Many people today are worried about a certain politicization of the churches, or of some groups in the churches. The following, very fragmentary reflections are an attempt to make a small contribution towards alleviating these worries. These reflections do not focus on the immediately practical, on how the relationship between Church and politics is to be ordered, to what extent the Church ought and may get involved in politics, or where the respective boundaries and common areas lie. Today that relationship is mostly disturbed by attacks emanating from the power of the state against the freedom of religious groups. But one is also uneasy about the attacks that are being launched in the other direction: that is, when on occasion a claim to political competence is made on the basis of religious arguments, or when the prestige of ecclesiastical authority is adduced as a significant political factor.
But I mean to deal here with fundamental, rather than practical, questions. It is necessary to consider whether the relationship between Church and politics has not always been a relationship fraught with tension. History teaches us that it has. The real question is whether this tension is good and useful, or harmful and reprehensible. What direction, then, ought the Church to take? If she concentrates on the hope of life after death as her proper task, she is accused of a lack of responsibility for life here on earth. If she becomes more involved in temporal affairs, she is criticized for forgetting her orientation to eternal life.
We shall investigate this question in three steps. First, Jean-Jacques Rousseaus thesis of the socially damaging character of Christianity will introduce us to the question by showing us its coordinates. Next, we shall discuss the central question of the source of the perennial conflict between Church and politics. And finally, we shall attempt to bring into play a third element-the problem of evil-that is usually forgotten.
In the concluding chapter of Rousseaus Contrat Social , which deals with the religion civile, the author says of Christianity: Far from winning the hearts of the citizens for the state, it removes them from it, as from all earthly things. I know nothing that is more actively opposed to the social spirit. He declares the Christian religion hostile to the state, explaining that Christianity is a purely spiritual religion which is occupied only with heavenly things: the native land of the Christian is not of this world. Rousseau holds that if Christians are unable to be good citizens, this is in keeping with the intentions of Jesus himself: Jesus came in order to set up a spiritual kingdom on earth; thereby the theological system was separated from the political system, and this in turn meant that the state ceased to be one state, and that inherent tensions emerged, which have never since ceased to agitate the Christian peoples. The outcome is a continuous struggle between the jurisdictions . . . which has made any reasonable civil order impossible in the Christian states. The effect of Christianity is that men now have two legislations, two sovereigns, two native lands, so that they are subjected to antithetical obligations. This is why the Christian can never be simultaneously pious and a good citizen. Accordingly, Rousseau holds that such a religion, which gives men a double citizenship, the earthly and the heavenly, cannot be integrated into society (insociable). Rousseaus thesis is not new, but it most clearly expresses the problem at issue here, namely, do Christians hopes of life after death make impossible their taking responsibility for life here on earth. Is it so that since their hearts are attached to heaven, they cannot love the earth, and since their Lord is in heaven, they will never belong wholly to the lords of this earth?
Rousseau claims that Christianity is radically contrary to the esprit social, but if we look more closely at this accusation, we see that it contains in reality two mutually contradictory charges. The first charge is that Christianity weakens responsibility for society, since it turns men into cowardly slaves who think only of how they are to attain paradise, and are not interested in the well-being of society: [The Christian] is little concerned whether everything here below is in a good or a bad condition. And, ultimately, what does it matter whether one is a free man or a slave in this vale of tears? The main point is that one should attain paradise. One could almost fancy this was Nietzsche, who said, The true Christians are created in order to be slaves.
The second charge seems to run contrary to the first: that beneath their disguise of weakness, Christians are in reality des vrais rebelles. They make a hypocritical show of submissiveness, but they are merely waiting for the opportunity to revolt, so that they themselves may usurp the power to which they pretend to submit. The pagans were not fooled, and this was why they persecuted Christians: secretly Christians were and are rebels against the state.
