairs of finding the right arguments to lead a friend or family member away from it, let him take his student in this Christmas season to look at a crèche. Do Mary and Joseph really look like a libertarian mother and foster-father? Are they where they are because of their rejection of the authority of the Roman State? Does that Christ Child seem to be a victim of parents whose power over Him was bound to corrupt them, or one who wants us to be subject to the commands of His mother as much as He was?