Some reflections on Church and State in “Deus Caritas Est”

A recent conversation with a Lutheran pastor and close friend on “the doctrine of the two kingdoms” (a standard Lutheran “principle” according to Carl Braaten) has led me back to Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” in which he touches upon the matter.

My main concern with the “doctrine of the two kingdoms” in the Lutheran system is that it does not seem to be a very scriptural. I do not deny that it is a beautiful and rather logical working out of Jesus’ statement about what belongs to God and what belongs to Ceasar (Matt 22:21); Pope Benedict himself acknowledges this distinction to be “fundamental to Christianity” (DCE 28). I just don’t find this same logic progressing through the Scriptures in quite the way that the Lutherans have traditionally expounded it.

So what does Pope Benedict suggest? In paragraph 29 of Deus Caritas Est, he explains that he needs to treat the topic to “determine more precisely, in the life of the Church, the relationship between commitment to the just ordering of the State and society on the one hand, and organized charitable activity on the other.”

He conducts this examination in paragraph 28. A close reading of that paragraphy will show that, while he regards “the Church’s Social doctrine” as “a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church” (27), he clearly asserts that “the just ording of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics” (28), not the Church.

Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere [Cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 36.]. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.

So what is the responsibility of the Church?

He sees a problem with leaving the State entirely to its own devices in the aim of establishing justice.

The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.

The problem is therefore two-fold:

1) a problem of practical reason, which, to be “excercised properly” must “undergo constant purification”; and
2) a problem of “a certain ethical blindness” caused by “the effect of power and special interests” upon sinful human nature.

In the discussion that follows, he repeatedly returns to the Church’s responsibility in addressing these two problems. I here group the various phrases he uses in relation to these two problems together and in the order that they occur in paragraph 28 so that the two threads he proposes for the Churches involvement in the “fight for justice” (a fight in which “she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines”) may be clearly seen.

1) “ways of thinking”, “purify reason”, “on the basis reason”, “to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice”, “the purification of reason”, “rational argument”, “openness of mind”.

2) “modes of conduct proper to faith”, “the acknowledgement and attainment of what is just”, “natural law”, “to help form consciences”, “through ethical formation”, “to reawaken the spiritual energy”, “openness of…will”.

These two sets of terms, closely related indeed, form a thread throughout the whole paragraph. Clearly the Holy Father is thinking that the Church – which in and of herself has no responsibility for political action – does have a responsibility to aid the State by purifying ways of thinking and forming ways of acting in order that justice may be promoted. Thus he concludes in paragraph 29:

The Church has an indirect duty here, in that she is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run.

Paragraph 29 also shows where the two realms – or “kingdoms” in Lutheran parlance – actually meet and overlap. “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society” is not proper to the Church as such, but it

is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity.

He goes on then in the rest of the encyclical to defend the work of the “organised activity of believers”, which may indeed include agencies and groups officially organised by or established by the Church (such as Caritas International etc.).

I wonder if that is helpful?


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One response to “Some reflections on Church and State in “Deus Caritas Est”

  1. matthias

    I believe that as citizens we are to take part in the activities of our society ,as it needs to have a Christian voice and witness.The rubicon is crossed when our loyalty to Christ takes precedent over our citizenship duties. For many that occurs on the abortion issue or peace/non nuclear issues. I believe that we will be called to make even more stands on our Christian faith and have loyalty to Christ rather than to the State,as “Equal Opportunity ” actions alienate the church form society-but only if we let it. So therefore we need to be active in the first place.