Religious Liberty and Tradition III

This is the third of four parts of an essay on the interpretation of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanæ. Part I considered inadequate interpretations; Part II considered Thomas Pink’s interpretive breakthrough. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.

Part III: Spiritual and temporal power: a glance at history

The ancient world did not distinguish between spiritual and worldly power. In the Greek city-states and later in Rome the worship of the gods was an important element of political or imperial life, and was therefore considered to fall under political or imperial authority. Aristotle considers worship to be an essential function of the polis: “Fifthly, or rather first, there must be a care of religion, which is commonly called worship.”[1] Although the Romans distinguished between res divina and res publica this distinction was not a distinction of distinct powers with distinct ends;[2] the function of divine worship was largely to secure political/imperial success.[3] Ancient Israel reversed this order; the worship of God is the primary thing to which all of life is subordinated. But here too there was no distinction between spiritual and temporal power.[4]

The distinction between spiritual and temporal or worldly power was an innovation of Christianity. And, as Rhonheimer argues, it was able to make this distinction because Christianity is a religion of redemption.[5] Christianity did not deny the legitimacy of the existing political order, it recognized therein an authority founded in God’s creation and granted by His providence. But like any part of creation it saw the political as wounded by sin and in need of healing in the present, and the eschatological future of elevation, fulfillment, and transcendence by a higher form of communal life. The order of creation was seen as a good, but temporary and preliminary order— a sign of a yet better order to come. The Lord’s famous dictum according to which one must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but unto God the things that are God’s (Mtt 22:21) did not at all conform to expectations about the Messiah. The Messiah was expected to end Roman rule and re-establish the rule of God. But Jesus does not immediately destroy the existing order, instead He plants the Kingdom of God as a seed that is to grow in the midst of the existing order. Only at His triumphant return at the end of time will He replace earthly powers with the New Jerusalem.

In the time between the Ascension and the Second Coming of the Lord Christians have to care both for the “temporal”— that is, passing, preliminary— goods, and for the imperishable eternal goods of the Kingdom of God. Very soon a distinction was made within the Church herself between the Apostles whose responsibility was primarily for the ministry of the word of God, and the deacons who had the duty of caring for temporal matters (see Acts 6).

The early Christians had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the power of the Roman emperor. On the one hand his authority is recognized as given by God for the punishment of evildoers (cf. Romans 13:1-8) and the securing of a peace, which makes it easier for Christians to live a pious life and preach the Gospel (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-4).[6] On the other hand, Revelation portrays Rome as a new Babylon that unjustly sheds the blood of the martyrs. The early Church Fathers demanded an end of persecution, a granting of religious freedom to Christians.[7]

After Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, Christianity was at risk of being instrumentalized, of being given the function of securing the safety of the empire that once belonged to the pagan gods. The Church Fathers, especially St Ambrose and St Athanasius protested against this attempt to subordinate the Church to worldly power.[8] They insisted on two principles: first, “the primacy of the spiritual over the earthly/worldly affairs,” and second, “the ordering of all earthly/worldly affairs to the heavenly and eternal.”[9] The Fathers understood these principles to allow for a role of the temporal power in helping to preserve the true faith. Thus the imperial power was used to suppress the Arian heresy.[10] Rhonheimer considers the “enthusiasm” with which the Fathers saw worldly power as an instrument of orthodoxy problematic and “astonishing,” but his astonishment rests on a petitio principii. [11] It is only because Rhonheimer first interprets the direct New Testament derivation of worldly power from God as “sovereignty” and “independence of religious claims to ordering authority”[12] that the patristic willingness to make use of the state as an instrument for the suppression of heresy seems wrong to him. But one should rather take the patristic application of New Testament principles as an authoritative guide to the meaning of those principles.

