Authority in Church and State

Teaching vs. commanding power

In my Conservative Vision of Authority, I distinguish two types of authoritative pronouncements, basically those that expound truths and those that give orders.

In fact, both ruler and priest mediate God’s presence socially, but in very different ways.

Authority in the state and the family address in God’s name the practical reason.  Authority always speaks in the imperative.  “Do this.  Don’t do that.”  Authority quaauthority never speaks in the declarative.  It would be meaningless, for example, for the ruler to command that gambling is wrong.  He may, however, command that the wrongness of gambling be taught in schools, or that gambling shall be punished in some particular way.  Because it speaks in the imperative, the statements of authority are particular rather than universal.  A meaningful command is always limited to its intended recipient.  A ruler can order one subject to stand up and another to sit down without contradicting himself.

The social experience of God has a theoretical or contemplative aspect, as well as a practical one, and this contemplative encounter with God is the realm of the Church.  It consists, first of all, in dogmas—declarative statements about God, His relationship to man, and morality.  Unlike orders, dogmas are by their nature universal; if one is true at all, it is true for everyone, everywhere.  While diversity of authorities, customs, and cultures is natural and good, diversity in dogmatic belief is bad because it means that at least some people are ignorant of the truth.  Ideally, there should be one Church.

Talk about “authority” in the Church often really refers to her reliability/infallibility.  The Church does also have authority in the sense of right to command in certain domains.  Ecclesiastic courts properly judge matters having to do with the sacraments; priests must obey their bishops in all matters pertaining to their ministry; the Church may impose excommunication or interdiction; it naturally falls upon her judgement to determine guilt in matters of blasphemy or heresy.  By her infallibility (the reliability of her declarative statements), the Church is supreme over the State, because she teaches the principles upon which government must base its actions.  As an authority (being able to impose duties by her imperative statements), she exists more on the same level as the State and is divided by the temporal order primarily by the types of issues over which she exercises her rule.

Arguably the Church claims for herself superiority even in the order of authority, as seen in issues like the right of asylum or the prerogative of the pope to release subjects from their duties to an errant secular prince.  Even so, she would admit that these are emergency measures, to be taken only when the State goes drastically wrong.  Also, even if the pope can release me from my duty to the temporal power, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he can command disobedience (except when natural or revealed law already commands it).  I may decide the pope is wrong and voluntarily continue to obey my prince.

Recently, there has been some talk about the Church being feminine in her relationship with the State.  Such analogies are to be avoided if they obscure the truth that the Church is the superior authority.

Acts of the Church vs. acts of Christ

The Church is a corporate body, so public acts of the pope or bishops are usually acts of the Church herself.  This issue is key to the reoccurring controversy over whether or not the Church herself can sin.  The Church is the corporate body of Christ, and Christ Himself certainly does not sin.  Thus, the usually contrite post-Vatican II Church has tended to take the line that the Church per se is sinless, but her members commit sins, including bishops and popes.  Does this mean that popes have never given wicked orders, or that if they have that in such cases the pope was (contrary to appearances) acting as a private person?  The latter is implausible.  As for the former, I don’t think popes have given wicked orders nearly as often as anti-Catholics think, but I don’t think we are obliged to believe it could never happen.  Clearly, we must distinguish acts of the Church that are acts of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (execution of the Sacraments, exercise of infallible teaching) and other corporate acts of the Church with which her Founder is not supernaturally involved (although He established the authority to which she appeals in such acts) and which have no guarantee of prudence, morality, or sanity.  I think the Church could concede this, but she should also stop apologizing for past acts of the Church (not just a pope) that weren’t sinful, like the Crusades.


6 Responses

  1. […] Authority in Church and State […]

  2. The Church is the superior authority only in the domain of her charism: faith and morals and its own internal order. Not in, for example, border security. Or the just level of human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Many protestant-minded folks say we need a New Reactionary Religion that says stuff like Thou Shalt Not Miscegenate and Thou Shalt Not Let Darkies into Your Country. Whereas these are properly the domain of the Temporal Sovereign. They want a Church to lead where the Church has no charism, no wisdom, to lead.

  3. What’s strange is I did take my cue on the Church’s femininity from a Roman Catholic, and had not previously held this position. Perhaps it needs more thought put into it.

    I guess we run into questions of how God Himself is divisible from the Church. God is of course masculine in principle, like Adam is to Eve, so is God to the world. The complicated part of the feminine principle is that it does in fact have an authoritative element, that of mother over child, but then also one that is clearly subject, wife to husband. To be speculative, the former could be conceived as the Church’s relationship to the people, and the latter her relationship to the divinely elected monarch. Just thinking out loud.

  4. […] fails to grasp the traditional understanding of the relationship between the two. As Bonald pointed out rightfully: “Recently, there has been some talk about the Church being feminine in her […]

  5. […] fails to grasp the traditional understanding of the relationship between the two. As Bonald pointed out rightfully: “Recently, there has been some talk about the Church being feminine in her […]

  6. The Church is Mother and (at least ordinarily) Teacher. Feminine Authority. The question is what is the secular ruler. It is hard to imagine that role as being anything other than Father. Of course, as an individual, he submits to Mother Church on matters of faith and morals. But there are areas of prudence that do not fit neatly underneath that special charism. Should the King provide GBI or minimum wage? Accept or reject trade deal X with China? Spend 2% more or less on defense?? Permit or not self-service gas??? A Church that thinks she has the authority on such questions is, at the very least, not to be trusted to give correct answers.

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