SSPX - The Priesthood - Church and State

The Teaching of the Catholic Church’ Burns & Oates 1952.

Chapter xx The Church on Earth, part xi: Church and state- for an explanation of the rightful stance of the Church on politics and social conditions.

“Let every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but from God” (Leo XIII). All authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil, has for its final sanction the divine law. But, as the main object of the States existence differs from that which is the chief concern of the Church, we must distinguish a duality of function. Pope Leo XIII has restated for the benefit of modern society the principles which should determine the relations between Church and State. The Almighty, therefore, has appointed the charge of the human race between two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object Of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right”. (encyclical Immortale Dei 1885). Though both Church and State come from God, they are to be distinguished by the diversity of ends each has in view, a distinction which is the basis of the difference of powers enjoyed by each.

The sphere of the Church’s authority

As we have gathered from the foregoing pages, the reason for which  the church exists is mans sanctification and eternal felicity.  Whatever, therefore, in human things is of a sacred character, whatever belongs  either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church.  Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority.  Jesus Christ himself has given command that what is Caesar’s is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God. Among things of a sacred character there obviously falls such activities as the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments, the celebration of divine worship, the final judgment with respect to the morality of human acts.  Besides these and the like indisputably spiritual functions, there are other matters, in themselves temporal but consecrated to God by reason of the uses to which they are put, which are subject to ecclesiastical authority: e.g. Church buildings and all articles set apart for divine worship, as well as the sources of income appropriated to the upkeep of God’s ministers.

The authority of the State

But in actual practice the division between the respective provinces of Church and State is not absolute and clear cut.  There is a mixed category, pertaining to the church from one point of view, to the State from another.  The marriage contract and education are conspicuous examples of this.  Marriage is a sacrament and as such pertains exclusively to Christ’s Church; but it is also a social contract, and under this aspect the State rightly takes cognizance of it.  Education, fostering as it does the growth and development of a free individual human person, potentially or actually a member of Christ’s mystical body, must always be among the chief pre-occupations of the Church.  But the State responsible in large measure for the welfare of its future citizens, may also legislate within the sphere of education, provided that in doing so it does not override, but rather respects and reinforces, the freedom and spiritual interests of those chiefly concerned.  More particularly is the State within its rights in using its powers to ensure that the benefits of the best education should not be withheld from any member of the community capable of profiting by them.  In furthering justice in one department, however, the State must guard against perpetuating or aggravating, injustice in another.  Thus, for example, the State is beyond question exceeding its powers in determining that the adequate financial assistance, needful for the educational reforms which it imposes, shall be made conditional upon the acceptance of a religious syllabus offensive to the conscience  of a large number of its citizens.  This is to trespass upon the rights of the Church, a usurpation by Caesar of the things that are God’s.

The business of the State is to foster the common good of its citizens, to provide for their temporal well being. But, as man is so constituted that he cannot be happy even in this world unless his heart is set on his final end, which is God, the State cannot disregard these supra-temporal aspirations; it must, at least, indirectly, encourage whatever may assist their realization.  Directly, however the State is concerned with promoting the public good by legislation in the interests of the political, social and private rights of its citizens.  The application of its laws to particular cases and the settlement of individual claims and counter claims are subject to the States judiciary.  Determining the effects of civil contracts, the punishment of law-breakers, the imposition of taxes, preparation for national defense, subsidizing the arts and sciences – these are the activities which properly engage the attention of the State.  Nor can the State be accused of undue interference with personal liberty when it reinforces the moral law with positive statutes; for example, by forbidding blasphemy and public indecency.  Propaganda in favour of philanthropic endeavour and personal unselfishness and, in general the fostering of an intellectual and moral atmosphere favourable to the practice of the natural virtues, especially justice and mutual well doing, fall likewise within the legitimate province of the State.

Power of the Church in political and social orders

In none of these matters has the Church the right of direct interference.  Occasions might arise, however when she must speak her mind even here.  For the political and social orders, in so far as they fall under the moral law and the judgment of human conscience, are subject to the authority of the Church.  This supremely important principle is not seldom overlooked: most often by those who resent the subjection of their political and social actions to any higher tribunal; though it is by no means unknown for the representatives of the Church to offend against it, for example in advocating merely personal views on political and social questions by an illegitimate appeal to alleged “Catholic Principles”.  The Bishops it should be noted, are not qualified by their office to criticize the military strategy of a war, or express their views as to what the political and economic arrangements of a peace settlement should be; but they may, as pastors of their flocks and witnesses to the Gospel, pronounce upon the justice, or otherwise, of the issues involved.

Political elections as such, are no concern of Bishops and priests, save in their capacity as private citizens; it is in fact their duty to remain strictly impartial, so as not to prejudice their position as spiritual guides to every section of their flock; but if a political party or individual candidates, are advocating measures opposed to the Church’s interests, then the faithful may be reminded of where their duty lies.  Again, ecclesiastical authority is not empowered to sit in judgment upon purely economic questions of supply and demand, though clearly it may use its influence, let us say, to ensure that the workers are not deprived of a just wage.  Thus many human situations can arise upon which the episcopate is entitled to give guidance, without being charges with “interference” In matters outside its sphere.

