Standing on principle: Gregory XVI and the Polish rebellion of 1830

Reactionaries are often accused of wishing only to preserve or seize power for ourselves, as if no one could really support hierarchical relationships on principle.  It is therefore a matter of pride to me that my own Church refuses to support rebellion even when it would mean Catholics seizing power from other Christians.

Henri Daniel-Rops, in his The Church in an Age of Revolution, seems positively embarrassed by the Papacy’s support for an “oppressive” Russian Orthodox autocracy over the foolish liberal aristocratic Poles, calling it “A grievous episode”.

Europe as a whole did not react to this drama.  Nevertheless, every man in Europe with any ‘liberal’ leanings at all, everyone who was striving to rebuild the world,  quivered with loving anguish for conquered Poland [bah ha ha].  The tragedy of a martyred people moved thousands of hearts.

What of the Pope?  For him the problem was more than delicate.  A huge majority of the Polish fighters were Catholics; their ranks included very many priests, and several bishops encouraged the insurrection.  Badani, sent by the rebels to show Gregory the justice of their cause, emphasized one aspect of the struggle, which as events proved, could not be ignored:  the resistance of Catholicism to the oppression of Orthodoxy.  At the same time, however, the Czar’s representative, Prince Gagarin, assured the Pope that the leaders of the rebellion belonged to the same secret societies which were threatening law and order in Italy and elsewhere; that his master, guarantor of peace, had no intention of destroying the Catholic Church in Poland; and he asked for a ‘fatherly exhortation’ inviting the clergy not to overstep their spiritual duties.

The Czar’s protestations were submitted to Gregory XVI on the day of his coronation, at a moment when disturbances in Italy gave him little cause for sympathy with liberalism; and they carried more weight than the heart-rending appeals from the Polish Catholics.  Gregory began by writing a letter to the bishops of Poland, advising them ‘to preach obedience and submission as advocated by St. Paul’; it was entrusted to Gagarin, but was apparently deemed inadequate by the government at St. Petersburg and never reached its destination.  Gagarin intervened once more, supported this time by Metternich, who dropped a hint to the Holy Father that a measure of condescension on his part would enable the Czar to arrange an advantageous settlement of all Catholic problems in Poland.  It must also be remarked that the lyrical outbursts and vehement recriminations of the liberals–those of L’Avenir and those of the Risorgimento–did not help to sway the mind of Gregory XVI in favor of the rebel cause.  On 9th June 1832 the Brief Superiori anno stigmatized ‘those authors of lying and trickery who, under cover of rebellion, defy the legitimate power of princes, break all the ties of submission imposed by duty and plunge their country into misfortune and mourning’.  It directed Polish Catholics to be on their guard against baneful doctrines, and advised them to obey their ‘mighty emperor who would show them every kindness’.

It is not hard to imagine the effect of this document, first in Poland where it arrived and was solemnly published by the Russians just as the occupying forces were beginning an orgy of repression.  In France, even outside liberal Catholics circles, it caused widespread grief, and in England the Protestant press emphasized its disgraceful character.  It was not then known that the Brief had been accompanied by another addressed to the Czar, in which His Holiness energetically denounced ‘the wicked chicanery’ of the Russian government in Poland, cited examples of near-persecution, and suggested sending to St. Petersburg a papal charge d’affaires to make a careful study of the whole situation.

Glorious!  And how much more so that the Holy Father stood alone in the West for order and obedience.

25 Responses

  1. “It is therefore a matter of pride to me that my own Church refuses to support rebellion even when it would mean Catholics seizing power from other Christians.”

    I seem to recall that John Paul II supported rebellion against atheists.

  2. I don’t believe he ever endorsed armed rebellion.

  3. Ousting Communists is not equivalent to ousting a government which professes a false religion.

  4. Papal intervention in European politics was no less disasterous in 1933 e.g. the fate of Catholic Centre party in Germany and the passing of Enabling Act that made Hitler dictator.

  5. The Pope didn’t cause Hitler’s rise to power.
    And papal intervention in 1830 was in no way disastrous.

  6. Reblogged this on Tradition, Authority, Reason and commented:
    Indeed. It is a great credit to the Church that she did not support treason out of short-sighted self-interest.

  7. Strange, given Pope Pius IX’s treatment of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.

  8. Strange, given Pope Pius IX’s treatment of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.

    Didn’t Pius IX just write a nice letter to Jefferson Davis? He did not recognize the South or encourage the revolt. I do not care for either side, but I find paleo-cons who constantly tout the South as “traditionalist” irksome.

  9. AK,
    What made the Russian Tsar the legitimate authority over Poland and Polish people?
    The right obtained through conquest?
    But didn’t you say that per CCC, conquests and aggression are immoral and being immoral should give rise to no claims and rights?

    I wonder if the Pope provided political advice to the Polish people during 1939-45.

  10. Vishmehr,

    While the original partitions of Poland were unjust, the total destruction of the Polish state extinguished Polish territorial claims to it. Thus the rights to the land validly fell to the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian powers. Additionally the settlement at the Congress of Vienna confirmed the arrangement.

    Moreover, one could argue that the third partition was just, as the Polish Army was attacking the others.

