The Church and the (Secular) State

In these heady days of a new pope, Pope Francis, we must not forget the real gifts that our Pope Emeritus Benedict has given us as his legacy — and the ways that Francis is carrying forth what Benedict left us.

Before Benedict stepped down, he made sure that his flock of a billion-plus understood that the 21st century will be a time of evangelization.

That’s an order, although not a new one, but simply a restatement of Christ’s own missionary command to the disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you” (Matthew 28:19–20).

That’s all nations, including those that were previously Christianized and have been de-Christianized by the modern apostles of secularization.

Both Benedict and Francis understand all too well the difficulties that aggressive modern secularism poses for the mission of the Church. The secular state wants (at best) the Church to “shut up and sing” in private or (at worst) the Church to be driven entirely into extinction. In either case, evangelization is not welcome.

So, in our current situation, it is not the church and the state, but the secular state against the Church. As I’ve argued in Worshipping the State, the Church’s situation today is frighteningly similar to its situation in ancient pagan Rome, with an aggressive state desiring its removal.

It seems to secularists (and all too many Christians unaware of the deeper currents of history) that the purposeful exclusion of the Church is both necessary and good, that an aggressively secular state is what we need to keep church and state rightly, properly separated.

As Benedict well understood, the secularists have it backwards. It is the Church that invented the separation of church and state. In his Without Roots, Benedict points out the more-than-interesting fact that the principle of separation was first clearly defined by a late-fifth-century pontiff, Pope Gelasius.

For the pagans, Gelasius argued, the priestly and kingly power were united in one man — religion and politics were fused. But Christ, in proclaiming the distinction between the various kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God in the next, separated temporal and spiritual power, the state and the Church.

As a consequence, the political and religious powers were thereafter to be kept distinct, each having its own proper sphere and functions, which the other must respect and not transgress. Gelasius continued,

“For Christ, mindful of human frailty, regulated with an excellent disposition what pertained to the salvation of his people. Thus he distinguished between the offices of both powers according to their own proper activities and separate dignities, wanting his people to be saved by healthful humility and not carried away again by human pride, so that Christian emperors would need priests for attaining eternal life and priests would avail themselves of imperial regulations in the conduct of temporal affairs. In this fashion, spiritual activity would be set apart from worldly encroachments and the 'soldier of God' (2 Timothy 2:4) would not be involved in secular affairs, while on the other hand he who was involved in secular affairs would not seem to presided over Divine matters. Thus the humility of each order would be preserved, neither being exalted by the subservience of the other, and each profession would be especially fitted for its appropriate functions.”

(It’s needful to say — very needful — that the word translated as “secular” here did not, in the fifth century, have the modern implications associated with secularism. That is, it did not mean “entirely devoid of any connection to religion” or “bent on the removal of religion” or “materialist” or “atheist,” but, merely, temporal, as opposed to eternal.)

And so it was, Benedict goes on to say, that a fifth-century pope “introduced a separation and distinction of powers that would be of vital importance to the future development of Europe and that laid the foundations for the distinguishing characteristics of the West.”

One aspect of that development was religious liberty — not the liberty to believe whatever one happens to fancy, but, as it was originally defined, the freedom of the Church from being manipulated or coerced by the state and the freedom of the Church to evangelize.

Part of this freedom, we add, is the freedom the Church enjoys in not being the established church. As history from Henry VIII on teaches all too clearly, an established state church is not free, but the instrument of the state, a church politicized and hence not truly distinct in either form or function from the political powers that be.

But, as Benedict points out, the modern secular state goes beyond the attempt to absorb the Church as a department of state and tries to remove the Church entirely.

With the French Revolution, the “secular  state arose for the first time in history” and set about not just privatizing Christianity, but persecuting it and setting up a new Religion of Reason in its place. The age of active secularization had begun, the age of the secular state against the Church, the age we now live in and must evangelize.

And Pope Francis? In taking the name of Francis Assisi, sleeping in the most modest apartment, washing the feet of inmates, and who knows what next, Pope Francis is even more deeply illustrating that the Church is distinct from the state. It aims, not on this-worldly power, but at other-worldly holiness, thereby showing the world, the secular world, what it means to follow Christ.

This great humility is not in contrast to what Benedict had done, but in a fulfillment of it, and so we may be confident that it will prove a most powerful way to re-Christianize the secular world.

 This is the sixth part of a seven-part series. Read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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