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The Myth of Concordia

Par Nadia Urbinati : Professor of Political Theory - Columbia University (Department of Political Sciences)
Publié par Clifford Armion le 23/02/2015

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The place of God in the constitution has been one of the most sensitive issues in the debate on the constitutional treaty of the European Union, and has influenced the process of ratification. In the five decades since the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, European leaders have tried to build a united Europe on a secular foundation of treaties and economic regulations. These no longer seem to be adequate to the task. Lately, efforts have been made to include another factor – religion...
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Nadia Urbinati teaches Political Theory in the Department of Political Sciences, Columbia University. She specializes in modern political thought, liberalism and democratic theory; wrote on political representation, populism and more recently on how Internet is primed to transform political participation in democratic societies. She writes for the newspaper La Repubblica and contributes actively in the opinion making of Italian politics.


The place of God in the constitution has been one of the most sensitive issues in the debate on the constitutional treaty of the European Union, and has influenced the process of ratification.  In the five decades since the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, European leaders have tried to build a united Europe on a secular foundation of treaties and economic regulations. These no longer seem to be adequate to the task. Lately, efforts have been made to include another factor – religion. In 2006, Chancellor Merkel spoke in favor of a reference to God in the European constitution; her views were opposed by secularist France and received with warm support by Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, Ireland, Slovakia, and Poland, which lobbied for a phrase in the Treaty, adapted from the Polish constitution, which would state that: "The Union's values include the values of those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty as well as those who do not share such a belief but respect these universal values arising from other sources." On December 17 2007, the Preamble of the Treaty was amended as follows: “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.”

The debate on the EU treaty occurs in a time of religious renaissance and testifies to the transformation of the liberal culture from a project of ideological secularization to one that is willing to encourage the encounter between the secular and the religious. In Jürgen Habermas’ philosophy embodies this change. In his words, “Western culture has witnessed a transformation of religious consciousness since the Reformation and the Enlightenment” that can be described as a “modernization” of religious discourse; it has also witnessed a parallel transformation of secular consciousness from an intransigent secularism to a “respectful sensibility for the possible existential significance of religion.” This double transformation toward less intransigent positions on both sides was facilitated by the liberal framework of modern democratic societies. Indeed the state of rights has encouraged the renaissance of social concord on a new terrain, one in which the sacred and the profane are no longer estranged from each other but equal participants in the making of a more inclusive and unified public sphere. This post-secular looks like a reappraisal of the old ideal of Concordia, the European koiné since its earlier Christianization. In this article I would like to spread some grain of skepticism on the desirability of a cultural unity of such a comprehensive kind and do so by revisiting an exemplary case of failure of Concordia at the continental level, namely after the Reformation. My argument aims at highlighting the limits of dialogue and the role of pluralism in a society that makes equality of rights and before the law the principles of its unity.

What is Concordia?

Concordia entails an ideal of peace that is not identical with the kind of peace that states or strangers can reach. In ancient Greece’s poleis that were in permanent conflict with only temporary intervals of peace, war was an ever-present feature of relations between them, a constant and mutual disposition to destroy the enemy or at least weaken it. The logic of relations between states was the law of the strongest, which made peace an always precarious truce among equal partners. But domestic society was not supposed to follow that logic, also because conflicts between compatriots could, like with family feuds, easily degenerate in brutal and radical violence. Concord (homonoia), then, was not supposed to be as teen as international peace (eirene) and domestic society should aim at much more a robust peace than a truce to avoid fratricidal wars that would tear apart the polis and decree its death. In classical times, this terrifying possibility was frequently invoked to justify exceptional political measures, like in the case of the Thirty Tyrants, who justified their coup d’état in 403 BC as a necessary means to put an end on conflicts that divided the Athenians or, like in the case of the Romans, who resorted to the supreme good of concord (salus rei publicae) to justify the institution of dictatorship.

