The Freedom of the Church: A Review of Hugo Rahner’s Church and State in Early Christianity

Aug 11th, 2013 | By Guest Author | Category: Featured Articles

This is a guest post by Michael Rennier. Michael received a BA in New Testament Literature from Oral Roberts University in 2002 and a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 2006. He served the Anglican Church in North America as the Rector of two parishes on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for five years. After discerning a call to conversion, Michael and his family moved to St. Louis. On October 16th, 2011, he and his wife were received into full communion with the Catholic Church by the Most Rev. Robert Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis. Michael tells the story of his conversion in “Into the Half-Way House: The Story of an Episcopal Priest.” In May of 2012 he wrote another guest post for CTC titled “Immortal Diamond: The Search of Gerard Manley Hopkins for Beauty. He currently works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

In his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis writes, “How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life!”1 Throughout history, it has been understood to some extent or another that religious faith is a cultural unifier. Faith imparts moral authority to law and creates a society with common cultural assumptions, and thereby guides the State in creating a just society. The elephant in the room, however, is the State itself. What if the elephant doesn’t want to stay in its proper place? What if the elephant breaks through the walls of the room and collapses the entire house upon us all? In an ideal world, the city of man and the city of God work in harmony and create a just society. In our real, less than ideal world, however, relations between Church and State have been constantly marked by tension and struggle.

In his book Church and State in Early Christianity (Ignatius Press, 2006), published in German in 1961 as Kirche und Staat im frühen Christentum: Dokumente aus acht Jahrhunderten und ihre Deutung, Hugo Rahner exhaustively references primary sources in creating a picture of these struggles in the first centuries of the Church’s existence. Understanding these struggles will be helpful to us today as we experience the escalation of these tensions to what, in fact, appears to be the historical norm. In the United States, we have been blessed with a period of respite in which the freedom of the Church has been largely honored by the State. Will these conditions maintain? That is anybody’s guess. We do know that recently the State has shown signs of encroaching upon the freedom of the Church. The Church has fought these battles many times over, and Rahner’s book does us a great service in recording those struggles as well as diagnosing some principles upon which the Church stands when it comes to Church and State relations.

The Age of the Martyrs

“It has often been said that the Church surrendered herself without reserve, ‘in a dream’, as it were, to the dangerous protection offered by the State at the moment in 313 when the Emperor Constantine granted her toleration and freedom.”2 Such a critique is made, in my experience, by those who wish to argue to some degree or another that the Roman Catholic Church was a creation of Constantine. According to this narrative, before the intervention of the State into Church affairs, the Church was entirely apolitical, unorganized, and pacifist. Further buttressing the argument are the examples of the general aversion of the Romans to the early Christians. This narrative appeals today to the typical anti-Catholic individual, to the theologically confused Christian who believes that grace destroys nature and so opposes any cooperation between Church and State, to the libertarian who wishes the Church to back out of the public square entirely because of a fear of state domination of the Church, and, of course, to those who simply want the Church to be quiet so the State can get on with whatever manner of oppression it wishes to impose.

We can disprove this narrative quite easily. In fact, in the first three centuries of her existence, from the very beginning, the Church had already established a relationship with the State. Rahner shows that the early Church never offered an unqualified “no” to the State. The change in 313 was less a surrender to the all powerful creative abilities of Constantine to remake the Church in his image and more a hesitant “yes” to further cooperation with the expectation of mutual benefit. The tensions between the Romans and the Christians actually indicate that there was a struggle afoot to define the proper relationship of Church and State in their life together. Rahner writes, “The basically Christian conception of the state as we find it in the sources of the early Church from Tiberius to Constantine can be correctly defined only if one takes into account the variations in the Church’s reply of yes and no to the state.”3 This balance between an unqualified yes or no to the State is what the Church of the martyrs struggled to achieve.

What is the basis of the “no”? Our Lord assures us in John 18:36 that His Kingdom is not of this world. Thus, the Church opposes any government that wishes to impose an idealist and totalitarian vision of human flourishing that is limited to human structures alone. Our Lord makes this clear in His subtle distinction to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mathew 22:21). He also proves His point before Pilate by warning him, “You would have no power over me, unless it were given to you from above.” (John 19:11). The early Church took Our Lord’s words to heart, and when the State attempted to seize the proper role due to the Church, she offered a firm “no.”

The denial of the State needs qualification, however. It is not a blanket condemnation. Rahner cautions, “In the documents of the Church of the martyrs, we rarely hear so stern a denial of the state… but these statements call for comment and cannot be glossed over.”4 And later, “We can see the deeper reasons for the no of the ancient Church to the state if we consider the way in which the civil authority held the religious power in subjection.”5 There are a few points to consider in this regard: The conflation of the kingly office with the priestly office in Roman politics, and the cult of the Emperor.

To the first, the ancient Roman State believed that the head of State had the right to regulate religious life. The King was at the same time endowed with priestly powers, thus the title “Pontifex.” Although the religious functions were soon taken over by a college of priests, they continued to live in the Regia, the ancient dwelling place of the kings. In so doing, they testified to their continuing belief that they were servants of the State.

To the second point, imported from the tyrant rulers of the East was the concept of the cult of the Emperor.The Church opposed this development. For example, St. Polycarp was martyred for refusing to call the Emperor Kyrios. Tertullian took up the ancient Roman cry to the Emperor to “Remember death,” and thus separated him out as deserving the highest honors due to a mortal but not a god. St. Hippolytus of Rome preached that when it comes to the demand of the State for the honor due only to God, “it is sweeter for us to die than to do what men command.”6

Even in the face of steady persecution, the Church refused to disengage from exercising an influence on the State. This engagement, once it successfully defends a proper loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven, is soon able to offer to the State not only a “no” but also a constructive “yes.”

