The Beautiful Madness of Vladimir Soloviev: Russian Wisdom and Dignitatis Humanae

by Andrew Kuiper

‘Bella idea, ma fuor d’un miracolo, é cosa impossible’ (a beautiful idea but, short of a miracle, impossible to carry out).  This was the response of Pope Leo XIII to Vladimir Soloviev’s (1853-1900) program for ecclesial-political unity between East and West. It is certainly an understandable skepticism given the sprawling scope of Soloviev’s philosophy of history, his penchant for panentheistic and organicist conceptions of the cosmos, not to mention his extremely controversial use of the figure Sophia from the literature of the Old Testament. Even in the late nineteenth century, these approaches seemed like tools scavenged from the various shipwrecked vessels of German Idealism. These glorious armadas of thought amassed by Kant, Fichte, and Hegel had been scattered or scuttled in the face of more immediately useful discourses like Comte’s scientific positivism or socialist politics.  Or even worse, for some Soloviev’s system must have appeared to house all the ghosts of Boehme, Schelling, and German Romanticism hungry to drag the Church into a morass of gnostic syncretism and speculation. If anything, those of us living now are inclined to have even less patience and more skepticism for Soloviev in the face of endless religious eclecticism and undisciplined thought. He appears to fail the sobriety test both in the realm of faith and reason. He seems to be, to rephrase Pope Leo’s politic assertion more bluntly, quite mad.

But Soloviev foresaw the suspicion and mockery he would receive over the course of his intellectual career. Above all, he knew that he would be seen as supremely irrelevant. In 1878, at the tender age of twenty-five, he gave a series of talks at St Petersburg entitled Lectures on the Divine-Humanity which boasted many Russian luminaries including both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as attendees. He opened by acknowledging that his was an orbit eccentric to the movements of modern thought.

 I shall discuss the truths of positive religion, subjects that are very remote from contemporary consciousness and foreign to the interests of contemporary civilization. Those interests were not here yesterday and will not be here tomorrow. It is permissible to prefer that which is equally important at all times.

Eight years after this first lecture, a Croatian Catholic bishop by the name of Strossmayer arranged for this charismatic Russian Orthodox thinker to have a papal audience with Leo. And while it is doubtful that this ever actually took place (there is no biographical date to indicate that it did), the next year Soloviev published La Russiee et L’Eglise universelle marking his most articulated position on the juridical primacy of the Roman pontiff. His conviction from this point onward was that there was a stark choice for the modern world: either Rome or chaos. The point of this essay is not to discuss Soloviev’s canonical status with Rome[1] nor to establish dependencies between the thought Soloviev and Leo XIII. My intention here is to have the conversation that never took place between the progenitor of 19th and 20th century Russian religious philosophy and literature and the founder of Roman Catholic social teaching in the modern world.

While both men understood modernity as a spiritual crisis requiring immediate intervention, the Leonine program for rehabilitating philosophy and politics proceeded along much more sober avenues. The two ur-texts of this Leonine rehabilitation, Aeterni Patris and Rerum Novarum, center around the familiar Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophical grammar of potency and act, essence and existence, and the fundamental precepts of natural law. This familiarity, though, should not obscure the creative and prophetic vitality of Leo in applying these to the conditions of modern politics and industrialized labor. And while Aeterni Patris continues the idiom and emphases of Vatican I in stressing the legitimate capacities of reason and the epistemological distance of the truths of revelation, Pope Leo makes a somewhat unexpected move for a Thomist in Rerum Novarum (or at least surprising to those of us sensitive to the natura pura debates of the mid-twentieth century)

But the Church, with Jesus Christ for its Master and Guide, aims higher still. It lays down precepts yet more perfect, and tries to bind class to class in friendliness and good understanding. The things of this earth cannot be understood or valued rightly without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will last forever. Exclude the idea of futurity, and the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole system of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery. The great truth we learn from nature herself is also the grand Christian dogma on which religion rests as on its base—that when we have done with this present life then we shall really begin to live.[2]

This is a much more dramatic claim than the Thomistic commonplace that apart from grace, natural reason and virtue tend to erode. The very foundation of moral philosophy, the distinction between good and evil, is taught by Leo to ultimately rest on futurity. Of course this must be distinguished from the merely calculative attempt to hedge one’s bets against pain in the afterlife by obeying the Supreme Power (a la John Locke). Instead, this must be taken to be an indication of the self-transcending and ecstatic character of even natural life. In this, the Supreme Pontiff echoes the simple but profound teaching of Christ’s Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. The apocalyptic revelation of eternal life in Christ announces what is, at the very least intimated, in nature herself. In the religious vision and Christian philosophy of Pope Leo XIII there is no escape from mystery to pure reason on which to establish a foundation for virtue or even a well-functioning commonwealth. There is only the unfathomable mystery of God’s Trinitarian life which grounds and redeems the world or the unfathomable mystery of a dark universe which leads to despair.

