Democracy is not always easy. Come to that, neither is it always effective. But then, being pope isn’t either. My favorite example of the limitations of both begins with Pope Boniface VIII.
Boniface had the misfortune to be pope at the very moment (1296) when Philip IV of France was feeling short of money. Philip looked at all the wealthy churchmen in his realm and saw the perfect solution to his problems: tax the clergy.
Now, Boniface saw this idea as something considerable worse than mere greed. As each churchman was his representative, he declared it to be an attack upon the papal claim to universal rule as the Vicar of Christ. He issued a papal Bull saying (in effect) the pope was supreme and hence the church was above all such material claims.
Now this was a wonderful (if unwise) assertion of a spiritual theory. Philip responded with a demonstration of monarchial reality: he kidnaped the pope. Boniface was eventually freed, but apparently the tactic had the desired effect upon the 86 year old pontiff as he was dead within a month.
This, in turn, led to the next pope elected being French (Clement V) and exercising his papacy from Avignon. He allowed Philip to tax the clergy. This, plus having two hierarchies, one in Rome and another at Avignon, increased the Church’s need for money, which led to an increase in all of the practices like simony, selling indulgences and the like that Martin Luther was to denounce so eloquently a few years hence.
This Avignon exile lasted for over 70 years until the papacy of Gregory XI who, although French, found his conscience so pricked by the incessant prodding of Catherine of Siena that he returned to Rome. For a temporary stay, he said, and then dawdled until he died there, thus insuring a Roman election of a new pope.
The story of that election is a tragicomedy far too long to tell here, but it included a cardinal forced to masquerade as a new pope, endless conspiracies and a Roman mob howling for blood (preferably French) outside the conclave. Suitably impressed by the crowd, the cardinals duly elected an Italian to be Urban VI.
One might think that this would be an example of the power of the electoral process to solve problems. Alas, no. Successful democracy requires not only that the popular will be satisfied but also that a wise choice be made. Urban was immediately transformed by his elevation from a humble man into an unstable, egomaniacal pig. The French took to calling him the AntiChrist, the very embodiment of evil.
The election process having proved so wildly successful once, the French cardinals resorted to it again. They claimed they had been bullied by the mob into electing Urban, so he was no pope at all. Led by a cardinal, Robert of Geneva, whose political and military gentility had made him easily the most hated man in Italy and earned him the nickname “The Butcher of Cesena,” they held a new conclave to correct their earlier mistake. In a breathtaking act of hubris and folly, they elected Robert of Geneva Pope Clement VII. Pretty soon the Italians and their allies started calling him the AntiChrist.
Since Urban refused to resign, the Church was faced with two popes, one going mad and the other loathed, and everyone was forced to take up sides. It ripped Europe and all of Christendom apart. No one knew who was really pope, who was really excommunicated, whose soul was lost forever and how one could save one’s own soul. It was a nightmare of faith and it lasted over thirty years.
Finally, in another show of touching confidence in the power of democracy, a Council was called at Pisa which denounced both the Rome and Avignon popes and elected a successor: John XXIII. Sadly, the others refused to resign, so the Church found itself blessed with three popes, all busily denouncing one another.
If the first two were bad, John XXIII was to go down is history as one of the worst of them all. Pretty soon everyone was calling him the AntiChrist. He was eventually deposed on public charges of “piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest” (Gibbon says the “most scandalous” charges were suppressed!). The Council, proving itself blind to experience, then went on to elect yet another pope in Martin V.
I suppose one could say that, eventually, it all worked out. John’s deposition stuck. The current Roman pope was persuaded to resign. The Avignon pope was isolated to wither away. Unless one counts decades of spiritual agony for Christendom and the eventual Protestant Reformation, it was a pretty minor incident in the long history of the Church.
Still, it was no shining example of the power of elections to bridge gaps and bring people together. It also doesn’t say a lot about that old saw about people growing to fulfill their office.
