Monday, September 5, 2016

A Brief History of Church-State Relations Over the Last Two Thousand Years

This is a (relatively) brief outline of Church-State relations, mostly just the big phases and conflicts, focusing on the West and on the Papacy, from my own perspective, based on my own reading, and for my own purposes:
The birth of Christianity coincides almost perfectly with the divinization of the Roman Emperor. By means of the new Imperial cult, the Emperor was treated as divine or quasi-divine, and the cult of his sacred person and authority quickly became one of the basic cores of Roman and Imperial identity. The Roman Empire, as embodied by the quasi-divine Emperor, was, by this understanding, absolutely sovereign, and not capable of being challenged from the standpoint of divinity, since it was itself, in a very real sense, divine--it also had, naturally, absolute power over religious matters, funding cults and temples and regulating them for its own purposes. Even prior to the Empire, of course, civic and religious life were generally indistinguishable, with political and religious offices and authority going together in most cases.
Christians in the first centuries, though, had a complex relationship with this Imperial ideology. On the one hand, they consistently refused to pay the Emperor divine (or even pseudo-divine) honors, which was one of the primary reasons why they were persecuted. On the other hand, Christians labored to present themselves as good citizens, loyal to the Empire and especially to the Emperor himself--and they sometimes even appealed to the Emperor for internal dispute resolutions, or for aid against local persecution (most persecutions of Christians were local rather than Imperial). As the Church expanded, though, it took on more and more the status of a "society within a society," even an "Empire within an Empire"--the Church as a highly organized institution, shadowing the Roman Empire in all its major cities, participating in its intellectual life and utilizing its infrastructure, but with its own authorities totally separate from, and frequently opposed to, the general public authorities and ideologies. A bishop was a public figure, to be sure, but he was not a civic one--and he represented, in his person, a set of ideas radically different from those animating the state at large. He and the Imperial governor were not likely to get along.