The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 seemed to many Romans to be a refutation of Christianity. Clearly Christianity was not able to fulfill the classic function of religion: preserving the city from catastrophe. St Augustine answered this argument in his great work The City of God. The true religion does not exist for the sake of securing the transitory order of this world, but rather for the sake of building up the City of God, which will only be fully realized after the passing of this world. The City of God is founded on a love of God that leads its citizens to contempt for themselves, counting all earthly things as worthless.[13] God allows “temporal” catastrophes to disturb the reign of Christian rulers, thus teaching all not to serve God for the sake of worldly advantages (Civ. Dei V,25). Augustine argues that temporal ought to be ordered to eternal ones (Civ. Dei XIX,17), but that this ordering will never be achieved entirely harmoniously till the second coming of the Lord. For, there is a second city here on earth in addition to the city of God— the civitas terrena, the earthly city. This city is founded on a love of self to the contempt of God (Civ. Dei XIV,28). And these two cities are in conflict. Although both cities are (for different reasons) interested in conserving temporal peace, so that a limited cooperation between them in temporal matters is possible (Civ. Dei XIX,17), nevertheless, this cannot be taken as allowing for a neutral temporal realm, as Rhonheimer would have it;[14] the earthly city is always opposed to true religion.[15] Thus Augustine argues that it is fitting for temporal things to be ordered by Christian rulers.[16] And these rulers ought not to be neutral in religious matters. Rather they should promote the true religion and even punish heretics.[17] Justice consists in giving each his own, thus no society is just that does not give God the worship due to Him (Civ. Dei XIX,21[18]).

Since Christian rulers must see to it that society gives God His due, it might seem that they must of themselves have a certain authority in spiritual matters, that is, an episcopal authority. But this idea was rejected by the Church. In 494 Pope St Gelasius I taught that the royal power and priestly authority are two distinct principles, both instituted by God, and that the subordination of temporal to spiritual good implies that the temporal rulers must be subject to the priestly authority in matters that concern eternal salvation.[19]

But Christian rulers both in the Byzantine Empire, and, after the translatio imperii of 800, in the Holy Roman Empire, did not embrace the Gelasian teaching. In the West a conflict between pope and emperor developed that came to a head in the High Middle Ages in the Investiture Controversy. The popes from St Gregory VII to Boniface VIII developed previous teaching on the relation of the two powers, and taught that the subordination of temporal under the spiritual ought to be preserved by a juridical subordination of worldly under priestly authority. Priestly authority is seen not just as auctoritas, but as a genuine potestas, a coercive power. Rhonheimer argues that calling the priestly authority potestas is contrary to the actual meaning of Gelasian diarchy,[20] but one can also see it as a development of what was implicit in previous teaching. If one considers the very high degree of magisterial authority with which the plenitudo potestas of the pope was taught from St Gregory VII’s Dictatus Papæ (1075) to Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam (1302), then it is simply not possible to reject this development as illegitimate.[21]

Unam Sanctam conceives of the potestas of the pope as a direct authority, at least when it is a question of using temporal power for directly spiritual purposes. In such matters the sword is drawn “at the will and sufferance of the priest.”[22] But when it is a question of temporal matters that are only indirectly ordered to the spiritual, it is not clear whether the pope’s power is direct or indirect (potestas indirecta). Giles of Rome, who gave an important theoretical defense of the claims of Unam Sanctam, argued that the pope’s authority was direct even in such matters.[23] But since he goes on to argue that this authority while direct is not “immediate and executory,”[24] his theory is basically indistinguishable from the theory of potestas indirecta, according to which the Church can only intervene in temporal affairs ratione peccati, that is, in order to forbid or punish sin. Giles explains the relation of spiritual to temporal by a number of analogies, including the analogy of soul and body. Just as the body has its own needs (food, drink etc.), but exists finally for the sake of the soul and is thus subject to the soul, so temporal things have their own necessities but are finally for the sake of spiritual things, and temporal rulers must thus be subject to the pope, the supreme spiritual ruler. [25]

The claims of the popes in the High Middle Ages were supported by various reform movements in the Church such as the Cluniacs, Cistercians, Norbertines, and Dominicans. All of these movements were concerned with emphasizing the primacy of the spiritual and combatting worldliness within the Church.[26]

