Sixty years ago this year, the English translation of the extraordinary Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac’s book Meditation sur L’Eglise first appeared as The Splendor of the Church. This masterpiece is a superb summary of the Church’s essential nature.
Particularly relevant right now is his chapter on the Church in the World. At the heart of everything lies the uniqueness of the revelation of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. So: “The trouble [between Church and state] dates from the proclaiming of the Gospel, for it was the Gospel that first distinguished what we today call the spiritual and the temporal.”
De Lubac quotes the great French poet Paul Claudel who said that “two primrose paths tempt the representatives of the two powers; the one submits the Church to the state to the point of making her a government ministry: the other submits the state to the Church, to the point of placing in the hands of the priesthood the unified power of the two. . . .Between these two dangers. . .humanity seeks its path.”
There is a prudential element in the way that the Church relates to the state. But what is the Church on this earth to do? De Lubac’s answer is challenging to say the least: “If we consider not only the State, but through it all the earthly powers which the Church is commissioned to bend by her witness to the law of God, then the struggle will seem yet more inevitable and more merciless.”
What does he mean, precisely, about the witness to the law of God? Consider the Orthodox Church in Russia in its relations with the state. According to an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center for scholars: “after the [Russian] elections in 1996, once analysts looked at the voting patterns, it became clear that religion had nothing to do with the population’s political tendencies. The 80 percent of the population that claimed to identify with Orthodoxy not only did not vote in line with what the Church sought politically, they also didn’t claim to identify with the ideology of the Church.”
Looking at the situation in the United States, Pew Research says: 37 percent of Catholics lean Republican; 44 percent lean Democrat; 19 percent have no specific choice. Compare these with the figures for all U.S. adults: 37 percent lean Republican; 44 percent lean Democrat; 18 percent no specific choice. Catholicism seems to make absolutely no difference to social attitudes. We seem to be pretty much in the same boat as the Russian Orthodox in relation to our service to the nation.
Despite the embarrassing internal squishiness of the American Church, de Lubac argues that the Church is everywhere meant to be “the one effective guarantee of spiritual liberty.” On the one hand, such liberty is not the product of the state, despite all its promises to be the source of progress for its people. After all, spiritual liberty is the real measure of human progress. On the other hand, if people inside and outside the Church never even hear from the pulpit about this dimension of the Church’s work – and since we do not communicate by ESP – then how does the Church in this country do its job? And when?
The other great service that the Church is meant to perform for its people and for the society at large is to teach people that humanity is one community with one common good because in the Church: “The Bride of Christ never ceases to be aware of the total humanity whose destiny she carries in her womb.” (Claudel)
This is the basis of the Church’s vocation to unify humanity in service of the one Lord and in care for all. Take the terrible situations in the inner cities, for example. We have different factions in the American Church, but it’s long past time to actually do something. This disgraceful affront to human dignity has been unaddressed, for at least the thirty years that I have lived in this country.
De Lubac concluded with some ideas about what these two services imply for the Church. They mean that the Church is militant by its very nature. This is not to be understood in a purely external way: “Neither the Church’s weapons nor her objectives will be those of this world.”
To illustrate his point, de Lubac quoted from a speech given by a Chinese priest in the 1950s, Tong Che-Tche was later arrested by the Communist government and disappeared. But before that, he said: “if the Church and the government cannot come to an agreement, sooner or later every Chinese Catholic will have nothing left to do but die.”
We may think, living in America, that this doesn’t have anything to do with us. But it’s naïve to underestimate how absolute the conflict between the Church and the State is.
De Lubac closed this analysis with words more ominous today than when he wrote them: “The Gospel warns us that the salt can lose its savor. And if we – that is most of us – live more or less in peace in the midst of the world, it is perhaps because we are lukewarm.”