Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Before Church and State:
A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX

by andrew willard jones
emmaus academic, 510 pages, $39.95


f there is a specter haunting the imaginations of Christians in the public square today, perhaps it is the specter of the premodern integration of church and state. As the postwar liberal consensus erodes, a wider range of approaches to Christian engagement in political and social life becomes imaginable. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed that some young Christians, disillusioned with liberal politics, are drawn to “a revived Catholic integralism.” For such young integralists, Before Church and State, a book by Andrew Willard Jones, has been the hot beach read of the summer, and—unusually for an academic monograph—a rich source of memes on Twitter. (Millennials will be millennials.) For those drawn toward integralism, Jones’s scholarship is positively exciting.

Jones, a historian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, never uses the word “integralism,” but the word nonetheless captures the society that he describes in thirteenth-century France. Aided by a philosophical and theological sophistication that is unusual for his profession, Jones challenges our most basic assumptions as moderns. He does, however, speak of “an integral vision which included all of social reality.” In this integral vision, “church” and “state” did not exist as separate institutions; rather, spiritual and temporal authority cooperated together within a single social whole for the establishment of an earthly peace, ordered to eternal salvation. Nor was there an “economy,” in the modern sense of a relatively autonomous system based on private property and contract. Rather, the use of material goods was thoroughly integrated into the peace. “State,” “church,” and “economy” were not merely underdeveloped, waiting to be discovered. They did not exist, and would have to be invented. The vision of social peace gave way to an idea of social life as a violent, primordial struggle for power, and of sovereignty as limiting that violence by monopolizing it.

In this Jones is following John Milbank’s account of the “construction” of the secular. But Jones’s approach adds to Milbank’s. By providing a detailed account of how a particular premodern society worked at a particular time—the Kingdom of France in the thirteenth century—Jones is able to give concrete confirmation to Milbank’s key insights into the construction of the secular, while also moderating Milbank’s exaggerated account of the integration of nature and grace. Jones provides strong evidence to show that historians have too often distorted our view of the Middle Ages by projecting modern constructions back onto them. But he is not merely making a historical claim. He is also making a normative claim: The construction of modern society with its system of separations between different social spheres was a bad development that inscribes false ideas into our very way of life. Conversely, the integration of spiritual and temporal corresponds to the truth about humanity as revealed in Christ, and is therefore demanded by Christian orthodoxy. It is this claim that is likely to be most contested in Jones’s work—even by Christians who accept his historical claims.

Jones’s normative claim can be criticized from opposite theological perspectives. On the one hand, it is contradicted by the tradition of Christian pacifism and anarchism that was strong in the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists, and now finds adherents in all denominations. The Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, for example, can be seen as belonging to this tradition. Hauerwas would likely accept both Jones’s historical claims and his critique of the modern institutions as based on a false understanding of human nature, but he would reject Jones’s claim about the necessity of integrating temporal power with spiritual authority. Instead, he would argue, worldly power should be rejected altogether. Instead of making use of the temporal sword to combat unjust violence, Christians should turn the other cheek and suffer in peace, thus constituting a nonviolent counter-society that will serve as a sign of contradiction to the world.

On the other hand, Jones’s vision can be challenged by the tradition that distinguishes between church and state, with one given the right to use violence and the other the mission of peace. The Reformed philosopher Lambert Zuidervaart recently gave a powerful and eloquent articulation of it in his book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation. Zuidervaart too would accept that modernity constructed secular and sacred, church and state. And he too criticizes the individualistic assumptions embodied in modern institutions. Nevertheless, he argues that the modern differentiation of society into the economy, the state, and civil society (in which the churches are located) is a positive achievement that helps to limit corruption by allowing different aspects of human social life to unfold according to their own internal logic. Thus, for Zuidervaart, our goal should be the reform and development of these distinct areas of life, not the return to a violent and corrupt integralism.