Especially from the 14th century onwards, new powers opposed themselves to the papal claims— the territorial rulers, who were slowly developing the beginnings of nation-states. With lamentable myopia the popes had at first supported the territorial rulers as a balance to the power of the emperor, but soon these rulers proved themselves more dangerous enemies than the emperor. King Philip the Fair of France, for example, was able to prevail in his struggles with Pope Boniface VIII. After the death of Boniface and his short-lived successor, Pope Clement V began the “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes in Avignon.[27] After the popes returned to Rome, they were politically integrated into the newly revived system of Italian city-states— in a manner practically incompatible with the two sword theory of the High Middle Ages.[28]

While the great Church reform movements of the High Middle Ages, from the Cluniacs to the Dominicans, were supporters of the papacy (excepting the Albigensians and the anti-papal wing of the Franciscans), the reform movements of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance became increasingly anti-papal.[29] This development reached a climax in the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers turned on the pope and allied themselves with the territorial rulers. The “Magisterial Reformation” of Luther and Calvin gave the Christian “magistrate,” i.e. the territorial ruler, a competence in certain religious matters independent of the clergy. This autonomous competence of the magistracy was based on new theological principles that completely re-conceived the relation of worldly and spiritual power.

Calvin (following Luther) distinguished sharply between an invisible kingdom in consciences of the elect, in which there was complete freedom from coercion and each believer was subjected to Christ, the only king and priest, without any intermediary, on the one hand, and, on the other, a visible external kingdom. The visible kingdom was concerned not only with “worldly” matters in the old sense, but also with external acts of religion. Calvin places both the magistrates and the preachers of the Word in the external kingdom.[30] The preachers are concerned with persuading people, whereas the magistrates are concerned with coercing their external actions, including their religious actions.[31]

The Reformers thus rejected the Catholic teaching defined as early as the Fourth Synod of Toledo according to which the Church has the right to coerce the baptized to keep the faith, since on their account no visible authority whatever can have any authority over conscience. Moreover, they see coercive authority over external acts of religion as belonging not to priests—which they don’t think exist—nor even to preachers, but rather to the magistrates.

The Reformers’ rejection of Catholic teaching on these points is rooted in a new theology of grace, or rather a rejection of the traditional distinction between grace and nature. The Catholic attitude toward “temporal” affairs is rooted in a view of nature as a temporary order of being, due to be perfected and in a sense replaced by a better, permanent order, a super-nature to be established by grace. On the Catholic view the created natures of things are good. By sin they are wounded, but not destroyed. Christ comes to heal and re-establish nature. But not only to re-establish it the way it was before the Fall; Christ elevates nature, granting a better kind of being, a supernatural being. And in fact nature was always intended as a sign and preparation for the supernatural. So, for example, marriage is a communion of persons that flows from nature and is good. But in the second coming of Christ marriage is shown to have been only a temporary reality a sign of the wedding of Christ and His bride the Church. Everything that was good in marriage will be present in a more eminent mode in the union of Christ and His bride, but natural marriage itself will be no more (cf. Mt 22:30). Nature is thus a shadow and image of the reality that is to come through grace. The natures of things are not destroyed by grace, but they are so transformed that much that belonged to them before is transcended and replaced by that of which it was the image. In the present time, though, both realities are present at once; the new reality of grace is present as a seed alongside the old reality of nature. Thus the Wedding of the Lamb is present as a seed in the Church’s union with Christ in the Sacraments, but this union now exists alongside natural marriage. And natural marriage is now elevated by grace to be a sacrament—an effective sign of the perfect union that is to come. But higher than sacramental marriage is consecrated virginity, because virginity is not merely a sign of the coming reality, but an anticipation of that reality—the consecrated virgin already lives the form of life that the blessed will have in Heaven (although she still lacks the perfect union of the beatific vision).

