Politically Indirect Ecclesiology

Most post-Christendom theologies of the political do not simply embrace the idea that salvation history has been privatized, but they nevertheless endorse the relative autonomy of politics from theology and make the influence of the church on politics indirect. Christendom saw various kinds of claims of church authority over temporal power, some based on claims that the church possessed direct political authority, others based on the idea that the church's authority in the temporal was potestas indirecta. The latter theories were based on the spiritual power - typically possessed by the Pope - to discipline any erring member of his flock, including and especially temporal rulers (Tierney 1964: 2-5). Post-Christendom political theology recognizes that the church cannot simply renounce politics and retreat to private concerns, but it tends to operate at one more remove of indirectness from the medieval conception of indirect power. In Christendom, questions of the direct or indirect power of the church over the temporal had to do with the power of the church to discipline Christian rulers. In modern secular societies, however, political theologies tend to operate at an additional remove from the state, staking a claim to influence the state only through the activities of Christian citizens in civil society. Furthermore, most assume that, when addressing a pluralistic society, theology cannot be directly politicized, but must first be translated into some more publicly accessible form of discourse in order to have an influence in civil society.

For Jacques Maritain, for example, the fall of Christendom has allowed a proper distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, which are spatialized as "planes." This is not merely a concession made by the church, but is the outworking of the Gospel itself. Christ made clear that his kingdom is spiritual, not of this world. In contrast to the pagans, Christ interiorized the sacred, locating it in the human heart, removed from the vicissitudes of time. In a corollary move, Christ liberated us by making a sharp distinction between what is Caesar's and what is God's. The genesis and growth of the modern secular state is therefore not the rejection of the Christian ideal but, on the contrary, offers the opportunity for the full flowering of the Christian spiritual life properly untangled from its confusion with material culture (Maritain 1931: 1).

Though the temporal plane has its own relative autonomy, however, it remains subordinate to the spiritual plane; the merely natural virtues involved in political and social life - running businesses, governments, and wars - are meant to be "elevated" by the supernatural spiritual virtues. The church, nevertheless, unites souls outside of temporal space and time and is not directly involved in the realm of political ethics. The church, therefore, does not act as a body on the temporal plane, but exerts an indirect influence through the individual. The individual Christian acting on the temporal plane of the political and the social is animated by the spiritual plane. On the temporal plane, the Christian acts "as Christian," but not "as a Christian as such" (Maritain, 1968: 294). In this way, a "New Christendom" is possible in which the state remains explicitly secular, but individual Christians bring the inchoate influence of the Gospel to bear on public life, without speaking explicitly Christian language in the public forum.

John Courtney Murray provides another influential example of the indirect political influence of the church. Here the key distinction is between state and civil society. The state is to play a limited role within society, that of protecting public order. The realm of freedom and moral agency is civil society, and the pursuit of the common good is a matter for society as a whole. The church has no access to the coercive power of the state, but contributes to the common good by attempting to "permeate all the institutions of society - economic, social, cultural, political - with the Christian spirit of truth, justice, love, and freedom" (Murray 1993: 183). Here Murray recasts the medieval notion of the "indirect power" of the church so that its subject is not the ruler or the state but the individual conscience of the Christian citizen of the nation-state. For Murray the church itself is meant to be a vibrant and robust association at the service of society, but (as in Maritain) the church is not in view as itself a political institution; the political implications of the Gospel must be translated into a "spirit" that permeates material institutions. Furthermore, there is a bifurcation of the natural and the supernatural, such that, in the pluralistic public realm, the church must not speak theologically, but in the language of the natural law, which is in theory accessible to any reasonable person, Christian or not (Murray 1960: 295-336).

It is this requirement to make the Christian message intelligible within the confines of a post-Christendom political liberalism that makes the church drop out of Reinhold Niebuhr's political theology almost entirely. Niebuhr is no less convinced than Murray that religion is necessary to sustain the ethos of a plu ralistic democracy. Niebuhr, however, is much less confident than Murray that the church has privileged access to some truths essential to the common good. For Niebuhr, religion's contribution to the proper functioning of a democratic social order is the recognition that such claims to privileged access are most often due to the sin of pride. Sin pervades the human condition, and conflict of self-interests is inevitable. The genius of democracy is precisely that it balances such interests and refuses to allow any particular claims to achieve universal status. Christianity, with its anthropology of human sinfulness, thus serves a democratic order by relativizing any claim to justice and truth. "Religious faith ought therefore to be a constant fount of humility; for it ought to encourage men to moderate their natural pride and to achieve some decent consciousness of the relativity of their own statement of even the most ultimate truth" (Niebuhr 1944: 135). Such humility, of course, precludes the possibility that the church be given some kind of privileged position for mediating God's will for the ordering of society. Ecclesiology is simply absent from Niebuhr's political theology. He no doubt assumed that the church was sociologically necessary for Christianity to exist in organized form, but any claim that the church was the source of an alternative politics could only be treated as a manifestation of pride, and thus a threat to a democratic political order.

