Why is the Church Political?

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Why? To guard freedom.

This is the third and final in a series taken from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s essay, “Theology and Church Politics” published in a 1987 book Church Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology. In it he explains what theology is, what the relation of theology is to the Church, and what the relation of the Church is to education and politics.

The first article dealt with the fundamental claim to reason itself, why the atheistic view does not work and the Christian view must. The second article dealt with the ordered relationship of the Church and the University, how the Church must guide the search for truth. These are important concepts in our times. Some have asked whether the Church is partisan and what role she should play in the politics of civil society. Cardinal Ratzinger answered. Knowing how to explain this is a powerful tool for evangelization.

First, Church and Theology

Politics, rightly understood, is the practice of government or administration, so there is a political relationship between the Church and theology. The Church governs theology, but it is not a relationship concerned with Ecclesial powers which would be an “outright contradiction of the Church’s true nature.” The Church is not the “party headquarters where party ideology is reviewed in terms of a strategy for gaining power.”

The Church is the environment where reason seeks meaning. The Magisterium’s governing action is to warn theology against paths that lead to abstraction even as she respects the individual’s responsibility to inquire within the environment of faith. There is a duality, a productive functional relationship, a legitimate freedom.

Can this Freedom Fail?

It can fail if 1) if ecclesiastical authority deprives theology, and all bodies of knowledge beneath it, of its independence and asks merely for proof of what the Magisterium sets forth; or 2) if theology, and again all bodies of knowledge beneath it, disconnect from the Church community, viewing her as only an organization of officials lacking in spiritual content.

“Whenever one of the two voices – that of ecclesiastical authority or that of theology – loses its independence, the other side also loses its essential content.”

What does the relationship look like in practical terms? It is judicial. The ecclesiastical official, the bishop, does not participate positively in the selection of faculty and chair members, or in ordering what is taught and studied in a university, but he does have the negative power of veto. This is the model for true freedom, and this positive-negative relationship is also carried into society.

What does the political relationship of the Church with society look like?

It looks like separation of Church and State, a political doctrine inaugurated by Christ himself. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21) This command, unappreciated today, was a paradigm changer in the time of Christ. Then the realm of politics was considered sacred. The state in antiquity believed governments had divine rule because they were doing the will of whatever god they worshipped. The state imposed religion in every sense of the word.

Christ’s teaching “cut in two” this notion and that is why the Greco-Roman state saw Christianity as an attack on its very foundation, imposed the death penalty on Christians, and produced so many martyrs in early Christianity. If Christ’s teaching was true, then the State had to admit it did not have ultimate authority. This dualism – this separation of Church and State – came from God Himself. Christ is the Truth that sets man free.

This is, thus, the source of the Western basis for freedom. The ascendancy of the Catholic Church has been the most liberating event in all of human history, even though it took a lot of time for mankind to understand it and humanity still needs to be taught this. If Church and State are separate, then the State must point beyond itself to another community for moral authority.

The Church is this second community, a judicial one, and she does understand herself to be the final moral authority, still today and always with every right — a duty even — to assert that role. The Church also recognizes that she does not mete out civil punishments, because she is not the State. The Church warns of spiritual punishment. Thus each community, Church and State, has a limited radius of activity, mutually committed to freedom, consistent with the natural relationship between University and Church.

True Freedom Requires Church Authority

Only where this duality exists is there really freedom in academics or civil governments. Otherwise there is no genuine search for truth and coercion is used to uphold party dictates. If the State abolishes the Church as a publicly relevant authority, there is no freedom because the State becomes the sole basis for morality, and if the state is the sole basis for morality, then the State takes the place of God, a regression to the oppression Christianity liberates man from. When the men in power dictate truth and morality, then the State becomes the totality, is totalitarian. Let that sink in.

Christ, the Logos, the Word, is the origin of free thought, inaugurated civil freedom, and abolished totalitarianism of State. Yes, all of that.

Why Do You Need to Know This?

There is much dialogue to be had about these facts; stating these truths today is almost certain to bring ridicule on the evangelizer because they are shocking and counter-cultural. Pope Paul VI emphasized in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (8 December 1975) the urgency of evangelization even so. “It would be useful if every Christian and every evangelizer were to pray about the following thought…can we gain salvation, if through negligence, fear, shame – what St. Paul called ‘shrinking from the Gospel’ – or as a result of false ideas, we fail to preach it?”

Too often we cower from asserting the primacy of the Logos, and the natural political relationship of the Church to the University and State because they seem like such counter-cultural concepts. A reassessment of our understanding of these relationships will improve our practice and approach to fulfilling the New Evangelization, and aid the Church in fulfilling her rightful role among mankind – to draw all people to salvation.


Note: The first and last of this series of articles on Cardinal Ratzinger’s essay generated some good discussion with atheists on my blog, and a couple of rebuttals/questions from a “secret atheist” here and here.

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  1. Very beautiful post, Stacy. My thoughts: Israel was a theocracy, ruled by a people blessed with knowledge of the Triune God, the God of FREEDOM.
    “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” tells the people that Caesar belongs to God. Sovereign people constitute a sovereign nation. Sovereign personhood is endowed by our Creator. Christians were put to death because Caesar appointed himself God and the Christians accepted only Jesus Christ as God. To worship Caesar as our God would have spared a person martyrdom.
    The chief work of the church is to offer worship to God, the Supreme Sovereign Being, and saving souls. Saving the souls of citizens brings the truth of the church into the political sphere. The principle of separation of church and state dictates that the state may not interfere with the church in offering worship to God and with the church’s mission to save souls. It is important to realize that the sovereign person’s soul as conformed to truth constitutes the state. The First Amendment states: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
    Capital punishment is the temporal punishment for capital one homicide.
    Atheism forbids belief in the rational, immortal human soul wherein is endowed all of our unalienable human rights. The human soul is the creation that separates man from animals and brings to man his reason and the possibility of eternal reward.

  2. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority.

  3. I know of few people who really think that truth is determined by the majority. Liberals are riding fairly high now after their victories in the Senate and on the presidential level, but I do not recall them celebrating the will of the majority in 2002, 2004 and 2010.

  4. The words in my last post are taken directly from Pope John Paul II’s letter, Centesimus Annus. I strongly disagree with that statement. I put it there to see what response I get. Biblically, the truth has always been held by a minority, look at the broad road and the steep narrow road. Also, it was the majority who cried crucify Him! Crucify Him! I believe the vast majority of the Christian world do not know the truth about the character of God, and wrong impression lead to wrong ideas and practices.

  5. Marco: Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God, constant, infallible Truth. Jesus Christ died for each one of us as the Son of Man, the majority of ONE. Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for man cannot change. Why would anyone exchange TRUTH for a relative maybe or a definite change? Belief by consensus is a house built on sand, constantly shifting sand. Hold fast to the TRUTH. The TRUTH will set you free. Cast your cares upon HIM.

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