Harmony between Church and State

These considerations should make clear both the distinction between Church and State, and the need for their harmonious co-operation.  “When political government (regnum) and ecclesiastical authority (sacerdotium) are agreed” writes Ivo of Chartres, “The world is well ruled and the Church flourishes and bears fruit, but when they disagree, not only do less important interests fail to prosper, but those of the greatest moment fall into miserable decay”.  It is obvious that civil authority can, and should, while keeping within its due limits, facilitate the mission of the Church. The making of good and just laws. The respecting of its citizens’ conscientious rights, especially in regard to religion, the preservation of peace and order effectively assist the growth of Gods’ Kingdom on earth; just as their contraries, social injustice, the absence of religious liberty, discord and anarchy constitute so many hindrances.  Similarly though at a much deeper level, the Church contributes with its own order to the well being of the State; by inculcating respect for authority. Fostering the observance of civil laws, upholding the moral standard and encouraging the practice of the social virtues.


It is beyond the scope of these pages to enter into the detailed relations of the Church with the modern State.  Liberal Democracy on the one hand, and the various forms of totalitarianism on the other, have given rise to a new set of problems, emphasized by the complete secularization of politics and an attitude towards religion
Ranging from sceptical indifference to fanatical hostility; but the principles of their solution remain the same.  The Church will always claim the right to judge of politics in their ethical and religious bearings; but she will never descend into the political arena or allow herself to be identified with any human polity.  If her own prerogatives are infringed she will make known her protest, not indeed on account of mere prestige, but lest she prove unfaithful to her mission.  In situations where the ideal is unobtainable, she will tolerate much that is imperfect for the sake of the good that may be preserved.  It is thus, that, without compromising her message she comes to terms, by means of a concordat, with governments in many ways opposed to her own interests.  Such a diplomatic instrument is a treaty between the Holy See and a secular State touching the conservation and promotion of the interests of religion in that State.  The extreme flexibility whereby the Church, in this way or by tacit agreement, can effect a modus vivendi with almost any political regime is a proof, not of unprincipled opportunism, but that she is committed to none.  Here as in many other of her activities, she may appeal for her mandate to the example of the Apostle Paul “I became all things to all men, that I might save all”.

Indefectibility of the Church

By way of concluding our brief survey of the juridical structure of Christ’s Mystical Body, which is the Catholic Church, we may note that it possesses the property described by Theologians as indefectibility.  The Christian Society, of its nature “far more excellent than all other associations of human beings, transcending them as grace transcends nature and as things immortal transcend all things that pass away” is destined to survive until the end of time.  “ Unbelievers” says St Augustine” think that the Christian religion will last for a certain period in the world and will then disappear.  But it will remain as long as the sun – as long as the sun rises and sets: that is, as long as the ages of time shall roll, the Church of God –the true body of Christ on earth-will not disappear”.  The reason for this power of survival lies, not in the Church’s juridical elements, but in the indestructibility conferred upon her by the abiding presence of the Holy Ghost and of Christ Himself.  The visible hierarchy, the elaborate church organization, being inseparable from human imperfections, though part of Our Lords’ plan from the beginning, have not in themselves the stuff of immortality.  This they derive from the sources of grace and divine life within, the hidden riches of the Mystical Body which constitutes the veritable “Mystery of the Church”.

Pope Pius XII No one has put this point more forcefully than Pope Pius XII, in words that refute forever the charge that Catholic Christianity oppresses the free life of the spirit under the weight of ecclesiastical formalism: “For although the juridical grounds upon which also the Church rests and is built have their origin in the divine constitution Given her by Christ, and although they contribute to the achievement of her supernatural purpose, nevertheless that which raises the Christian Society to a level utterly surpassing any order of nature is the Spirit of our Redeemer, the source of all graces, gifts and miraculous powers, perennially and intimately pervading the Church and acting in her.  Just as the framework of our mortal body is indeed a marvellous work of the Creator, yet falls short of the sublime dignity of our soul, so the structure of the Christian Society, proof though it is of the wisdom of its divine Architect, is nevertheless something of a completely lower order in comparison with the spiritual gifts which enrich it and give it life, and with Him who is their divine source.”

The Church lives by the Holy Ghost

It is by the Spirit within that the Church lives; it is by our correspondence with that Spirit that the Church grows, speaking metaphorically to ‘the fullness of Christ’.  While Christ and His members can never constitute physically one person, as some have mistakenly supposed, there is yet a profound sense in which the final consummation of the Mystical Body will realize, as St Augustine says “the whole Christ”  totus Christus.  “It is due also to this communication of the Spirit of Christ that all the gifts, virtues and miraculous powers which are found eminently, most abundantly and fontally in the Head, stream into all the members of the Church and in them are perfected daily according to the place of each in the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ; and that, consequently, the Church becomes as it were the fullness and completion of the Redeemer, Christ in the Church being in some sense brought to complete achievement”.

The will of Christ fulfilled in the Church

So it is that the Catholic Church remains, now as ever, the ultimate hope of the world.  She is the one supra-national force able to integrate a civilization fast dissolving in ruins.  Outside her visible communion there may be “broken lights”, half truths of authentic Christianity; but only within the fold can men respond to the full and objective will of Christ.  Fittingly we may end with the memorable words of St Augustine “Let us love the Lord our God; let us love his Church; the Lord as our Father the Church as our Mother…What doth it profit thee not to offend the Father, who avenges an offence against the Mother? What doth it profit to confess the Lord, to honour God, to preach him, to acknowledge his Son, and to confess that he sits on the right hand of the Father, if you blaspheme his Church? Hold fast therefore, O dearly beloved, hold fast unswervingly to God as your Father, and the Church as your Mother.”

Return to Top