Religion and Politics

by Philip Jones

Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism and Politics (New York, 1987, English translation by R Nowell)

This post is an appreciation of another commentary written by the former Pope, in which he explains the religious basis of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and the relationship of ecclesiastical jurisdiction to secular politics.

From its very beginning, even when it was just a tiny and obscure sect in 1st century Palestine, the Christian Church already claimed a public jurisdiction equal to that of the secular state, the mighty Roman Empire.  The Church has never existed, and never can exist, merely on the basis of a private contract between its members.  That would destroy its exclusive and universal claim of truth.

Martyrdom is essentially an assertion of the Church’s claim of equal public jurisdiction with the state.  The Roman state persecuted the early Church because the Church opposed the state’s totalitarian claim of jurisdiction with its own claim of truth.

The Roman Empire was long hostile to the Church, but eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.  As the secular state was Christianised, so Catholic theology became more favourably disposed towards it.  In the middle ages this led to an excessively broad conception of the state: ‘the state could not be accepted within the limits essential to it of its profane nature’ (p.213).  (Lutheranism and Anglicanism continued the mediaeval trend at the Reformation, showing an even greater deference to the claims of secular authority.)

The result was a theocratic exaggeration of the secular state.  The truth of Christianity was misused to create an intolerant theocracy.  The state came to inflict the same hideous tortures and death on heretics and infidels that it had once visited on martyrs.

The modern secular state inclines to relativism rather than totalitarianism, denying that there is such a thing as truth.  It promotes political stability over truth.  Blasphemy is de-criminalised on the ground that it does not endanger the public peace.  Christians do not riot or rebel, so blasphemous denial of the truth of Christianity is OK.  Certain manifestations of free speech, by contrast, are criminalised on the ground that they do endanger peace and stability.

The Christian Church is essential to a humane, pluralist society precisely because it offers truth, and human beings cannot live without truth.  Democracy is the product of the Greek-Christian heritage, ‘and can therefore only survive in this basic context’ (p.215).  Contrary to the opinion of American ‘neo-conservatives’, democracy cannot simply be exported or transplanted into non-Christian cultures.

Ethical behaviour requires truth if it is to be truly ethical.  However, ethics and ethical behaviour are not truth per se.  On the contrary, ethical behaviour, though it is indeed the agent of good, is ‘always at risk … never perfect, and must always be striven for anew’ (p.207).  The most ethical behaviour can yet be mistaken.  The results of ethical behaviour are not divinely guaranteed (p.214).

If the distinction between truth and ethics is not respected, this leads to a false Christian messianism which usurps both the sovereignty of God and the autonomy of science, ‘a kind of moralism that replaces political and economic arguments’ (p.207).

‘Ethical’ false messianism is often expressed in terms of ‘the Kingdom’, as distinct from ‘the Kingdom of God’.  Talk of ‘the Kingdom’ without God suggests something man-made, ‘something for which we are working, which we are building’ (p.207).  Such a ‘Kingdom’ is a mere ideological construction, being nothing more than the opinions of individual Christians or groups of Christians on political and social questions.

Thus (1) authoritarian, intolerant theocracy and (2) ‘ethical’ false messianism are the two opposite errors that corrupt and distort the truth of Christianity.

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