Upon what foundation is this “yes” built? Rahner writes, “The Christian yes to the state was based on the idea, formulated clearly right from the beginning, that the imperial power, as it was embodied in the person of the emperor, descended directly from the Creator of mankind.”7 Even when she is persecuted, the Church never wavers from this understanding. During his trial, St. Donata of Scillium said, “I honor the emperor because he is emperor, but worship can be given only to God.”8 St. Apollonius in Rome testified, “The Logos Jesus Christ has taught us to fulfill the law that he has given us, to honor the emperor but to fear only him who alone is immortal.”9 In late first-century Rome during the worst of the Emperor Domitian’s persecutions, Pope Clement’s Church prayed, “Make us obedient both to your almighty and glorious name and to all who rule and govern us on earth.”10 Tertullian summed up the attitude of the Christians by sarcastically pointing out the folly of the State; “Kind rulers, torture the soul from the body that prays for the emperor.”11

It is clear that the early Church felt at home in the Roman Empire, thanking the empire for creating the conditions for the spread of the Gospel, praying for the rulers, and steadfastly defending the proper role of the State as having been appointed by God. Soon enough, Christianity had grown into a powerful and influential group. It was at this point that the empire began to treat the Christians as equals. Thus, when Constantine offers an alliance, so to speak, the Church does not accept under compulsion or in a condition of weakness but under the aspect of a partnership. The Church had triumphed through her prayers and her suffering.

The Struggle For Freedom Under Constantine

The Emperor Maximian grudgingly granted toleration to the Christians. The edict was soon expanded by Constantine in 313 at Milan, who wrote that such a measure was “highly consonant with right reason, that no one should be denied leave to follow the rites of the Christians or whatever other religion he thinks appropriate….”12 At this point, the hostilities between empire and Church ceased and freedom of religion was secured. However, Rahner argues that as Constantine slowly increased his support for Christianity, he expected in return a response of servile gratitude. Even though he was able, at least in theory, to support freedom of religion in a pristine form, in practice he proved to be meddlesome and all too willing to bend the Church to the imperial will. If we take his rhetoric at face value, his involvement was not a mere political ploy but rather it came from an abiding belief he was chosen by God to accomplish a mission for the welfare of mankind. Perhaps his famous vision and its attendant message is all we need to in order to understand fully his attitude: “In this sign you will conquer.”

Constantine’s friendship became suffocating, because once the State ceased persecuting the Church it immediately began attempting to use her as one might a tool. The Church had much to offer. She was a principle of unity. She was a moral catechist that taught, among other things, good citizenship. She was capable of playing peacemaker and promoting culture. For the Church, the benefit, of course, was being able to come out into the open and worship in peace as well as being free to proselytize. Soon enough the negatives presented themselves as well. Constantine attempted to settle theological issues by brute force, for instance, in Donatist Africa. He attempted to impose his own, private theologies upon the bishops by exiling those who disagreed. He more or less incubated the Arian heretics and allowed their rebellion to be birthed. Constantine set a pattern that was followed to some degree or another by all subsequent Emperors until the time of Justinian. As much as they claimed to love the Church, their relationship with her was an abusive one and they had no illusions about who was in charge. After Constantine, the Church was a welcome and productive member of the empire, but only on terms set out by the emperor, and so it was that internal theological disagreements escalated into treason to the State.

The spark that lit the fire was Arianism. The ascendancy that the Arians had gained over Constantine’s theological inclinations solidified under his successor Constantius, so much so that St. Athanasius commented, “Though he appears a free man, he is slave of those who have him in their pocket.”13 Constantius began aggressively pursuing a policy of religious unity on the basis of Arianism. There were many voices raised in defense of freedom, the most enduring of which belonged to St. Athanasius, who was soon sent into one of his many, many exiles. The bishops of the East were constantly pressured to adjust their theology to conform with that of the emperor. Pope Julius (337-352) sent a papal letter detailing the problem, “No longer are judgments delivered in the Church according to the Gospel but with threats of exile and sentences of death. Notice should have been sent to me first for the delivery of a just verdict [in the case of St. Athanasius].”14 With the Pope’s approval, a council was called in which the bishops agreed that, for the well being of the State, it is necessary to “Give to each subject full and complete freedom to live without any constraint.”15

A status quo established itself, with the emperors putting steady pressure on the Church to submit to the State, and the Church putting up as much resistance as she could. Rahner writes, “The struggle went on even when it seemed that the imperial policy toward the Church had taken a turn for the better.”16 Christians continued to express their willingness to die rather than submit the Gospel to political review. There are many heroes in the story, including: St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Basil, St. Ambrose of Milan, and Pope Liberius. It was St. Ambrose who refused to admit the Emperor Theodosius to mass until he had completed public penance on account of his massacre in Thessalonika. Theodosius’s humble response won the Church freedom for a short time. Rahner writes, “The final legendary scene, in which Ambrose sent the emperor out of the presbyterium, is a symbol of the accomplishment of the Western Church….”17 St. Ambrose continued to press the issue, preaching, “Let the emperor hear the voice of a free priest.”18

The Separation of Church and State

One would hope that through the heroic conviction of St. Ambrose and the humble submission on the part of emperors such as Theodosius that the freedom of the Church would have been guaranteed, but alas, the State conducted its attack on the Church persistently and tenaciously, enough to make St. Peter’s visions of roaring lions prowling about take on an urgent meaning.Rahner shows that Theodosius’s successors moved quickly to expand imperial authority, and it fell upon the shoulders of men such as Pope St. Leo the Great to carry on the struggle.

During the 5th century, Rahner identifies two notable developments that affected Church and State relations. The first was the collapse of civil authority in the West, which allowed the papacy temporary respite from the empire. The second was the theological genius of St. Augustine combined with the diplomatic application of his theology by a succession of popes: St. Leo the Great, St. Innocent I, and St. Gelasius.

It was Pope St. Innocent I who, after conferring with St. Augustine, keenly developed the principle of the Primacy of Peter, linking it with universal jurisdiction and arguing that it guarantees the freedom of the Church. He writes, “When there is question of matters of grave importance, they should be referred, after the judgment of the bishop, to the Apostolic See.”19 Commenting on this, Rahner writes, “Without a unified pastoral authority at the highest level, no uniform law is possible in the Church, and without law there is no freedom.”20 He argues that in the eastern Churches, Pope Innocent’s interpretation of universal authority was met with equivocation. Although in the East it was understood that a universal law was necessary, a center of supreme authority was instead established, “with the help of the state, at Constantinople. But this center was essentially different from that in the West because only Rome’s right to guide the whole Church has a theological foundation.”21

Rahner believes that by building on a shaky foundation the local Churches in the East were made vulnerable to institutional domination by the emperor, writing, “during this period, the East was “withdrawing more and more from papal authority to fall in turn into the hands of the state.”22 He cites as one example the tragedy of the bishop of Constantinople, St. Chrysostom. Here was a man of equal to St. Ambrose in both courage and ability in fighting for the freedom of the Church, but the results he obtained were far different. Rahner writes, “Chrysostom engaged in a life-and-death struggle against imperial domination of the Church, but compliant bishops [of the State] sentenced him to deposition…”23 Pope Innocent protested and even sent papal legates to stir up the clergy in defense of St. Chrysostom but all to no avail. Caesaro-papism was alive and well in the East, with the emperor still allowed into the sanctuary, still addressed as a priest, and still capable and willing to suffocate the Church with his personal whims. Pope St. Innocent I writes in a letter to St. Augustine, “I believe that all our brothers and colleagues in the episcopate should refer the case to Peter, that is, to the source of their title and office, and this would be to the common advantage of the churches of the whole world.”24 In other words, acceptance of valid Church authority at the universal level is a necessary condition for maintaining the unified freedom of the Church in the face of State oppression.