With the rise of Constantine and his successors, this relationship between Church and Empire changed dramatically. No longer was there a clear, ideological separation between Church and Empire--instead, gradually, it began more and more to be assumed that both Church and Empire shared a single ideology and religious scheme, even as they remained institutionally distinct. The great question that emerged, then, was to what degree this institutional distinction and separation was to be maintained, and how these parallel authorities should and would relate to each other in the future. In theory, Constantine affirmed a separation of powers, with bishops supreme over all religious matters while he dealt with “external affairs”--in practice, though, he and his successors consistently acted to regulate and control the Church in numerous ways, attempting to subsume Church structures and leaderships into the overall Imperial system. Effectively, what they sought (more or less openly, and to greater and lesser degrees) was a return to the general Roman schema of a single unified Imperial system combining religious and civic authority and headed by a single Emperor--after all, what need was there for two parallel institutions, with two parallel hierarchies, in a single, united Empire sharing a single religion?
Along with this, naturally, the idea of the sacrality of the Emperor, so essential to Roman identity, began to gradually emerge in Christian terms as well. The leaders of this movement theologically were initially the luminaries of the "Arian" party--Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and their compatriots. In my opinion, much of “Arian” christology is simply a reflection of these figures’ conception (based on Imperial cult) of the Emperor as a semi-divine world-ruler and mediator, for whom a divine-but-not-completely-divine Christ would serve as a fitting image and model. This “Arian” movement reached its apogee of power under the Emperor Constantius, who openly asserted his absolute power over the Church and its leaders, and frequently meddled in theological matters under the guidance of his “court bishops.” In the end, though, Arianism was soundly defeated theologically--a defeat that was also a triumph for a bishop-led, more or less anti-Imperial faction of the episcopate, with the Papacy at its head. The resulting theology of this triumphant faction took its definitive shape in the doctrine of the "Dyarchy" promulgated by Pope St. Gelasius at the end of the 5th century. By this conception, which was to be the official dogma of the (Western) Catholic Church for the next thousand years, the world is rightly ruled by two distinct and separate powers, spiritual and temporal, neither of which ought to interfere with the other's proper functioning within its own sphere, and of which the spiritual power is inherently superior. Hence, the separate institutional structure of the Church ought to continue to exist even in a Christian state, and ought in fact to take precedence in a real sense over Imperial authorities-- since the Church possesses the totality of responsibility for dealing with eternal and divine matters, while the Emperor is tasked by God merely with tending to the temporal and mundane aspect of the world. St. Augustine’s “City of God,” earlier in the fifth century, had emphasized even more strongly the newly de-divinized status of the Roman Empire, portrayed now not as an eternal, divine institution, but merely as a corrupt, passing “City of Man” doomed to destruction.
This was in theory--in practice, in the Byzantine East, Caesaropapism developed rapidly, with the idea of the Emperor as sacral, priestly, and absolutely supreme over matters of religion being first established de-facto, then growing more and more official over the centuries. As time passed, Byzantine “symphonia” became, in effect, an echo of the Roman Imperial system, with the Imperial government represented by both bishops and Imperial officials, and the Emperor the supreme legislator in both religious and temporal matters. Along with this, the sacred authority and person of the Emperor was emphasized more and more as well, with certain Emperors asserting openly a priestly and episcopal status within the Church. This was consistently opposed by the Papacy, who continued to assert more or less the Gelasian Dyarchy. This led to a remarkable number of conflicts, doctrinal and otherwise, between Pope and Emperor over the first thousand years of Christianity. In the periods where Pope and Emperor were in alignment, though, Popes were generally more than happy to allow Emperors to enforce Papal doctrinal positions, and those of the Ecumenical Councils they participated in, over and against what they considered to be heretics. They also affirmed, over and over again, the Emperor's universal(ish) authority, and the fact that the Emperor's authority came from God--thus providing a sacral(ish) tinge to the Imperial office, even while Popes continued to deny any kind of priestly or episcopal privileges or status to the office. The relationship and negotiations between Papacy and Empire were extremely complex, and generally of the highest consequence--for the West (with two partial exceptions I know of) generally followed the Pope, while the East (at least officially) followed the Emperor. When the two agreed, there were Ecumenical Councils to ratify and glorify that agreement. When they did not, there was schism.
