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The Complexity of Church-State Relations

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 18, 2010

A current legal case, in which sexual abuse victims are attempting to include Pope Benedict XVI as a defendant, demonstrates just how complex the relationship between Church and State really is. When I last commented on this complexity (see When Should a Bishop Expose a Priest to Civil Authority? on April 20th), some readers asserted that it was perfectly obvious that priests and bishops should be completely subject to civil law as well as to ecclesiastical law.

But is it really so obvious? The current Pope, while not a citizen of the United States, is a citizen of Germany. Are we therefore to conclude that he should be subject to German civil law? Some might respond that it is different for the Pope, because he is a head of state in his own right, and so is protected by the usual diplomatic immunity. But the Pope is not a head of state in exactly the same sense as the heads of other states. The Vatican City State is a creation of convenience by a largely Christian culture which saw the importance of providing the Pope and his curia with a small buffer area in which they could be free from political harassment or coercion in governing the Church.

While I agree with this concept entirely as a matter of prudence, the Vatican City State does not exist to protect the Pope’s rights as a territorial sovereign (because the Pope is not by nature a territorial sovereign) but simply to facilitate the exercise of his rights as the head of the Catholic Church. Nor is this facilitation a necessary feature of any given culture. Clearly, neither bishops nor the pope himself were regarded as independent of State authority in the ancient Roman Empire. Instead, they gained this sort of respect and independence from temporal authority as society became Christian and began increasingly to perceive the overwhelming value of a separation between Church and State, with the Church exercising sovereign power in her own spiritual sphere.

To put it in the baldest possible terms: By their very nature, the State can execute and the Church can excommunicate. It has always been obvious to Christian men that just as the State should not wield the temporal sword at the behest of the Church, so too the Church should not wield the spiritual sword at the behest of the State.

It is equally clear that this understanding is fading from what is left of Western civilization. It may be only a matter of time before some nation in the secularized West seeks to drag the Pope before its secular tribunals in order to exonerate or punish according to its own understanding of reality. Although it is unlikely that we have yet gone far enough down this road to expect such a result from the current case in U.S. Federal Court in Kentucky—and certainly the United States would not yet be prepared to send troops to Rome to seize the Pope—it would not be the first time in history that this sort of thing has been done. Before things go that far, however, it is far more likely that some state would seize Church property or imprison bishops or priests, either for their own “crimes” or as a punishment for the Pope’s refusal to appear before the civil bar—as a way, in fact, to bring the Church to heel.

Now if it still seems obvious to most Catholics that the Pope ought not to be subject to civil authority in this way, then what about bishops? They are in effect local popes—vicars of Christ in their own dioceses—with the same need to be largely independent of civil authority for the good of the Church. And if bishops should not be treated as ordinary citizens, then what about priests? They are collaborators with their bishop, appointed and empowered by him to extend the Church in smaller particular territories within the larger diocese.

The point I am making with these questions, which will appear more or less rhetorical according to the reader’s understanding of Church-State relations, is that there is a long tradition that the Church should be independent of civil authority, and not because she is some sort of foreign power. Unfortunately, many have recently offered facile conclusions concerning the “obvious” solutions to this highly significant problem. But those who imagine the solution to be simple need to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Church, including her own spiritual sovereignty, which must be protected from the potential vagaries of civil power—and therefore, necessarily, in some measure from civil power itself.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 19, 2010 2:21 PM ET USA

    This constant compulsion to make the Church "look better" by casting it in the context of the World has got to stop. The Church should be in "relation" to the State as the sky is above the earth. Earth-bound things have no normal business judging those that belong to the sky..., but if they must because of gross degradation then woe to those creatures that have so lowered themselves, because they have scandalized God Himself!

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - May. 18, 2010 11:44 PM ET USA

    Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

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