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The Pope's Visit Coincides with the 200th Anniversary of the Holy Alliance. Here's Why that's Relevant.

Tsar Alexander I

In the United States, we pride ourselves on the separation of church and state, enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution.  Yet Pope Francis’ visit reminds us that there are other views on the appropriate relationship between religion and good governance.  By a remarkable coincidence, his papal visit coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Holy Alliance, signed in Paris by the Emperors of Russia and Austria and the King of Prussia on September 26, 1815, which constituted the high-water mark of attempts at integrating politics and religion.  Plenty of misunderstanding continues to surround this curious and quite remarkable document.

Under Europe’s pre-revolutionary “Old Order,” religion and government had been closely tied.  The French Revolution challenged the privileged position of the Catholic Church by closing monasteries, confiscating church lands, and arresting priests. Eventually the revolutionaries denounced religion altogether, replacing the week with its religious day of rest on Sundays with new ten-day intervals known as décades, and replacing the Gregorian calendar of months and saint’s days with a new revolutionary calendar.  These changes didn’t last. Conservatives like Edmund Burke blamed the outbreak of the Revolution and its accompanying violence in part on the loss of religious faith.

In 1812, after more than two decades of war, the invasion of Russia and the burning of Moscow, the mystical Tsar Alexander I of Russia was eager to bring the spirit of Christian charity back into public life. In July 1812, he wrote to the Prince Regent of England expressing his view that there was less need for treaties than for generous sentiments uniting all peoples “as brothers impressed with providing all the mutual help they need.” Alexander further spoke of the need to end the prevailing “selfishness of individuals and states.” The Treaty of Kalisch in February 1813 contained language that the day would soon come “when treaties will no longer be truces but will be observed with a religious faith.” In the summer of 1814, the German mystic Franz von Baader sent the Tsar, the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia copies of his tract entitled On the need created by the French Revolution for a new and closer bond between religion and politics. Baader called for the creation of a new federation based on Christian principles. His entreaty found a ready audience in the Tsar.

On December 31, 1814, the Russian Emperor drafted his own appeal to his allies for a new association based upon Christian brotherhood. The future peace of Europe, he said, must rest on the same foundation that had secured victory during the war—the union of the allied sovereigns: “Penetrated equally with the immutable principles of the Christian religion common to all, it is on this unique foundation of the political order, as well as of the social order, that the sovereigns [must] associate among themselves in order to purify their maxims of state and to guarantee the relations between the peoples that Providence has entrusted to them.”

Nine months later—after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo—the task of drafting the actual text of the Holy Alliance fell on the shoulders of Alexander Stourdza, a Greco-Romanian Orthodox intellectual acting as secretary to Alexander’s minister, Capodistrias. Stourdza was a follower of Baader as well as a member of the Russian Bible Society, and the brother of Roxanne Stourdza, the Tsar’s spiritual “wife.” The goal of the new treaty, Stourdza wrote with guidance from Alexander, was nothing less than the “entry of Christian charity into the realm of politics.” Historian Stella Ghervas points out that through the means of the Holy Alliance, the Tsar was further challenging the religious authority of the Pope while excluding the Ottoman Sultan from Europe.

Once Stourdza’s work as done, the Tsar provided a copy of his new alliance to the Emperor of Austria, who gave it to his foreign minister, the famous Prince Metternich, to review and revise. Metternich instantly recognized the treaty as an attempt to combine “religious and political-liberal elements,” but considered many of its expressions of religious sentiment unsuited to an international agreement. An original draft, found in the archives by a Swiss historian in 1928, reveals just how Metternich subtly revised the text to transform it from an alliance of Christian peoples into a more conservative league of monarchs.

The original Russian draft had provided that “in conformity with the words of Holy Scriptures, which command all men to consider each other as brothers, the subjects of the three contracting parties shall remain united by bonds of true fraternity, and, considering themselves as fellow countrymen, shall lend each other support and assistance on every occasion.” In place of this fraternity of peoples, Metternich substituted a unity of thrones. His new text read: “in conformity with the words of the Holy Scriptures, which command all men to consider each other as brothers, the three contracting Monarchs will remain united by the bonds of a true and indissoluble fraternity, and, considering each other as fellow countrymen, shall, on every occasion and in every place, lend each other aid and assistance.”

The original Russian text had further stated that the separate armies of the contracting powers should consider themselves as members of the same army, “called upon to protect religion, peace and justice.” In place of this, Metternich substituted references to monarchical paternalism: the monarchs “shall be considered by their subjects and armies as fathers; and, regarding themselves towards their subjects and armies as the fathers of families, they will lead them, in the same spirit of fraternity with which they are animated, to protect religion, peace, and justice.”

The remainder of the treaty acknowledged the sovereignty of Christ; this was left virtually untouched by Metternich—the three sovereigns (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) “confessing that the Christian world, of which they and their people form a part, has in reality no other Sovereign but Him to whom alone power really belongs.” The three sovereigns consequently recommended to their peoples “as the sole means of enjoying the peace that arises from a good conscience, and which alone is durable, to strengthen themselves every day in the principles and in the exercise of the duties which the Divine Saviour has taught to mankind.”

By thus substituting just a few phrases, Metternich thus skilfully altered the entire character of the treaty: what the Tsar had intended as an alliance of rulers and peoples became a federation of monarchs; the appeal to all peoples to help one another became a reciprocal accord between monarchs to furnish assistance to one another, perhaps even against their own subjects. The Tsar accepted these changes to obtain the concurrence of the Emperor of Austria, and even with these changes the treaty still retained much of its original ecumenical Christian flavor.

The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, disdainfully referred to the Tsar’s new Holy Alliance as a “piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense,” and Metternich largely shared this view. Both these men, after all, were Enlightenment rationalists. Castlereagh, in particular, had grown up in an Ireland torn by denominational strife, and the cold logic of ‘New Light’ Presbyterianism made him impervious to the nebulous, emotion-laden appeals of mystical religion that the Tsar found so inspirational. Castlereagh and Metternich both recognized, however, that the proposed pact might provide a useful tool for curbing Russian expansionism, and both recommended adherence to the new treaty as a way to contain the Tsar.  “It is,” Castlereagh wrote the British Cabinet, “wise to profit from his disposition as far as it will carry us: and this is particularly the feeling of Austria and Prussa.” The Austrian Emperor did in fact sign the treaty, although the Prince Regent of England abstained. 

The Holy Alliance, strictly speaking, had nothing to do with the later interventions of the great powers to suppress the revolutions in Naples, Piedmont and Spain in 1821-1823.  This was the work of the “Congress System,” established by the Quadruple Alliance of November 1815. Nevertheless the Holy Alliance, especially as revised by Metternich, represented spirit of monarchical solidarity, and its popular association with counter-revolutionary intervention was not entirely misplaced. The name itself was taken up mockingly by radicals, especially in Britain, and by critics of the restoration period ever since.  But at the time it was written, the Tsar embodied the religious yearnings of the new romantic age. It is a useful reminder of the religious ideals that inspire many political figures—and not always for the worst.  It also serves to show how easily those ideals can sometimes be misdirected from their original purposes and become the foundation for fanaticism—a danger that continues to this day.