Popes St. Leo and St. Gelasius continued Pope Innocent’s translation of the thought of St. Augustine into practical policy. St. Augustine sums up the situation with insight, “The emperors, who were defeated by the Christians not in an armed struggle but by the power of their own deaths, now, when they pray, lay the splendor of their empire together with the imperial diadem before the tomb of a fisherman.”25 This, in his eyes, is entirely proper, as he famously preached, “The Apostolic See has spoken; the case is closed.”26 There is an authority proper to the Church and an authority proper to the State. St. Augustine writes, “There are a king for temporal life and a King for life eternal.” (Ennarratio in Psalmum)27 He continues with a description of the Christian soldiers who served the atheist emperor Julian; “They recognized only a heavenly emperor in matters pertaining to Christ, and when the earthly emperor ordered them to worship idols by burning incense to them, they preferred God to the emperor. But when he ordered them at the moment of battle to charge the enemy, they obeyed him promptly.”28 One of the pressing questions for Christians throughout history is whether we ought to obey an evil government or not. St. Augustine insists that the answer to this question is the answer of the martyrs: Be loyal even to a persecuting State, but never if it means being disobedient to God. Obey the emperor even if he kills you. St. Augustine writes, “Even a monster like Nero received sovereign authority from God’s Providence when he judged human history ripe for such a ruler.” (De Civitate Dei)29

St. Augustine gave to the Church precisely the intellectual tools she needed at a providential period in her history, for there were many challenges on the horizon. Soon enough, the Nestorian controversy arose, causing the emperor to berate St. Cyril of Alexandria for his opposition to Nestorius as a “craze for argument and disorder.”30 To which he adds the pernicious claim, “You should realize that Church and state are completely one….” (Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum)31 The Nestorian controversy was never completely settled in the East; in fact it elicited a response from Eutyches of Constantinople that created its own controversy. The point here is not the content of the theological disagreements themselves but rather the fact that the problems immediately take on political overtones. The government, fearing unrest amongst the citizens, used what it considered justifiable force in ending the argument to the favor of whichever faction happened to be enjoying momentary political favor. Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) valiantly and tactfully maintained the freedom of the Church in the West. Results in the East were limited. Although the Council of Chalcedon eventually restored theological orthodoxy, it took place only because the new emperor, Marcian, happened to be orthodox himself. At the death of Marcian, attacks upon the Church were immediately renewed and Chalcedon became a disputed Council.

In the West, civil authority at long last collapsed around the year 476. Pope St. Simplicius (468-483) expressed his horror in a letter to Emperor Basiliscus and used the opportunity as a teaching moment on the duties of the State in regard to the Church. He wrote, “If you wish your rule to last, God must not be offended; nothing on earth endures without fulfilling its responsibilities toward heaven.”32 Rahner comments, “No government endures without the true Faith.”33 Basiliscus ignored the Pope’s prophetic warning. He swiftly attempted to control the Church and impose an anti-Chalcedon program by pronouncing the Dogmatic Tome of Pope St. Leo to that Council to be anathema. Basiliscus, the self-proclaimed Eternal Emperor, quickly fell from power.

The new Emperor, Zeno, accepted the orthodoxy of Chalcedon but continued to assert a Caesaro-Papist philosophy; and so it went, year after year. Rahner documents in excruciating detail every back and forth of imperial policy, driving home the point that the struggle of the Church for freedom can never cease. There are moments of détente, but there is never lasting peace. As long as there is a State, it will be marked by a disordered passion to grasp lasting power. The State will never be content to rule in its proper sphere of responsibility. Pope St. Symmachus (498-519) likens it to having to pass constantly “through a hail storm.”34 These events of the 5th century slowly created a wedge between the Church in the West, which remained firmly united with the papacy as it developed the doctrine of universal jurisdiction and thus maintained her freedom, and the Church in the East, which produced many heroic defenders of the Church but nevertheless cracked along fissures opened up by an imperial policy that politicized all theological discussion. The principle of unity in the East became the State, which is a fickle master. In the end, the East was cleft apart by Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Eutychianism, and the like. In the year 518, the Church in the East finally experienced respite when Emperor Justin I made a truce with the papacy and reunification was effected. The papal legates of Pope Hormisdas came to Constantinople on Easter Sunday, 519, and were greeted with joy by the clergy and people. For a time, there was peace, but already the seed of a new struggle was germinating. There was a great celebratory feast at the unification of East and West; at that feast was a young man named Justinian.

The Struggle Against Justinian

Justinian ascended to the throne in 527 and vigorously began to set the empire in order. Justinian was a capable man with an iron will. Before him there would be no victory, no more diplomacy, and so the response of the Church was to guarantee her victory through suffering. After the ascension of Justinian, the monophysite provinces reasserted themselves, leading him into a willingness to compromise theologically for the sake of political unity. The true goal of Justinian was to recreate the ancient power and political unity of Rome. He would accomplish this, among other ways, by controlling the Church. Rahner writes that Justinian believed, “Gospel and empire should become one. The interpretation of the gospel, the definition of the true Faith, the validity of canon law-all this should be left to the emperor’s decision.”35 He would accomplish his goal by theological compromise between competing groups, political suppression, and attempts to subjugate the papacy.

