The Servant of All, or of None: Why Kathleen Sebelius Must Go

This morning when the alarm clock radio went off, as is often the case the first thing I heard was not the classical music for which I listen to this particular radio station, but rather a summary of news headlines from NPR.  The second of these headlines included an audio clip from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who was defending herself against calls for her resignation as a result of the thus-far tortured attempts to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.  Rarely do I sit bolt upright in bed because of something I hear on the news, but in this case it would have been difficult to do otherwise.

“The majority of people calling for me to resign,” Secretary Sebelius commented at a press conference, “I would say are people who I don’t work for. And who do not want this program to work in the first place.”  You can watch Secretary Sebelius actually making this comment by following this link.

Sometimes one can almost audibly hear someone’s career hitting the skids, and this is one of those moments.

Over the course of her service in both elected and appointed government office, Secretary Sebelius has done many things which those of a different political persuasion from hers have taken issue with.  That of course is the nature of politics, and indeed of representative democracy.  She has also taken on a rather antipathetic view of her own Catholic faith, a view which she appears to value more than the fraternal correction she has received on numerous occasions from many of her fellow Catholics, including her own bishop.  One can debate whether and to what extent an individual’s religious beliefs become relevant to their place in the public square, or the obligation of public officials who are Catholics to adhere to the tenets of their faith.  I will leave that to those more adept than I at addressing such matters, and refer you for example to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia’s superbly-written book on this subject, “Render Unto Caesar”.

However in this case we are no longer dealing only with someone who has headed off in a policy direction which runs counter to and in fact openly attacks the institutions of her own faith, but someone who does not appear to understand the basic principles of civics, as practiced in the United States.  For as any reasonable American must acknowledge, regardless of their political affiliation, a public servant is the servant of all.  Secretary Sebelius is not simply the employee of the person who appointed her to the position which she presently holds, or of the political party which she happens to belong to, or of those who happen to agree with the policies she is attempting to implement.  She is, whether she likes it or not, here to serve all of us.

It cannot be that we simply accept or ignore the revelation that someone who was appointed to serve all of the people of this country equally has concluded that, in fact, she must only serve those whom she personally prefers.  This is not simply bad governance, it is the very definition of arrogance.  It betrays what is clearly a deeply-held, personal belief, spoken perhaps without thought as to its implications, but nevertheless revealing of the philosophical principles of the speaker,  that to be a public servant is to be selective in one’s servitude.

Our American system of government cannot function when our public servants are only capable of serving those whose views mirror their own.  So when a public servant of the people of the United States cannot come to grips with that fundamental concept, then that servant must either step down or be dismissed.  There are no two ways about it.

Whatever happens with respect to the implementation of Obamacare, clearly Secretary Sebelius has revealed by her own words that she is personally incapable of continuing to serve all of the American people effectively.  If she cannot serve all of us, then she should not be permitted to serve any of us.  And for her own sake, as a fellow Catholic, I hope that when she does leave, as she now must, she will take the time to reflect on what she has done during her time in office, not only with respect to the principles of civil governance, but particularly with regard to the Church to which she belongs.  Let us hope that her replacement, whoever that will be, will be more willing and able to serve the people of this country effectively and professionally.


The Monastic Roots of Western Democracy


Reading a 6th century text is probably not most people’s idea of a good time, but on this Feast of St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.) I want to encourage you, even if you are not Christian, to take a look at an extremely important document to the development of Western culture, the Rule of St. Benedict.  Although it was originally written for religious communities, to provide guidelines on how to live, work, and pray together, it had a tremendous impact on the formation of our Western democratic form of government.  Through the example provided by St. Benedict and those who tried to live under his precepts, his Rule is an often-overlooked  touchstone for the shift from oligarchic to republican rule in Western civilization.

Sometime between the year 529 A.D, when he founded the Monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (which was famously nearly obliterated during World War II), and his death in 547 A.D., St. Benedict wrote down what would become known as his “Rule”, which you can read in its entirety here.  For the past 1500 years it has been the basis for many monasteries and convents around the world, both Catholic and Protestant.  The Rule of St. Benedict greatly resembles what we would call a constitution, and provides a set of guidelines on how to live and co-operate peacefully and productively in a Christian community.  Its importance to Western culture is sadly often overlooked today, but it gave rise to numerous, deeply important ideas which still shape the ways in which we live in civilized communities, as we shall see.

Around 500 A.D., St. Benedict had become concerned about the lawlessness and moral laxity he observed in Roman society, of which he as the son of an aristocratic family was a member.  The degree of immoral behavior which he observed, in which people behaved as they wished, ignoring the teachings of the Church but still claiming to be Christians – sound familiar? – was something which appalled him.  He decided to withdraw from that society to try to grow closer to God, and focus on spiritual development rather than hedonism and material pleasures.  It was a path fraught with difficulties, which you can read about here.

Rather than focus on his fascinating life, however, I want to draw the reader’s attention to two interesting aspects of St. Benedict’s thought process in writing his Rule, which will be familiar to those of us living in a republican democracy.  One of St. Benedict’s most important contributions to the later growth of representative democracy in Western Europe was the concept, albeit not stated as such, of one man, one vote.  The proper application of his Rule meant that no member of the community had any greater standing than any other member of the community in voting for a new leader or making some other community decision, for all were equal before God.  Thus, the vote of an older monk did not count for more than that of a younger monk, nor did the vote of a monk from an aristocratic family count for more than the vote of a monk from a merchant or laboring family.  Consider what a departure this was from a well-established class system which prevented people from moving up or down the social ladder, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they might be in life.

