December 20, 2002

Provocative and interesting post on Steven Ray's billboard:
"Christianity has always proclaimed itself superior to the state. When Christ said "render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's, and to God that which is God's" He proclaimed an authority superior to government. (If He had not, then what right did the early Christians have to refuse sacrifices to pagan gods in violation of Roman law?). By creating a Church, he gave that authority visible form.

As civilization developed, men took their Christianity with them into the halls of state. If Christ and faith in Him is the highest reality, which penetrates into every action of men, would a state be foolish to proclaim itself independent of Him? No. Quite the contrary. So the Emperor Theodosius thought when he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.

Throughout that time and in the millenia to follow, it was inconceivable to men that the state would have any basis of its authority that was not religious, and therefore Christian, and therefore linked with the Church. Charlemagne had himself crowned by the Pope for the same reason the French kings to follow were told by the bishops performing the coronation "By this crown you become a sharer in our ministry." This consciousness was called Christendom.

As a natural extension of these ideas, it was also natural to conclude that departure from the Christian faith was contrary to the common good of society. Fundamentalist preachers say as much, and maintain as much, whenever they hand out voter guides and 'demand' (since we're into pejorative terms) that good Christians should exercise their authority in government by voting for candidates who accept Christian teaching. As it is now, so it was then -- departure from Christianity was a blow struck at the health of the entire society, and therefore punishable. The Albigensians were seen, in this light, as being as great a threat to civil society as Shays rebellion or the Confederacy was seen to the United States. No one blames the United States for 'exterminating' confederates, or 'persecuting' farmers, or making the country 'explicitly' what Abraham Lincoln said it was. So do we, I wonder, consider religion and Christianity less important to our well being than our forebears in the first thousand years of Christian history?

I am about to greatly condense things. But with the Reformation, and the devastating wars between Catholics and Protestants that followed, it became clear that doctrinally-specific Christianity could no longer serve as the basis for a stable civil or international order. Men began to look for new theologies on which to found their states, culminating in the present Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideas of democratic consent and religious tolerance. But this was originally a grudging accomodation made in stages and over time by Catholics and Protestants. You may have heard, for example, of the "divine right of kings." This was not a Catholic idea, but a post-Reformation attempt to found the civil order on a direct grant of authority from God to whoever held power, trying to rest civil authority again on a stable footing. Kings being what they are, and the rising middle and merchant classes being what they were, the theory was bound to perish, as it did under Cromwell and again in the Glorious Revolution.

To a great extent, the ideas of Vatican II (and earlier Church teaching, reaching back more than a century) are an understanding of the position of Christ's Church in a world devoid of Christendom, learning as well from the instructive errors of the past which proved that heresy and division may not always be eradicated by force, but in a way that is startlingly consistent with the Church's understanding of the origin and role of the civil power from medieval days."

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