    In any case, by 1830 no one could claim legal descent from the old Polish government, which had been abolished.

  11. Recently an opinion was expressed, in the discussion of Just war, that while the Church authoratively proclaims moral truths, She has no particular competence or authority regarding the questions of fact.

    This should apply to the situation here. While the moral principle of obedience to proper authority is acknowledged, the Church can not authoratively proclaim who is the proper authority that must be obeyed. This the people have to decide for themselves.

  12. I don’t really see that there was any legitimate dispute over the issue. No one was claiming to be the alternate authority, rather the rebels were trying to set one up from scratch.

  13. The Church doesn’t give people the license to decide for themselves which authority to follow; she insists that they follow established authority, and it’s nearly always clear who that is.

  14. “But didn’t you say that per CCC, conquests and aggression are immoral and being immoral should give rise to no claims and rights?”

    It’s true that aggressive conquest is immoral and unjust, but it doesn’t follow that it gives rise to no rights. A right is simply the complement of a duty, and we can all agree that if a nation conquers another, it has certain duties toward the subjugated nation.

    If it were the case that wars of conquest produce no claim to authority than I struggle to imagine even a single nation today with a valid claim Certainly not the United States.

  15. Bonald,
    “she insists that they follow established authority, and it’s nearly always clear who that is”

    Is it?.
    This is the central problem in politics–who is the authority.
    And precisely when political theory is required, it is unclear who is the authority?
    If it is so clear, pls answer the question Were the Poles morally obliged to obey German authority when they were ordered not to hide or give food to Jews?

  16. “wars of conquest produce no claim to authority”
    This is what I was arguing against in the other thread. But people want to eat their cake and have it too.
    It was argued on the other thread that conquest is immoral by Catholic teaching. Now it is being argued that conquest gives valid title. These two statements contradict each other.
    Either conquest and wars of conquest are moral and give legitimate authority OR they are immoral and thus can not give legitimate authority.
    What can not be, as AR argues, that war of conquest are immoral but the fruit of conquest is legitimate authority.

  17. No, political theory is not usually required or useful for resolving cases of genuine disputed authority, such as disputed claims to succession. Political theory exists to analyze the nature and proper functioning of authority, and refute sophistical excuses for refusing one’s due obedience.

    “It was argued on the other thread that conquest is immoral by Catholic teaching. Now it is being argued that conquest gives valid title. These two statements contradict each other.”
    If they do contradict each other, that’s not a problem for Catholic doctrine; it’s a problem for every nation that has ever existed. Far enough back in any country’s authority, one is bound to find conquest or usurpation. It would be mad to say that our duties to established princes is therefore suspect. Understanding how time, acquiescence, and enculturation legitimate conquest may require great subtlety, but that it often has happened is clear to everyone.

  18. It is a problem for Catholic teaching alone (as presented by AR and others) if it regards conquests as immoral per se.
    It is not a problem if one holds that conquests are not immoral per se.
    But then, counter-conquests are also not immoral.

  19. bonald,
    You do not emphasize that the Papal support was not unconditional but was given in exchange for the assurance that the Russians “had no intention of destroying the Catholic Church in Poland”.

    The obedience of the populace you emphasize but the duty of the rulers to pursue the good of the subjects hardly ever.

    Simply put, I am under no obligation to obey a purported authority if that authority is not seeking my good. Or, in other words, I have to be a part of that “common” whose “common good” the authority is seeking,

    That means that the Poles were not morally obliged to obey Nazis.
    This statement, I feel, people here have difficulty with.

  20. The political theory consisting solely of the injuction “Obey authority” is severely incomplete if it remains silent on how to tell a genuine authority from a fake one.

  21. “Were the Poles morally obliged to obey German authority when they were ordered not to hide or give food to Jews?”

    Germans weren’t even obligated to obey that. The reasons why obedience is not required in such a case do not touch on whether the person issuing the commands has otherwise legitimate authority.

    “What can not be, as AR argues, that war of conquest are immoral but the fruit of conquest is legitimate authority.”

    False dilemma. Under the principle of terra nullis, land without a sovereign authority can be seized as territory by any sovereign authority. So if a sovereign authority is destroyed, even if immorally, then the new power acquires said authority.

  22. > It is a problem for Catholic teaching alone (as presented by AR and others) if it regards conquests as immoral per se.

    Surely it would be reckless to say that an Englishman’s duty to obey the police is contingent on whether the Glorious Revolution or the Norman Invasion were justified. We monarchists are not nearly so utopian about the past as that.

  23. AR,
    “Germans weren’t even obligated to obey that.”
    Why?
    In what way the Nazi regime lacked legitimacy?

    “if a sovereign authority is destroyed, even if immorally, then the new power acquires said authority”
    SO if I murder a man, his property is now ownerless and I can take it and it is no longer stealing.

  24. “Why?
    In what way the Nazi regime lacked legitimacy?”

    Because it was an unjust command.

    “SO if I murder a man, his property is now ownerless and I can take it and it is no longer stealing.”

    No. His property goes to his relatives. If he has none then it goes to who he willed. If he has no relatives and no will then it goes to the state. You are not the state.

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