In an address in Wurzburg in Germany in July 2017, the Most Rev. Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin spoke of a ‘prudent distance’ between the Church and state in Ireland, after decades of “the authoritarian monopoly of the Church in the social sphere” until at least the 1960s. Archbishop Martin spoke of “the very unhealthy results” of such a monopoly, and of the need for the Church “to learn a new manner of being present in society”. By contrast, Dignitatis Humanae, a document produced during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, maintained that the ideal state would institute the Catholic Church as the official religion and “the moral duty of man and societies toward the true religion and toward the one church of Christ”. I will argue that man’s moral duty to the Church does not necessitate it’s being created as the official religion of the state. It will delineate the characteristics of the relationship between two overriding state structures – the authoritarian and liberal democracy – and the Church. It will also seek to present these relationships with their benefits and drawbacks within the context of the Catholic doctrine of the free will of the individual soul in order to arrive at a potential answer to the question of which type of state would be most suited to the Church’s purposes.

First, we will return to the Second Vatican Council. Despite its insistence upon Catholicism as the official religion in an ideal state, the Council also stipulated that a new mood of ecumenical dialogue and negotiation between different religions should prevail. This movement towards dialogue marks a divergence between what would become termed as the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II  and its ‘letter’. We can take the above quote from Dignitatis Humanae as indicative of the Council’s letter and its promotion of dialogue as its spirit.

Here, we will seek to attempt to show that, in the spirit of Vatican II, far from an authoritarian or theocratic political arrangement, the daily experiences of a liberal democratic state suits both the doctrine and the furtherance of the spiritual power of the Church.

The Bible and St. Augustine

A further specification of the Vatican Council was to garner a deeper and more thorough understanding of scripture and the Church Fathers. A biblical excerpt from Isaiah in no uncertain terms establishes the relation between heaven and the states of the earth. In verse 15 of chapter 40 we can read a distillation of the insistent polarity that pervades the scriptural canon between the kingdom and power of God on one hand, and the ephemerality and limits of earthly political power: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.”

Further, the powers of the sovereigns of the earth are annihilated when placed within the universal scheme: “It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity” (verses 22-30). Therefore, temporal political power is of minuscule importance in the scheme of Providence. However, as we dwell below in this world of social relation and political action, the question persists about which political order would advance the Church in this world. For an intimation of clarity on this question, the pronouncements of the Church Fathers must be consulted, in the spirit of Vatican II.

St. Augustine wrote on the question in his City of God. Although he asserted that the city of man, i.e. earthly states, fulfills the will of God and has been said to sanction the divine right of kings, we can examine some of his other pronouncements on the subject to make sense of his assertion. He writes: “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is the truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, Felicity; instead of life, eternity.” (II, 29)

Thus, the earthly state is a poor and feeble entity when compared to the spiritual riches of heaven. Augustine takes the ideal city on earth and ascribes to it conquest, dominion and, at best, mere quiescence. Cast in its best light, the worldly state founders and fails in the comparison.

Additionally, Augustine describes in a condemnatory tone the cold realities of the state: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves but little kingdoms…”. He also places the nature of the state within the ambit of “evil”. It is in this way that the kingdom of man fulfills the will of God – it acts as a contrastive and weak institution, as imperfect as heaven is perfect.

Because St. Augustine links “this evil” to “possession” and the oppression of peoples, we must discount the possibility of an authoritarian state as most suited to the Church if we are to maintain the doctrinal orthodoxy of this author. Thus, Augustine distanced earthly kingdoms from the City of God as they are ruled by pride and iniquity.

As the state according to Augustine is ruled by pride and a certain solipsistic self-regard, the implication for him would seem to be that the Church’s ideal relation to a state would be, in Archbishop Martin’s words, one of ‘prudent distance’. To become embroiled in the political governance of a state would confront the Church with all manner of morally dubious and even reprehensible decision-making in the political sphere, what is known as the problem of ‘dirty hands’ in political theory. Also, the politicisation of the work of the Church would distract it from its true vocation: its evangelical mission in the salvation of souls through the winning of consciences. All these points towards the desired independence for the Church in the state from the state in order for it to direct its labors to its proper ends.

What is Theocracy?

Theocracy, that is ruled by divine law in the political realm, institutes a polity as if already in a state of salvation, as its premise is a basis of direct divine revelation. De jure political and moral power is conflated and rests in the deity but the Church would as the ‘arm of God’ possess de facto political and moral power. This scheme of things merges the avowal of a theocratic government with that of an ecclesiocracy, i.e. political rule by the Church.