How does Rousseau arrive at such contradictory accusations in his rejection of Christianity? The answer lies in his solution to the problem. Thomas Hobbes, he claims, was the only one to have identified both the ill and the remedy: that we must reunite both heads of the eagle and bring everything back to the political unity without which neither state nor government will ever be well constituted. Everything that lacerates societal unity is useless, and this is precisely what Christianity does. Hence it must be replaced by the religion civile, which alone guarantees the unity of society. The double eagle has one head too many-that of the religious authority. If this head is not willing to identify itself with the principle of political unity, then the only solution is to cut it off. Rousseaus Contrat Social is militant, and although it makes a law of tolerance, it is totalitarian in its innermost depths. This was made most evident after 1789, when the heads began to roll in the name of the religion civile.
Why this excursion into Rousseaus political reverie? Because it was Rousseau who so clearly formulated the problem about which we shall speak. One could make many historical and theological objections to his arguments, but that does not alter the fact that, in one form or another, Rousseaus theses have been cropping up continually since the beginnings of Christianity. The accusation that Christianity is hostile to the state and socially damaging, that it destroys the unity of society, is as old as Christianity itself. From this it can be seen that this charge does not merely stem from the wickedness or ignorance of the enemies of Christianity, but resides in the very essence of the matter. In other words, what we have here is one of the structurally significant foundations of the relationship between Church and politics, of Christianity and society.
Deus major est, non imperatores (God is the greater One, not the emperors)-this cry of an early Christian martyr indicates concisely and clearly the source of the conflict. This is the second step in our argument.
Such a statement would have been unthinkable in the classical, pre- Christian world. Religion and state were then coterminous; it was not possible for there to be any antithesis between god and ruler, since the ruler was the gods representative. In the pre-Christian world, a man could be the citizen of only one city, the city of his gods, of his fathers, in which there was no distinction between religion and society. This was true even of the Roman Empire, that conglomeration of many peoples in which all the cults were assimilated and integrated into a single civic religion. In the pantheon of classical Rome it was not possible for any conflict between the gods and the emperors to arise, since the world of the gods and the world of men together formed, so to speak, one common household. Only when one bears this in mind can one properly understand why the classical world had no idea what to make of the Christians attitude vis-a-vis the state. The pagan philosopher Celsus, towards the end of the second century, points out to the Christians: You say that it is not possible for one and the same man to serve several lords. But surely that is the language of rebellion, the language of people who shut themselves off from other men as with a wall, and tear themselves loose from everything.
Because Christians refused to give cultic honor to the emperor and wished to serve only one master, namely their own, their behavior counted as rebellion. And since in addition the exclusiveness of their faith in their Lord left no space for the other gods, they were accused of godlessness, of atheism.
Christ brought something radically new into the world. With one saying he separated God and the emperor: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). He de- divinizes the emperor, and at the same time he indicates the obedience that is owed precisely to this emperor. When he stands before Pontius Pilate as one accused, he tells the representative of the emperor, Yes, I am a king, but says at the same time, My kingdom is not of this world. And when Pilate refers to his own power, Jesus does not dispute him, but replies: You would not have any power over me, unless it had been given to you from above (John 18:36-37; 19:11).
What is new about Christianity is not so much its doctrine as it is Christ himself. What is new in the Christians behavior is their relationship to Christ. From his resurrection onward, Christ is honored and addressed by the Christians as Kyrios (Lord). They pray, as he himself taught them to pray, for the coming of his kingdom, the kingdom of God. It was inevitable that their belonging to Christ should appear to be a rivalry to the emperor, who himself laid claim to the title of Kyrios. The emperor could not tolerate the situation where citizens of his realm claim to have chosen another as their highest Lord. The governor appeals to the aged Polycarp to renounce his allegiance to Christ and to swear to the primacy of the emperor. Polycarps reply demonstrates the whole significance of the conflict: For eighty-six years I have served him [Christ], and he has never done me any wrong. How could I now blaspheme against my King and Savior?