In the West, meanwhile, conflict between Church and State was generally low-level, existing almost entirely between local Church leaders and local strongmen, as there was no Imperial authority to speak of. With the rise of Charlemagne, though, this changed dramatically again. The Popes initially supported Charlemagne, and gave him the universal title of Roman Emperor, in the hopes that he would prove easier to deal with than his Byzantine counterparts, who were currently engaged in a long-running and violent theological conflict with the Papacy over the doctrine of images. Charlemagne, though, for all his virtues, behaved in practice with a more than Byzantine attitude to the Church, appointing and deposing bishops at his own whim. In time, this led to a prolonged period where the Western Emperor came to almost totally dominate the life of the Church, appointing and deposing Bishops and even Popes and treating the Church as an extension (or rather, as the central core and foundation, since civic institutions in the West were largely nonexistent) of a new Imperial system.
This, of course, ended dramatically with the Gregorian Reform, and the rise of Pope Gregory VII. Gregory and the other reformers were in large part simply reasserting the Gelasian Dyarchy in an age which had long neglected it--but they also elaborated on this theory, and sought to implement it in much more practical and direct ways than ever before. To this end, the reformers strove to make the separation between clerics and non-clerics as great as possible, abolishing Imperial investiture of Bishops, clerical marriages and dynasties, and other forms of what they considered to be clerical corruption and undue lay influence on the Church. They also asserted in the strongest terms the superiority of the spiritual power over the temporal power, not only in the abstract, but in the most practical and strident of terms. Papal authority over the Emperor in all religious matters, including the highly touchy cases of marriage and excommunication, was asserted strongly, as well as (eventually) the right of the Pope to act even in the political sphere when necessary "because of sin"; that is to say, when the Emperor misbehaved, the Pope had the authority to correct him, even in temporal matters.
This was a very ambitious movement, but it mostly failed to achieve its central goals--though it did achieve enough to make the Middle Ages as we know them. The battle between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, though, was ultimately somewhat inconclusive, weakening both and leaving them vulnerable to the power of emerging nation-states.
In the conflict between Pope and Emperor, both sides appealed to history and tradition to justify their claims--and Byzantine caesaropapism grew to be a strong influence on the Imperial faction, especially by way of Roman and Byzantine law codes and histories. At the same time, even the most stridently anti-Imperial Popes conceded some kind of universal and God-given authority to Emperors, even if in their view this power extended only over temporal matters, and was ultimately subject to their own. Both of these things kept alive, in the West, a profound sense of the sacrality of the Empire as such.
The real break in Western history, though, came when this sacral caesaropapism began to be applied to the rulers of nation-states--who had always been conceived as mere parts of a larger polity, subject (at least in theory) to the authority of the universal Emperor and the universal Pope. In the conflict between the French king Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII, though, Philip for the first time (that I know of) explicitly asserted the Imperial and hence sacral authority of national governments, and in the most absolutist of terms. Imperial authority had always been seen to derive from its (theoretically) universal scope, its status as the authority appointed by God over the entire world--now, though, this sacrality was to adhere to the rulers of fundamentally partisan states whose basis was not in universal religion, but rather in inherently divisive concepts of ethnicity, language, and “race.” To this, Boniface responded with utter condemnation and rejection--and consequently was kidnapped and murdered, with the Papacy itself forcibly removed by the French to Avignon. Ironically, the Papal Reform Movement was defeated in the end, not by the Emperor, but by a new national government claiming absolute, sacral, and pseudo-Imperial authority.
In the end, the Avignon papacy led to the spectacle of the Great Western Schism, where various nation-states each tried to set up their own Popes--many limited, partial authorities attempting to use the universality of the Catholic Church and its institutions to gain power in a game of one-upmanship among themselves. Finally, though, there was enough unity left in Europe and in the Church to reestablish once again the Papacy in its universality and independence, in Rome once again. In practice, though, the Popes of this period gave up their former dreams of universal reform, in favor of a prosperous existence as minor Italian political leaders. In the religious sphere, the Papacy still claimed universal authority--but in the new world of European politics, they were more and more simply one state among others.
