One consequence of what Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce calls our present “age of secularization” is the paradoxical modern tendency of atheists to divinize politics and the state. What the Church once undid, ideology would rejoin. In its extreme form, we see this in fascism, Nazism, and communism. Meanwhile, ennui, nihilism, and other travails of the age find their source in the fear or belief that this world is all there is and that the human person is merely an animal of appetite, not a rational and moral creature with an eternal soul. Well-intentioned Christians are legitimately concerned with the decadence, utilitarianism, and relativism of this “culture of death.” Some would employ state authority in their quest to redeem the time. Evangelization suffers, however, whenever we politicize religion by confusing the proper ends of the City of Man and the City of God.
One current example of this confusion is a rise in what Edward Feser calls “hard” integralism among Catholics, particularly in the United States. The Cistercian father Edmund Waldstein defines Catholic integralism as “a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power” (emphasis in the original). This definition, and the hardness or softness of one’s interpretation, hinges on the last phrase: “the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.”
Jacques Maritain explains what is wrong with conflating temporal goods with transcendent and spiritual goods:
To ask Catholicism to specify a political or national ideal, and itself to replace, as a principle of temporal unification and temporal activity, the objects, the values, the impelling ideas, and the instincts of the temporal order, would be contrary to the nature of things, precisely because Catholicism is by nature transcendent.
When we direct our spiritual energies away from the goods of Heaven and bring them down to Earth, we lose focus on the transformational power of God in each person’s life and the culturally transcendent nature of the Gospel.
Banging the 21st-century head to fit the 13th- or 19th-century hat, to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, is not so much evangelization as it is unwarranted nostalgia tinged with bitterness that the world is now a more sinful place than it was in a past golden era. Yet the world has been and always will be a sinful place, at least until the last day. We must therefore ask what, if anything, can redeem the time? No theologian has explored this question as thoroughly and succinctly as Benedict XVI, a pope those mired in traditionalism rather than tradition normally admire, some to the point of sedevacantism in the era of Pope Francis. Writing in 2004 as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in Values in a Time of Upheaval, shortly before his election to the See of Peter, Ratzinger argues that politicizing religion is not only unbiblical: it inadvertently leads to unbelief. Drawing on the Book of Daniel, he warns of “political messianisms” and argues that it is an ethical demand for Christians to submit to “existing authorities” because those authorities, as St. Paul says, were ordained by God. Jeremiah tells the Israelites to submit to Babylon because it “guarantees law and peace and, thereby, the relative welfare of Israel.”
Mao Zedong, the communist personally responsible for more deaths than any other 20th-century totalitarian (and this is really saying something), once commented that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” This is how 20th-century communists governed and how they still govern in China, North Korea, and Nicaragua. Radical libertarians implicitly accept this operationally when they argue that the state is a necessary evil—that is, that it has no telos, no ultimate purpose and end. Its only purpose is to hold off a Hobbesian war of all-against-all. In opposition to these lines of thinking, Ratzinger says that we do not submit to authority out of fear or coercion; rather, we do so “for the sake of our own conscience.” The Church Fathers talked about the ascending ladder of perfection when it comes to obedience: out of fear of punishment, for reward, and for love of God. The goal under grace is to get out of the first category, be trained by the second category, and finally to reach the third. “Neither Peter nor Paul,” writes Ratzinger, “expresses an uncritical glorification of the Roman state. While they do insist strongly on the divine origin of the legal ordering of the state, they are far from divinizing the state itself.” It is only in recognizing the state’s limits that one comes to “acknowledge its ordering function and ethical character.”
It was St. Augustine of Hippo who first formulated this approach in his City of God, written in the decade after the unprecedented sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. City of God interprets the course of history as a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God. Each mingles with the other, says St. Augustine, while retaining its distinct ends and role in human story:
This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in manners, laws, and institutions. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adapts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced.
Most importantly, one cannot and should not conquer the other. Both exist for providential reasons as we work out our salvation sub specie aeternitatis—in the light of eternity.
