Did Catholic Marriage Cause Modern Liberalism?
by Richard Storey
Richard Storey challenges the claim that Catholicism catalysed European individualism, suggesting instead that Europeans’ innate individualistic tendencies predate and overshadow the Church’s influence.
Blaming Catholicism for the rise of modern liberalism is nothing new. For several years, I have been defending Catholicism from pagans and atheists on the right who do just that. I first encountered this type of argument in 2014, in Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: viewing all souls as equally culpable before God, Catholicism provided women and children legal recourse against brutal fathers, and allowed women to reject a fiancé in her wedding vow; this supposedly individualistic and universalistic turn eventually gave rise to modern liberalism.
A similar or related argument appeared in Joseph Henrich’s 2020 book, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. “WEIRD” is an acronym for Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic. So the argument goes, Catholic prohibitions on polygamy and marriage to first cousins partly dissolved kin-based institutions in Europe, such as clans and tribes. This rewired our brains over time to prioritise impersonal pro-sociality; for example, we now walk into any old Starbucks, meet a multi-racial array of strangers who sometimes cannot pronounce each other’s names, and we see nothing wrong with this so long as we get the right order.
But, does it make sense to lay the blame for such individualism at the feet of Catholic marriage? In my opinion, it obviously does not, but some great minds seem to disagree, including a thinker I consider my mentor and friend, Ricardo Duchesne.
I want to frame my counter-argument as a response to a recent Unz Review piece by Duchesne, who incorporated Henrich’s argument into his otherwise brilliant essay. After all, Duchesne has published my defence of historical Christianity from similar arguments in the past and even wrote the afterword for my explicitly pro-Catholic book, The Uniqueness of Western Law: A Reactionary Manifesto. Having utmost respect for Duchesne, I therefore present the following in a friendly spirit of discourse.
Here is the paragraph from Duchesne’s article with which I disagreed:
It has now been well established, or so I believe, by Joseph Henrich in his book, The Weirdest People of the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020), that liberal individualism gathered momentum across social life after the Catholic Church set about prohibiting in systematic fashion polygamy and consanguineous marriages, sanctioning only monogamy based on voluntary choice. By the 12th century, the nuclear family was predominant in Europe. These changes freed Europeans from collective kinship ties and norms, leading them to form new voluntary or civic associations, such as urban communes, guilds, dioceses of bishops, monasteries, and universities, to cooperate socially, solve conflicts, and secure a livelihood with individuals from wider circles of life. This reconstitution, which came along with the rise of new systems of law based on contractual liberal principles, altered the psychology of Europeans in an individualist direction, socializing them to extend their trust to anonymous strangers, to think in a less ethnocentric or in-group way, and to judge objects and humans in terms of universal principles and rules applicable on the basis of rationally-based criteria.
I am mainly going to discuss the Church’s prohibition on first cousin marriage rather than addressing whether a lack of polygamy gave rise to liberalism. The increasingly popular social scientist, Peter Turchin (co-developer of Cliodynamics), has shown that polygamy gives rise to in-fighting and generally causes the life expectancy of a society to diminish significantly to less than half that of a similar monogamous society. (See Turchin’s latest book, End times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration.) Anyone who has spent substantial time among polygamous peoples will tell you that, far from creating an idyllic collectivism, such families are replete with stories of jealousy and competition.
The data do not indicate that polygamy is healthy for the social stability of a clan or any other group. Therefore, I can readily dismiss this and turn to first cousin marriage.
Prohibition of First Cousin Marriage
The early medieval European ban on first cousin marriage was simply a continuation of the same ban which prevailed under Roman civil law, prohibiting marriages within “four degrees” of consanguinity. Should the Romans be taking the credit for European WEIRDness? In the 9th century, the Church did increase this prohibition to include first cousins once or twice removed. Despite this, the Church did permit marriage to such first cousins if they applied for a dispensation. Regardless, the Church returned the standard to the old Roman four degrees in 1215.
Is it more likely that the above radically altered European psychology in terms of individualism, nonconformity and out-group trust, or is this just another attempt to explain away demographic differences without referring to genetics?
After all, this ban is not historically unique. Most Sikhs do not permit inter-clan marriages, but this has hardly crippled their kinship structures and replaced them with nuclear families. In China too, in more than one period of their history, all cousin marriage was banned. Again, we should expect to see some notable individualism and nonconformity from the Chinese, yet we see the exact opposite, as Duchesne himself notes in his Arktos book, Faustian Man in a Multicultural Age.
The argument looks even more ridiculous when we consider that the major Protestant denominations, since their conception, got rid of the Catholic bans on first cousin marriage. Yet, modern liberalism bloomed in the more pluralistic Protestant nations. Clearly, the individualism and political liberalism of those Northerly European nations has nothing to do with first cousin marriage.
Did Guilds and Monasteries Destroy Kinship Groups?
Latin Christendom was perhaps the most corporatist time in history. The monumental work of Francis Oakley on the origins of modern beliefs regarding public consent reveals that the only way an individual could have a political voice in the medieval period was through a group. The smallest political body was the family and there were of course heads of clans and other kinship structures.
Aside from family networks, there were also political allegiances and bodies surrounding knighthood, lordship and kingship; these often intersected with kinship structures. Growing urban environments also presented the opportunity for further economic and religious social organisms to develop – communes, guilds, dioceses, monasteries, universities etc. But, these were no more a replacement of kinship than urbanisation was a replacement of rural life.
