"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote Lord Acton.
Concern for freedom was at the heart of the work of historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, who died in 1902 at the age of sixty-eight. He was one of the most distinguished Roman Catholics in England in the nineteenth century, but it is unlikely that the Pope, when visiting in September 2010, will draw attention to Acton’s achievements.
Yet he deserves to be remembered, and not just for his much-quoted phrase on corruption by power. The questions he addressed – even if one disagrees with some of his conclusions – are still of great importance.
Born into a wealthy Roman Catholic family, Acton went to university in Germany (at that time Cambridge or Oxford did not give degrees to Catholics), and studied under priest and historian Dr Döllinger, who became a life-long friend. Acton, who spoke several languages, took a keen interest in public affairs throughout Europe. An admirer and friend of Prime Minister William Gladstone, he was elected to Parliament and served for a while as a Liberal MP, later being made a life peer.
One of his preoccupations was tyranny, and how this could be prevented. Even in a democracy, he feared, power could be abused. Constitutional checks and balances, protection of minorities and a strong civil society, in particular the church, could reduce the risk. What happened in the French revolution deepened his scepticism about the deeds of rulers and leaders, and his belief that they should be held to account.
“The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away,” he wrote.
He drew attention to the example of the ancient Israelites, whose government before the monarchy was “held together by no political authority, but by the unity of race and faith, and founded, not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant. The principle of self-government was carried out not only in each tribe, but in every group of at least 120 families; and there was neither privilege of rank nor inequality before the law.”
Even in the time of kings, he pointed out, their power was bounded by a law not of their making, and when power was abused, prophets arose “to prophesy against the usurper and the tyrant, constantly proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers, and appealed from the established authorities, from the king, the priests, and the princes of the people, to the healing forces that slept in the uncorrupted consciences of the masses. Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won—the doctrine of national tradition and the doctrine of the higher law; the principle that a constitution grows from a root, by process of development, and not of essential change; and the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.”
In his view Christianity should, and did, play an important part in the advance of liberty, though this was complicated by the close links between the institutional church and state after the time of Emperor Constantine, when the Roman empire sought “to make the Church serve as a gilded crutch of absolutism”.
Yet through the ages, Acton argued that – whatever the pronouncements of church leaders – many Christians held to the “doctrine of the divine right of the people to raise up and pull down princes”.
He was critical of the cruelties both of leading Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther in his brutal suppression of the Anabaptists and of Roman Catholic authorities for such actions as the massacre of Huguenots, while recognising that power struggles often lay behind apparent religious fanaticism.
Acton’s approach put him at odds with the authoritarian wing of the Roman Catholic church, which was achieving increasing dominance. In the run-up to the first Vatican Council in 1870, he campaigned vigorously but unsuccessfully against the doctrine of papal infallibility. (This enables a pope to declare that a particular pronouncement he makes is free from even the possibility of error.) He narrowly avoided being excommunicated: as a layperson he had more freedom than a cleric, and indeed his friend Döllinger did suffer excommunication.
It was against this background that he wrote in a letter in 1887, on the responsibility of historians, “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Lord Acton drew attention to the distinction between religious authorities and the wider church, in which awareness of truth could gain ground and eventually bring about change, whereas outright confrontation might be less fruitful. “Among the causes which have brought dishonour on the Church in recent years, none have had a more fatal operation than those conflicts with science and literature which have led men to dispute the competence, or the justice, or the wisdom, of her authorities.
"Rare as such conflicts have been, they have awakened a special hostility which the defenders of Catholicism have not succeeded in allaying. They have induced a suspicion that the Church, in her zeal for the prevention of error, represses that intellectual freedom which is essential to the progress of truth,” he wrote. “There are few faults or errors imputed to Catholicism which individual Catholics have not committed or held, and the instances on which these particular accusations are founded have sometimes been supplied by the acts of authority itself.”
Yet “what is the Holy See in its relation to the masses of Catholics, and where does its strength lie? It is the organ, the mouth, the head of the Church. Its strength consists in its agreement with the general conviction of the faithful... While the general sentiment of Catholics is unaltered, the course of the Holy See remains unaltered too. As soon as that sentiment is modified, Rome sympathises with the change. The ecclesiastical government, based upon the public opinion of the Church, and acting through it, cannot separate itself from the mass of the faithful, and keep pace with the progress of the instructed minority. It follows slowly and warily, and sometimes begins by resisting and denouncing what in the end it thoroughly adopts.”
Though Acton never completed the vast history of liberty which he had hoped to produce, he succeeded in doing much to encourage critical thought in his day, and his influence continues.
While Pope Benedict XVI is inclined to be authoritarian, he too is a scholar who believes strongly that faith is not opposed to reason. On the occasion of his visit, Christians could benefit by revisiting Lord Acton’s legacy, and seeking in our own time to grapple with difficult questions, informed by love of God and neighbour.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate. She has contributed several chapters on Anglican issues and biblical interpretation to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change  (edited by Simon Barrow, Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia).