"Sed fortuna, quae plurimum potest cum in reliquis rebus tum praecipue in bello, parvis momentis magnas rerum commutationes efficit; ut tum accidit."

C. Iulius Caesar - Commentarii de Bello Civili Bk III.68

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reform and the Religio

The proposed legislation to reform the activities of the priestly colleges of Nova Roma has, as I predicted, seen the light of day on the Main List and the key theme is accountability. The Pontifex Maximus is accountable for individual members of the religious colleges, while the latter will be accountable as well, for actions and research. Much of this proposal appears to be grounded in tradition and for that alone we should be grateful.

Practicality however has to run parallel with tradition. If it is not practical to introduce “X”, then enshrining it in a law that can lay such a proposal open to the allegations that it is another example of role-playing, regardless of how traditional or accurate it is. That can be true, but equally it can be a precipitate charge and in this case clearly the intention is to provide a framework for further debate and subsequent decisions over the exact meaning of sections and terminology. For example referring to temples would appear to be precipitate, but as was pointed out to me, the relevant religious colleges could decide the exact definition of a temple later. Can a temple be a virtual one? Do we define a temple as including the activities associated with a physical structure? Good questions that would hopefully be sensibly answered after serious debate.

A potential problem arises in that this proposal must be rendered into a lex and a constitutional amendment. As most of us in Nova Roma know, at least those of us who care to honestly admit it, the constitution is a deeply flawed document that cannot be lawfully interpreted, though many will simply ignore that fact and attempt to drive their own interpretations into practical effect.

Therefore imprecision in language or conceptual vagueness, not to mention an absence of definitions can unwittingly create a legal void. A interpretational void in a lex, where the meaning is unclear can sometimes be legitimately filled by edicts, although in the long term it would of course be better to reduce the number of these voids by crafting the lex in a precise manner to begin with. Edicts have a finite lifespan and unless they are renewed by successive magistrates they die, and so too will the interpretations they contain. Edicts are an excellent instrument by which to resolve emergent unforeseen problems. In this case the intention I assume is that the religious colleges will issue decreta to “flesh out” the skeletal structure before us. Then again perhaps this duty will not fall to either of the Colleges and the reason for that supposition lies in the nature of the proposal and comments made on the Main List.

The Nova Roman constitution, as it stands, protects any decreta issued by either of the two religious colleges from being overruled by “any laws passed in the comitia or a Senatus consultum”. However that is a reactive clause that first requires a decretum be issued and then an attempt be made to negate it before this protective clause comes into play. If this law is to be effective a constitutional change will be necessary, a fact already acknowledged on the Main List by Gnaeus Salvius Astur. Additionally Astur writes, in respect of one section of the proposal, that “it reestablishes the role of the Senate as the highest responsible body for the Sacra Publica”. From this one has to deduce that at the very least Section 1.B. of the constitution, that notorious section on legal precedence, together with sections VI.B.1 and VI.B.2.a will have to be overturned.

Having removed the protection currently afforded to the religious colleges and placed the ultimate control of Sacra Publica in the hands of the Senate, that body through a Senatus consultum can be the ones to put flesh onto the bones of this skeletal proposal, one assumes in consultation with the one or both of the colleges, but there will be no evident mandated requirement to do so. In other words the balance of power in respect of the Sacra publica will be stripped from the colleges and placed into the hands of the Senate. So to me it appears that one possible scenario, should this proposal pass into law and the constitution be changed, is that the Senate will define those elements of the Sacra publica, relegating the colleges to issuing decreta on purely internal matters pertaining only to the mechanics of college affairs. While this may be said to be historically accurate, it is also extremely fraught practically speaking, and we should all consider the consequences quite carefully.

The Senate is not just comprised of practitioners of the Religio privata. It contains, as does Nova Roma, people of many different religious faiths and possibly those who have no faith at all. It is by nature a secular body and a political one too. Nova Roman politics can be quite “intense”, to say the least and while that, to me, is a healthy state of affairs it also inevitably results in quite polarized differences of opinion, compounded by personal likes and dislikes.

The Senate therefore can be said to be quite an accurate reconstruction of its late republican ancestor. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that it contains many people who are not practitioners of the Religio privata and have no intention of ever becoming one. Moreover those people have not grown up in a society utterly drenched in the traditions and ceremonies of the Religio publica. Few practitioners of the Religio privata have either, being “converts” later in life, but they do have their beliefs as a yardstick against which to judge proposals.

By contrast non-practitioners will have to approach such a judgement from a logical analysis, rather than an emotive one. Some may say that that is a better approach, but the Religio publica means, obviously, far more to a practitioner than a non-practitioner. The latter can genuinely afford it respect but the emotive “fall-out” of a proposed Senatus consultum, or in a wider sense a lex, can utterly escape them. This is not a deficiency on their part, but a simple result of a lack of emotional investment in the Religio, be it privata or publica.

Religious belief of all sorts involves an emotional investment to fully appreciate, for example, the deep significance of rituals. One can appreciate their historical importance and even take a reasonable stab at grasping the current importance attached to them, but I would suggest that the full religious importance of a Hindu ritual will not be experienced by an atheist, any more than a Christian can fully appreciate the Religio publica and privata. Respect and emotional intuitive understanding are two different concepts.

Therefore if the true significance of proposals that affect the Religio publica are to be grasped by non-practitioners, regardless of what positions they hold in Nova Roma, it is absolutely essential that the views of the religious colleges are invited and respected. The moment that the view of the majority of the Senate is in conflict with the view of the majority of one or both of the colleges constitutes a very dangerous flashpoint. Legally the Senate will be able to impose its view, but it would do so at grave risk at exacerbating the evident dislocation that a number of practitioners evidently feel, given the views expressed on the Main List and elsewhere.

There is a feeling abroad that Nova Roma currently has very little to do with the strengthening of the Religio publica, and there is the continuing risk that the majority of practitioners that remain will end up being polarized in the view that they are an isolated and endangered group within Nova Roma whose voice is paid little heed. That could all too easily develop into an open, continuing and very fractious conflict.

So we will be dependant on the good sense of the Senate to fully involve the colleges and defer to their views if, as a secular body, it wishes to preserve the religious peace in Nova Roma. As it will be legally the supreme decision maker there can be no checks or balances that prevent it from deviating from the views of the colleges, for obviously that would result in it no longer being supreme.

Indeed the Senate could elect to dismiss the views of the colleges as unrepresentative of the views of practitioners based on its “analysis” of the situation. The members of the Senate are fallible and prone to the same human failings we all are, and those personal and ideological divides that clearly place individual Senators at odds with each other, so much so that they could reasonably be described as personal enemies, could influence the “analysis” of a proposal that affects the Religio publica, compounded by the fact that a number of the protagonists are not practitioners of the Religio privata.

Therefore this legislative proposal with voids of this sort, combined with relegating the religious colleges to what is inevitably a legally subordinate role, and the existence of personal animosities, makes for a volatile mix. It maybe alleged to be historically accurate but practically it is exceptionally risky. Since the Senate is not a static body, changes in its membership may further increase the risk of a breakdown of what can only be a “gentleman’s agreement” to rely on the advice of the religious colleges to guide the decision making process of the Senate.

Further, what happens if the Senate elects to support a minority, rather than majority, view of the colleges? Legally, nothing but again practically the consequences could be disastrous. At a time of its nascent development, is it appropriate to place the final authority for the Religio publica in the hands of a secular body, not all of whose members are practitioners of the Religio privata?

This proposal could under ideal circumstances work, and work reasonably well, but the provision relating to electing the Pontifex Maximus is in my opinion utterly unwise and should be struck. I equally believe that the risks to religious peace in Nova Roma are too great to place the Senate in a dominant role over the Religio publica. The remainder of the proposals have merit, although again there are elements that are currently impractical at face value and would require more detailed definition. Should that definition be left solely to the religious colleges I would rest more easily, as I suspect would many others of all shades of “political” opinion.

After carefully considering its provisions I respect its attempt at historical accuracy, I hope that the motivation for this proposal was to enhance the Religio publica and not emasculate a faction within the Collegium Pontificum, and I am concerned that the fundamental shift in responsibility will make the Religio publica and the Religio in general even more of a battleground than it has been in the past.

For this proposal to work, it will require, in my estimation, an immense amount of good faith, trust, respect and adherence to an unwritten rule that the views of the colleges will be heeded and not contradicted. I am far from hopeful that all these conditions will come into alignment and remain so.