Peace and War in the Middle Ages
Religion in the public square — far from being a “holy war” — is what gives peace a chance
Church and State are often depicted as natural enemies. Well, aren’t they?
Consider the classics A Man for All Seasons and Becket. Henry II and Henry VIII embody the power of an absolute State, while Saints Thomas More and Thomas Becket represent the Church and conscience. They are mortal enemies, and in both cases, the Church and conscience lose the battle, if not the war. In Prof. Andrew Willard Jones’ “Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX,” Church and State rivalry is analyzed as modern, artificial construct. The current battle between Church and State is the result of a modernist view that Church and State are inherently opposed.
Prof. Jones explores the Church/State relationship in the Middle Ages from the medieval perspective, using the life of Gui Foucois, who would become Pope Clement IV, and St. Louis IX, his colleague and friend. Using primary sources, he shows the holistic medieval worldview. Our postmodern culture frequently treats religion as a ‘trigger’ for bias and bigotry. But Jones offers a thought-provoking alternative that gives us a new way to analyze current problems. By using the terms, categories and logic of the Middle Ages, Jones has also written a groundbreaking book on responsible historical writing.
In the Middle Ages, the spiritual and “secular” were seen as a coherent whole, as result of Catholic anthropology. Drawing on the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, medieval leaders tried to put their concepts of the City of Man and the City of God into practice. At the same time, they weren’t utopians who thought they could make the Kingdom of God on Earth. St. Louis IX’s concern with abuses within the Church sounds contemporary, though he reigned in the 13th century. He saw the king’s primary role as peacemaker. When war with England loomed ominously over the horizon, St. Louis IX tried to broker a peace with Henry III. Prof. Jones gives a context to the Magna Carta, now respected as a predecessor to the U.S. Constitution. The French Parlement is shown to be a predecessor of sorts to the British Parliament, and by implication, the American Congress. Medieval France had a sense of “balance of powers” though not with the same concepts and terminology. This is shown through the discussion of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is an important theme throughout the book, but one so embedded in our modern viewpoint that it is almost intractable. Our current form of government gives government complete sovereignty — that is, the sole power to use force. Shockingly, this was not true in St. Louis’ time. Pope Clement IV and St. Louis IX have powers and responsibility, but they were not absolute.
For example, when Henry VIII made himself Head of the Church of England, it was a usurpation of spiritual power and considered a violent act against the “business of the faith and peace” in the land. There was the concept of the “two swords,” that the Pope wielded the spiritual one while the king wielded the “secular” one. Henry VIII overstepped these boundaries when he made himself Head of the Church of England. During the Renaissance, as Prof. Jones notes, it was with philosophers like Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes that the concept of the absolute sovereign took hold. The concept of ‘centralization of power’ was foreign to a society that worked through the cooperation of various groups of friends who gave “aid and counsel.”
The role of religion in public life was considered natural. In the Middle Ages, religion was seen holistically. While the State represented man’s body, the Church met spiritual needs. Jones uses the counter-example of the spiritualistic Cathars, who denied material reality. The Cathars saw the physical world as evil. In contrast, the current culture is materialistic and secular. The “I’m spiritual, but not religious” often becomes a de facto secular materialism. Religion is privatized, a vague “freedom of worship.” The so-called “culture wars” are not so much about differences between Protestants and Catholics, or Democrats and Republicans, but whether religion serves- or deserves- any role in civic life at all.
During the Middle Ages, religion was an integral part of people’s lives; it is a recent development for it to be deliberately sidelined. The recent abortion referendum in Ireland illustrates this. Through an overwhelming popular vote in favor of legalized abortion, the Church was not so much “persecuted” as deemed irrelevant to daily life. Another example is the “controversial” repeal of the Johnson Amendment. The controversy is over whether churches can be “political.” When it was enacted, the Johnson Amendment was used as a cudgel against religious objectors to the Vietnam War, notably the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan.
Throughout the book, Jones discusses the necessity of difference to create a harmonious society. It may not lead to a perfect one on this side of Heaven, but it can lead to a better one. In the Middle Ages, society should reflect the ultimate embodiment of unity and difference — the Holy Trinity. The recent celebration of Trinity Sunday on May 27 calls this to mind. The Three Persons differ, yet also are of the same substance. Jones shows that difference can be not only dynamic, but harmonious.
In our current culture wars, Jones gives a tutorial on approaching society through a new lens. He presciently states, “The dream of modern radicals was to find peace through the elimination of all difference, an elimination that fittingly could happen only through violent revolution and that would inaugurate the end of history… To the postmodernists, of course, this dream of equality is repudiated in favor of an absolutized and all-encompassing ‘difference’, but without Charity, violence remains the very structure of reality.” Strikingly, he comes to the conclusion, “Difference was not synonymous with war; rather, peace was possible precisely because difference made Charity — duty, gift, love — possible.” Jones shows that religion in the public square — far from being a “holy war” — is what gives peace a chance.