In 536, Pope Agapitus went to Constantinople as an envoy of the Gothic Kingdom in Italy. He and Justinian discussed the Monophysite heresy and it soon became clear that Justinian’s Patriarch in Constantinople, a man named Anthimus, was a heretic. Legend has it that upon realizing his defeat in the realm of theology, Justinian became heated and gave a political ultimatum; “Either you accept my views, or I will have you exiled.” To which Agapitus replied, “As a poor sinner, I was eager to travel to meet Justinian, the most Christian of emperors, but instead I have found a Diocletian. I do not fear your threats.”36

This opened a new phase in the struggle, with the Church caught in between warring political factions who both happened to be heretics: the monophysite influenced Byzantines and the Arian Goths. When Justinian’s conquering army arrived in Rome under General Belisarius in 537, Pope St. Silverius was commanded to appear before him. The Liber Pontificalis records that the Pope was stripped of his pallium and clothed in a monk’s habit. Then Pope St. Silverius disappeared. Justinian had successfully deposed a Pope.

A new pope, a sometime courtier named Vigilius, was installed as a puppet of the empire. Rahner maintains that through the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit, this new Pope surprised his political masters and grew into a staunch defender of the freedom of the Church. He refused to cooperate in compromising with the Monophysites and for this he was dragged away from Rome to the imperial city. Here, pressure was applied, to which Vigilius proclaimed, “I call on God as a witness, you can imprison me, but you cannot put Peter in chains.”37 The Pope continued to defy the emperor and eventually the State covered itself in shame with a spectacle of violence. The imperial police broke into the monastery where Vigilius had taken refuge, entered the sanctuary where he was, and tried to drag him away from the altar. The attempt failed to recover the person of the Pope for imprisonment. Rather, it obtained an excommunication for the Patriarch of Constantinople from the Pope in response. Justinian next attempted to assassinate Vigilius’s character. Here, Rahner notes, “Vigilius’s character had been refined in the seven-year battle at Constantinople and reveals…how the struggle for freedom not only strengthened the Church and preserved her from sinking into a shabby worldliness but also made men out of weak popes-with the result that ultimate victory could be shown to be the work not of the great but of the grace of Christ, who chooses the lowborn and the despised.”38

Eventually, the old, worn out Pope succeeded in wearying Justinian. He was allowed to return to Rome. He never made it. He died in Syracuse on the way home to the Lateran in the year 555. Rahner writes, “Such was the sad conclusion of the struggle with Justinian – the Pope gone to an unmourned death, continuing friction within the Church and state, something that would be repeated in the course of history. But to Christians this only highlights the fact that the Church is not of this world.”39


I have omitted much in this essay, even by way of summary, and Rahner himself admits that much has been omitted from his book. In his conclusion, though, he manages to make the point of the exercise quite clearly, writing, “After Christ’s death the whole story of the Church evolved inescapably “sub Pontio Pilato,” that is, in relations with the human state… From meditation on the past varying yeses and nos of the dialogue between the Reign of God and the human state, we can learn something about the uses of power – source of life and death – out of which, after Christ, is spun the texture of his Church’s history.”40

Rahner emphasizes two principles cherished by the early Church and still relevant for us today. First, the Church regards the State as a form of social life established by God. As such, the Church is always willing to work with the State: to accept protection, to collaborate in making just laws, and to benefit from a well-ordered society in which evangelization is made easier. The danger is that the State smothers the Church or that the Church becomes too identified with the State. Rahner writes, “In order to avoid violating her basic principles, the Church must be ready for persecution.”41

Following on this point, is the second, best expressed by St. Ambrose, “There is greater happiness in being persecuted by the emperors than in being loved by them.” (De Obitu Valentiniani)42 The Church does not seek persecution, but when persecution comes it is to be considered a grace of Christ. St. Ambrose again puts it best; “Because the Church is pure gold, trial by fire does not tarnish her. Her glory can only increase until that day when Christ will establish his kingdom and become the crown of his Church’s Faith.” (Expositio in Psalmum)

After having pondered Rahner’s exhaustive and insightful exposition on Church and State in early Christianity, I pray that a few of my own thoughts will not be too out of place in regard to Church and State in the modern day United States.

It seems as though historically there are two dangers to the freedom of the Church; there are the carrot and the stick. On the one hand is the stick, active hostility from the State which leads to suppression. Take, for example, the refusal of government contracts to Church organizations because they do not promote contraceptives, even if the contract is for an unrelated job such as a charity devoted to ending human trafficking; or the persecution of Church adoption agencies because they will not place children with homosexual couples; or the HHS Mandate which seeks to limit the freedom of the Church to follow the moral law. This is nothing less than active hostility on the part of the State against the Church.

On the other hand there is the carrot, smothering friendship which seeks to control the Church. This potentially leads to rent-seeking behavior: for example, a politician claiming that her pro-abortion stance is “sacred ground” by reason of her personal faith as a member of the Church.There are many who would seek to condone such behavior. Catholic politicians who are public about their faith and yet seek to twist it to their own political agenda are not true friends. The moral authority and the freedom of the Church cannot be compromised in this way and we should fight against the misperceptions this manipulation creates. Another example might be the State’s recent endorsement of homosexual ‘marriage.’ Throughout the history of the United States, the State has recognized that there is one form of marriage that creates strong social cohesion, produces well-adapted future citizens, and protects families, especially women and children. This is marriage between a man and a woman, for better or worse, for the peace and tranquility of both parties until death. From our founding as a nation, the Church has had at least some influence in shaping this definition in harmony with the State, even if one wants to argue that such a role has been limited to bequeathing a common cultural assumption. Soon enough, though, the State allowed legal contraception, and then no-fault divorce, and then homosexual unions. The misguided and willful friendship of the State is destroying marriage from the inside out. Who can make predictions, but seeing as how in other Western nations Churches are facing civil litigation to conform, can we doubt that it might happen here, too?

The Church can respond to these dangers by giving up and retreating to the catacombs. This seems to be a popular plan today amongst libertarians and other social conservatives. Perhaps, they say, if we “get out of the marriage business,” the State will leave us alone. I would say that this is short-sighted for a few reasons. First, history shows that Leviathan never leaves us alone. Second, the struggle must continue not only for the continued freedom of the Church but also for the benefit of all mankind. The Second Vatican Council exhorts Christians

to fulfill their duties faithfully in the spirit of the Gospel. It is a mistake to think that, because we have here no lasting city, but seek the city which is to come, we are entitled to shirk our earthly responsibilities; this is to forget that by our faith we are bound all the more to fulfill these responsibilities according to the vocation of each… May Christians…be proud of the opportunity to carry out their earthly activity in such a way as to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical enterprises with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are ordered to the glory of God.” (Gaudium et spes, 43)

Similarly, Pope Francis writes,

Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope.” (Lumen Fidei, 51)

In other words, if we take our ball and go home, we all lose. The martyrs became martyrs specifically because they refused to allow the Church to be forever buried in the catacombs. Will the Church suffer for this stance? Yes. This is our service to the world.

