Acton Institute Powerblog

A Tocquevillian in the Vatican

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With the publication of Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI is warning that an all-encompassing government would be unable to provide the one thing that people really need — loving, personal concern. Sam Gregg sees parallels between Benedict’s new encyclical and Tocqueville’s 19th century understanding of the autonomous, social associations that gave America its dynamic character and limited government power.

Read the full commentary here.

Jonathan Spalink


  • Andy Zylstra

    Do you think it is possible for a Christian to work for a government agency?

    I really get concerned about statements like: "The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern."

    Are you saying that agents (employees) of government are incapable of showing "loving personal concern?"


  • Marc Vander Maas

    I don’t think that any argument is being made that Christians should not work in government agencies. And I, for one, don’t believe that Christians should shy away from working within government. Rather, they should welcome the opportunity to be “salt and light” in that environment.

    But I also think that Christians should have realistic expectations about what governments and bureaucracies can do. And having worked in constituent services in the Michigan Legislature for 5 years, I can say from experience that “loving, personal concern” is not a term that would accurately describe most people’s interactions with state employees.

    This is not to say that employees in a government bureaucracy are bad people or are incapable of that kind of concern; rather, it is an acknowledgement that bureaucracies over time tend to develop structures and methods (or put another way, “red tape”) that make it much harder for individuals who work within them to really engage people in need with “loving, personal concern.”

    Bureaucracies are simply not the best way to help those in need. As long as they exist, I hope that Christians are willing to work in them to make them as good as they can be. But they will never be as efficient or as effective as the autonomous, small social organizations that Tocqueville wrote about.

  • Scott Harvey

    I also work for the state government and fully engaged in making sure that essential government services are provided efficiently to all Michigan citizens. I also believe many services provided on the backs of the tax payers are provided for the benefit of some people working in the government and by elected officials that recognize personal gain by keeping constituents dependant on big government..

  • John

    I need more convincing that the Roman Pontiff believes Protestantism is a good thing and democracy is the ideal society. Catholic leaders have produced many statements to the contrary which have never been renounced.

  • Jude Chua Soo Meng

    The Holy Father’s Deus Caritas Est is a magnificent work, full of insight. Sam’s reflection has brought out one: even when the state can provide all that it does provide, it cannot provide everything. And one such thing it cannot provide is that love which is not reducible to the just provision of human material needs.

    One of my greatest take away is his reflection on the relation between religion or faith and the state, brought out also in the section on justice and charity.

    There the Holy Father it seems to me is eager to highlight the what faith can do for the state. He distinguishes the state from faith by pointing out their different ends. The state has a more limited end. It is aimed at the just political life. But the question arises what such a "just" political state of affairs is, and in order to answer that question we have to go to practical reasoning, and to reason practically well. At this point we are invited to be immediately attentive to the fact that reason can often go astray, sometimes because of poor cultivation, sometimes because of the deviating effects of powerful emotions: lusts, greed, selfishness, etc.

    The point can be made also by asking the question, what is a state? When we try to define fruitfully what a state is, we need to consider what should or should not be put into that concept. If we have a sound grasp of what is important to include in the concept, then in the construction of that concept we may arrive at a concept of the state that positively promotes or defends these important things. Such a concept of the state then becomes the central case concept of the state, against which other peripheral instantiations of that concept may be compared and also criticised. Obviously in that focal or central case concept of the state justice will feature, and its promotion therefore will be included. But again the Holy’s Father’s "what is justice" becomes relevant. Not only that, if justice is giving each other his due, then the question again arises, what are each of us due? What are the (human) due-rights that each of us are entitled to? What are the human goods, values or needs *worth* defending and promoting in all persons? These questions can only be answered by practical reasoning. And these precisely are the answers that natural law delivers. (A good discussion of this central case or focal meaning strategy I read in John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights, Chapter 1)

    But practical reason can be highjacked. Thus the Holy Father speaks of the need to purify reason, to save it from the distortion that it may suffer. So in this also we find the important assistance that faith has–even for those who do not have faith, even for those who live and operate on the basis of (practical) reason.

    How can faith "purify reason"? Here the Holy Father does not seem to elaborate. He does mention the need to engage the world through rational argument and speaks of the need to reawaken the spiritual energy that makes justice prevail. Perhaps here there will need to be more discussion. Indeed, I believe there is so much the church and the faith can do for reason, to purify it.
    It really depends how and why reason has been assaulted and harmed. For example, a religious family can put children on a good start and free them from the perverting oppressions of ill habits which erase the principles of the practical reason.
    The spiritual life preserves our capacity to reason well, and to live out the obligations that reasons have for our lives: here Garrigou-Lagrange OP I found helpful. He points out how even if we had a good grasp of the natural law is may be very difficult, with our nature so harmed, for live them well, and grace which heals our nature becomes an important remedy. Even for those who do not believe, the Church’s ethos of defending the reality and objectivity and seriousness of moral truth is a strong foil to the post-modern stance (lyotard) and the empirical stance (Van Frassen). The first resists anyone who wants to be utterly serious about his grand narrative (which may have ethical implications) and the second, when adopted out of context (and is unfortunately often the case), in the tradition of the logical positivists, rejects or at least undermines the importance of (discussing) unverifiable realities–metaphysical truth, moral claims, etc. Nowadays, it’s not just a battle of arguments, but also a battle of attitudes, of stances. I’ve experienced this first hand. Some people just don’t want to talk about things that do not produce something they can use. Others want you to talk but don’t want you to take yourself too seriously, because they want everyone to have a say. I’ve found that people who are willing to engage are often people with a religion (catholic or protestant), because from the very start their orientation has been to take reason or at least thinking seriously, and completely. I say to them, thank God you have faith, not because you believe in God (even though that is worth thanking God for), but because you believe you should think, and think seriously.

  • Garet Gunther

    Your article is excellent and well-founded with respect to Alexis de Tocqueville. His book "Democracy in America." was well written, but without a commitment to his own morality to show his faith in God, he never understood the true faith of the Huguenot and what those French Protestants did for America. He ocillated as you say indicated most of his life. Can you comment more on any reflection that Tocqueville gave on the Huguenots and Joan of Arc? He seemed to overlook New York and South Carolina where the Huguenots made great impact upon our nation. Thank you. Garet