Let’s not think that this sort of folly is restricted to “furriners.” On May 30, 1854, the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It said that each of the territories to decide for themselves whether they would allow slave or not. On the face of it, this was a clear victory for “Popular Sovereignty” and hence for democracy.
The result was somewhat different. Kansas suddenly became the favorite destination of the most ardent abolitionists and the most ardent states rights advocates. These people were not settlers. They were rabid true believers, determined to sway the coming election their way.
When the election was held, there were (not very surprisingly) irregularities everywhere. The result was declared a victory for the pro-slavery types and they went on to establish a legislature packed with their own people.
Given all the problems with the election process, it was hardly a surprise that the anti-slavery forces refused to accept the result (Of course, it is also impossible to imagine an election that was so clean that they would have accepted it.). What was quite a surprise to everyone was that they not only refused to accept the results, they also went on to hold another election, which they won (Surprise, surprise.). They then established another legislature, filled with their own cohorts.
Since each side regarded the other as the personification of evil, no compromise was possible. The net result was that Congress, tautly balanced between pro- and anti-slavery itself, refused to recognize either legislature. Kansas had to wait till January of 1861, after the Southern secessions, before she was admitted to the Union…as a Free state.
On a larger scale, one could regard the whole Civil War as another example of the same problem writ a bit larger. Only in that case, those who refused to accept the results of the 1860 election took their marbles and went home, there to elect both their own President and their own legislature.
Point is this: Democracy only works if people are willing to accept the consequences of losing. If losing means the elevation of the AntiChrist as pope, then the loss of the election is unacceptable. If losing means that border ruffians who have committed dozens of murders will suddenly decide your state’s fate, then the loss of the election is unacceptable. If losing means that your enemies will be able to reach down into your own town and rip away your rights, your honor, and your property, then the loss of the election is unacceptable.
Human beings seem to have this odd capacity, almost a pathological syndrome. Every once in a while we lose all sense of proportion. We demonstrate a capacity to so demonize one another that the mere idea of ceding victory to the other side becomes synonymous with the loss of all one holds most dear. We also elevate the cause we are arguing about to such a high moral pinnacle that to cede anything to “The Enemy” seems an act of unthinkable wickedness.
Rather than commit such an act, we are ready to endanger a church, split a state or tear apart a country. Common sense and our usual cool eye for the main chance is lost. People prefer to burn their own house down around their own ears than to share it with another.
Normally, we stay pretty far from this abyss. True, it is our time-honored custom to attack our enemies and paint them in dark colors while those we favor are shown in gleaming white. That is part of our normal political process. But of late we have been seeing something far more extreme. The issue is not whether our opponent is misguided or even crooked. For many the question is whether what he (or she) represents is evil.
Looking abroad, we can this syndrome at work today in Islamic fundamentalism, Chinese ultra-nationalism, and Serbian genocide. As we promote our enemies to the rank of False Messiahs, AntiChrists and servants of evil, what we see them attacking becomes more precious and more vital in our eyes. Soon we see no sacrifice as too great to preserve the one and defeat the other.
In our own country, those who oppose abortion are being seduced by the idea that abortion is mass murder. Therefore killing those who perform it may seem a meritorious act. Now both sides are seeing each other as murderers and supporters of murderers.
Those who support gay rights are coming to believe that those who oppose them on religious grounds are tacitly encouraging those who attack and murder gays. Those who oppose gay rights see them as part of a massive conspiracy to further the “Gay Agenda” and corrupt the institutions of marriage and family.
It strikes me that many of us are accepting this injection of dichotomous visions of political morality into the process far too casually. From the Ukraine to Indonesia, from Afghanistan to our very shores, a fin de siecle madness is infecting far too much of the world. The ballot box can and should be the tool that unites us. But history should tell us it can also be the axe that divides us into irreconcilable, paranoid factions.
We should remember our word “ballot” comes from a Middle French word ballotte. Perhaps prophetically, so does our word “bullet.”