Today, as much as ever, the Church must turn to a unified principle of authority that is not beholden to a particular church, a church that can too easily become identified with a particular place or culture. This means that, in the long view, Christian communities organized along lines of individual authority, presbyterial authority, or conciliar authority will fail to maintain their freedom. As history teaches us, the freedom of the Church is only guaranteed by the ministry of St. Peter, which has been set in place by Our Lord for this specific purpose. The Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly explains the theological principle of the papacy in fulfilling this role: “he is the supreme visible bond of the communion of the particular Churches in the one Church.”43 Even in the relatively short period of time during the American experiment, examples to this point are abundant.The majority of Protestant churches have already capitulated or are well along the path to capitulating to State pressure on divorce, marriage, contraception, and abortion. In response, many self-identified conservative Christians have made the individual decision either to retreat from the public square entirely or else have taken refuge in a staid conservatism that engages in vicious culture wars. These battles may or may not be short-lived. One thing is certain, though; these Christian communities continue to splinter as the pressure brought to bear by the State continues to rearrange culture in a way that they are at a loss to deal with. On this matter, I would tend to agree with the prophetic words of Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote that, “our posterity will tend more and more to a division into only two parts, some relinquishing Christianity entirely and others returning to the Church of Rome.”44

The duty of the Church today as the State pressures her to deny her basic moral teachings and cooperate in evil is to remain engaged by continuing to present a cohesive, alternative vision to the State in which the freedom of the Church is acknowledged and respected. In the language that Rahner has laid out for us; we say “no” to that which would force us to deny the authority of Our Lord but we say “yes” to the continued role of the State in its proper sphere. This is our duty as stewards of this earth and as participants in a social arrangement that is blessed and ordained by God. Pope Francis puts it this way,

[In the Scriptures,] faith is not only presented as a journey, but also as a process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another… The God who is himself reliable gives us a city which is reliable. Precisely because it is linked to love (cf. Gal 5:6), the light of faith is concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace.45

Many years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger also addressed this issue. During a speech on the crisis in culture, he said,

The security we need as a precondition of our freedom and our dignity cannot come, in the last analysis, from technical systems of control, but can, specifically, spring only from man’s moral strength: Whenever the latter is lacking or is insufficient, the power man has will be transformed increasingly into a power of destruction.46

The moral strength we need cannot come from the political realm itself. In fact, historically we have seen how when the State attempts to replace the Church, the door to totalitarianism opens wide. Ratzinger says, “Political moralism, as we have lived it and are still living it, does not open the way to regeneration, and even more, also blocks it.”47

Michael Rennier

Our freedom to engage culture with an authentic witness and work with a willing State will wax and wane, as it always has. If, however, we are steadfast in maintaining that such a freedom is a natural right, and if we are willing to suffer rather than relinquish it, then neither a persecuting State nor a bullying, friendly State will prevail against a Church that finds her freedom not in the favor of men, but rather locates it in obedience to Jesus Christ our King.

Even if our adoption agencies are forcibly closed, our parochial schools shuttered, our private businesses litigated out of existence for refusing to cooperate with evil; even if we eventually find ourselves, like many of our brethren in other nations, actively persecuted by the State, our churches covered with graffiti, our holy altars vandalized or torn down, may God grant us the willingness to use the very stones of our ruined churches to rebuild our society.

  1. Lumen Fidei, 54. []
  2. Church and State in Early Christianity, 1. []
  3. Ibid, 3. []
  4. Ibid, 6. []
  5. Ibid, 7. []
  6. Ibid, 11. []
  7. Ibid, 12. []
  8. Ibid, 13. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Ibid, 17. []
  12. Ibid, 39. []
  13. Ibid, 49. []
  14. Ibid, 50. []
  15. Ibid, 52. []
  16. Ibid. []
  17. Ibid, 79. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Ibid, 134. []
  20. Ibid. []
  21. Ibid, 135. []
  22. Ibid, 135. []
  23. Ibid, 141. []
  24. Ibid, 135. []
  25. Ibid, 136. []
  26. Ibid. []
  27. Ibid. []
  28. Ibid, 137. []
  29. Ibid. []
  30. Ibid, 144. []
  31. Ibid. []
  32. Ibid, 153. []
  33. Ibid. []
  34. Ibid, 158. []
  35. Ibid, 189. []
  36. Ibid, 192. See also the Catholic Encyclopedia article titled “Pope St. Agapetus I. []
  37. Church and State in Early Christianity, 197. []
  38. Ibid, 201. []
  39. Ibid, 202. []
  40. Ibid, 295. []
  41. Ibid, 299. []
  42. Ibid. []
  43. CCC 1559. []
  44. Democracy in America, Ch VI. []
  45. Lumen Fidei 50,51. []
  46. Cardinal Ratzinger On Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” a speech delivered on April 1, 2005. []
  47. Ibid. []
Tags: Church and State, Church History, The Papacy

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  1. Good article, and I commend you’re Catholic spirit, but I can’t help but think you’re avoiding the real problem. The Church has always recognized that civil freedom as the ability to fulfill duties. Thus people can never have a right to act in error, because acting in error (wrong/evil/immoral action) can never fulfill a duty. Now due to practical concerns error may be tolerated in view of the common good, but nobody ever has a right to it. Because of Vatican 2, no one teaches that anymore. No one proclaims the Kingship of Christ, not even Popes. To quote Gadium et Spes (point 12 is as man-centered as it can possibly get), and Pope Benedict (who spent the 1980s defending the debacle at Assisi while condemning Archbishop Lefebvre, who was doing nothing but proclaiming Catholic doctrine), about Catholic teaching regarding Church-State relations is laughable. Vatican 2 and Joseph Ratzinger created the problem, they cannot be the sources we go to to solve it. As uncomfortable as it may be, a recognition of the fruits of Vatican 2 and of the New Theology would be much appreciated. Good trees don’t produce bad fruit.