What is new about Christianity is this unconditional belonging to Christ, with the consequence that Christians have their rights as citizens in the kingdom of Christ or, as Paul says, in the heavens (Philippians 3:20). Their rights as citizens in the kingdom of Christ are more important to them than their earthly rights, and they are willing, if necessary, to yield the latter up. This was the attitude of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian farmer executed in 1943 who justified his solitary decision to refuse military service under Hitler on the ground that he could not at the same time serve the kingdom (Reich) of Christ and the Third Reich. This attitude brings a leavening of division into a heretofore complacent world. Thus it is not by chance that the early Christians felt themselves to be foreigners and pilgrims in this world, since their native land was with Christ in the heavens, and they knew themselves to be en route to the city to come (Hebrews 13:14). A hymn puts it thus: We are but guests on earth, and wander without rest towards the eternal homeland, bearing many kinds of burdens. The marvelous Letter to Diognetus in the second century speaks the same language: They [Christians] dwell each in his native land, but only as resident aliens; they carry out all the tasks of a citizen, and endure all the burdens like foreigners; every foreign land is a native land to them, and every native land is foreign land to them.
It has repeatedly been asserted that early Christians lived in an intense hope of life after death. They awaited so keenly the imminent irruption of Gods sovereignty and imminent return of Christ that there was no place left for an interest in this world, its miseries and its needs. It was, so the argument goes, only the failure of these events to materialize, and the sobering disappointment caused by the simple continuation of the course of history, that moved Christians to establish themselves as a stable earthly fellowship and to organize themselves as a structured Church. But this interpretation of Christian history, which appeared in the nineteenth century, is false, because it sees only one side of the reality. True, the first generations of Christians lived in an intense expectation of the imminent return of Christ (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and other texts), but to say this is to describe only one aspect of the matter. It does not suffice to explain why Christianity, from its early days and on throughout its entire history, had become a source of conflict in society. A community that does nothing but look with yearning to the life beyond death is hardly likely to be considered a danger to the established order, especially if, like Christianity, it obliges its members to behave peacefully, justly, and humbly. If Christians merely looked on this world as a waiting room in which one watched for the signal to depart for the heavenly Jerusalem, there would be no occasion to think of them as anything more than mere mixed-up dreamers.
Jesus Christ, however, left behind quite a different charge from that of a passive waiting around. He did indeed confess before Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, but his final charge to his disciples was: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make all peoples my disciples, and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you! And behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20).
These words explain why a conflict about Christianity had to arise. The future, heavenly kingdom of God is at the same time a present reality. Christians affirm that their Kyrios is already Lord of heaven and of earth. They believe that they are charged with the task of making all men, all peoples, disciples of Jesus and of bringing them to live and to act in keeping with Jesus message. The early Church cries out with yearning for the speedy return of the Lord (Maranatha, 1 Corinthians 16:22; cf. Revelation 22:20), but she acts with no less decisiveness to win men for Christ from all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues (Revelation 7:9) now. The kingdom of God is eschatological, it belongs to the end time; yet the end time has already begun in Christ. His kingdom is not of this world, but it comes into this world. For where men become his disciples, they form, not a group thrown together by chance, but a structured fellowship that is constituted in a visible manner and displays in its fundamental structure an organic continuity with its origin. The Churchs fellowship is neither a merely secular religious grouping nor a purely spiritual community; it is neither an exclusively visible Church nor an exclusively invisible Church. It is both at the same time, and in an inseparable fashion: earthly and heavenly Church, a structured society and a spiritual fellowship.
Here lies the deepest root of the problem that Rousseau exposed. This is the new element in relation to the pre-Christian social systems: religion and society are no longer coterminous; the gods and heroes no longer form a unified cosmos. Rousseaus dream of closing this gap again and reestablishing the total Unite sociale would lead to totalitarianism. It is no longer possible to remove the dualism between Church and state, between the claim of the earthly city and the city of God. Christians are citizens of two worlds. But this means that the conflict which determines in ever-new variants the mutual relationship of these two worlds is programmed in advance. The demands of the civitas terrena and the claims of the civitas Dei cannot be distributed between life on earth and life in heaven, or the material and the spiritual spheres, or politics and religion. For the conflict is inscribed in the heart of man, who must endeavor to be a good citizen of the civitas terrena without denying his belonging to the civitas Dei. Henri de Lubac has given a penetrating description of this unavoidable conflict:
Thus there arises from the very nature of things a rivalry between the two, an almost unceasing struggle. Each complains of the encroachments of the other. Nothing is less secure or more exposed to danger than their equilibrium. Even when the men on both sides search for a settlement, it is only seldom that the two legislations find a full harmony. Scarcely has one conflict been laid to rest, when a new conflict breaks out, muffled or fierce, petty or tragic.
