The Two Swords
“We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal… Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the latter is to be administered for the Church but the former by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.”
This text of the bull Unam Sanctam (A.D. 1302) gives the classic thesis on Church and State. Boniface VIII wrote it in a dramatic moment of Church history which saw the beginning of the end of the Christian era, which signed the end of the Middle Ages. A pawn of King Philip the Fair of France, Nogaret gave a slap to the Pope which marked indeed the breach of the Church’s supremacy over the temporal powers.
To better assess this matter, a briefing into some of the historical, philosophical and theological documents will elucidate the fundamental ecclesiastic tenets of the political question.
Three Options Historically
We are looking at the connection between two powers ruling the same subjects both as Christians and as citizens. And since this connection is not unlike the relation between husband and wife, historically, its options were necessarily one of three: either proper marital union, or de facto separation, or again total divorce.
The Catholic option is that which exists in wedlock between husband and wife, each holding a specific jurisdiction and yet properly ordered. It consists in the harmony between the two Powers, the Temporal and the Spiritual—the State working under the ‘vigilance’ of the Church—and this is called the doctrine of the Two Swords, “The State not above but in the Church,” to quote St. Ambrose, echoed by St. Pius in Notre Charge Apostolique: “Society cannot be set up unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work.” Hence, there is neither unity in confusion nor separation, but union in the distinction. For about a millennium, from the baptism of Clovis till the Protestant uprising, under leaders like Charlemagne and St. Louis, the statesmen knew their faith and applied, with more or less fervor, the testament of St. Remigius: “For the honor of Holy Mother the Church of God and the defense of the poor.”
Historically, religious liberalism was the first erroneous version of the relation of Church and State. The State must ignore the Church, although this admits of a couple of variations. “The Church free in a free State” was the credo of the Italian revolutionary Cavour aiming at destroying the Pontifical Estates, separating what had always existed together. This credo was promoted later by the conservative liberal Montalembert in France during the Second Empire: “We’ll leave the Church free to transact its spiritual things with souls and schools, as long as we take full control of civil affairs, free from religious arbitration.” What is proposed in the first case is total separation, as when the spouses part company altogether. The second case offers a separation under the same roof, so that the State—the wife—would obey only when it suits it. In any case, the liberal system—for, so it is named—promotes liberty of conscience, which implies the liberty of thinking, of the press and of cult.
The utter disconnection or divorce between Church and State has been advocated lately by many revolutionary States. As an undiluted product of naturalism, State atheism denies Revelation and Religion altogether. Likewise, an indifferentist State worships a self-centered humanism and promotes human instincts. Therefore, religion or Church must receive its rights exclusively from the State according to the axiom: “The Church by the State and in the State.” This is the way communism and tyrannies have wiped out any parallel spiritual force so as to reign supreme, above and beyond any divine law.
The Recipe for Good Government
It was in the Age of Faith that St. Thomas Aquinas gave a reply to Hugh, newly appointed king of Cyprus, on how to govern. The De Regno encapsulates the best of Christian philosophy regarding the confessional State. Here are the logical steps of the argument.
The term governor etymologically designates the pilot who is said to govern a ship when he brings it unharmed and by a direct route to harbor. Likewise, the governor’s endeavors will merely tend to preserve the State undamaged in its proper perfection. Yet man’s perfection consists not only in the pursuit of earthly things, but really in final beatitude in the enjoyment of God. So, the Christian man, for whom that beatitude has been purchased by the blood of Christ, needs also spiritual care to direct him to the harbor of eternal salvation, and this care is provided by the ministers of the church of Christ.
This may be fine and good for the individual, but what about the community? It also must have a purpose, which cannot be a common type of living, as that of animals or slaves. Indeed only such men form a multitude who submit to the same laws and the same government for the purpose of living well, i.e. virtuously. And since society must have the same end as the individual man, its ultimate goal cannot be only to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God, according to the words of Our Lord: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”
Now the possession of God is a lofty goal obtained not by human, but by divine power. Consequently, government of this kind pertains to that king who is not only a man, but also God, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, in order that spiritual things might be distinguished from earthly things, the ministry of this kingdom has been entrusted not to earthly kings, but to priests, and most of all to the chief priest, the Vicar of Christ, the Roman Pontiff.
On the other hand, those who have the care of intermediate ends should be directed by the rule of him who has care of the ultimate end. And in practice, the king’s office should promote the good life of the multitude for reaching heaven, that is, he should command those things which lead to the happiness of heaven and, as far as possible, forbid the contrary. St. Augustine, writing to the African governor Boniface, explains this: “One thing is for the prince to serve God as an individual, it is quite another thing to do so as a prince. As a man, he serves it by living faithfully; as a king, by producing religious laws and sanctioning them with the fitting vigor. The kings serve the Lord as kings when they do for His cause that which only kings can do.” But if the king were only worried to provide for these material goods without caring whether his subjects used them to go to hell, he would be acting like the captain of the Titanic, worried only about giving fun to his passengers but careless as to whether the boat would reach port or nail an iceberg.
Thus, in the mind of St. Thomas, both Powers are autonomous in their respective domain. The State deals with the temporal and the Church with the spiritual, with their proper immediate ends, living well or eternal beatitude. But as the ends are ordered and subordinate, so must the respective societies. This is called the indirect power, usually spoken of negatively although it has also a more positive side to it.
Negatively, the Church has power of veto over the State ratione peccati—whenever it is at fault. Its duty is to correct the natural leaders who stray because of sin and to condemn them if need be, as was the case of St. Ambrose with Emperor Theodosius, or St. Gregory VII with Emperor Henry IV at Canossa. This is because the temporal power suffers from a double weakness. As such it not only ignores the flaw of original sin, but it has no way to remedy it. Thus, the temporal society needs to be infused with the Church teaching of the natural law, which is like the State catechism for living well. The Church will also impart the healing grace without which man will all too soon return to his beastly cave or, as Chesterton puts it: “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.”
Positively, the Church has received from Christ the mission to “teach all nations.” She alone has the supreme wisdom of the ultimate purpose of man and knows the how and why of all authority on earth. Hence, she is the mistress of life and of statesmen. Her function is to provide the overseeing governor with the good eye. For governing must conjugate two things, the authority which is the eye apt to see the end and its proper means, and the power which is the arm to put in motion all means necessary to reach the end. In this sense, the Church’s wisdom and knowledge influence directly the statesman pretty much as the shipman tells the shipbuilder what kind of ship he must construct to be suitable for navigation.
It would be false to consider the Church locked in an ivory tower, imperturbable to the evolutions and revolutions in the city laid out at her feet. The City needs the Church as well as the Church needs the City. The Church needs to permeate and fashion the City in the same way that the City is to find its place in the Church. This complementarity is what Leo XIII refers to when he compares the two Powers to the union of body and soul. Continuing in this analogy, Cardinal Pie says: “But, however happily it be endowed with articulations, springs and muscles, a body without a soul is a cadaver, and the proper of the cadaver is to fall soon into dissolution. The soul of any human society is the faith, it is doctrine, it is religion, it is God.”
If the City is vitalized through the Church, the other side of the coin is no less true: the Church badly needs a confessional State. Although she will survive because she is divine, the Church will be impaired from reaching her spiritual ends without the help of civil powers. We need only open our eyes to see that the vast majority of people are sheep: they follow the behavior of society and custom. If it is fashionable to go to church, the people will go to church in droves; but if the law allows divorce, many will divorce. Hence, when the Church is in the City like its soul, the majority of people are saved; but in time of separation, eternal salvation is the privilege of heroes.
The Theological Documents
In 1950, Cardinal Ottaviani wrote an interesting piece of political jurisprudence, occasioned by a controversy in the United States opposing Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton (American Ecclesiastical Review, May 1954) and John C. Murray, the father of Dignitatis Humanae. The latter’s view was that the Church can live peacefully and in the full possession of all the rights to which she is entitled in a lay-state, even when the State is composed of Catholics. Murray defended virtually the American dream as the messianic Promised Land. For him, the State as such cannot accomplish an act of religion; moreover no obligation to worship God can ever enter the constitutional sphere; finally, even for a State composed of Catholics, there is no obligation to profess the Catholic religion.
Ottaviani, grounding his theses on the perennial Church magisterium, affirms as an indisputable truth that in a predominantly Catholic State, it is incumbent on the rulers to mold the legislation of the State in a Catholic sense. From this duty, three consequences follow immediately:
First, the State has the duty of professing its religion, even socially. “States cannot without serious moral offense conduct themselves as if God were non-existent or cast off the care of religion as something foreign to themselves or of little moment” (Leo XIII, Immortale Dei).
Secondly, legislation must be inspired by the full concept of membership of Christ. “Reflecting seriously on the deleterious consequences which a Constitution, that abandons the ‘corner stone’ of the Christian concept of life and attempts to base social life on moral and religious agnosticism, would introduce into the bosom of society and into its ephemeral history, every Catholic will readily understand that the question which, before every other, ought at present to attract his attention and to spur him to action, is that of securing for this and future generations the benefit of a fundamental law of the State, which is not opposed to sound religious and moral principles, but which rather draws vigorous inspiration from them and proclaims and pursues their lofty aims” (Pius XII, October 19, 1945). Thus, when Cardinal Pie was told that certain countries (like Belgium and the United States of America) had proclaimed the separation of Church and State and allegedly enjoyed more complete liberty, he answered boldly: “The American and Belgian system, this system of philosophico-political indifference, is eternally a defective system.…The perfect agreement of the priesthood and of the empire is the common law and the normal state of Christian societies.”
Thirdly, the State must ward off everything that would tend to divide or weaken the religious unity of a people that has the unanimous conviction of being in the secure possession of religious truth.
Leo XIII, in Immortale Dei, makes it manifest that rulers cannot “out of the many forms of religion adopt that one which pleases them,” because, as he explains, in the worship of God they are obliged to observe the laws and the forms of worship in accordance with which God Himself has commanded that He should be honored, “for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will.” And in Libertas, he insists strongly on the same point: “Justice forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness, namely to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.”
The Church magisterium on the confessional State was given liturgical expression with the feast of Christ the King which Pius XI instituted in 1925: “To the States, the yearly celebration of the feast (of Christ the King) will recall that magistrates and governors are held, as much as the citizens, to render Christ a public worship and to obey Him…because His royalty demands that the entire State be ruled by the commandments of God and the Christian principles.”
Such is the ideal State for the Catholic Church, which occurs in a largely Catholic country. Ottaviani explained the need for toleration in other cases. Time magazine, in the thick of the Murray-Fenton controversy, argued that Catholicism supported the first amendment only in practice, but denied it in principle. Fenton answered the attack by quoting Immortale Dei of Leo XIII which gives room for toleration of the freedom of worship “for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil.” Hence, no American needs to enter the anarchist club in order to remain a Roman Catholic.