Francisco Suárez on the Relation of Ecclesiastical and Civil Power

Francisco Suárez, De legibus, lib. IV, c. ix, translated by Timothy Wilson


Whether the Ecclesiastical power is superior to the civil, such that the latter is subject to the former.

1. Although it has been shown, in the chapter above, that the Ecclesiastical power is more excellent in perfection, it is not immediately inferred, that it is superior in subordination and proper jurisdiction: for one faculty can be less perfect than another, and yet not subject or subordinate to it. And hence there can be a reason for doubt, because this subordination does not follow intrinsically from the greater perfection; nor also can it be shown from a special concession of Christ; therefore it is not granted. The major is clear from the reason given, and can be supported by the example of the old law, in which there was also a priestly and a royal power, and nevertheless the royal was not subject to the priestly; no indeed, that the contrary seems to have been the case, is drawn from III Kings 2, where Solomon deposed Abiathar from the Priesthood; and in his place he set Sadoc; therefore the priestly power then was under the royal power, rather than the contrary. Now the minor is proved, because in the new Testament we do not read that Christ instituted the priesthood and conceded to it this superiority, because Peter, notwithstanding his power, commanded all the faithful to be subject to Princes and Kings, 1 Pet 2, and Paul in Romans 13 pronounces the same regarding every soul. Nor also is it had from tradition: for it can be gathered from the histories, rather, that the Emperors sometimes passed judgment upon the Pontiffs, and deposed them.

2. Nevertheless, it should be said, that the Ecclesiastical power is not only nobler in itself, but also superior, and has the civil power as subordinate and subject to it. For these two, as I have said, are very much distinct, which blessed Thomas also declared in II Sent., dist. 44, at the end. This conclusion, therefore, is certain, and common amongst Catholics, concerning which one can consult St. Thomas in the place cited, and Bonaventure, in the second tome of his opuscula in the 38th, De ecclesiastica hierarchia, part 2, §1 at the end[1]; Henry, Quodlibet 6, q. 23; Victoria,  Relectio 2 de potestate Ecclesiæ, and Relectio de Indis, p. 1, n. 29, where he says, that this is true not only of this power as it is in the Pope, but also as it is in every Bishop. Which is true according to ordinary law, and Ecclesiastical law, and excluding privileges and exemptions; but in the following parts it will be expounded more amply. One can also consult Driedo, De libertate christiana, lib. II, c. 2; Turrecremata, in his Summa, lib. II, c. 113ff; Albert Pighius, De ecclesiastica hierarchia, lib. V, c. 14 and 15; Sander, De visibili monarchia, lib. II; Cajetan, in his Apologia pro Romano Pontifice, c. 13 ad 8; Soto, In IV Sent., dist. 25, q. 2, a. 5; Bellarmine, De Summo Pontifice, lib. V, from c. 6 on; Vellosillo, bishop of Lugo, in his Advertentiæ theologicæ in tom. V Hieronymi, q. 5.

3. The chief foundation of this truth is declared both by reason and authority; for it is drawn from the unity of the Church of Christ the Lord as sufficiently signified in the Gospel, and is declared by Paul, 1 Cor 12, who says, We were all baptized into one body, etc., and Romans 12, We, being many, are one body in Christ, etc., and the same in Ephesians 4 and often elsewhere; therefore Christ the Lord constituted the Church as one spiritual kingdom, in which there would also be one King and spiritual prince; therefore it is necessary, that to him the temporal power be subordinated, as the body is to the soul. With this example does Gregory of Nazianzus explain the subordination of these powers, in his Oratio XVII ad populum timore perculsum. And rightly indeed, because just as man would not be rightly composed, unless the body were subordinated to the soul, thus neither would the Church be fittingly instituted, unless the temporal power were subject to the spiritual. And the same reason can be declared and confirmed from what has been said above regarding the indirect dominion which the Pontiff has over the entire world: for this dominion is founded on nothing other than the subordination of these powers. For, as I have said in the same place, there is not in the Pontiff a twofold power, but one, which is directly concerned with spiritual things, and consequently is extended to temporal things: but this extension can only be on account of the subordination of the temporal power to the spiritual. And with this reason Bernard, De consideratione, lib. IV, c. 3, says that the Pontiff simultaneously has the spiritual and the natural sword, because either he has the one directly, and the other indirectly, or the one in himself and per se, and the other subordinated to him, which he means when he says that the spiritual sword is to be wielded by the Church; while the material sword is to be wielded by the soldier for the Church at the will of the priest, and the command of the emperor. Whence in the final chapter, he calls the Pontiff the defender of the Faith, the leader of Christians, the rod of the mighty, the hammer of tyrants, the father of kings, the moderator of laws, the God of Pharaoh. Thus also does Pope Boniface conclude in Extravag. Unam sanctam, de maiorit. et obed.: It is necessary that one sword be under the other, and that the temporal authority be subjected to the spiritual power. From this text the reason given is more amply strengthened. For where there is one body, it is necessary that there be one head, to which all things are in a certain way recalled, since otherwise there could be neither peace nor perfect unity in the body; but now the Church of Christ is one body, as we have said; therefore, although there be many powers or magistrates in it, it is necessary that amongst themselves they have subordination, such that they might in a certain way be recalled into one for the reason given, therefore either the spiritual power is subordinated to the temporal, or the contrary. The first cannot be said: for as the Pontiff says in the same place, citing Paul, The things which are from God, are ordained, but it would be a perverse order, if spiritual things were subject to temporal things; therefore the second must necessarily be said.

