Sunday, 26 August 2007

St Louis and More Redemption of Politics

Yesterday was the feast of St Louis. That is to say, of King Louis IX of France.

France has the great honour (now probably forgotten or regarded with indifference by the majority of its people) of having been ruled at one time by a saint. Not every country can claim this.

Of course there are others. England has St Edward the Confessor, though he is remembered more for being the last Anglo-Saxon king of England than for anything he did (except perhaps for building Westminster Abbey). Further east, you have St Wenceslas of Bohemia, about whom the popular carol was written.

It is interesting to reflect on this property of the Catholic faith to raise up and venerate certain politicians and statesmen, while at the same time behaving towards their power itself with a certain aloofness. The Church is strange like this. And yet at the same time curiously sane. She does not seek to supplant or grasp after the power of kings and emperors. No Pope has sought to become an emperor. The few bishops who have become statesmen in their own right have been roundly condemned (Cardinal Richelieu leaps to mind).
On the other hand, the Church has never deified politicians or men of power, as was too often the way in the ancient world. The kingship of Christ is on a quite different plane from any earthly rule. The Church has a different sort of power.
Yet the Church does not write off political power and regard it as something inherently tainted. When those that do possess it do so in a Christ-like manner, she has absolutely no problem with canonising them and holding them up as examples to be followed and whose prayers may be requested.

Nowhere is this tendency demonstrated so clearly as in the case of St Louis. For at the same time that Louis was ruling his kingdom, engaging in diplomacy, helping the poor of the realm, praying daily in his chapel and seeking to gain support for the Crusade, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was wreaking havoc on the Church in Germany and invading Italy to try to supplant the Pope.

St Louis could have done the same if he had wanted. Afterall, the first Holy Roman Emperor had been French. And the resources (which he was trying to pour into a new Crusade) could easily have been turned to an invasion of Italy (he was, in fact, invited to invade Sicily at one point, but refused). Both king and emperor had power and prestige comparable to each other. What, then, was the difference between Louis and Frederick?

Simply this- one conformed his life to the image of Christ, and one did not.

And there one has the whole answer. The old adage, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is a dangerous half-truth. True enough on the natural plane, Jesus Christ changes the equation completely. Just as, when He touched the leper, He not only did not contract leprosy Himself, but actually cured the other man of his, so political power, if (and only if) touched by Christ will not only not disfigure the Christian faith itself (as many fear- "We don't want a theocracy!", they cry) but will sanctify the man who holds it. This indeed is what happened with King St Louis IX of France.

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