  2. Dwayne, you said:

    …I can’t help but think you’re avoiding the real problem.

    I am having trouble seeing how your comment is pertinent to Mr. Rennier’s informative review. Post-1960s, by far the most contentious moral struggle has been in the area of sexuality and marriage, and this is where states have already begun bullying the Church. And it is precisely here, the most relevant modern battleground of church-state relations, that the Church has stood her ground like the unspoiled Bride of Christ that she is. It appears to me that despite the shift in tone that you mention, the content of Catholic teaching on the specific moral questions that affect Church-State relations has remained utterly faithful, and in addition the response of the State has been encouragingly predictable in the light of history.

    You also dismiss the use of quotations from Cardinal Ratzinger and Gaudium et Spes, but since you do not address the quotations themselves I cannot understand how such a dismissal helps to show that the “real problem” lies elsewhere.

  3. Michael, thanks for you’re response. I’m genuinely curious for you’re opinion here, as this is an issue I’ve been struggling with a lot recently. You mention a “change in tone.” Section 2 of Dignitatis Humanae states that,

    “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

    In point 3 of Quanta Cura, Pope Pius IX condemned ex Cathedra, “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.”

    Likewise, Dignitatis Humanae 2 says, ““In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.”

    Whereas Pius IX condemns ex Cathedra in Quanta Cura #3, “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.”

    More examples could be given, but if those are dealt with most of the other problems would go away. This seems to be a clear change in doctrine rather than a change in tone. People are given a right to error, whereas before error was only allowed to be tolerated. This has huge ramifications on Church-State relations.

    You mention sexual ethics. The Church has hardly remained unspoiled in this area. Many examples could be given, but I’ll give three. 1) In 1970 when divorce was legalized in Italy, the government received no condemnation from the Church. The lay people freaked out and tried to get the law overturned in a vote in 1974, once again the Church hierarchy did nothing. 2) After Vatican 2 concordats with Catholic countries were revised. Civil laws relating to sexual relations which were practically re-writes of canon law were changed. 3) In the vice presidential debates last year (which were watched by millions, and concern the politics of the most powerful and influential country in the world), Joe Biden was allowed to say that a politician can support abortion and gay marriage and remain a faithful Catholic. The fact that he was not automatically ex communicated is a scandal to the faith.

    Now I don’t mean to randomly give instances of abuse. I intended these to be examples of how the Church officially interprets , through her actions, her post-1960s doctrine that people have a civil right to error.

    All this is relevant to a post on Church-State relations because up until Vatican 2 the Church allows proclaimed the rights of God in society and the necessity of the Kingship of Christ. The Kingship of Christ was not mentioned in the entire Second Vatican Council, and it seems to have taught doctrine that effectively nullifies previous teaching.

  4. Dwayne, I don’t see any contradiction between Pope Pius IX’s letter of 1864, Quanta Cura – Condemning Current Errors, and the Vatican II document promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, Dignitatis Humanae – On The Right Of The Person And Of Communities To Social And Civil Freedom In Matters Religious .

    Let us first take a look at what “impious and absurd principle” that Pope Pius IX was condemning in his Encyclical Quanta Cura:

    … our first Encyclical Letter written to you on Nov. 9, 1846, and in two Allocutions delivered by us in Consistory, the one on Dec. 9, 1854, and the other on June 9, 1862, we condemned the monstrous portents of opinion which prevail especially in this age, bringing with them the greatest loss of souls and detriment of civil society itself; which are grievously opposed also, not only to the Catholic Church and her salutary doctrine and venerable rights, but also to the eternal natural law engraven by God in all men’s hearts, and to right reason; and from which almost all other errors have their origin.

    … For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.

    Ref. Quanta Cura

    What, exactly, is this “naturalism” that is being condemned by Pope Pius IX? And how is this “naturalism” opposed to “the eternal natural law engraven by God in all men’s hearts, and to right reason”?

    The Catholic Encyclopedia defines “naturalism” as:

    Naturalism is not so much a special system as a point of view or tendency common to a number of philosophical and religious systems; not so much a well-defined set of positive and negative doctrines as an attitude or spirit pervading and influencing many doctrines. As the name implies, this tendency consists essentially in looking upon nature as the one original and fundamental source of all that exists, and in attempting to explain everything in terms of nature … Materialistic Naturalism asserts that matter is the only reality, and that all the laws of the universe are reducible to mechanical laws. …

    “Naturalism” or “materialism” is opposed to the “eternal natural law” written on the hearts of men by their Creator, because “naturalism” seeks to explain everything about man in terms of mere physics. One specific instance of “naturalism” that Pope Pius IX condemned in 1864 was the “philosophical system” that Marx and Engles espoused in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 – the godless philosophical system that came to be known as dialectical materialism.

    In 1864, Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura condemned the philosophical foundation of atheistic Communism, which is well before the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In Quanta Cura one hears a prophetic voice warning against the emergence of a new society based on the principles of “naturalism”. Fast forward to 1965 where the free world is engaged in a cold war against the USSR, Maoist China and the rest of the Communist world that was violently suppressing every religion. Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae was, to a large extent, directed at Communist governments that were ruthlessly oppressing all religion:

    “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

    When Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae are read and understood in their historical contexts, it can be seen that they are not contradicting each other. The philosophical system of dialectical materialism upon which atheistic Communism is built is condemned in Quanta Cura, and with Dignitatis Humanae the Catholic Church opposes the religious persecution wrought by atheistic Communism regimes.

    To be sure, the errors condemned by Quanta Cura are broader in scope than just the specific manifestation of these errors have come that come from totalitarian Communist regimes. Quanta Cura also opposes the scientism and materialism of our era.

    People are given a right to error, whereas before error was only allowed to be tolerated. This has huge ramifications on Church-State relations.

    Concerning Church-State relations, the Catholic Church asserts that if a State is going to have an official state religion, then the State must embrace the religion that teaches the uncompromising truth. Which is why the Catholic Church does not object to the constitution of the government of, say, El Salvador, where I believe the Catholic Church is recognized as having a special status.

