The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 13, 2017

Page 3 of 4
Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe (part 2)
Pierre Manent - 04/17/08


It is in this context we might usefully clarify the new doctrine of the Catholic Church on the death penalty. The ultimate principle of the Roman Church’s teaching has not changed. [3] It resides in unreserved obedience to the divine commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” That is why the church, even in the periods when it exercised its power over souls with less restraint, has always itself refused to put to death those it judged worthy of the ultimate penalty. Instead, it committed them to “the secular arm”—an exquisite procedure that managed to stir Joseph de Maistre to tears of tender admiration. Thus, the church recognized as legitimate in principle something it forbade itself from doing—putting men to death—if the one who did it was the legitimate political authority. This was one way of recognizing the validity of the political order, which otherwise was seen as a merely human thing that ruled over and for bodies. It therefore could inflict the death of the body, as the church ruled over and for souls and therefore could inflict the death of the soul. What the church bound on earth would remain bound in heaven.

Why then has the church modified if not its very teaching on this point, at least the rules of its application? [4] Why has the church set to demanding insistently, even vehemently, that states should renounce a right that it had always recognized them to possess? Among the reasons one could advance, I believe that a reason of high politics merits particular attention.

The church cannot completely abandon its exercise of “indirect power” over the political order. Yet at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) it accepted the principle of religious freedom. Henceforth, therefore, its exercise of its “indirect power” must be more and more indirect. And if the church no longer claims the right to act positively within states in the name of its divine authority, the possibility remains of doing what it can to diminish the spiritual legitimacy of these political bodies. After all, these are communities to which men have devoted themselves over the course of centuries, to the point of preferring the salvation of the state to the salvation of their own souls. It is therefore very coherent of the church to adopt a generally “pacifist” stance at the same time that it rejects the death penalty. It thus advances both the interior and exterior disarmament of the secular state. Should we suspect that the Church of Rome by these new teachings is only pursuing in new circumstances the old struggle between the papacy and the emperor? Be that as it may, one would have to be very insensitive to the interplay of “spiritual masses” (the phrase is Hegel’s) not to detect how markedly the notion of secularization changes color—and perhaps meaning—for the church when secularization today affects political bodies as much or more as it does the church itself. Today the secular state is itself becoming secularized.


I just spoke of the papacy and the empire. In fact, its rather militant rejection of the death penalty and its rather accentuated pacifism place the church today in a profound and serious spiritual opposition to “the American empire.” It is important, therefore, to consider the American attitude toward the death penalty—which as I said presents such a striking contrast to the European position. This contrast requires us to consider certain phenomena belonging to the third circle, that of the nation-state, to the extent these are unintelligible in terms of the second circle of Tocqueville’s analysis. As we have seen, Tocqueville explains the progressive development of democratic “mildness” by the growing sentiment of human resemblance. Thus, there is no “democratic” reason, if I can put it that way, why the United States and Europe should find themselves at such different points on the compassion spectrum. [5] How, then, can we explain what seems to us a halt, even a regress, in democratic mildness in the birthplace of democracy, the United States? This development is even more striking when one considers that this country remains in many other respects in the avant-garde of nations when it comes to democratic sensibilities—in the relationship between the sexes, for example. Why, then, this sole exception—an exception between democratic countries and within American democratic life—when it comes to applying the death penalty? More generally, what accounts for what one could call Americans’ punitive vigor and even alacrity?

In my view, it is because the Tocquevillean country par excellence has not broken with the Hobbesian scheme of the Western nation-state. There is a paradox, even a historical mystery in this, because the United States came into being by breaking with the sovereignty of Westminster. [6] In any case, the connection between the state that holds a monopoly of legitimate force and the experience of the state of nature has never completely been forgotten there. It has been maintained and even reinforced of late, even before September 11. The general recognition of the legitimacy of the death penalty goes hand-in-hand with a widespread view that each individual has the right to possess arms for self-defense. [7] Europeans believe that the Hobbesian logic speaks in their favor, and they insist that it is contradictory to exercise a right that in principle has been yielded to the state. In turn, Americans respond that since the risk of violent death at the hands of others never completely disappears, the right to self-defense cannot completely disappear. The right to bear arms is a manifestation or component of that right. We should acknowledge that both Europeans and Americans can rightly claim to draw inspiration from the great architect of the sovereign state. But Europeans think and act as though the sovereign state has fulfilled its purpose so completely that they can now consign it to the thrift store, filed under “accessories.” Americans, on the other hand, retain the feeling that they are living in a condition which makes this “accessory” necessary, even indispensable.

Page 3 of 4

Library of Modern Thinkers Logo

By clicking the logo above to shop, every purchase helps to support ISI.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute • 3901 Centerville Rd. • Wilmington, Delaware 19807-1938 •
Please direct all inquiries regarding First Principles to [email protected].