Looking Back to Look Forward

A few years ago, Andrew Willard Jones wrote a book Before Church and State, which has only grown in relevance since the time when it appeared. It’s an account of Saint Louis IX, who was King of France in the 12th century. He led what Jones calls a “sacramental kingdom,” the kind of regime that existed before the later separation of Church and state. Jones’ main contention is that Saint Louis IX actually understood what the Church was for – and that the separation is artificial.

Whatever distinctions we might wish to make today between Church and state as institutions, there’s no question that the faith of the Church is vital to public life.  And Jones offers a window into what a fully functioning Church looks like. After all, the basic nature of the Church does not change. In contrast to the Church today, Jones’ research lays out the operation of the Church as it followed the law of love. It offers a refreshing example of the Church exercising herself completely, rather than eking out an existence to the extent that a hostile secular society grudgingly allows. His goal in writing is not to argue for the Church getting more power. It is about the Church being more authentically the presence of Christ in the world.

Authentic in what way? Jones reminds us that, in the twelfth century, “the material and the spiritual were totally dependent on each other and penetrated each other at every level.” This was true then and, in principle, still is now. Indeed, it expresses a basic principle in the doctrine of the Church. Compared to our bewildered time, there was no purely secular dimension to life at all.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the material and the spiritual are just as interdependent today as they were in the twelfth century. The fact that some people now don’t want there to be spiritual consequences to their words and actions does not change the reality. There is a spiritual dimension to every word, thought and action. Always. There are still intrinsically evil acts. There is still such a thing as the natural law. There is still such a thing as Divine Revelation. And there is still an accurate and correct way to use reason – that still requires faith.

People who import secular values into the Church, announce that God’s law is defective and that they, the enlightened (sometimes even “woke”), are better placed than the saints, martyrs, mystics, and theologians of the past to correct its flaws. If it is truly God’s law, and revelation confirms that it is, then it is absolute and applies to everyone, whether they believe it or not.

When the Church is being her true self, she still guards the interrelation of the spiritual and the material just as she did nine centuries ago. In fact, Jones reminds us “The fact that ecclesiastical rights and power did not descend from Louis; the fact that they found their source through the clerical side of society was not a threat to Louis’ self-understanding.” Remember this is St. Louis IX. Jones continues: “nearly all rights. . .and so their legitimacy, had their source outside of royal power.” This was true not only for the king, but for the pope as well. There’s an echo of this understanding in our own Declaration of Independence – “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” – however much our political class seems to have forgotten the very foundations of the nation.

*

The twelfth-century French Church did not always work perfectly, to be sure, but everyone in the kingdom knew that every person – from the peasants to the king to the pope himself – was bound by God’s law. Everyone had the duty to maintain peace and the faith. In the French kingdom, Louis’ highly trained magistrates (enqueteurs) worked hard to make sure that everyone played by the same rules. And the rules were not arbitrary.

So, for example, bishops today should not support any government that imagines itself to be godless and free of divine law. By giving the impression that the most basic truths have no importance to public life, some of those nominally in Church leadership, are actually blocking the concrete action and presence of the Church. You can’t help thinking that they choose political expediency because it is easier than preaching the Gospel.

We see this most clearly in the debate over abortion, which is intrinsically evil – a basic point in the Catechism because, as Pope Francis has reminded us, science itself shows abortion is homicide. And how do some bishops undermine something so obvious? With their various public utterances that refuse to enforce consequences for politicians, especially Catholic politicians, who shamelessly now not only tolerate abortion but go out of their way to promote it.

Teaching doctrine in season and out of season is hard work. Many bishops appear bored. They want to play a little politics despite what their play does to the integrity of the Church, which will not be long in rebounding against the bishops themselves.

The Church is the sacrament of truth for the world. There’s still enough belief that this is so in the United States that it’s not too late for the American Church to become a sign of what faith and peace can mean. We did not constitute the Church and we cannot remake it. It’s a divine creation and when the Church acts on that truth, there’s no telling what miracles may occur.

 

*Image: Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1510 [Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent]

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