Calvin rejected the Catholic distinction between nature and the supernatural. On Calvin’s account there is only nature. In the beginning nature was so perfect that man had true happiness, beatitude. But this perfection was possessed in an insecure mode; it could still be lost. And it was lost through sin. The grace of Christ restores the original perfection of man. The eschatological fulfillment is nothing more than the restoration in an un-losable mode of the very same beatitude that man already enjoyed in Eden. On Calvin’s account, grace does not elevate nature to a supernatural level, and thus nature is not a temporary reality meant to serve as a sign of a better reality to come.[32] This is the reason for Calvin’s rejection of Catholic teaching on the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which to him must seem an unwarranted rejection of God’s good creation order.[33] And this is the explanation of the (from a Catholic perspective) exaggerated value put on worldly affairs and “ordinary life” in Protestant culture.[34]

One of the main ideals of the reform movements of the High Middle Ages was contemptus mundi (contempt for the world), or fuga sæculi (flight from the world)—understood not only as contempt for the dis-order of the fallen world and for the demonic powers and the civitas terrena over which they rule, but also as a healthy disregard for the passing goods of the preliminary order of things. This relative contempt for the preliminary corresponded to the demand that the temporal power be subject to the spiritual power. Thus St Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Consideratione already contains the two sword theory that Pope Boniface VIII was later to adopt.[35] But since the Reformers of the 16th century rejected the ideal of contemptus mundi, it makes sense that they demanded the autonomy of worldly rulers.[36] The Catholic dualism of nature and grace corresponds to an integralist vision of the relation of spiritual and worldly power, whereas the Protestant monism of nature corresponds to an independence of worldly power from clerical authority.

The Reformation led at first to the formation of so-called “confessional states.” Calvinist confessional states were famed for moral rigorism. Since they did not recognize life according to the Evangelical Counsels as a status perfectionis, they expected moral perfection from everyone. The great success of Calvinist discipline in forming prosperous and militarily powerful societies led to their imitation in Catholic countries. The confessional states quickly developed into the first sovereign territorial states in the modern sense. Often religion was practically degraded to a means of civil discipline.[37] Paradoxically this contributed to the secularization of the Western world.[38] At first in the Netherlands, and then at the end of the 18th century in North America, states were formed that claimed to be neutral in religious matters. They wanted to limit themselves to the preservation of outward peace, leaving each person to worship whatsoever he pleased so long as he could agree on common rules of commercial life and public security with everyone else.[39]

The complete secularization of the state was not at all the intention of the Reformers. But it would not have been possible without their distinction between the visible and the invisible Kingdom, their exaltation of the freedom of conscience, and their exaggerated regard for natural goods. These positions were conditions for the development of the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment began in the 16th Century with a new ideal of progress through scientific/technological domination of nature. As Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized, this ideal was from the beginning a secularization of Christian hope:

Up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay “redemption”. Now, this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world.[40]

This ideology came to see nature as an inert mechanistic mass without inner teleology, a mere object for arbitrary manipulation by human power. In the political realm it lead to a thorough secularization of public life. In Protestant countries this development was relatively peaceful. But in Catholic countries it involved a passionate struggle between the “enlightened” and the forces of “ignorance and superstition.” The philosophes considered the Catholic Church to be an enemy of material progress because of her commitment to asceticism and contemptus mundi, and an enemy of freedom because she punished heretics and censored books. Thus in Catholic countries a passionate anticlericalism developed which had its first political success in the violent persecution of the Church in the French Revolution. In the 19th century anti-clerical liberals and reactionary restorationists alternated in the governments of Europe. In the 20th century totalitarian, anti-clerical regimes developed whether communist and officially atheist as in Russia, or nationalist and neo-pagan as in Germany.[41]

In the Catholic Counter-Reformation theologians such as Francisco Suarez and St Robert Bellarmine had responded to the claims of the confessional state with detailed expositions of the Catholic teaching, according to which the worldly power can act in religious matters only as an organ of the spiritual power.[42] But in the following centuries, in which the nation states consolidated their monopoly on coercive power, this teaching came to be less and less understood. Although Pope Leo XIII returned to this teaching in the 19th century, teaching it authoritatively in the encyclical Immortale Dei,[43] his teaching was often misunderstood, so that many 19th century Catholics— including such luminaries as Bishop Ketteler of Mainz— did not think that the Church had true coercive authority of her own.[44] Thus Thomas Pink summarizes the situation immediately before Vatican II as follows:

And so we arrive at the view of religious coercion current before the Second Vatican Council, one that still shapes much post-conciliar “traditionalist” opinion. Religious coercion is really the business of the state. There is no question of the state coercing belief or private practice. But the state must publicly recognize the Catholic faith as true and restrict the public presence of other religions. That behind all this state activity lay another authority, the Church, truly coercive in her own right—whose authority in the case of the baptized extended to coercing even private religious belief and practice—tended to be forgotten.[45]

Part IV will consider the concerns of theologians at the Council. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.