Dialogue was meant to be the strategy to solve disagreements among citizens or members of the same polis, a method that relied only on speech and the force of reason and persuasion and presumed the sharing of some substantive value (like the love of country). In extreme cases of divisions, other strategies besides dialogue were also adopted for restoring concord that were based on the forgetfulness of the reasons for discord, like amnesty and oblivion. Finally, in situations of devastating conflicts, when concord was lost and civil war erupted, harmony could become the name of a myth or even a utopia. For instance, in the bloody century that preceded the end of the Roman republic, concordia ordinum converted in the myth that gave Augustus’ empire a moral legitimacy. Likewise, whereas before the Reformation concordantia was a feasible goal (Nicholas of Cusa though it was), once the religious wars buried Concordia Christiana, harmony persisted as a myth to reemerge under various features, religious or secular, from the Enlightenment idea of a perpetual peace to the irenic ideal put forth by the Second Vatican Council to, finally, the project of European union after WW2, a conflict that was appropriately defined as “civil war”, thus presuming a view of peace among European peoples deeper than a truce or an international agreement among foreign states.

Concordia Christiana

The Christian humanists’ source of inspiration was Rome, and moreover the philosophy of Cicero, who spoke of civitas as concord or a “spirit of harmony and tastes” that existed when “the interests of all [were] the same” because “discord arises from conflicting interests.” Sixteenth century humanists applied Cicero’s ideas to Christianity and endorsed his maxim of struggle against the factions as necessary premise for avoiding the dilacerations of the Respublica Christiana. Christians fighting against Christians, wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam, is equivalent to “fratricide” within the republic. Like civil war, religious war “creates its own priests, bishops, and even cardinals,” thinkers and activists who perpetrate hatred, hostility and division. Thus, concord was meant to counter both actual seditious and doctrinal disagreements, and to create peace among equals in faith by reinforcing the “spiritual unity” of European Christians. As a consequence, religious tolerance was accepted only as a means for theological and ethical reunification; in fact, to some scholars it was “a choice for the lesser of two evils” and a temporary solution in the view of a more perfect harmony. To understand the reasons of Concordia’s failure we have to turn to the practical component of Concordia, namely the role of dialogue in the handling of disagreement and the negative view of pluralism.

The Problem of Pluralism

Scholars who analyzed the trajectory of Concordia Christiana after the Protestant schism have demonstrated how religious Concordia was unable to guarantee tolerance because of its mission, which consisted in overcoming divisions within the interpretation of the Christian doctrine in order to restore the unity of Christianity under the authority of one Church. Religious disagreement preceded the secular transformation of the state and liberal toleration, which came as the public acceptance of disagreement on issues of faith. But the ideal of Concordia that engaged humanist philosophers like Erasmus or politicians like Catherine de’ Medici of France was steered by the conviction that public dialogue among representatives of opposite Christian denominations would help overcome divisions and disagreement, without which no peace seemed to be possible.  This ideal relied on two premises: that religion was the leading feature of Europe’s collective identity and the foundation of its political order, and that dissent within Christianity could not extend to the fundamental of faiths (dogma and the sacraments) but pertained only to religious practices not involving sacraments.

The assumption of a unitary Christian root was fatal to plurality and tolerance also because Christianity had become through the centuries highly hierarchical and dogmatic, impervious to untutored interpretations of texts and intolerant of disagreement. Christian humanists thought that “discord on religious issues would engender the worst possible disorders and the gravest enmities among men.” Concordia meant to them “harmony and unison of minds and hearts”; its opposite was error and discord, conflict of ideas and between minds and hearts. Accepting diversity and pluralism was thus the main problem for Christians: this made them unable to fulfill the promise of fostering the “spiritual unity” of Europe and the goal of Concordia. Not by chance, both Catholic and Protestant supporters of Concordia opposed their idea of unity against models of empire that were based on religious pluralism, like the Ottoman Empire or the old Roman empire.

Is Dialogue always a Condition for Peace?

Yet Christian humanists thought that through dialogue and the art of eloquence, their disagreements could be solved without the need of removing theological arguments and dogmas from the public forum. But, as it emerges from the study of the exemplary case of the Colloquy of Poissy (1560-61), that assumption produced the exact opposite: it radicalized religious disagreements and opened the door to the wars of religion. That contradiction poisoned the Colloquy because the interlocutors (Calvinist and Catholic theologians) were de facto unable or unwilling to declare openly which fundamentals of faith they shared and which they did not. All of them praised Concordia but were unable to tell openly in what Concordia consisted. As soon as they tried to clarify this point they plunged into a nest of contradictions that made their disagreements even worse than before the Colloquy started.

