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Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought
Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought
Emile Perreau-Saussine
Princeton University Press, 2012
200 pp., $46.95

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Robert Joustra


A Clash of Pentecosts

French Catholicism and the secular state.

Every Pentecost is loud. In that first, in dusty provincial Rome long ago, storming winds and tongues of flame made manifest the promise of a curtain torn, of a tomb split open. It was a new communion, one in which barriers of language, race, and gender were remade in the person of Jesus Christ. The curse of Babel undone, humankind found wholeness.

The French Revolution sparked its own Pentecost, with the acrid smell of powder and flint and the scream of metal and steel striking mortal blows to the Ancien Régime, the old order which divided a sovereign people by the hubris of divine right and the paternalism of the clergy. The Revolution brought the masses into the political arena. It was a political Pentecost, a civic epiphany that sparked an explosion of activism.

The story of Emile Perreau-Saussine's Catholicism and Democracy is a clash of Pentecosts, a clash of sovereignties—one too many for most Catholics, who were just as happy with the one they already had. It is a remarkably powerful story, told by a political theorist of extraordinary talent and depth, a story with its own sad ending, if marked only by his tragic death at such a young age from a heart attack. The book was published posthumously, and over it hangs that lament which Alasdair MacIntyre puts so poignantly in the foreword: "I shall resist the temptation to note here the occasional doubts that I would have wanted to express to the author or the questions that I would have been anxious to put to him. But I do so with unusual sadness, since I shall never learn what he would have said."

Yet what Perreau-Saussine bequeathed to us in Catholicism and Democracy is an inheritance worthy of his brief genius. The questions he brings into focus are twofold: First, why and how did Catholic France, and Catholicism generally, accommodate the spirit of revolutionary democracy, of the sovereignty of the people, which seemed so contrary to the theology and practice of the Catholic Church? And second, far ...

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