The above political ecclesiologies share an atomizing pathology; the emphasis is on the individual Christian citizen acting in the temporal realm. The church does not act as a body in the temporal. The new political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, on the other hand, sees the church acting as an "institution of social criticism" within modern secular democratic society. Metz's ecclesiology nevertheless still aims at an indirect influence of the church in political matters. Metz begins with the acceptance of the "proper" emancipation of the political from the religious. Indeed, the autonomy of the political in Metz is less encumbered by the kind of explicit subordination to the spiritual that is found in Maritain. For Metz, the Enlightenment signifies the achievement of the maturity of human freedom. The secularized political order is an order of freedom; political realities are no longer given but are subject to free human action. As in Maritain, the outlines of salvation history are seen only in the relative autonomy of the world from the church. Secularization is not the dethroning of Christ in the world, but rather "the decisive point of his dominion in history" (Metz 1969: 19), for it is Christianity that sets the world free to be itself. Metz considers the old versions of political theology - Bonald, Donoso Cortés, Schmitt, and others - to be "precritical" because they do not accept the Enlightenment critique of religion; they believe that theology can be directly politicized. At the same time, however, Metz is concerned that the legitimate separation of the church from the political sphere should not result in the mere privatization of the church, the delivering over of the Gospel to the anemic embrace of bourgeois sentimentality. Metz's solution is that the church take its place in civil society as an "institution of social criticism" whose mission is defined as a service to the history of freedom unfolding since the Enlightenment. On the basis of the memory of Jesus' confrontation with the powers and his preference for the marginalized, the church will criticize all social forms as falling short of the kingdom of God. Even the church itself is put under the " 'eschatological proviso,' which makes every historically real status of society appear to be provisional" (Metz 1969: 114). The criticism the church provides is not merely negative, but a challenge to make actual in the present the eschatological promises of the biblical tradition: freedom, peace, justice, and reconciliation. Because theology cannot be directly politicized, however, theology must be translated into "practical public reason" for consumption in the arena of civil society.

Metz's positive evaluation of secularization was taken over by much of liberation theology. The work of Gustavo Gutiérrez has the great merit of emphasizing that there are not two histories, one sacred and one profane, one of salvation and the other of politics: "The history of salvation is the very heart of human history" (Gutiérrez 1988: 86). However, this evaluation has the effect of de-emphasizing ecclesiology. For Gutiérrez, the Maritainian model of political theology that preceded liberation theology in Latin America was still infected by a "certain ecclesiastical narcissism" because of its desire to create "a society inspired by Christian principles" (p. 36). Secularization demands that we recognize the full autonomy of the temporal, an "entirely worldly world" that operates on the assumption that human beings in their freedom are the agents of history. According to Gutiérrez, secularization is not an anti-Christian impulse but simply the outworking of the biblical idea that creation is separate from the Creator, and that "God has proclaimed humankind lord of this creation" (p. 42). The world is autonomous, but it is also permeated by God's grace. Gutiérrez thus wishes to overcome the bourgeois privatization of the church by elevating the spiritual status of the mundane political world and by breaking down the barriers between theology and politics. The church is the explicit witness to the liberation of humanity from sin, including social and political sin of all kinds. The church, however, is not epistemologically privileged in understanding social and political processes, which operate within their own worldly autonomy and are thus best understood by the social sciences:

rather than define the world in relation to the religious phenomenon, it would seem that religion should be redefined in relation to the profane . . . [I]f formerly the tendency was to see the world in terms of the Church, today almost the reverse is true: the Church is seen in terms of the world. In the past, the Church used the world for its own ends; today many Christians - and non-Christians - ask themselves if they should, for example, use the influence of the Church to accelerate the process of transformation of social structures. (p. 42)

Despite criticisms of liberation theology for politicizing the faith, there is little room here for a directly political ecclesiology. The church contributes to the transformation of political and social structures, but the church plays an instrumental role, and is not itself envisioned as a kind of politics. As an autonomous process, politics is in some sense "outside" the church, and so the application of the church to politics is once again indirect.

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  • Aino
    Is the church direct or indirect power?
    8 years ago

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