On the Subordination of the State to the Church

by Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara, OP

Translated by Timothy Wilson

Today we continue our series of original translations of important texts relating to Catholic political philosophy. Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara was a prominent Thomist philosopher and theologian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Among many other accomplishments, he was closely involved with the preparation of the Leonine edition of the Angelic Doctor’s Opera Omnia (the first volume of which contains his synopses and annotations on St. Thomas’ Organon commentaries), and assisted in preparing the encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum.

The chapter translated here is taken from book two of the third part of Zigliara’s widely circulated Summa philosophica (14th ed., 1910). Having treated of domestic, civil, and religious society in their principles and particulars in the preceding books and chapters of this part, he now sets himself the task of treating in brief the relations which should obtain between those two perfect societies, the Church and the State. The original text can be found here.

This is the last of the five articles of the chapter, treating of the subordination of the State to the Church.


On the subordination of the State to the Church

I. Nature of the question. A religious society, of which sort is the Catholic Church, lives in the company of civil society, such that the spiritual power of the Roman Pontiff is as it were in contact with the civil power, and they who are civilly subjects of the temporal authority are at once subjects of Ecclesiastical authority. It is commonly conceded that the civil authority, within the limits of its ends, is independent of the Church, in that manner in which we say the Church, with respect to its end, to be independent of any civil authority. But it is wholly impossible that two societies should exist at once with equal independence, that is, without mutual subordination to one another; consequently, it is necessary that either the Church be subordinate to the civil State, or the civil State to the Church. Behold the question, concerning which we have said many things in Articles 61 and 63, and whose solution we give in this final article, so that there might more clearly be seen the notion of ethnarchy which belongs to the Catholic Church. Let the conclusion therefore be stated:

II. In no wise is the Catholic Church subordinate to the civil State, but the civil State of its nature is subordinate to the Catholic Church. This proposition is easily proved, if there are recalled to mind the principles which we made known in the preceding Chapter. For the notion or nature of the subordination of societies ought to be taken absolutely from the end: for, seeing that the nature of the society arises from the end to which it is ordered, where the ends of two societies are subordinated, the societies equally ought to be subordinated; and a society whose end is subordinate to the end of a higher society, is also subordinated to that other. These are the principles, without which there consists nothing anymore firm in determining the nature of society. But the end of civil society and the end of religious society are ordered to one another, and the end of civil society is subordinated to the end of the Catholic Church, and not vice versa. Therefore in no wise is the Catholic Church subordinate to the civil state, but the civil state of its nature is subordinate to the Catholic Church. The minor is proved.

The end of civil society and the end of religious society are ordered to one another. For man is composed from soul and body, and, as man, is a part of society. But civil society properly looks to the exterior perfection of man, because it is not able to penetrate into the interior things of conscience, and what is more, because it considers man living in this life, it has care chiefly for his temporal perfection; whereas the Catholic Church, as a spiritual society, is ordered rather to the perfection of the soul and directs men to eternal felicity. But although these things are true, yet it is true that man neither is able nor ought to be divided, but just as the soul is for the perfection of the body and the body is for the perfection of the soul, so equally corporeal perfection—to which the civil State directly attends—and spiritual perfection—which the Church of Christ bountifully imparts—both ought to provide for the whole man. Therefore the ends of both societies, although distinct amongst themselves, yet agree in one common end, which is the man to be perfected; and consequently, these ends are ordered to one another.

The end of civil society is subordinated to the end of the Catholic Church, and not vice versa. Indeed, nothing forbids that man, as a composite of soul and body, not procure for himself, in an upright manner, all those things which coincide for living this life comfortably. Nevertheless, it is irrational and repulsive to submit the soul to the body in such a manner that it is the body’s slave, and esteems less his intellectual perfection, so that in his body he leads a life according to the fashion of brute animals; but the body ought to be subservient to the soul. — It savors of dementia, moreover, to think that man should be solicitous of temporal felicity—which felicity he must lose, though he will it or not—and not think of attaining eternal happiness: For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul? (Matt. XVI, 26). For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come (Hebr. XIII, 14). Therefore, whatever man seeks in this life, whatever he searches out for himself in civil society and from civil society, he either seeks perversely, or ought to order to the spiritual and eternal perfection of the soul. Because, therefore, the end of the Church is the interior and eternal perfection of man, but the end of civil society is his external and temporal perfection, the end of the Church is not subordinated to that of civil society, but rather the latter to the former.

III. The Catholic Church is an ethnarchic society. Before I prove that the Catholic Church truly is an ethnarchic society, and consequently that there is in it a true ethnarchy, I think it worthwhile to take a moment and put forward the doctrine of St. Thomas concerning Christ, insofar as He is the Head of all men: «There is this difference between the natural head of man and the mystical body of the Church, that the members of the natural body are all together; but the members of the mystical body are not all together: not with respect to the esse of nature, because the body of the Church is constituted from men, who have existed from the beginning of the world even to its end; neither according to the esse of grace, for, of those even who are in one time, some lack grace, to be had later, while others already possess it. Thus therefore, the members of the mystical body are taken, not only according as they are in act, but also according as they are in potency. Yet there are some in potency who are never reduced to act; whereas there are some who are reduced to act at some time or other. And this occurs according to a threefold grade: the first of which is through faith; the second through charity of the way; the third through the fruition of the patria. Thus, therefore, it should be said, that taking it generally according to the whole of the world’s time, Christ is the head of all men, but according to diverse grades. For firstly and chiefly is He head of those who are united to Him in act through glory; secondly, of those are united in act to Him through charity; thirdly, of those who are united in act to Him through faith; fourthly, of those who are only united to Him in potency not yet reduced to act, which yet is to be reduced to act according to divine predestination; fifthly, of those who are united to Him in potency, which potency is never reduced to act: as men living in this world, who are not predestined, who yet, receding from this age, entirely cease to be members of Christ, because they are no longer in potency, as to be united to Christ» (IIIa, q. 8, a. 3).

From these principles, our thesis is easily proved. Indeed the Catholic Church encompasses all nations, whether in act or in potency, as we have heard from St. Thomas; furthermore, it is of its nature a doctrinal society, and possesses an infallible magisterium in the matters which look to dogmas and morals; it is a society whose invisible head is Christ Himself, at once God and man; whose visible head is the Supreme Roman Pontiff, exalted with supernatural dignity, subject to no man, having civil powers subordinate to him, and directed, by the special assistance of the Holy Ghost, to the salvation of nations. In the Church, therefore, you have universality, you have doctrinal magisterium, you have dignity and supereminence: all the things, namely, which are required for an ethnarchy, that is, for valid authority over all peoples or nations. — This wisest kind of politics prevailed, to the good of peoples, in the Middle Ages, that is, when truly Christian peoples and kings received and venerated, in the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ—whose name, as Isaiah says, is Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace.[1]


[1] Isaiah 9:6