Power and the Church

The birth of the Church took place in hostile surroundings. Its founder, Jesus Christ, was crucified, His disciples were persecuted, many of them died martyrs. Furthermore, many of the apostles were humble fishermen -although some of them also had a higher position like Matthew, who was a tax collector. The Christian religion spread out among cruel persecutions, which cost a lot of victims. Moreover, primitive Christians didn’t resort to arms, but let themselves be killed without resistance (in contrast to Moslems who introduced the “holy war” in order to propagate their Religion, torturing many Christians who didn’t want to convert to it).

The time arrived -“blood of martyrs, seed of Christians”- when roman society was conquered by Christianity and emperor Constantine converted. Then -although there were other emperors like Julian the Apostate who persecuted the Church again- power didn’t persecute the Church, but was on its side. That’s a good thing, for God calls kings and political leaders as well to conversion and, on the other hand, Christian people could live in peace under just laws:

It is a holy wish of the Church that the power be Christian, even if it has no political power at all. Being that a good thing in itself, it also has its bad side: The Church can be tempted to follow the most comfortable path, to stay away from fidelity to Christ and be induced by political power to act in secular matters and be seduced by wealth and grow apart from Christ, who was poor until His dead. This happened during the so-called Iron Age of the Church.

By using the force of arms to evangelize, many abuses were committed which were contrary to the Gospels and to people’s conscience: God doesn’t want conversions by force, because He has made man free.

Nowadays, the Church is rather attacked by political power. In the 20th century, it has been persecuted by communist and nazi totalitarian governments and even nowadays, in democracy, antichristian rules are approved like the law of abortion, against which the Pope fights, bravely pointing out that Parliaments have no right to allow a crime against innocent beings.

Nevertheless, parliaments approve such unjust laws and look at the Pope as a nuisance. It isn’t a good thing when political power is hostile to the Church. The Church asks then its parishioners to intervene in public life in order to change antichristian laws.

Power must not oppress people but be there to their service. The Church wants that power be just and respectful with the consciences and the rights of all men.

Power presupposes the possibility to use coercion in order to establish a determined behaviour, normally according to some laws. Power can be just or unjust. An unjust law doesn’t rule according to conscience (Saint Augustin said: “What are kingdoms but robbery if they differ from justice?”). Also, the political task must be linked to morality. Political leaders are also persons and, therefore, they must act according to moral norms. 

But the Church must not be mixed up with political power: it is not the mission of the Church to impose by force the behaviour demanded by Christian moral values. But it can recommend to the political power, in order to avoid some sins and crimes that have a remarkable social repercussion, the use of legitimate force without which it would be impossible to live in civil society.

Thus, the Church looks with sympathy upon the punishment for murder by law, because this protects the life of many innocent people. Likewise, upon the punishment for abortion, because it isn’t but an action of legitimate defence of innocent beings. It is not the mission of the Church to punish by penal court, but she can recommend this to the political power, by stating that such procedure is just and some other isn’t.

Therefore, we can ask ourselves if perhaps the limits between ecclesiastic and political powers are nebulous.

Jesus said“Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s “. And Jesus ran away when they wanted to make him king. And before Pilate he said:“My kingdom doesn’t belong to this world”. Therefore, people who are following Jesus Christ, especially priests, bishops and Pope, must not aspire to political power. To hold a political position is a mortgage for the actions of the shepherds that would be obliged to accept the profits of power instead of exclusively defending God’s interests. On the other hand, parishioners with legitimate different political opinions would be opposed to their shepherds: A politicked Church is opposed to her evangelizing mission. That was obvious in the past, when there was some confusion between ecclesiastic and political powers, were it from the right or from the left. It is loathsome that a priest can give orders to the police or to the army and that political errors revert to the Church. Furthermore, it is almost impossible that the Church remains poor if it has earthly power, and the Church must be poor with Christ who was poor until his death.

But that doesn’t mean that the Church doesn’t wish that the political authority be Christian and is inspired by the faith in making the laws. For politicians are also human beings redeemed by Christ and, therefore, invited to salvation. On the other hand, it is desirable that society has laws that are fair and the Christian parishioners can follow their religious obligations in peaceful and propitious surroundings.

The problem arises when in society co-habit different conceptions, some of them even atheistic or agnostic. The Church cannot impose then her convictions by force, and must respect the freedom of conscience. The evangelic message must be freely accepted in order that its acceptation isn’t empty to the eyes of God.

But the Church has the right to require two things from the political authority: First, that in society, natural rights (some of them are known today as human rights) are granted and are not discussed. Indeed, a society in which the right to live, the right to practice religion freely, the right to dispose of the inexcusable goods to survive, the right to marry and to have the number of children one desires were not granted, would not be entitled to the name of society.

In such a society, the existing power would be a tyrannical power and one would not be obliged to respect it in consciousness and it would be legitimate to oppose it by pacific means (in the last resort, although it is very rare that it appears in practice, it could even  lead to a legitimate insurrection by arms).                 

Second, that the free practice of the catholic religion is granted for parishioners.

Without directly participating in political power, the church has, as part of her mission, the giving, according to faith, of her opinions and recommendations about political and social questions to parishioners and to political people. On the other hand, Christian laymen have to engage and participate in political and social life, by giving testimony of their faith with their attitudes and their fidelity to the Gospels.