    The problem, of course, is that every religion thinks that it teaches the truth, which obviously cannot be true, since the multitude of religions that exist on the earth have serious differences about what they proclaim to be true. It is not the case that prior to Vatican II that the Catholic Church taught that error was allowed and tolerated, and that after Vatican II people were “given a right to error”. What Vatican II recognized was that the Catholic Church could live with a system of governance where the state defends the right of all men to practice the religion that they believe in; a state that imposes neither state sanctioned atheism nor a state religion that is not the religion of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Which is why the Catholic Church not only won’t defend atheistic Communist regimes, she won’t defend the government of Great Britain where the Anglican Church is the official state religion, she won’t defend the magistrates of Geneva that imposed Calvin’s state religion upon its citizenry, nor will she defend the governments of Salafists that impose Muslim Sharia law upon their citizenry.

  5. Dwayne, thanks for clarifying your position with examples. I am going to have to defer to Mateo’s response, though, because I am not nearly educated on this topic well enough to debate it well.

    As I am a very recent convert, though, I want to offer a comment for those wondering if this and other similar issues pose an obstacle to them being reconciled with the Catholic Church. I don’t wish to derail this thread, though, so I do not mean for the following paragraph to generate any response.

    As I investigated whether the Church’s claims were true or not, I noted that the idea of doctrinal reversal/rupture at Vatican II was cited often to show that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church was not infallible. I also discovered that those most faithful to the Magisterium proposed explanations for each specific V2 difficulty showing how each change was in fact fully compatible with the previous irreformable teaching of the Church. These explanations were completely plausible, and while there remained sufficient evidence for an intelligent person to disagree, the postulated rupture in Vatican II no longer remained an “easy” way to ascertain the Magisterium’s internal consistency. It was telling that the smartest critics of Vatican II were traditionalist Catholics – and many of these argued that Vatican II was merely a pastoral council in which the charism of infallibility had not been exercised. To even begin to demonstrate that infallibility as a doctrine was disproved by the *new* teaching of Vatican II (thereby giving me enough evidence to reject the Catholic Church), I would even have to show definitively that Vatican II considered its own words to be protected from error by the Holy Spirit and binding on all Catholics. Only then could I address the doctrines themselves. Naturally this project would have been beyond me, and as most criticisms of V2 from outside Catholicism did not even bother to do this, I concluded that this line of argument was probably not worth pursuing.

  6. I reflected upon that last paragraph about V2 and realized that I misspoke. I associated traditionalist criticism of V2 with the interpretation of it as a merely pastoral council, which in itself does not constitute criticism of V2 and is fully compatible with Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity. See, for example:

    Some traditionalist critics I have heard so far say that certain statements in V2 documents are deliberately ambiguous and/or written so that misinterpretation is too easy. Whether or not this is the case should not affect someone discerning whether the Catholic Church was founded by Christ. For the dispute about religious freedom, see Mateo’s post above.

  7. Gentlemen,

    Regarding “the right to error,” there is a sub-topic which I’ve found inadequately addressed in most Catholic discussions of the subject. Perhaps you gentlemen could have something relevant to say about it?

    Dwayne, you state, “Thus people can never have a right to act in error, because acting in error (wrong/evil/immoral action) can never fulfill a duty.”

    I worry that there’s some equivocation there, some variation in uses of the word “right,” which obscure things.

    I hope you’ll permit me a little leeway to explain my premise?

    If a thing is morally right or neutral (let alone a “duty”) then one has a natural right to do it: One is authorized by God to do it.

    If a thing is wrong/evil/immoral then one is not authorized by God to do it; thus, obviously, one does not have a natural right to do it.

    Fair enough: But one of the many things humans have a “natural right” to do is to defend the rights of others. They are authorized by God do so in various ways, by various means.

    Men are authorized to defend the rights of others by reasoned argument and persuasion, for example. God authorizes that in (so far as I know) all circumstances.

    Men are also authorized to defend the rights of others by force, but under more limited circumstances. Force is not always authorized by God, even in the defense of rights; or at the least, there are often kinds of force which are disproportionate. I can forcibly defend my neighbor against rape: That is a justifiable use of force. But I cannot justifiably wave a gun around to defend my neighbor against unkind gossip, or social snobbery, or unfair policies by a homeowner’s association.

    No one doubts these things are wrong: The gossip or the snob or the neighborhood busybody is not doing something that God has authorized them to do. Gossip and snobbery and such are not “natural rights.” But that does not mean God has authorized me to oppose these wrongs by force. For some wrongs, persuasion by argument is the only just opposition we may morally give.

    I think the same thing is true of government: That there are wrongs it may justly oppose forcibly, and other wrongs it may only justly oppose through persuasion or subsidizing the opposite behavior or other non-forcible or indirectly-forcible methods.

    So I do not think God authorizes government to use whatever kind of force is most effective to oppose any kind of wrong whatsoever; I think some wrongs are of a kind which justifies only non-forcible opposition, and that of the wrongs which merit forcible opposition, many of them only justify very constrained or indirect force: A prison term for some wrongs would be not merely “excessive” but an instance of unjustified use of force. It would be like an unjust war, but one waged inside a society rather than between two adjacent societies.

    If I am not mistaken in this view, then…,

    1. It is possible for a thing to be a natural wrong (not a natural right; not a thing “authorized by God”) but for it to be of a character where the government has no just authority to oppose it by force;

    2. If the government has no just authority to oppose it by force, people may characterize it as a “right” because “nobody has a right to stop them doing it,” but it is not actually a “natural right” (something authorized by God) but only a sort of civil right (something they can get away with because any forcible means of stopping them would, itself, be a moral wrong, an instance of unjust force);

    3. We must therefore distinguish between a “natural right to error” (nonexistent; God never authorizes error) and a “civil right to error” (meaning, the ability to live in a society while — unknowingly, one hopes — holding an erroneous view, without fear of being jailed for it).

    I don’t know whether the distinction drawn in previous comments between “tolerating error” and “having a right to error” is the same as the distinction I’m trying to make here. Is it?

    If so, then, respectfully, I think my terms are clearer.

    Or, if one wishes even clearer terms: God has delegated the just authority to deter, halt, or punish evils to various persons, to various degrees; and there are some evils for which God has never delegated His authority to deter, halt, or punish them to anyone…at least, not by force. If we as individuals, or if some among us as elected officials, plan to take action to deter, halt, or punish an evil, we must first determine what, if any, level of force God has delegated to us for opposing that particular evil. If any level of force is unjust, then we must oppose it solely by non-forcible means.