[1] Aristotle, Politics VII,8 1328b 13; trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford 1905).

[2] See: Itai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford 2002) 4-6.

[3] See Numa Denis Fustel de Coulange’s enduring 19th century classic, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, trans. Willard Small (Boston 1877).

[4] See: Rémy Brague, The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago 2007) ch. 4.

[5] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 36-44.

[6] Cf. Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 40-44.

[7] See: Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 42-43.

[8] See: Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 49.

[9] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 46: “der Primat des Spirituellen über das Irdisch-Weltliche […] die Hinordnung alles Irdisch-Weltliche auf das Himmlische und Ewige.”

[10] See: Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 49, 51.

[11] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 49.

[12] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 41.

[13] Cf. De Civitate Dei XIV, 28; hereafter cited parenthetically as Civ. Dei.

[14] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 55.

[15] See: Tracey Rowland, “Augustinian and Thomist Engagements with the World,” in: American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 83,3 (2009): 441-459, especially at 446-449; E.J. Hutchinson, “Whose Augustine? Which Augustinianism?” in: The Calvinist International (August 2014): (accessed October 31, 2014); Donald X. Burt, Friendship and Society: An Introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy (Grand Rapids 2009) 200-227.

[16] See: Rowland, “Augustinian and Thomist Engagements” 448.

[17] Rowland, “Augustinian and Thomist Engagements” 448-449; Burt, Friendship and Society 200-227.

[18] “Hence, when a man does not serve God, what justice can we ascribe to him […]? And if there is no justice in such an individual, certainly there can be none in a community composed of such persons.” trans. Marcus Dods (Buffallo 1987).

[19] Gelasius I, Famuli vestrae pietatis, in: Internet Medieval Sourcebook: (accessed December 12, 2014).

[20] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 75.

[21] On the theological note of the teaching of Unam Sanctam see: Steven Wedgeworth, “Happy Anniversary Unam Sanctam,” in: The Calvinist International (November 2013): (accessed November 9, 2014).

[22] Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, in: Internet Medieval Sourcebook: (accessed December 18, 2014).

[23] See for example: De ecclesiastica potestate, II,6: „terrena … potestas et secundum se et secundum sua, potestati ecclesiastice subdatur.“ Giles of Rome’s On Ecclesiastical Power: A Medieval Theory of World Government: A Critical Edition and Translation, ed. R.W. Dyson (New York 2004).

[24] De ecclesiastica potestate, III.

[25] De ecclesiastica potestate, I,7.

[26] See: Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (San Francisco 2008 [1965]) 216-227; The Dividing of Christendom (San Francisco 2008 [1965]) 30, 38.

[27] Dawson, The Dividing 41-43.

[28] Dawson, The Dividing 53-56.

[29] See: Dawson, The Dividing 30, 42-43.

[30] See: Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante, “John Calvin and the Two Kingdoms,” Part 2, in: The Cavinist International (May 2012): (accessed November 9, 2014).

[31] Wedgeworth and Escalante, “John Calvin” 2.

[32] See: Peter Escalante, “Two Ends or Two Kingdoms?” in: The Calvinist International (April 2013): (accessed November 10, 2014).

[33] See: Escalante, “Two Ends.”

[34] See: Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1989) Part III: “The Affirmation of Ordinary Life.”

[35] See: Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 76-78.

[36] See: Escalante, “Two Ends.”

[37] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge/Massachusetts 2007) chapter 2: “The Rise of the Disciplinary Society.”

[38] See: Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge/Massachusetts 2012).

[39] Gregory, The Unintended Reformation 160-172.

[40] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (Rome 2007) § 17.

[41] See: Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great War (London 2005); Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror (London 2006).

[42] See: Pink, “Suarez and Bellarmine;” cf. Part II above.

[43] See: Part II above.

[44] See: Pink, “Conscience and Coercion.”

[45] Pink, “Conscience and Coercion.”