The task of navigating the proper roles of church and state becomes most dangerous when we forget the full implication of the words of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel According to St. Mark: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It is precisely in this forgetting that we come to expect more of the state than it can give or to which it is ordered. On the other hand, rendering unto Caesar when Caesar acts like or claims to be God stretches the state to such a point that, if we were to obey it, we would be denying God.
So what is our measuring stick when it comes to the balance between church and state? If the state ensures peace and the rule of law, Ratzinger argues, then it is “in accordance with the divine ordinance.” Indeed, “it is precisely in its profane character that the state must be respected,” since this is its proper sphere. The state must remain within this sphere while also taking into account natural law, which transcends all states. Consequently, the refusal of the ancient Christians to worship the emperor and of modern Christians to divinize the state is about more than just avoiding idolatry. Ultimately, it is about rejecting totalitarianism as contrary to God’s design for the limited purpose of the state.
This does not mean, however, that the state has complete authority over law and justice. The state abrogates its role as legislator and magistrate when it punishes Christians simply because they are Christians. “At such a point, says Ratzinger, “it is no disgrace to be punished [as you would if you had broken the law], but rather an honor.” The model here is that of Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified by the Roman state. His resistance took the form of suffering and death. Martyrs, not revolutionaries, are the Christian archetype for resistance. The faithful Christian will support and obey laws even when those laws are made by men and women openly hostile to the faith, as long as the laws are just and do not coerce one to commit evil acts.
The power of the state must be limited because our future—we hope in faith—is in Heaven, beyond history. “The resistance fighter who dies with his weapon in his hand,” claims Ratzinger, “is not a martyr in the New Testament sense.” So how do we keep our righteous anger about injustice, the “culture of death,” and falsifications of the human person from leading us into the temptation to take over the state and destroy its proper limits in our pursuit of truth and justice? John Finnis argues that it “is essential to hold St. Thomas’s position that … in those matters that pertain to political good, secular rather than spiritual authority is to be obeyed.” This is because secular affairs depend “on moral premises supplied by the natural law … but also and more critically on premises about facts, past, present, and future, certain and uncertain.”
Catholic integralism in practice would discard human freedom as a heretical, univocally liberal idea. In its quest to instantiate the faith as the governing principle for the City of Man, integralism confuses the two cities, conflates their respective ends, and actually damages the prospects of evangelization and therefore the very cultural sanctification all Christians seek. This process would cause the pilgrim Church to be lumped in with the ideological colonization by the forces of transnational and transhuman libertinism that we see in major elements of the social agenda of the current U.S. State Department and the World Economic Forum. It is just the other side of the coin of Marxist liberation theology, and it will lead to rejection, not acceptance, of the Gospel. Worst of all, it would leave behind a unitary, redivinized State.
Where there is substantial corruption and political or social instability, religious leaders such as bishops and priests can be seen as something akin to civic officials, not just pastors. This is understandable, that holy men would be tempted to fill this gap. The same occurred in Roman cities during the long decline of the Roman Empire. Political stability for the Christian ultimately needs to come from social stability. When Pope Benedict XVI warned that politicizing religion leads to unbelief, he was not theorizing but referring to the ways in which corruption and abuse of power fueled the Protestant Reformation. In the long term, as a look at the actual history of integralist states in the 19th and 20th centuries (Spain, Portugal, France, Mexico, and Ireland) shows, throne and altar harmed evangelization, bred clericalism, and hurt the growth of civil society in contradiction of the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. And it ended in reaction and violence against the Church, its leaders and pastors, and laypeople.
The truth that sets us free cannot be imposed from without, through will. “The Church proposes,” taught St. John Paul, “she imposes nothing.” Imposition prevents evangelization. When the Church tries to evangelize through politics, the Christian faith becomes more easily seen as an ideology, because it is acting like one—just another expression of the will to power. And with it, those freedoms that are deeply rooted in what we are as human persons end up rejected in places such as communist China as merely Western and just another form of ideological colonization. In this way, both communism and politicized religion invert our true end to an earthly end, trading the paradise of eternal life for an alleged heaven on Earth that can never be. As Pope Francis has said, the Church is not an NGO and must not act like one.