City guilds were designed to uphold Catholic principles – most notably, loyalty to one’s family, kinship groups and religion. Catholicism, with its prohibition of usury and conditions on the use of private property, encouraged the development of guilds with the aims of controlling currency and preventing the accumulation of wealth. Their reason for doing so was the perennial tendency of money to corrupt morals, driving individualism and the abandonment of religion. As such, Catholic guilds curbed the individualising effects of urbanisation; they were not symptomatic.
Unsurprisingly, the guilds did not originate in Latin Christendom, but these rather evolved from the Roman Collegia and the ancient Germanic collective feasts (called gelt), where tribute, i.e. gold, was offered to cement tribal and political loyalties – from which “guild” is derived. (See Arthur Penty’s classic A Guildman’s Interpretation of History.)
The Catholic religious orders of monks and friars are not unique to Catholicism either. Consider Buddhism, which is not ethnically exclusive and which also has communal religious orders. As we have already noted, East Asians are typically collectivist, not individualist. Therefore, such religious orders cannot be used as evidence for psychological rewiring towards individualism.
The Return of Roman Law
Something Duchesne hits upon which really did further along Western individualism, egoism and the attending rise of liberalism (intellectually, politically and economically) was the revitalisation of Roman law throughout the later Middle Ages:
[T]he rise of new systems of law based on contractual liberal principles…[socialised Europeans] to extend their trust to anonymous strangers, to think in a less ethnocentric or in-group way, and to judge objects and humans in terms of universal principles and rules applicable on the basis of rationally-based criteria.
The seeds of individualistic philosophy were already growing within the corporate nature of Catholicism in the 14th century. William of Ockham’s nominalism is an especially influential strain which would arguably bloom into Luther’s spiritual individualism and Descartes’ origins of the modern worldview.
As the Mediterranean became safer for trade, modern capitalism began to first take shape in Italy, before finding a more habitable environment in Holland and England from the 16th century onward. Students of the rise and fall of civilisations routinely point to money as the corrupting influence of a social organism which has since reached its zenith. Competition turns inward and group/martial values become disadvantageous to dynasties and merchants staking out their slice of the pie. Service turns to selfishness, as Sir John Glubb concludes in his Fate of Empires.
With the increased availability of Roman law texts, the possibility of more absolute property rights and thus freedom from Catholic controls on currency presented a popular legal structure to compete with Canon law. For wealthy urbanites, such law courses presented the most popular university choices for their children and the study of theology dwindled. Thus, it was in spite of Catholic doctrine that liberalism emerged in all its forms.
The Real Decline in Clan-Based Ownership
We can comfortably assume that kinship-based corporate ownership was the most common form in rural Europe, only challenged by urbanisation.
Consider the US, one of the most explicitly liberal countries to ever exist. According to Steven Ruggles 2015 article in Demography, ‘Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800-2015’, there was a sharp decline in ‘clan-based’ corporate ownership, which correlated very strongly with increased specialist and service-based employment (i.e. with urban and factory work) and, most interestingly, with a decline in multi-generational homes. This shows us two pertinent things: first, around 90% of economic organisation in the US was clan-based in 1800 and the male breadwinner model didn’t overtake the former until the 20th century – almost a millennium after we are supposed to have been psychologically rewired against this by Catholic marriage; and, secondly, the author concludes this was largely a result of the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation.
All of the above make it completely unnecessary to posit Catholic marriage as a factor in the development of European individualism. The study above is just one data point we might use, but we could go on; for instance, decades of theorisation about differences between Western and Eastern European family structures has not only shown that plenty of those Eastern European countries which maintained larger family structures throughout the 20th century were Catholic, but that those regions of Western Europe which did so were also Catholic (see here).
Europeans Are Naturally More Individualistic
To conclude, it seems to me that Catholic marriage did not reasonably cause the rise of intellectual and economic liberalism in Europe. The policies and institutions blamed for European individualism either pre-date Catholicism or are not unique to it. A far more likely explanation is the reintroduction of individualistic philosophy and Roman law’s property rights. Indeed, these were an abandonment of Catholic corporatism and its legal duties of ownership, not their realisation. Moreover, whilst urbanisation catalysed these problems, Catholicism has routinely presented alternative economic solutions to economic liberalism, as seen in the guilds and in the corporatist experiments of the 20th century.
Most surprising is that Duchesne himself attracted controversy for questioning the academic establishment’s fixation with environmental causes for cultural differences. He has written extensively on the subject of European individualism as an ancient biological reality which influenced ancient Greek and Roman jurisprudence, philosophy, civic life etc. Influenced by Duchesne and the late Richard Lynn, I concluded in my own work that the moderately high rate of psychopathy in Europeans was due to our descent from Indo-European warrior nomads; as Duchesne has noted, they stripped naked for duels, engaged in berserker warfare and flouted their own lives to attain eternal fame. So great was their desire for kudos from respectable peers that aristocracy emerged, allowing healthy competition in thought too, e.g. the philosophical schools of ancient Greece.
Therefore, my argument is simply this: it makes more sense to say that Europeans are naturally more individualistic, and that this is the most significant cause of any tendencies in Europe to create institutions or policies which empower the individual rather than the corporate group, kinship-based or otherwise. From Duchesne’s own work, we already have the explanation of the European tendency to egoism and its political manifestation in liberalism. So significant is this explanation, that we defy Occam’s razor by seeking further causal factors.
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