Although Jones does not directly address such objections, his analysis of the integral kingdom of Louis IX, and the theological vision undergirding it, offers a strong implicit response. The integral society that Jones describes did not deny the need for differentiation. Indeed, it was a highly differentiated society. But differentiation was always for the sake of greater unity and integration. Thus, the three social orders of laity, secular clergy, and religious (monks and nuns) were seen as having a unity analogous to the unity of the Blessed Trinity. They did not form three separate societal spaces, but three orders united in a single society with a single end: the unity of peace.

Civil peace was seen as participation in the eschatological peace of the City of God, and it was ordered dynamically toward that coming peace. The unity of peace was understood as a common good—a good that could only be had together with others. And it was seen as the purpose and happiness of human life. There was no sense that the pursuit of happiness could be left to private life, with social structures serving a merely instrumental aim of allowing for that pursuit. Rather, the happiness of peace was something to which social structures had to be directly ordered.

By a detailed analysis of the acts of King Louis’s Parlement, his royal high court, Jones shows how the idea of peace functioned in integral society. In contrast to Hobbesian ideas of a violent state of nature overcome by the sovereign monopolization of power, the Parlement worked from the presumption of a natural state of peace developing in society. The intervention of royal power was for the sake of reestablishing peace when it had been disturbed by violence and sin.

The presumption of peace explains the lack of a separation between “the state” and “civil society.” Since the primordial condition was assumed to be peace, there was no assumption that coercive violence had to be monopolized by a “sovereign.” Rather, the use of coercion for the reestablishment of peace was treated like any other right in society. If a person or group had an established custom of punishing thieves, for example, such punishment was to be left in their hands. The king would only intervene if the duty of administering justice, which such a right entailed, was neglected. Again, Jones invites us to see this not as a corrupt blending of the procedural justice of the state with the structures of civil society ordered toward solidarity, but rather as the peaceful functioning of an integrated whole ordered to a peace that consisted of both justice and solidarity.

In the vision of peace that Jones describes, the clergy, who wielded the spiritual sword, and the lay authorities, who wielded the secular, had distinct roles, but they were cooperating toward a single end. They were not engaged in a struggle for “sovereignty,” a concept that had yet to be invented; instead, they actively promoted each other’s power as a means toward their common end. The relation of temporal and spiritual was understood as connected to the four senses of Scripture and the sacramental function of the material world. Just as God’s revelation in salvation history leads from the external law to the law of the heart and the peace of heaven, and the letter of Scripture leads to the spiritual meaning of the things described culminating in the eternal Word, and the sensible signs of the sacraments communicate the invisible grace of participation in the divine life, so temporal peace is ordered to leading Christians toward heavenly peace.

Thus, Jones’s implicit answer to pacifist objections to the use of temporal power for spiritual ends is that they contain an unwarranted supersessionism. As long as we are in this mortal life, there will be a place for the use of coercive measures, as pedagogical aids to fallen human beings, helping them to rectify their passions and to prepare themselves to enter into a deeper peace. Just as God himself uses such aids in salvation history, so too the Christian community continues to use them in its attempt at the realization of an ever-greater peace.

St. Benedict writes that if a brother is unable to be corrected by exclusion from the communal prayers and meals, then he should be whipped—a punishment that even carnal minds understand. The experience of many Christian communities confirms his wisdom. The Christian anarchist Dorothy Day, for example, describes how her refusal of any coercive measures in communal life allowed a Catholic Worker community to be torn apart by members who simply appropriated the community’s goods and did what they pleased.

Even a short time ago—with the ascendancy of the “religious right” in the Reagan and Bush years—it was plausible to argue that the separation of church and state was good for religion. The accelerating pace of secularization manifested, for instance, in the legalization of homosexual marriage makes that position much less plausible today. Before Church and State offers an alternative vision, a vision that could be realized only by a profound and fundamental transformation of the whole of our society. I am convinced that in working toward such a transformation, we have nothing to lose.

Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist., is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our December 2017 issue.