Twenty centuries suffice to attest that it is virtually impossible to find the equilibrium. At one time, it is the state that persecutes; at another time, the men of the Church usurp for themselves the rights of the state in one or other sphere. No form of separation or of unification is without its specific disadvantages. And the most perfect symbioses are likewise those that are most to be feared. The best turns most easily into the worst. Often, one does not know which authority is enslaved to the other; whether it is the Church that lords it over the world, or the world that has forced its way into the Church. In order to escape from the dualism, one falls into some kind of monism, and if the intermingling is openly recognized, new antitheses arise . . . . In the mildest cases, a permanent mutual superiority holds sway. The existence of the individual thus becomes more complicated in every sphere-if indeed he is not precipitated into serious conflicts. The believer and the citizen are torn asunder in the innermost sphere of one and the same person.
Thus Rousseau seems to be right in laying this conflict to the charge of Christianity: Everything that lacerates societal unity is useless: all institutions that bring man into a state of self-contradiction are useless. This accusation has been repeated over and over up to our own time. Attempts have been made to resolve the tension by prescribing a unity for society and an identity for the individual in which no space remains for this conflict. All totalitarian social forms, whether atheistic, theocratic, or nationalistic, aim for such a unity. The experiences of our century justify one in doubting whether this unity is in keeping with human nature. We must urgently ask the opposite question, that is, whether the conflict is not healthier than the attempts to overcome it. Perhaps it is good and necessary for the tension between Church and society to exist-for the individual to be obliged to support this tension in himself and for society as a whole to support it and to fight out this battle again and again. For it is certainly possible that the equilibrium between Church and society and between the claims of both-an equilibrium so difficult to establish-is a positive challenge that is fundamentally beneficial to the individual man who must unite in himself the claims of both the Church and the society to which he belongs.
The decisive question, however, is: what kind of unity will remove the conflict between Church and society? In what does the reconciliation of the antitheses consist? It is not possible for any attempt to bring about the reconciliation of all antitheses-and thereby the total harmony of man with himself and with his world in a political, social entity (state, nation, classless society)-to take any other form than that of totalitarianism. Christianity has brought a decisive liberation here: the kingdom of God is not of this world, the sphere of the reconciliation of all antitheses is not to be found within history; perfect unity lies ahead of us, not as a utopian horizon in history but as a promise beyond history. Not even the Church is a place where all antitheses can be reconciled, and as long as the Church is in the condition of a pilgrim, she will never know perfect unity (nor the perfect reunification of all Christians). The pilgrim Church is not yet the perfected kingdom of God. But this also means that the ultimate goal of man cannot lie in this world. Thomas Aquinas formulated the point with great clarity:
Homo non ordinatur ad communitatem politicam secundum se totum et secundum omnia sua, . . . sed totum quod homo est, et quod potest et habet, ordinatum est ad Deum . (No man belongs wholly to the state, to the political community. Man belongs wholly only to God, to whom he is wholly oriented with all that he is, can do, and has.)
This does not mean that there is no orientation of man to society. Thomas Aquinas, and with him the entire social doctrine of the Church, emphasize that every man, as a member of the community, is oriented to the good of the totality of the community. By the same token, it does not, on the other hand, mean that man is utterly absorbed into the community.
Today we may perhaps not realize so clearly what a liberating power has lain, and still lies, in this distinction and in its practical consequences, since-at least in free countries-the separation of secular and spiritual authority has become something we take for granted. In fact, we owe this distinction, as well as the acknowledgment of the freedom of conscience that is linked to it, to Christianitys fundamental conviction that no man belongs wholly to the state, the nation, or the collective, but can and may belong wholly only to him who is his Creator and his goal.
We can make this clear through two examples from the early Christian period, both of which have great relevance for today. It appears that classical medicine attached little importance to the life of the newborn. Hippocrates asks, which children ought one to bring up (which presupposes that it was not taken for granted that all should be kept alive). Cicero holds that the death of a child is something that can be borne with serenity. The wise Seneca, indeed, thinks it reasonable to drown sickly and weak children. Tacitus is surprised at the Jewish abhorrence of killing any newborns.