It is from this point that what is shared between the visions of Soloviev and Pope Leo begins to unfold. In Immortale Dei, the origin of political power stems from God through nature. This authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature and has, consequently, God for its Author. Hence, it follows that public power exists, not of itself but from God. Consequently there is integrity to civil authority that remains distinct from the Church. Two orders and two provinces exist, so to speak, each with their native limits and competencies. However, since the object of both political and spiritual authority is nothing other than human persons, there can be no language of total separation between these provinces. The ecclesial power cannot concern herself with the image of God in man without the man, and the civil power cannot concern itself with the man without recognizing the image of God. Pope Leo articulates this relationship of mutual implication and dependence by means of the analogy of the soul to the body. There must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man. This venerable patristic analogy is also used by Soloviev to articulate the same relationship.

In the words of St. John Chrysostom, just as the soul excels the body, so pontifical power is higher and more excellent than the royal…There can be no two equally self-subsistent and absolute principles in the life of man; he cannot serve two masters. People speak of complete delimitation and separation between the civil and ecclesiastical domain. But the question is, whether the civil domain, secular affairs, may from their very nature be completely independent, and have the same kind of absolute self-subsistence that essentially belongs to divine realities. Can man’s secular interests be separated from his inner, spiritual ones without damaging both? Such a division between the inner and the outer principles, such a separation of the soul from the body is precisely what is called death and decay.[3]

Leonine teachings about the disintegration of society and the dangers of indifferentism are another way of expressing the demands of complete harmony between the dual potestates that while embracing their distinction shuns any real division. The state must act in the interests of true religion.

Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its reaching and practice—not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion—it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule.[4]

Soloviev is no less comprehensive in his subordination of things temporal to things eternal:

All the interests and affairs of this temporal existence must be merely the means and instruments for the eternal, spiritual interests and tasks, must in one way or another be conditioned by the eternal life and the Kingdom of God; and as soon as the state and society have acknowledged themselves Christian, such a theocratic point of view becomes morally binding upon them.

And again:

The idea of theocracy is a necessary consequence of the belief in the divine incarnation and in the bond between the earthly and the heavenly realities in the Church. If there exists on earth a special union of God’s servitors in the order of succession, if there exists on earth a special authority entrusted from above with exceptional powers and promised exceptional help in guiding and governing Christian humanity, there cannot be any doubt that all other powers and authorities in the world and all social forces must be subject to this sacred and plainly divine authority.[5]

For both Pope Leo and Soloviev, this theocratic vision comes not from natural law but from the supernatural positive law instituted by Christ in His Church. This is an apocalyptic break with ancient political thought. Compare the supernatural authority of the ecclesial potestas with Aristotle’s casual inclusion of religious matters as one of many matters of leitourgia (public works) in the Politics. Where Aristotle could not imagine a society higher or more perfect than the polis, through the Incarnation of the Son of God it is revealed that political life is directed toward the Kingdom of God. Therefore, it is a distinctively Christian teaching that the state has no coercive authority in itself over matters of religion and conscience.


Vladimir Soloviev and Dignitates Humanae

Since The Regensburg Forum is among other things a space for reevaluating the causes of the Protestant Reformation from both sides, Vladimir Soloviev is a figure uniquely suited to this task. He dedicated the majority of his life to the project of ecumenical unity. He did not attempt to do this through the downplaying of differences, but by rigorously working through and critiquing the logic of each tradition including his own native church of Russian Orthodoxy. While his defense of the legitimacy of the Petrine office as the center of juridical unity for the Church militant is outside the bounds of Reformed ecclesiology, he has high praise for the Protestant grasp of individual religious freedom from coercion no matter the source.

Despite his love for the Petrine office and its occupant, Leo XIII, Soloviev had no intention of affirming every element of traditional Roman Catholic political theology. While upholding the vision of medieval popes concerning the instrumental role of the state, Soloviev considered the use of the brachium temporale to coerce in matters of religion to be morally reprehensible. His formulation of a free theocracy sought to maintain the legitimacy of religious claims on the temporal while condemning the means of compulsory adherence through the threat and use of violence.

