Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The Limits of Civil Rule with Respect to the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 19, 2010

In light of my comments yesterday on The Complexity of Church-State Relations, perhaps we can now see that the contemporary lack of understanding of what it means to be a Church tends to put the Church between a rock and a hard place. If the Church allows herself to be prosecuted in national courts, she places herself beneath the State. But the alternative of claiming diplomatic immunity also leaves much to be desired.

Again, the notion of the Pope as the head of a sovereign state is simply a way of expressing the rightful independence of the Church using the terms common to diplomatic affairs. It is a sort of rough working method for achieving a desired practical result. But insofar as any nation should think (as America has not infrequently thought) that this makes the Church a “foreign power”, then this arrangement causes a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church herself.

As our society grows increasingly secular, we will find that the Church is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she claims diplomatic immunity, people will scream (as some in the Kentucky case are already screaming) that she is a foreign power and that her insidious and subversive influence must be eliminated. In the United States, this hearkens back to the Know Nothing politics of the mid-19th century. But insofar as she explains that her immunity is not essentially diplomatic, but instead that the pope and the bishops represent the power of Christ in the work of salvation, a work with which the State has no right to interfere, then she will be speaking in categories that a secularized West can no longer understand.

Many Protestant denominations have eliminated this tension by resorting to national or state churches (oxymorons both), a tactic which first commended itself to Martin Luther when he appealed to the German nobility for support against Rome. But the Catholic Church cannot go down that road without, in fact, ceasing to be a church. Her authority is not merely the inspiration of the Holy Spirit mediated imperfectly through the human heart; it is rather a specific institutional authority conferred upon a unique body with particular officers. The Church possesses from Christ herself her own authority to teach, sanctify and, yes, rule. The civil power may derive from God through the natural law, but the ecclesiastical power derives from God through the direct action, conferral and mandate of Christ in history.

Now because the Church possesses spiritual rather than temporal authority, it is within the province of the Church to determine the proper ends and means of temporal rule. Though she does not take the reins of civil government herself, she instructs civil government—and those who govern—as to their legitimate goals and their legitimate methods. The State can exercise no corresponding guiding authority in the life of the Church. But far from making the Church a competing or “foreign” power, it is precisely this reality which makes her the friend and guarantor of the rights and liberties of all peoples, as well as the ultimate guide to success in justice and peace for every civil authority.

It ought to be clear by now that a proper understanding of the relationship between Church and State must begin with a proper understanding of the Church herself. That is the nub of the problem today. This does not mean that ecclesiastical persons can never be subjected to civil penalties, but it does mean that it is up to the Church alone to determine how civil authority applies to those who, bearing the indelible mark of Holy Orders, are part of the hierarchy established by Christ Himself. Thus, if we argue that priests should be turned over to the civil authority for certain crimes, it can only be because the Church herself determines that this is an acceptable way to proceed in these cases. It is again the Church that must decide the ends and means appropriate to civil rule, particularly in regard to herself—and not through any craven attempt at escaping the consequences of guilt, but through her teaching authority, which rises above particular instances in order to define matters of principle.

In addition, of course, there are prudential questions. Even in cases in which it would be justifiable as a matter of principle to engage the civil power with respect to ecclesiastical persons, it will often be more conducive to good order for the Church to first deal effectively with a problem at an ecclesiastical level, and then (as may also be prudent) to formally “relax” the offender to the secular arm, as was done in the Middle Ages. It is never good for souls if the civil authority forms the habit of judging and prosecuting the Church or her ministers all on its own. It is far better for the Church to make a determination first, in proper cooperation with the State, whenever reasonably possible.

Again, the complexities are obvious, but I repeat the essential maxim: A proper understanding of Church-State relations derives first and foremost from a proper understanding of the Church.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: c_truelove7100 - May. 22, 2010 11:19 AM ET USA

    "Render to Caesar" doesn't grant ultimate autonomy to the state, it only grants to the state that which it is due b/c of the state's God-given authority. Jesus didn't merely say "Go, preach...baptize..." He instituted the Church and Her officials to teach govern and sanctify the world. Regulation of conduct belongs to BOTH the Church AND the State--in their own ways. What Mirus is pointing out here (& in the previous article) is how difficult it is to determine who has what jurisdiction.

  • Posted by: Eagle - May. 20, 2010 8:18 AM ET USA

    I agree with the maxim, but disagree with its interpretation. "Render to Caesar..." grants autonomy to the State; "Go, preach the Gospel and baptize..." grants autonomy to the Church, but only for religious speech and practice. Regulation of conduct belongs to the State; when that conduct involves faith and morals, then the Church has the duty to criticize and instruct. Whether analyzed from the Gospel, or 1st Amendment, there is no immunity by any person in Orders for non-religious misconduct.