As Europe splintered more and more into nation-states, the idea of the "Divine Right of Kings" gradually began to emerge, imputing a sacral authority derived ultimately from the Roman Imperial cult by way of Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire to national leaders, and supplemented by new, Voluntarist and Nominalist models of leadership and authority. By this understanding, national leaders did not hold their authority from God in a mediated way--either (in the Imperial party’s view) as mere vassals of the universal Emperor, or (in the Papal party’s view) as given the use of the temporal sword by the universal Pope of the Catholic Church. Instead, each king was in a very real sense both Pope and Emperor, holding his authority directly from God himself and not subject to any judgment or authority besides God himself.
When the Reformation happened, these new Divine Kings took the opportunity to rapidly complete an almost total takeover of the institutional Church in their lands. In Protestant lands, this took the form of direct stealing of Church property and rejection of all clerical authority, with national governments assuming effectively unlimited power over religious matters. These nations quickly achieved a more than Byzantine unification of religious and political institutions and authorities, even as their sense of sacrality seemed to evaporate with alarming rapidity. In the case of England, at first "Protestantism" was simply an exaggerated version of Byzantine Caesaropapism, with little or no positive content beyond this--and it morphed, over the centuries, into a formidable ideology that effectively combined in one ethnic and cultural identity, religious belief, and public authority.
Even in Catholic lands, though, national governments used the opportunity, and the implied threat of their defection, to effectively take over the institutional Church within their domains. The Papacy, with a ruined Rome and half of Europe in arms against it, was left helpless in relation to national governments Catholic and Protestant--even as the same time the Counter-Reformation gave them a measure of direct influence over newly pious and fervent Catholic populaces unheard of before, partially counterbalancing this in the long run. Still, the Gelasian Dyarchy was effectively dead, even in Catholic countries--unitary "confessional states" now ran the show everywhere, with no Church power capable of resisting them.
These governments often defended their newfound sacral authority initially by appealing to their status as Empires, and hence analogues of the sacral Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires. Indeed, one of the first of the Henrician laws declared solemnly that England was, in fact, an Empire--and hence, ruled by a sacral Emperor and Head of the Church. Now, though, instead of one universal Empire, every nation was to be one. This led quickly to the birth of a truly bizarre hybrid creature--the ethnic-national Empire. This combination of the very narrowest idea of identity with the very widest scope for power and dominance was to be, for hundreds of years, the dominant model for political authority in the West. Colonialism, racial slavery, and Imperialism are its fruits.
Then, of course, Protestantism was rapidly followed by secularization in much of Europe. As State Protestantism faded, it left a massive religious vacuum behind it, one filled both by thousands of ever-multiplying, populist, non-state-regulated sects, and by newly fervent and uniform nationalisms and ideologies. In the meantime, the French Revolution attempted to, and almost succeeded in, completely destroying the Catholic Church and the Papacy--and with it, a virulent strain of anti-clerical and anti-Catholic politics entered Europe. As nation states dropped their confessional pretenses and began to exist more and more openly for the sake of ethnic identity and colonial-Imperial power, practically every one of them began to make war on the Catholic Church. Germany, France, Italy, Spain...the list goes on and on.
By the new, "Enlightened" theories of government, at once an outgrowth of and reaction to the sacral and Imperial pretensions of Renaissance and Early Modern nation-states, governments existed to represent ethnic and national identity and sentiment, and their authority was sovereign, Imperial, and completely disconnected from any religious basis, coming instead from the (highly theoretical) will of “the people”--conceived, as in the ancient world, in an exclusive and ethnic sense, and in highly Imperialistic terms. A nation now was the embodiment of a single ethnic, linguistic, and cultural group-identity--and the most natural thing for such a body to do was to conquer and rule over other peoples. Such institutions had no need at all for God, or the Church, to give them authority over their peoples and their Empires--and indeed, little desire for any God or Church, to challenge, or even relativize, that authority. The Catholic Church and the Papacy was, in most of Europe and America, conceived of as the ultimate enemy of these new, more and more Republican and progressive nation-states. Once again, as in the ancient world, an absolute, sovereign, and unitary authority confronted an insolent, independent authority, rejecting its ideology and claiming its own institutions and authorities--only now, the Church was even more threatening, since its universal scope and authority, by its very existence, called the absolute sovereignty of mere ethnic-colonial nation-states radically into question.