Christians, though, did clearly prohibit abortion from the very outset. They respect every life, even that of the newborn. This attitude can be understood only as the expression of the fact that human life is not evaluated primarily in terms of its value or lack of value for the totality of society, but is seen as the life of a human person who is entirely oriented to God from the first moment of his existence and is thus not available to other people to dispose of. To this day, the only way to justify the protection of unborn or handicapped life is on the basis of the inviolable dignity of the spiritual person created by God and oriented to God. It is, in my view, an illusion to seek to justify this inviolability on exclusively societal grounds. It is widely taken for granted nowadays that social indications are acceptable grounds for abortion, and this shows how close we have come to the view of classical paganism that the education of children is the art of deciding which newborn children are worth bringing up.
A second example is the emancipation of women in Christian antiquity. Regine Pernoud has pointed out that the possibility of choosing an unmarried life for the sake of Christ brought women a liberation unheard-of in classical times. By deciding to belong to Christ alone, Christian women withdraw themselves from the patria potestas that was taken for granted in antiquity. The woman or girl no longer belongs wholly to her father and family. In this free choice, she proves herself to be an inviolable person, in the dignity that God has bestowed on her. Various accounts or legends of martyrs from the early Church show us that this new freedom was sometimes also paid for with such womens lives.
The double citizenship of which Rousseau complains, introduced into the world by Christianity, signifies de facto conflict and crisis. It brings a ferment of disorder into society. Not everyone is pleased with this, and so Christianity is repeatedly accused of dissidence and of secret rebellion. But an invaluable ferment of freedom is introduced at the same time, a ferment that again and again, in a unique way, defends the inalienable dignity of the person against every form of degradation.
What we have said up to this point can give the impression that the conflict criticized by Rousseau, which de facto recurs endlessly between the heavenly citizenship and the earthly, is caused by the clash of two unreconciled and irreconcilable worlds. Are Church and world, civitas Dei and civitas terrena, antagonistic entities, essentially hostile to one another? This tendency has arisen repeatedly in the long history of the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Its newest variant, which is still potently effective, is the view expressed by so-called political theology that the Church is something like the institutionalized critique of society. We hear also of the critically liberating function of the Church in relation to society, giving the impression that a society which is permanently criticized in this way is ultimately a negative entity that must be fundamentally called into question. Indeed, the hallmark of this criticism is that society in all its spheres (economics, culture, defense) is continually being told that it should have a bad conscience: not because of particular abuses and wrong attitudes, but fundamentally and universally. It is not the abusive practices of banks that are criticized, but their very existence; not this or that measure taken in the defense of a country, but the very existence of this defense. Behind this criticism, which likes to call itself prophetic, there lies in reality a kind of political millenarianism which, in the name of some future paradisal society, rejects and demonizes the existing society en bloc, demanding that it be overthrown by revolution.
We have up to now presented the relationship between Church and society as one full of tensions. This picture would be one-sided if we failed now to be more precise by adding a new element to our discussion: the problem of evil.
Two basic temptations run through the history of the relationship between Church and society, between religion and politics in the West: we can call these, somewhat summarily, the naturalistic and the Manichaean temptations. The latter sees the two entities as mutually hostile by their very nature: the world is evil, only the kingdom of light is good, and an implacable conflict exists between these two. Evil is located on one side exclusively: the world, society, politics, etc.; the good lies only on the spiritual, heavenly, or future side. What I have called the naturalistic temptation consists in denying the problem of evil, declaring it to be the so-called evil (Konrad Lorenz) which in reality is nothing other than the play of forces according to the blind necessities of nature, in which there are conquerors and conquered, but not good and evil. This is the worldview in which the highest laws are the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest. It is the worldview of Darwin and all his disciples, while the Manichaean temptation is that of the Marxist worldview. Jacques Maritain has characterized these two tendencies as typically right and left. The left temptation is to hate that which is and to dream of that which ought to be; the right temptation is to see only that which de facto is, and to reject as daydreams that which ought to be.