4. Perhaps someone might say, the Church, in order that it might be perfectly one, is sufficiently united in its one head, which is Christ. Someone could take this response incautiously from Waldo, Doctrinale fidei, lib. II, c. 78, n. 4, where he says, And that which some argue, that the church must be reduced to a monad, is true for Christ, who holds alone a two-edged sword, as a sign of his double power. But under Christ, the priest and the King maintain their powers unmixed. It is responded to the prior part, that that sentence, taken in that sense and applied here, cannot be satisfactory. For the Church militant is one visible body existing in this world, and in need of human and external governance; therefore it cannot merely be reduced immediately to a head which is invisible to mortal men, of which sort is Christ; therefore it is necessary, that the Vicar of Christ also have the excellence of power, where it had been necessary for the fitting government of the whole body; therefore he is the supreme head simply speaking. Nor does Waldo speak in the contrary sense, but he is speaking of the reduction of either power to one principle as regards origin, and by the direct participation of jurisdiction which each of these powers has in its own order. And in this sense he says that they are unmixed, and reduced only to God, or Christ: yet he does not deny, that the temporal power is at least indirectly subordinated to the spiritual, chiefly in order to avoid sin and divine offense, as he expressly declared in n. 6 with Hugo of St. Victor, De sacramentis, lib. II, c. 4, 6, and 7.

5. And hence a new confirmation can be added, founded in the words of Pope Gelasius in the c. Duo sunt, 96. dist.: For the Pontiffs shall have to render an account for the souls of kings, insinuating that in the words Feed my sheep, even Kings, and Emperors were subjected to Peter, because they must be included amongst the sheep of Christ; therefore they also must be fed, and ruled by Peter: for we have already explained that the power of ruling is also contained under the word feeding. You say; this is true as regards spiritual government. But on the contrary, since the measure of temporal government, in order that it be right and worthy, must be spiritual; therefore it is necessary, that the very power of ruling temporally be regulated by the spiritual, and this is to be subject and subordinate to the latter. And in this manner shall the Pontiffs have to render an account for Kings, and Emperors, because it pertains to them to correct, and emend whatever sins Kings have committed, not only as men, but as Kings in the use of their power.

6. Whence it is confirmed, for otherwise the Church would not be sufficiently provided for, if there were not in her a power, which could contain Kings and Princes in their duty, at least by using the spiritual sword. You say, that by this argument it would be proved, that another power is also necessary, which contains spiritual pastors in their duty: for even these are able to err, and cause perhaps greater harm to the sheep. It is responded, that it is indeed thus, in respect of all spiritual princes or pastors below the supreme Vicar of Christ, to whom it pertains to emend, or even to punish, the rest; but the supreme head himself cannot be subjected to another mortal man, because either it proceeds in infinitum, or due subordination and unity would be destroyed. And thus Christ provided for his Church in another and more sublime manner as regards this part; for in respect of doctrine and precepts of mores, he promised to his Vicar assistance, such that he would not be able to err in these and inflict some grave harm upon his Church through the abuse of power. And this was sufficient as regards legislative power, concerning which we speak. But the other disadvantages which now and then can follow from the perverse morals or deeds of such a person, are of lesser importance, and must sometimes be tolerated: for this is the fragility, and condition of men, and if betimes they are more oppressive, and clearly unjust, by right of defense men can protect themselves; yet not by right of vindication or punishment. Only in the case of heresy is an exception accustomed to be made, which we leave to be given and explained elsewhere.

7. The same assertion could be confirmed from the practice of the Church, and the various examples, which Gelasius enumerates in part in the place cited, but those which can pertain to the present matter, we shall touch upon below when treating of Canon Laws: the rest can be seen in the histories, and Bellarmine summarizes them in his De Summo Pontifice, lib. V, c. 7. From these there still remains a reason for doubt which was laid out at the beginning. For it has been shown from Scripture and tradition, that this institution is from Christ the Lord. But Peter and Paul, in the objection there alleged, speak of obedience due to Princes and powers from their respective subjects, yet in these it is not explained what sort of subordination obtains between the powers. Nor is it true that Christian Emperors  have ever judged the Pontiffs, as has been shown broadly in the treatise on Immunities.

Now the example adduced there from III Kings 2 makes for a special difficulty regarding the similar arrangement between the Pontiff and the King under the state of the old law, but this is hardly pertinent to the present design, and it shall be disputed in its proper place when treating of the Roman Pontiff. And so for now I say only two things. One is, that from this nothing is sufficiently proved, either because here there is narrated a fact, not a right, that is, it tells what Solomon did, yet not whether he did it from legitimate or usurped power; or certainly, because (as some would have it) Solomon did it from a peculiar instinct of the holy Spirit, as is suggested in the same place, and thus it does not follow, that he did it from the ordinary power which he had. The other thing is, that this comparison of the old Testament hardly matters for the present case, as much because the old law has long passed away in these ceremonial and judicial things, as we shall show in book 9: as also because the Pontificate of the new law is of a far higher order than that of the old, and thus granting, and not conceding, that the old Pontificate did not have this excellence, it does not follow that the Pontificate instituted by Christ does not have it. Just as the Pope also now has the power of remitting sins, which the priest of the old law did not have, the Pope can now concede indulgences, which the other could not do. Finally, to Peter were promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and it was said to him, Feed my sheep, and, Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven, which things were not said to the old Pontiff. And thus, whatever may be regarding this, the truth set down remains unshaken.

[1] But note what the editors of the later Quaracchi edition of St. Bonaventure’s works have observed in the prolegomenon of vol. 5, c. X, §2, in explaining why they excluded the De ecclesiastica hierarchia from the genuine works of the Seraphic Doctor. — Trans.