As a result of this, ideological nationalism gave birth within the Church to Gallicanism in France, Febronianism in Germany, and other similar movements in other countries, all with the goal of reducing the insolent universality of the Catholic Church and breaking it into "national" churches subject principally to their own governments, rather than the threatening universal office of the Papacy. Outside the Church, though, anti-Catholicism took increasingly more violent and totalizing forms. Church-State relations quickly devolved, over the course of the 19th century, into something more like a war than anything else--a war that the Church had little prospects of winning.
Still, the Church did, in the end, survive this period, though only barely, and almost entirely on the back of the Counterreformation piety of the common people, even in the face of systematic persecution and reeducation efforts. When the Papacy under Leo XIII, though, began to deal diplomatically with the new secular nation-states, it did so as a major junior partner to the deal.
Gradually, though, as religious freedom (born originally out of the experienced impossibility of confessional states enforcing their views on their populace) began to grow, at least some of the new secular nation-states began loosening their restrictions on Catholicism, giving up their privileges over the selection of bishops, and so forth. This greatly strengthened the hand of the Papacy, as did the gradual acknowledgement of the Papacy as a major diplomatic and international figure, even if in a securely secular playing field. Still, even with these trends, hostility and even persecution of the Church remained consistent in many countries, and even increased in many places over the course of the latter part of the 19th century and first part of the 20th.
The 20th century was hardly an improvement for the Church, as nationalist, secularist, and totalitarian governments all made war on it with increasingly reckless abandon. Totalitarianism, as the apex of the absolutism of secular politics, could not tolerate even the limited Church institutions and Christian belief of secular-nation states--and their attempts to root it out poured forth rivers of blood. The Soviets, naturally, considered the Papacy their principal ideological opponent--the Papacy’s universal religious authority and potent religious doctrine being a threatening counterpart to their own unquestionable ideology and dreams of universal revolution. Likewise, fascists and Nazis saw in the Papacy and the Catholic Church the ultimate embodiment of traitorous anti-nationalism, racial intermingling, and “slave morality.” Between these bodies and the Church there was room for nothing but total war.
With the fall of these powers, though, post-WWII and again following the fall of the Soviet Union, an "Americanist" model was gradually imposed on the world as a whole--with Republican governments operating as absolute sovereigns but allowing religious authority to operate unchecked within a constrained "private" or "personal" sphere. The Papacy, generally speaking, welcomed this new order as a dramatic improvement over the open persecution of the 19th and 20th centuries--just as they also, naturally, welcomed the growth of international law, human rights, and increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic states. The esteem of modern Popes for the UN, so incomprehensible to many American Catholics, is a fairly natural result of the Papacy’s continual affinity for universal, rather than partisan, authority--and their affinity for multiculturalism and multi-racial societies is also quite natural for an institution born in the multi-ethnic Roman Empire and used, since its founding, to dealing with and exercising authority over people of innumerable races, rites, and cultures.
Of course, the modern Papacy has harshly critiqued current states as well, and Pope Francis more than continues this tradition. Naturally, of course, the Popes continue to reject the idea of a secular society, as well as that of the absolute sovereignty of nation-states--those ideas being, of course, the principal foundations of the modern political order. Likewise, the defense of religious freedom by the modern Papacy--seen by some as an example of rupture in Catholic doctrine--is better understood as an extension of the Papacy’s constant denial of any kind of religious authority to temporal rulers-- a principle which has been continuously upheld by Popes for almost 2000 years.
Most strident, though, has been the Popes' rejection of the cultural and societal order of the modern West: founded as it is on the use of economic consumption and mass media to achieve social uniformity, and based as it is in a thoroughly non-Christian set of moral and intellectual stances. To this order--which Pope St. John Paull II memorably referred to as “the culture of death,” Pope Benedict XVI attacked as the “dictatorship of relativism,” and which Pope Francis currently rails against under the moniker of “ideological colonization”--the Popes have proven implacable enemies. They also, naturally, have harshly criticized modern states on many particular moral and societal and economic matters--but that would take too long to fully address here.
Presently, of course, the post-WWII order seems to be breaking down somewhat, with pseudo-religious and nationalist governments once again on the rise. Time will tell what the future brings. Still, this bare outline of a history is, hopefully, helpful in understanding the world as it has been and is.