It turned out that the room for compromise was broader when Christians did not know each other’s positions well. Thus contrary to Erasmus’ hope, the fundamentals, rather than the non-fundamentals, of faith became the source of discord. The Colloquy exemplified a phenomenon that social scientists have in recent years tested experimentally: the result of deliberation among groups whose members share definite beliefs tend to radicalize their respective loyalties as a result of discussion rather than weaken them: “it is the persuasive content of arguments which causes polarization rather than comparisons between oneself and others.” The result of discussion is in this case primed to consolidate homogeneity within each group, compromise peace and actually sharpen divisions.

Dialogue for reconciliation proved to be out of place because the views that caused disagreement (interpretation of sacraments and dogmas) could not be made an object of rational discussion (Hans Kelsen was to develop from here his theory that democracy cannot operate with dogmatic creeds). Concordia turned out to be an untenable myth. Moreover it was counterproductive because any attempt to convince the interlocutor was unavoidably experienced as proselytism, a perception that was primed to unleash animosity rather than help peace and accord. In sum, dialogue for reconciliation compromised the very assumption of Concordia Christiana — the idea that it was not necessary to take theological issues out of dialogue in order to continue the dialogue and live in peace. Finally, it proved that not all issues can become an object of public dialogue and that not all dialogue is a vehicle for peace.

Pluralism as Condition for Toleration

This brings me back to the questions with which I started this article: whether in today's Europe, religious toleration and religious pluralism are feasible within the ideal framework of Concordia; and whether it is a good idea that religions play an active role in the public sphere. If we recall the view of tolerance that the humanists praised we can say that, despite their assertion of the contrary, they regarded toleration as instrumental to unification of faiths under one mother religion and worried about syncretism as diluting of differences in a natural or minimalist religion.

Indeed, in order for their differences to merge both Catholics and Protestants should have necessarily gone through a process of transformation of their respective creeds: this was actually the goal that justified the continuation of dialogue. This means that a sincere dialogue would have probably risked making them change their minds and converging unanimously toward some fundamentals of faith that were not necessarily similar to their own. Dialogue within Concord was supposed to de-radicalize disagreement and make differences look like variations within one harmonious religion, a solution that would translate in reconstituting a catholic perspective or overcoming both Protestant and Catholic creeds.

This ecumenical outcome would require an injunction to suspend judgment when disagreement occurred in order to keep the door open to the possibility of changing one’s mind. But none of the interlocutors who gathered in Poissy wanted to suspend their judgment on their reciprocal interpretations of the fundamentals of faith because none of them questioned the validity of their own creeds. Neither side wanted to become anything other than what they already were. They discussed in order to convince the other without being willing to be convinced by them. This means that their mental habit was radically inimical to reciprocity (on which dialogue needs to rest) and naturally disposed to proselytism. Thus, if dialogue had to continue, it would have to concern non-fundamental of faiths, as actually happened when radical conflict and war forced European people to practice toleration as an art of negotiation among their different beliefs, while abandoning the ambition of overcoming their differences.

Negotiation and Agreement

Yet not to have a transformative dialogue of this kind does not mean not to be able to reach a “negotiated” outcome or some reasonable convergence, in the respect of people’s creeds or “fundamentals of faith.” As the historical development of the role of secular actors and institutions shows, the failure of the philosophy of Concordia Christiana contributed in strengthening the practice of agreement on non-fundamentals of faith or externalities such as laws and regulations on matters of rituals, and social and economic relations among people of different creeds. As it were, Concordia moved from inward to outward; it moved to laws, rules and what could make different people coexist within the same geo-political space without being requested to change their beliefs.

The difference between variations internal to a faith and pluralism of faiths was brilliantly illustrated by Jean Bodin (Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime written between 1593 and 1596; published in 1857), perhaps the most acute theorist of religious pluralism in the age of Concordia Christiana, that is to say prior to liberal toleration. Much less worried of pluralism than John Locke, Bodin included all positions in his claim for pluralism: Catholics, Calvinists, Muslims, Lutherans, Jews, proto-Deists, Skeptics (though not professed Atheists), and reached the conclusion that friendship among political subjects can exist even if people share radically different ideas on important religious issues. Yet he made this claim after having demonstrated that no religion is able to prove to be the true one.