The attempt by the Catholic Church to force its members to remain by threats, torture, and even death, he saw as madness and entirely unworthy of the spiritual authority of the Church. This was bound, in Soloviev’s mind, to undermine the public witness of the Church and arouse considerable (and legitimate) anger against her juridical order. If the Church chooses to fulfill her divine mission through worldly means, she will inevitably face the opposition of worldly powers and they will always have the upper hand playing their own game.

Soloviev admired the early popes, Leo the Great, Gregory VII, and even Innocent III for their ability to articulate the comprehensive authority of the Church without resorting to worldly means. The privilege of the ecclesial potestas is bound up with its spiritual character: to forsake the latter is to undermine the former. In this way, he affirmed Protestantism in its freedom from coercion, but denied Protestants their right to be free from voluntary submission to the claims of the Church. Having justly rebelled against external compulsion, they refused to recognize the inwardly binding moral authority of the universal Church.[6] But with equal force, Soloviev wanted to convey that the union of East and West, Catholic and Protestant, the Church and the world will never be accomplished through force but only by a free act of self-renunciation to the will of God.

This brings us to Dignitatis Humanae and the claim of this text that it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. From Augustine to Immortale Dei the Church has always taught that the entrance to the life of faith must be a free act absent all physical and psychological coercion. This is not the heart of the controversy. Thomas Pink rightly points out that DH does not address the question of compelling heretics but this negative argument does little to address the larger questions of theological anthropology. Steven Wedgeworth is right, in my opinion, to be dissatisfied with this austere reading.  The assertions about the dignity of man and the non-coercive nature of Christ and his apostles lead inexorably to a contradiction in the ecclesial use of temporal power. How can it be the case that free assent is a precondition for the inception of faith but its subsequent existence can be secured by means of violence? How can the continued assent of faith be any less voluntary than its beginning?

Dignitates Humanae should not be read as a capitulation to the political order of classical liberalism but rather as a return to the early Augustine before his despair in the face of Donatism (note also that two of Soloviev’s favorite popes, Leo the Great and Innocent III are cited as witnesses to religious freedom in DH fn.7). This early Augustine insisted that there was no example in the New Testament of any righteous man putting someone to death and that the Lord Himself proved that even Judas must be tolerated by the innocent. Even though he acknowledged schism to be the death of the soul and more heinous than murder, he also announced that, if any persecution of schismatics took place, it would be the work of bad men and should be opposed (Letter 44). In opposition to this view, Thomas Pink adverts to the exegetical tradition which reads the death of Ananias and Sapphira as grounds for the ecclesial use of temporal punishment. This text, however, where the Holy Spirit directly intervenes to take a life no more sanctions such a doctrine than does St. Paul’s comment that some are sick and dying because of receiving communion unworthily. The authority of the Author of Life is not identical with the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The weakness of DH then, is not that is says too much, but too little. While it is true that in a technical sense the moral duty of all persons and states to submit to Christ the King is an unbroken teaching of the Catholic Church, this is hardly satisfying when the means that have been used are now recognized as illegitimate. It would be absurd to treat the repudiation of the Church’s use of the temporal arm as a contradiction on the dogmatic level. It would be almost equally absurd to ignore the dramatic discontinuity between this vision and the practice and self-understanding of the Church in several centuries of her history. It is certainly not the only case where in an area of morals the regular practice of the Church was amended. She found herself in a similar situation when gradually coming to a knowledge of torture as not merely a relative, but an intrinsic evil. Wedgeworth is again right when noting that the teaching of religious liberty as a natural right cannot be suppressed by ecclesial authority without doing immense harm to the thesis that grace perfects nature. Both DH and the most cited papal encyclical within it, Pacem in Terris, explicitly teach such a right and treat it as an essential insight into the dynamic of glorified humanity. To co-opt the free beginning of faith by compulsory violence would be to make a mockery of the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Simply as a practical matter of hermeneutic navigation, DH is the only conciliar declaration ever promulgated by the magisterium on the topic of religious liberty and must be weighted accordingly. Any discontinuity between the implications of this text and previous treatments of the subject by encyclicals, bulls, and theologians must be resolved in favor of this latest and most authoritative teaching on the subject.