  1. Going to comment on an old post...thanks for writing this, I found it really helpful.

    Recent events have made me far more skeptical of the modern liberal experiment than I used to be. But while integralists make a lot of good points, I just can't fully get on board. I can't help but feel like it's all too theoretical and there's a blinkered historical nostalgia animating a lot of their writing, like they're sweeping the problems and injustices and sins of past Catholic states under the rug, while modernity is ruthlessly called to account for everything wrong with it (of which there is a lot, not denying that).

    If I were to ever be convinced by integralism, it would need to be a chastened and modified version that seriously engages with the mistakes of the past. And there would need to be some room for individual rights and popular sovereignty, even if modernity may absolutize these things too far.

    So I don't know where that leaves me - I think the liberal order is unsustainable, I'm unconvinced by integralism in its most common forms, and I can't get on board with the far "Tradinista"-style Catholic left (which is mostly confined to Twitter) either. Any thoughts or suggested reading on where to go next? I know this is a hard question to answer in a comment box. I feel like Benedict XVI sometimes hints at some kind of synthesis but never quite gets there.

    1. Glad you got something out of this post, which was thrown together very quickly for my own purposes. And I appreciate your honest question, which I will do my best to address.

      I can definitely sympathize with your position, as I find myself in a very similar place viz a vis the major (at least online) movements of modern Catholic politics. I am very sympathetic to the integralists, and share a lot with them in their basic approach to Catholic doctrine and the Magisterium, but I really, really can't get onboard with aristocracy, have significant issues with monarchy, and like you often find a their arguments a bit historically idealized and simplistic. Many integralists in practice seem to be very closely tied to the ancien regimes of Europe, which I find to be rather ghastly states, which for most of their existence lived in various states of heightened conflict with the Papacy and the Magisterium of the Church. As far as I'm concerned, the ancien regime systems represent significant distortions and degenerations of Medieval polity, and evince many of the same flaws as modern states. For a similar reason, while I can travel a good long way with Catholic Leftists, especially on practical short-term solutions to current crises, I often find their general theories of society and the state hard to support, if not in diametrical conflict with pre-modern society and what I think Catholic teaching actually supports.

      In general, politically, I identify as a Distributist in the vein of G.K. Chesterton and Belloc. That is, I am an anti-liberal, radical anti-capitalist whose overall goal is a restoration of society to a broad, as close to universal as possible distribution of productive property, and more broadly to the radically subsidarist social organization and local politics that generally characterized pre-modern societies--along with the absolutely necessary larger social structures and state organizations, extending from the local to the universal level, and all penetrated and constituted by the universal authority of the Church, and characterized by an ethos of universal solidarity. This is of course an ideal, not a present reality. Like the English Distributists, I am deeply hostile to oligarchy, suspicious of aristocracy, and broadly democratic in politics. For these reasons, I am also much more sympathetic and friendly to the modern Magisterium than most Integralists.

      In all this, though, I naturally have a great deal in common with both integralists and Catholic Leftists. In reality, of course, these three approaches to a Catholic politics are very closely tied to particular societies and cultures. If you (as I) have roots in English and American politics and society, then you may find Distributism most congenial to your way of thinking. Chesterton and Belloc were both former liberals, and are very aware of these critiques of Catholic polities, as well as of the Socialism fashionable in their day. Father Vincent McNabb is another important thinker in this movement, as is Dorothy Day--oddly enough, even though she's a hero of Catholic Leftists, Day was actually a declared Distributist for her whole life.

    2. Overall, though, it's important to remember (per Leo XIII) that there is no *official* Catholic system of government, and that it is in fact Church teaching affirmed by many Popes that different systems of government will be appropriate to different societies at different times. In the end, the Church itself is the only society that is at once stable and universal enough to picture in itself the divine harmony we seek.

      Still, when one looks at Catholic history, what should strike you is the sheer diversity and flexibility of Catholic political thought over time--a diversity in pragmatic approaches going along with a profound consistency in basic doctrine. Likewise, the chief mark of all truly Catholic societies has been a profoundly negative view of themselves, a strong awareness of imperfection and sin and error in their midst. The Middle Ages are full of reform movements and penitential preachers and even apocalyptic groups. They were not happy with their own successes, but deeply aware of their failings.

      This is one reason why it can be so dangerous to simply look to the past, select a society as a model, and then try to import it to the modern day. We need to think carefully, first, about the general principles of Catholic societies--we need to look for models, but in doing so we should not paper over the sins and errors and internal conflicts of these societies--and we ultimately need to be very aware of the unique needs and nature of our own time, place, and society, and especially very attentive to the Church in our own day, and its living Magisterium.

      Politics and human law-making, in the end, is a sub-species of prudence, and its goal is concrete justice in the here and now. Broad theoretical movements can only take you so far. I have no problem drawing from Catholic Leftism, Integralism, and Distributism, and allying myself with these groups (and even others) in the pursuit of justice for society.

      Hopefully all that is helpful to you in your own ruminations. As always, remember that I am nothing more than another layman with a keyboard and an Internet connection. Look to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him for the true doctrine and will of Christ, not to me.