Bodin’s argument for toleration was based not on indifference toward faith but on an opposition to conflict among believers in the name of the acceptance of their doctrinal disagreements. His position was not too different from Locke’s in that both of them “based their opposition to religious intolerance on the assumption that their practices (whoever they be, assuming belief in God) are probably no more mistaken than ours.” Yet Bodin’s conclusion seemed to be more generous on pluralism and toleration than Locke’s: not only believers had no rational argument for persuading each other on the truthfulness of their religion, but moreover religion could not be “the subject for discursive argument.” 

In Bodin’s imaginary dialogue, theological disputations left interlocutors with the same religious beliefs as they had when they started the dialogue. Moreover, it left them with the conviction that they should be free to practice their faith while dropping any ambition of convincing the others or overcoming their disagreements or differences on issues of religion. Pluralism was not anathema as with humanist theorists of Concordia, but the condition for both toleration and peace. Thus Bodin was benign with a politics of difference, one in which religions not only could but would coexist because by coexisting they would have the chance of expressing their respective difference more completely than by living segregated and separate.

Rather than a defect, pluralism of religions became unintendedly a checks and balance mechanism (concord-discord) that would help stability and peace. Bodin’s outcome was an argument in favor of diversity and pluralism while keeping a clear separation between civil law and religious law. Without acknowledging this dual source of behavior – the one inspiring piety and the other inspiring truth — it would have been hard to achieve both religious peace and liberty of religious belief.

A Nonperfectionist Regime of Toleration

Bodin’s restraint in welcoming religions’ participation in public debate over their foundations and creeds was of course marked by the tragic experience of the massacre of the Huguenots and the wars of religion, which led him to conclude that monarchical sovereignty (the state) was the only secure form of Concordia, thus civil not religious. We do not need to embrace Bodin’s doctrine of absolute monarchy to appreciate his insight that however prepared we are to cooperate in a “reconstructive work” of dialogue that is primed to free both religions and ideologies of their respective rigidity, we should not want public dialogue to make us overcome the dualism of faith and reason, or their interpretations, or religious pluralism – in other words, we should not want to pursue fully in the “reconstructive work” that dialogue is to encourage if performed sincerely and thoroughly.

A nonperfectionist regime of toleration does not demand that all citizens have an equal degree of virtue of toleration, or that the attitude toward toleration is the same for all. It does not above all demand that toleration be identified with religious concord because it considers toleration an invitation not to overcome differences but to respect them. Reflecting upon the failure of Concordia Christiana we can argue that toleration teaches us how to live with substantive differences and renounce transforming them in a variation of tonality within a harmonious unity. The analysis of the character and decline of the ideal of Concordia Christiana in the eve of the wars of religions shows us that toleration emerged as a peaceful acceptance of different faiths when government and church leaders as well as believers started considering it as a complex set of practices of coexistence among different religions situated in between the two extreme, and persistent possibilities of, either violent conflict or spiritual homogeneity.

Seen from the perspective of this tension, toleration acquires the character of a practical habit of respect of each individual, the recognition that in each of us there is something inviolable and unreachable to respect which the interruption of dialogue on what each of us regards as a matter of fundamentals (of faith) is indispensable. To paraphrase Bodin, the moral of respect rests on the recognition of difference, with no attempt to persuade one another. The seven protagonists of his dialogue resolved to have peaceful conversation after each of them abandoned all attempt to advance their point of view as prerogative of true religion. Conversation could exist and continue because and insofar as it was, as it were, useless, or not driven by the goal of solving dissent and embracing consensus. Changing disagreement for difference was the remarkable transformation that brought Concordia Christiana (and intolerance) to an end.

Cette ressource est publiée dans le cadre de la quatrième saison du festival "Mode d'Emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet.
Pour citer cette ressource :

Nadia Urbinati, "The Myth of Concordia", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2015. Consulté le 19/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/the-myth-of-concordia

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