Following neither Pink’s minimalism nor Wedgeworth’s death-by-committee thesis, I propose a reading of DH that puts us decisively into a post-liberal era of political theology. The substantive core of Leonine social teaching remains intact (the moral obligation of conversion to the true Church, the ordering of the temporal to the eternal, the existence of the Church as a perfect society) while correction and development takes place in the means appropriate for achieving these aims. The truth that grace perfects nature must be paired with a concrete understanding of how that elevating union takes place within a union free from coercion. Often, the fact that the Church is a genuine potestas is taken to mean that it is simply another authority that guards more noble goods than the state. This is akin to saying eternal life consists of infinite duration in time. There is no contradiction between saying the Church is a genuine potestas and saying that it lacks the competence to physically coerce. The Church has juridical authority and it is competent to exhort, correct, and discipline its members. Those measures culminate and end with excommunication which is nothing else but the expulsion from the juridical order of the people of God. Soloviev rightly points out that heresy and schism place one immediately under excommunication and therefore outside the authority of the Church. 1 Corinthians 5 serves as the Scriptural archetype for this kind of correction. St. Paul is addressing the flagrantly immoral within the Christian community. By his apostolic authority he has already pronounced judgement on those refusing to repent, and they are to be considered outside of the community. His final act of legitimate judgement is juridical expulsion. After that, only God judges them. This limit-point is missed by defenders of coercion because they elide the difference between the state of being baptized and being within the Church’s juridical structure. The mark of baptism is an ontological reality which cannot be erased, but the canonical status of a person faces no such obstacle. If then, the Church has no jurisdiction over heretics and we have already denied the state this right in itself, there is no one competent to deal out coercive violence in the name of religion.

It is no accident that, as the Catholic Church has lost her relationship with the coercive power of any state, several of her most prominent popes and theologians have rediscovered Soloviev’s vision. Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar called Soloviev “the greatest conceptual artist since Thomas Aquinas” and devoted an entire chapter to him in Vol.3 of his series on theological aesthetics. [7] A recently published and much-praised work has explored his relationship to Russian thought in more depth.[8] In 2000, Pope John Paul II dedicated an Angelus address to Soloviev, and in 2003 he gave a speech to the participants of the convention given in honor of the 150th anniversary of Soloviev’s birth. It should also be noted that Vladimir Soloviev’s name appears in the encyclical Fides et Ratio as an exemplary practitioner of Christian philosophy. He even appears in Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth to help explicate the temptation of Christ in the desert. The strangeness of this Russian thinker has begun to look less and less like a distraction from the questions of contemporary theology. It seems that modern Catholic theologians and the more recent occupants of the Petrine office have discerned Soloviev’s madness to be more akin to the foolishness of God’s wisdom than to the darkness of unreason.

It would be easy to dismiss this renegotiation of the Church with the modern world as the pretense of surrendering powers it could no longer dream of commanding anyway. Contemporary politics already excludes religious coercion for its own reasons. Functionally then, how is Dignitatis Humanae and the vision of free theocracy different from capitulation to the logic of the secular state? Is there no offensive weapon by means of which the Church can take all things captive to Christ? Soloviev acknowledges the existence of such a weapon: the Word of God. This Word manifests itself in Sacred Scripture, in the sacraments, in preaching, in prophetic confrontation with the powers of the world, in exorcizing demons, passions, and error with all the force of spirit and truth. Christ was ever defenseless and ever recognized as one having authority. This divine authority is only undermined by carnal weapons. As Soloviev wrote in his letter to Czar Aleksandr II, “The weapon of the Church is the word, but can it properly verbally accuse those whom it has grabbed by the throat forcibly?”[9] If our fight is with principalities and powers, then the approach of the Church to the secular state and her own lapsed members should be one of grief, ardent longing, uncompromising denunciation, and kerygmatic preaching. Our images of divine power should be typological fulfillments of what Elijah saw. We have the earthquake at Calvary, the wind and fire in the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the still small voice that raises us from the dead. Only then will we fulfill our divine mission of reconciling to Christ all things in heaven and earth.

[1] This can be found in Michael d’Herbigny’s Vladimir Soloviev: A Russian Newman and for an opposing view the first appendix in S.L. Frank’s A Solovyov Anthology

[2] Rerum Novarum 21

[3] The Great Dispute and Christian Politics as excerpted from S.L. Frank’s A Solovyov Anthology

[4] Immortale Dei, 6

[5] The Great Dispute and Christian Politics as excerpted from S.L. Frank’s A Solovyov Anthology

[6] The Great Dispute and Christian Politics as excerpted from S.L. Frank’s A Solovyov Anthology

[7] The Glory of the Lord Vol. 3, Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles

[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought, Jennifer Newsome Martin (Notre Dame Press 2015)

[9] See Appendix C of Politics, Law, and Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev ed. Vladimir Wozniuk (Yale University Press 2000)

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