A second, equally important consideration was that St. Benedict thought the leadership of the community ought to come from the one best-suited to the job, who was not necessarily the one who had been there the longest or whose background was the most prestigious.  This, in an age of privilege and social standing as birthright, can be viewed in many respects as an astonishing concept for the time.  Moreover,  when offering suggestions on how the leader of the community should be selected, St. Benedict counseled that due consideration ought to be given to wisdom, age, and experience when examining the nominees, but that everyone in the community was eligible to be elected, “etiam si ultimus fuerit in ordine congregationis” [roughly, “even the most recent one to join the community.”]  Thus, one should not be automatically disqualified from office as a result of being a relatively new arrival, or being younger than the others in the community.   Again, this concept of finding the best man or woman for the job, based on ability rather than birth or seniority, is something that Western democracy would take some time to come to enshrine in its own laws.

We are often told that Western Europe at the end of the Roman Empire entered into the “Dark Ages”, when what we would view as civilization simply disappeared or retreated in many places.  Yet through the work of deeply devout men such as St. Benedict in his Rule, the foundation stones for our present-day representative democracies were established.  Much as we must thank the Ancient Greeks and Romans for their philosophical ideals regarding the rule of law and the nature of government, which more often than not they did not bother to put into practice, truthfully it is through Christian thinkers like St. Benedict who were able to move the idea of representative government away from being only a theory or the sole purview of the elites, to being a truly participatory and merit-based system.  For that reason, among so many, the Rule of St. Benedict ought to be far better-known among contemporary students of Western political theory.


St. Benedict Giving His Rule to the Monks (c. 1129)
Monastery of Saint-Gilles, Nîmes, France

An Empire of the Unwilling

In his influential but highly-overrated work, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) maintained that “[i]f a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Personally, I rather think we are better off now, when we can reasonably expect not to die from some microbial infection every time we drink a glass of water. Be that as it may, Gibbon’s point is that there was a window of time during the Roman Empire when things seemed to be going well, at least for a significant number of people who chose to remain docile towards their Roman overlords.

As I write this blog post, the world is awaiting election results in Greece, a country whose significance in contemporary world affairs has ballooned in recent months not because of its achievements, but because of its seeming inertia. Unable to form a government, reform its unions, or collect taxes properly, Greece needs a scapegoat in its latest round of voting. Not having the Church to kick around in this mess as he would like, presumably Gibbon would blame the Germans, as leftists tend to do.  Of course the Duke of Gloucester, when he received the second volume of Gibbon’s “Decline” from the author upon its publication in 1781, is supposed to have remarked, “Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”

Over on this side of the pond, we look at Greece and at Europe, and shake our heads, telling ourselves, “What a tragedy, if only they would…” The fear of a different sort of microbial infection spreading through the entire European Union and thereby global financial markets should Greece leave the single currency is one which some in the media are embracing wholeheartedly, while others are dismissing as being, at most, highly unlikely. Whatever you may read or hear from the opinionated and the chattering classes, no one really knows what will happen if the Greeks simply decide to say, “No,” to the bailout agreements they have already ratified in their parliament. No one is particularly anxious to find out, either, exactly what would happen, given the interconnectedness of world financial markets.

Yet as much as other government and business leaders around the globe might collectively be holding their breath to see what is going to happen, there needs to be some soul-searching in Western democracies like Greece about where things go from here.  There has been a steady erosion of the idea that smaller communities are better able to look after their own needs, and instead an insistence upon the creation of giant economies of scale, which were supposed to be the Marxist alternative to the bloated, almost Byzantine aspects of British, French, and Russian imperialism that preceded them.  Everyone wants to join the European Union when things are going well, but when things become difficult, as they are now, there is an unwilligness to take personal responsibility for making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.

Take the newly-elected president of France, for example. M. Hollande recently un-did one of the most unpopular but sensible achievements of his predecessor, M. Sarkozy: he has lowered the retirement age back down to 60, from the 62 M. Sarkozy had raised it to.  Given that the average life expectancy of a Frenchman today is approximately 81 years, that means a large number of people will be drawing pensions for a decade or more longer than previous generations.  And because of declining birth rates and restrictions on immigration, there will be fewer and fewer workers available to pay for these pensions.  Though by then, of course, M. Hollande will be long out of the picture, having achieved the election he wanted without having to pay the piper for the consequences of his decision to encourage irresponsibility on the part of his countrymen.

All of this begs the question: has the West really become such a selfish place that we are being dragged down the drain, and our children along with us, by those who are unable to control their appetites?  If I am short of funds, I economize wherever I can: I brown-bag my lunch, rather than go out to eat, or I turn down invitations to activities I must pay for, until such time as I am back on my feet again.  If I need help, I ask for it, but as a last resort, after I have tried everything else.

Western democracies seem to have lost this concept.  The supposedly evil Germans are treating the Greeks unfairly, but rather trying to encourage them, and others, to behave responsibly and prudently, particularly if they come asking for help.  Pundits have missed out on what the real issue is here: an empire of the unwilling, i.e. one of those unwilling to do what is necessary for the best of their own people.  Whatever the results of the Greek elections today, there needs to be a re-examination of their fundamental approach to government and its interactions with society, and the rights and duties of the members of that society in return.

“The Course of Empire: Destruction” by Thomas Cole (1836)
New York Historical Society, New York