Bismarck for Pope?

By Mike Dorf

With the Conclave beginning today, the question on my mind is this: What if the next Pope attempted to do for Catholicism what Otto von Bismarck did for capitalism?  By creating a variety of social welfare programs in Germany, Bismarck tempered the impact of capitalism and thus reduced the appeal of socialism.  What would a Bismarckian Pope do?  Where Bismarck adopted some progressive measures to co-opt support that would otherwise have gone to the left, a Bismarckian Pope would move aggressively on various social issues that have alienated many Catholics in the developed world.

But a recent column by Ross Douthat suggests that it won't work.  Douthat provides a modest defense of the papacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict, as well as his prior and longer stint as formulator of Church Doctrine under his predecessor Pope John Paul II.  Douthat acknowledges Benedict's weakness as an administrator and his failure to move decisively on the child sexual abuse scandal but he suggests that Benedict made the right call in resisting further liberalization (and to some extent rolling back Vatican II) on such matters as sexual freedom and the role of women in the Church.  I'm not an expert in theology.  I'm not even Catholic.  But I think Douthat is onto something based on a parallel phenomenon in Judaism, with which I am more familiar.

Suppose you are trying to decide whether to liberalize your religion.  For simplicity, assume that you are not concerned about what God wants, what's right, etc.  All you care about is building your religion.  If you stick with traditions that the larger society rejects--such as discriminating against women and insisting that sex can only occur for procreative purposes and within a heterosexual marriage--you will find that you lose a lot of members who want their religious life to be more like the rest of their life.

But if you "go Bismarck" and liberalize so as to harmonize your religious doctrine with the norms and life paths of your members, you may find that those members then drift away, because religion no longer plays a distinctive role in their lives.  Certainly that is the story that was told to me by my Hebrew School teachers back in the 1970s and the data we have seems to vindicate it.  The data seem to show that religiosity correlates with likelihood of passing on religious affiliation to successive generations, at least for Jews.  As also indicated by a recent David Brooks encomium to Orthodox Jewry, a big piece of that is birthrate: Religious women have more children per capita.  But it's not clear we should discount birthrate because that correlation is not accidental.  In affirming traditional roles for women (and in some religions, opposing birth control), more traditional religions lead to more children, who will then stay in the religion during the next generation.  Douthat cites data comparing the experience of mainline Protestant (i.e., "liberalized") churches with the Catholic Church that suggest that the same phenomenon applies to Christians and Jews.

If this is a more or less general phenomenon, we have a puzzle: Why does Bismarckian co-optation work in the political realm but not in the religious realm?  It may be tempting to think the answer has to do with exit.  It's easier to leave a religion than to leave a polity.

But that's not the right comparison.  The working class that Bismarck successfully co-opted also had an exit alternative.  They could have become socialists.  Some in fact did.  For the most part, however, they were happy to stick with tamed capitalism.

Accordingly--and again, assuming that I'm right in seeing a general pattern--I think the better explanation has to do with what it is that people are looking for in politics/economics versus what they are looking for in religion.  Let's start with politics and economics.  Politics is a domain of both principle and interest (pun intended).  People care about their government expressing and acting on their values but they also care about their well-being.  Bismarck's success tends to show that appeals to class solidarity are not as potent as appeals to well-being.  I need to hedge here, of course, because at least since the French Revolution we have seen large masses of people motivated by ideological fervor to make great sacrifices--often pointlessly.  So politics and economics are not solely a domain of interest, but they are substantially so.

By contrast, religion plays a different sort of role for most people.  It satisfies needs for community, for a sense of meaning, for existential comfort, and so forth.  Each of these needs is a kind of interest, but not quite in the same way as the interests that are furthered by the Bismarckian welfare state.  And there is something about the particular package of goods that traditional religions deliver that more liberal denominations have difficulty emulating.  Catholicism, especially, delivers certainty, authority and ritual in a way that, say, Universalist Unitarianism, does not.

Some sects try to have it both ways, combining relatively liberal theology with relatively traditional liturgy.  Episcopal churches in the U.S. and Reconstructionist Judaism are examples.  I haven't looked closely at their membership or attendance figures, but I'd be surprised if this combination works to head off the phenomenon of decline.  In other words, theology is probably more important than liturgy.

As long as I'm discussing 19th-century Germans, I suppose I should add a word about Max Weber, who argued that the Reformation created habits of mind that conduced towards capitalism.  True enough, but Weber also thought that the domains of politics and religion operated by different logics and satisfied different needs.  I see my little thought experiment here as consistent with Weber's views.

Anyway, bottom line: I highly doubt we'll get a Bismarckian Pope.