    If our neighbor, who is bent on perpetuating that evil, then claims “I have a right to do it!” (meaning that no one else is authorized to use force against it) we must clarify that:

    1. That “right” is not a natural one; what he’s doing is still wrong;

    2. We still are authorized to oppose him and indeed may have a duty to oppose him, even if we are not authorized to oppose him forcibly; and THAT authorization and duty really ARE matters of “natural right.”

    Comments? Am I mistaken in some fashion?

  8. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for an informative and interesting article on church/state relations in the early centuries of this Christian era. As a Reformed Christian I firmly believe that Christ is the sole Head of His church and that He has established a government therein. I believe in the separation of church and state under God. In other words they have a symbiotic relationship. However I am not at all convinced that the papacy is essential for maintaining Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy or that it provides an effective bulwark and witness to Christian values and virtues in a secular or hostile state. Here in Europe those countries that are/were RC majority have fared no better in the battle against the onslaught of ungodliness and unrighteousness than formerly Protestant majority ones.

    Moreover here in Scotland the misuse and abuse of power by the last RC cardinal meant that he was able to prevent the RC college of bishops establishing a commission to investigate child sex abuse claims at Fort Augustus. The problem with a system of church government that vests authority in too few men is open to such abuse. If power corrupts then absolute power corrupts absolutely! This is not to suggest that the current Pope or any of his recent predecessors are/were anything but men of integrity or that the majority of RC churchmen are anything other than sincere. However representative and conciliar order of government in both spheres (under Christ’s Headship) must be preferable to an absolute and infallible monarch!

  9. Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful comments.

    Wayne, you write, “Here in Europe those countries that are/were RC majority have fared no better in the battle against the onslaught of ungodliness and unrighteousness than formerly Protestant majority ones.” The reasons underlying the collapse of Christendom in Europe are beyond my ability to identify, as such, I wouldn’t want to hazard a comment. However, I will mention that there are many examples of the Catholic weathering the secular storm quite well. Take for example, Catholic Poland outlasting and eventually deconstructing atheist Communism. Even in a place like Great Britain where the Church has been persecuted for 350 some odd years, Church attendance is higher in the Catholic Church than in the Church of England!

    I would also like to reply to your last sentence, “However representative and conciliar order of government in both spheres (under Christ’s Headship) must be preferable to an absolute and infallible monarch!” I’m not sure why conciliar government “must” be preferable. I suppose your argument relies on the alleged abuse and misuse of power? If such is the case, then there is a misunderstanding here of what “infallible” means. It does not apply to personal holiness. Popes are people just like us and are all too tempted to sin. In any case, infallibility has much less import to my argument than the universal jurisdiction of the Petrine ministry which is the source of unity in the Church. To simply assert that conciliar government “must be preferable…” is begging the question.

    To your skepticism of my argument as a whole, concerning specifically the early centuries of the Church, I would say that the historical record is quite clear on the import of the Papacy in defending the freedom of the Church. I’m not sure your comment disagrees in any way with the substance of the article itself.

    Again, thanks for the comments,
    In Christ,
    Michael Rennier

  10. According to apologist Mark J. Bonocore’s treatise “FILIOQUE: A Response To Eastern Orthodox Objections,” the influence of Byzantine emperors upon the Greek Church and later the Muscovite tsars upon the Russian Church produced a mentality that continues to hinder reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the schismatic Eastern Orthodox churches:

    “I have often argued that the true culprit behind our Schism is that the Eastern Orthodox Church is, in a fundamental way, the “imperial Church” created by Constantine the Great –the “state cult” and political “glue” employed to hold his Empire together. In saying this, I certainly do not mean to question, dispute, or downplay the Apostolic nature of Eastern Orthodoxy. On the contrary, we Catholics firmly believe that the Eastern Orthodox Church is Apostolic in nature, and that it has the true priesthood and true Sacraments. But, be that as it may, this Apostolic Church of the Byzantine East still expresses itself in ways, and according to a cultural mode of thought, that is thoroughly “imperial” in the old Byzantine sense of “One Church, one Empire” …or perhaps, in its modern manifestation, “One Church, one cultural expression.” Because of this, the Byzantine East is very uncomfortable with anything that does not readily or neatly conform to its own historical experience or Byzantine (that is, “imperial”) cultural heritage. And, in that cultural heritage, it is the Ecumenical Council –in essence, a state-sponsored exercise of imperial Roman/Byzantine law –which ultimately determines what is and what is not official Church doctrine.

    “The Western Church, on the other hand, never fundamentally associated itself with the imperial “state cult”; and this was the case both before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Rather, the West, along with the monastic communities in the East, always maintained a view of the Church as that old, underground society that was distinct from the secular world, and which was once persecuted by it. In this more ancient understanding, the teaching authority of the Church (what St. Cyprian called “the Chair of Peter”) was held by all Catholic bishops, whose unity and orthodoxy was identified and maintained, not by the Empire, but by their communion with Peter’s personal successor in the church of Rome –a church that St. Cyprian called “the womb and root of the Catholic Church” and “the principal church in which sacerdotal unity has its source” (Ep.liv.). Because of this, the West has always been able to distinguish between the Church and a given civilization in which the Church (or an area of the Church) happens to reside. It was also always able to appreciate the fact that the first Ecumenical Councils were not the be-all-end-all of Church authority itself, but state-sponsored events at the service of the Church, and through which the Church was able to express its organic authority –an authority which it was quite free to express apart from an Ecumenical Council, just as it did before Constantine legalized Christianity.

    “… This is how the Eastern Orthodox have always seen it. And, even today, after ‘three Romes have fallen’ and there no longer exists a secular Christian culture (per Byzantium), there is still little if any room in the Eastern Orthodox imagination for an orthodox expression of Christianity that is “non-Byzantine” –that is, independent of their Byzantine cultural heritage.

    “… In the Catholic understanding, however, true ecclesial authority is not hampered by canonical expressions or historical conventions, but resides ultimately with the Spirit-guided Magisterium, which is the Divinely-appointed arbiter and interpreter of authentic Apostolic Tradition in whatever cultural mode it manifests itself. This, again, presents a challenge to the Eastern Orthodox; but it is nevertheless a part of their own Sacred Tradition –the far older, pre-imperial heritage of the Eastern Church.”

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