Charles Journet (d. 1975), surely one of the most significant spiritual figures of modern Church history, recognized with rare clarity, as both a theologian and a vigilant observer of the contemporary intellectual and political scene, the great dangers of these two temptations, especially in the dramatic events of the 1930s and 1940s: the dangers of political ideologies that close themselves off completely to the claim of the kingdom of God, and the dangers of religious ideologies that want to change the kingdom of God directly into a political-revolutionary force. Both dangers come from a false view of the problem of evil.
Cardinal Journet pointed out again and again that, according to the Christian vision, society, la cite de lhomme, belongs to the natural order, the order of creation, which in itself is good and possesses its own positive values and its own finality. Culture, science, economics, and politics have their positive values that cannot, however, simply be identified with mans ultimate goal, which can only be God-and this goal gives man an orientation to an eternal determination that lies beyond all temporal values. The kingdom of God is this ultimate goal, which is already present in the Church and is to penetrate and reshape all temporal values, without yet calling their autonomy into question. The great merit of the Second Vatican Council is that it defined the relationship of Church and society in this way. The Church renounces all theocratic claims to a directly political or societal power. She wants to be a ferment in society by promoting all that is good, affirming all positive values, and helping to keep these values open to the ultimate goal of man. This is why the Council repeatedly speaks of the dialogue between the Church and the world.
What then is the source of the antagonisms that so often weigh down upon this relationship? It is not because of the nature of human society that conflicts between Church and world keep on erupting. Cardinal Journet speaks, with Augustine, of a third reality, of which people do not like to speak today: the civitas diaboli, the power of evil. Although no period of history has known such a massive number of external manifestations of evil as our century, an astonishing blindness exists on this topic. Here the Council speaks clearly:
A hard struggle against the powers of darkness runs through the entire history of mankind, a struggle that began already at the beginning of the world and, according to the words of the Lord (Matthew 24:13; 13:24-30, 36-43), will endure until the last day. The individual man, drawn into this struggle, must continuously struggle to take his decision in favor of the good, and it is only with great efforts, with the help of Gods grace, that he can attain his own inner unity.
Let us attempt to draw some conclusions in the light of this clarification-which is certainly not comfortable, but is thereby all the more healthy.
1. It must be said, against all utopias, that there is no paradise on earth. We are here only as pilgrims; the goal of our life is not here, but there, in Gods eternal kingdom. The provisional character of all earthly realizations, even the greatest and most beautiful, is something we must never forget. Perfect justice, total peace, and completely successful identity do not exist in this life. To accept this frees politics from the compulsion to bring about the impossible by forcible means; it frees society from the penetrating critic who wants everything to be perfect, already here and now.
2. Against all resignation, however, it must also be said that (relative) joy, (relative) success, and (relative) justice can and should exist in this life. For the Christian, heaven is already on earth, in a certain sense. For where in this time, with all its provisional character, he attempts to create space for love, to lend a voice to justice, to live peace, there-even in the midst of great deficiencies and miseries-something of heaven can already be sensed on earth.
3. Against all utopias of the left, and against all resignation of the right, the Christian knows that the decisive struggle is not a class struggle nor a struggle for existence, but the continuous struggle against the power of evil, against the forces of pride, of arrogance, of hatred, through which the prince of this world (John 12:31) builds up his kingdom and his lordship, and which are the ultimate source of all injustice and all evil. The Gospel speaks here with an unsurpassable clarity. The victory over the power of evil can be won only through sacrifice and renunciation. No one can be spared from suffering, or from death, which sets a boundary to all our striving. If we become aware once more that we are given a short time in which to fight this struggle, and if we never forget that we are to find and to take the path to eternal life in this brief time span of our life, but can also fail to take this path or lose it, then we shall make the best use of the time (Ephesians 5:16), knowing how serious time is, and we shall live sober, righteous, and pious lives in the present world (Titus 2:12).
True responsibility for life here on earth is generated only by the hope in life after death. But the opposite is likewise true: only responsibility for eternal life give the right joy in this life. Responsibility for life after death generates the genuine hope for this life here on earth.
Christoph Schonborn , O.P., is Auxiliary Bishop of Vienna. He headed the Editorial Committee that drafted the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church . The present article was translated by Brian McNeil, C.R.V. It is taken from a book forth-coming from Ignatius Press.