In a theocracy, the rule of law is the rule of divine law and as such, theoretically, at least, the state becomes a just, moral and quasi-divine institution – a circumstance discounted by Augustine in his contrast of the city of man with the heavenly city. However, the Church in its maintenance of the political order can be seen to be negligent of its spiritual and pastoral vocation. Isaiah leaves us in no doubt as to where God’s felicity lies in the juxtaposition of the political and the spiritual realms. Therefore, the Church must be enjoined to not become entangled in the mechanics and often amoral operations entailed in the polity.

The Augustinian and biblical polarity between earth and heaven is, however, a dichotomous relationship because the political and the spiritual are necessarily confluent in men and women; and the question of the state must be engaged with by the Church.

Yet a theocracy being a state governed at least notionally by the fiats of God also implicates the Church in an adulteration of its reason-for-being with the mundane duties of political governance which become problematic when they demand actions of moral dubiousness, e.g. the prosecution of internal or external wars; or if an unavoidable decision should conflict with the teachings of scripture or Church doctrine. In short, there are two temporal realms – that of temporal political power and the temporal power of conscience with the latter being most proper, in both senses of appropriateness and ownership, to the Church.

In the case of theocracy, the individual soul does not choose freely because the choice of the prevailing religion is a fait accompli in the absence of alternatives. Therefore moral responsibility is canceled. This being absent, the theocratic state puts the individual far from God and anathematizes itself. It is a caseless of religion reigning than of religion being deployed as an instrument of social control.

Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy’s protection of the rights of free opinion, its sanctioning of a free political conscience and free religious affiliation in the individual is perfectly compatible with the Church’s doctrine of the free will of the spiritual conscience. It not only protects the ability and latitude of the Church in the dissemination of its teachings but – at the level of the subjective individual- provides a cultural environment that parallels the lot and progress of the soul in the terrestrial realm with all its attendant choices that elicit inclination, aversion, will and action.

The liberal democratic order signals and exemplifies a tradition of variant mores that, to the individual, is presented as a sometimes confused aggregation of intentions, actions, and interactions. In such a political state, an empathic relation is set up between the Church and the soul as the Church can be seen as the soul of the polity and the soul as the church of the individual. It is through a thorny and straight pass that the soul makes its journey to salvation, and similarly so in a liberal democratic state, the Church will fulfill its mission.

This state of play in a liberal state reflecting the condition of the soul in the world is for the Church a position in a multiplicitous entity occupied by a marketplace of competing faiths, affiliations and ideologies and is the signal of moral freedom – that of the soul to choose the right way and that of the Church from the onerous and problematic tasks of  political administration.

The democratic marketplace of faiths accords to the individual soul a freedom of will to choose the Church, and thus salvation; while in a theocratic state this freedom would, at least overtly and officially, be abrogated and denied. The religion of the theocracy would enforce compliance and install a sort of deterministic relation to the Church by law. Such a relation of the soul to the Church supplants free faith with the decrees of political might and creates a confusion in the conscience as well as a moral dilemma in the Church: should it ‘force’ souls to be free and faithful, or is this even possible?

The liberal state is not hostile to the Church but merely hostile to its political hegemony, as this argument would opine that the Church too should be wary of political power. Augustine states that the heavenly city far transcends the earthly realm ‘beyond comparison’. Therefore the Church is similarly far above the political. But Augustine also argued that the earthly kingdom fulfills God’s will. Here we can find an accommodation to the rise of liberal democracy without too subversive a reading of the Church Father despite the fact that he was writing in a period of kings, princes, and emperors. Just as in the Medieval period Augustine’s pronouncement was conscripted and used to justify the monarchical ideology of the divine rights of kings, our own modern political landscape of democratic liberal government could equally find legitimacy in his writings.

It is the opinion of this article – on the basis of the evidence above – that the sphere of the Church is the sphere of morality and spiritual doctrine. The modern state has evolved into a realm of amoral scientism. Church doctrine, although subject to debate and dissension, is reflective of what Thomas Aquinas called the ‘eternal law’ of God and as such is immutable. The historical course of the rise and fall of various types of state is a history of the evolving adaptations and compromises of states to changes in economic forces and social relations. In this light the ‘prudent distance’ of the Church from the state – howsoever it is constituted – is indeed prudent. That said, for its fidelity to the circumstances of the spiritual journey of the soul through this life and into the next, for its accommodation of the Church’s evangelism and doctrine and for its facilitation of the empathic relation between Church and soul, liberal democracy most suits the temporal project of the Church.