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Divinizing the State: A Blind and Dangerous Pedagogy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 07, 2013

One does not have to look far in today’s headlines to see the growing problem of totalitarianism in the West. For example, I note today that the French government has sought to ban discussion of same-sex marriage in Catholic schools. The triad of totalitarianism is complete in this one small story.

First, we have the attempt to prohibit discussion of the impending legalization of gay marriage. Second, we have the demand that any discussions be monitored and reported for possible unacceptable views. Third, we have the threat of coercion, concealed in the emphasis that Catholic schools in France provide education under contract to the State.

All of this is wrong, but what interests me most is the idea that the Church (or for that matter anyone else) somehow educates under a contract to the State. Of course, this may be the case technically under French law. A government which makes education mandatory under its own authority might think itself generous in allowing the use of Catholic schools to satisfy the relevant requirements. But in theory, the idea that the State is the font of education for its citizens is simply wrong.

Plato, when in the mood for a philosopher king, may have been sympathetic, but Aristotle put the matter succinctly when he said: “All men by nature desire to know.” The innate human thirst for knowledge, which is good in itself, is the engine which drives education. All human societies respond to that thirst by organizing standard ways of gathering and imparting knowledge. There are certainly many other motives for learning, and government may sometimes act conveniently in this regard. But government has no more authority over knowledge than it has over hope, or goodness, or love.

Moreover, one very important realm of knowledge is moral knowledge, the knowledge of right and wrong. To permit the State to claim authority over this knowledge is to reduce morality to politics, which is to reduce it to power. This is a common error in the modern West, just as it has always been a very convenient error for those whose morality is determined by their self-interest. This is also one of the great temptations of those in positions of civil authority, a temptation that has been further rationalized by the concept of “reason of state”. In a broader political sense, it is a grave error which leads inevitably to totalitarianism.

To put the matter simply, it is impossible to attribute either authorship or control of moral knowledge to the State without making the State into God, ultimately unanswerable to anyone or anything. Unfortunately, like the citizens of the ancient Roman Empire, modern Westerners tend toward idolatry in their conception of the State.

We have come to take not just the immense power of the State for granted but also its illimitable authority. The results are horrifying. To test the severity of our own misconceptions, let us try a thought experiment. If we were to personify the State, how much of the following passage would we apply to it? How much would be applied to it by many of our contemporaries—even sometimes our putatively Christian contemporaries?

All-powerful will, benevolent virtue, eternal light, changeless reason, supreme blessedness. He creates minds to share in himself, gives them life, so that they may experience him, causes them to desire him, enlarges them to grasp him, justifies them so that they may deserve him, stirs them to zeal, ripens them to fruition, directs them to equity, forms them in benevolence, moderates them to make them wise, strengthens them to virtue, visits them to console, enlightens them with knowledge, sustains them to immortality, fills them with happiness, surrounds them with safety.

This is actually an extract from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s answer to the question, “What is God?” It is found in On Consideration, a book he wrote to encourage his friend and fellow Cistercian Pope Eugenius III to remember, in the midst of his new duties, the need for a deeper contemplation of reality. The text could be put almost word for word on the tongue of a contemporary secular liberal, but with a very different referent, especially in this matter of the State’s authority over knowledge, by which I mean the apprehension of reality.

And as with knowledge, so with every other human good. The role of government is not to pretend to be the author of any good, but to organize our common resources so as to promote the common good. Organization is, of course, a good in itself, but it is the decidedly secondary good of more effectively utilizing primary goods for the ends already implicit in them. The moment we view the State as an originator of such goods, two things happen. First, we forget how the goods in question are actually generated. Second, we give up the liberty needed to produce these goods. The result will always be not only a slavery with respect to some good, but an impoverishment of the good itself.

We may describe any effort to provide education as a distribution system for knowledge. To organize such a system in a way which treats the State as the author or arbiter of knowledge is extraordinarily dangerous. This gives the State an essentially religious formative power which must inevitably result in the impoverishment of truth. Since the State originates nothing—that is, it has no wealth in any good thing which is intrinsically its own—the State relies heavily on the propagation and enforcement of myths to preserve its own power. It is not the State but God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).

No, the pedagogy of the State is always more or less rooted in a lie: Since the Emperor has no clothes, all others must be taught to see what does not exist, rather than what does.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Jan. 13, 2013 10:40 AM ET USA

    It seems in our own country we keep praying as we believe this as well. We pray that our government leaders are wise and compassionate in their laws for the poor and the immigrant. I often wonder why we don't simply pray for their conversion to Christ and His Church. There almost seems to be an inversion of reality when we believe that we are dependent on the state, while the state believes it is independent of both Christ's justice and mercy.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2013 5:25 PM ET USA

    In France and Belgium, the government pays for the salary of the priests and the Catholic schools as some kind of compensation for the fact that all (rather substantial) properties of the church were confiscated by the state after the French Revolution. Just saying.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 08, 2013 11:23 AM ET USA

    I was visiting an independent private Catholic school in Ontario, Canada, last fall and was told by the school's founder that the Catholic school system there is subject to the same constraints mentioned by Dr. Mirus and the news article cited. A pastor in Ohio is building a new independent Catholic school and is concerned that the state will impose the same sort of restrictions on his ability to teach truth to his Catholic students.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jan. 08, 2013 11:22 AM ET USA

    It seems in the U.S. that the "contract" is any Federal subsidy, grant, etc, that a school or school district receives and this, according to this administration, allows the Federal government to dictate everything. This now includes morality and anything else "they" deem (politically) correct. These are dangerous times.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 08, 2013 7:46 AM ET USA

    Thanks for the dose of reality in concert with truth in these challenging times.