Catholic Social Doctrine: Learning From the Example of the Early Church
the Church rendered to Caesar not those things Caesar demanded, but only those things that were, in fact, Caesar's. And the Church, not Caesar, was the one who defined those limits.
What was really revolutionary, and what turned Caesar against her, was the Church's notion of political power. When it came to civil authorities, the early Christian Church lived out the notion of the two kingdoms taught by Christ. Christ was her ruler, but she rendered those things to Caesar that were Caesar's. (Mark 12:17)
Some of its practices, particularly some of its moral doctrines, were equally revolutionary. Perhaps this is best described by Tertullian in his Apologeticum: "All things are common among us but our wives." The early Church had a countercultural notion of marriage and sexual morality. It also had a countercultural notion of solidarity, of community. With respect to private property it had what the Compendium has called the "universal destination" of goods. (Compendium, No. 178)
But these sorts of things would not have raised the ire of Caesar. What was really revolutionary, and what turned Caesar against her, was the Church's notion of political power. When it came to civil authorities, the early Christian Church lived out the notion of the two kingdoms taught by Christ. Christ was her ruler, but she rendered those things to Caesar that were Caesar's. (Mark 12:17)
However, the Church rendered to Caesar not those things Caesar demanded, but only those things that were, in fact, Caesar's. And the Church, not Caesar, was the one who defined those limits.
We find here the seeds of persecution, inasmuch as the imperial Caesar resisted any limits on his power, especially limits imposed by what he viewed as an upstart Church. The "divine" Caesar would grow to hate the religion brought by the "Pale Galilean" whom he failed to recognize as divine. It was, in fact, a clash of divinities, with a political idol on one side and the Word of God on the other.
Nevertheless, the "party line" in the Church was submission to properly constituted authority. Not passive submission, and certainly not unthinking submission, but submission "'for the sake of conscience' (Rom.13:5) to legitimate authority," inasmuch as this was seen as responding "to the order established by God." (Compendium, No. 380)
If Ephesians Chapters 5 and 6 contains a Haustafel or rule for domestic order, then Romans 13:1-7 might be said to contain the Staatstafel or rule for relationship with civil authorities.
"Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience."
This is a frequent theme in St. Paul. We find it, for example, as part of his instructions to his friend and fellow bishop, St. Titus. "Remind them [his flock] to be under the control of magistrates and authorities, to be obedient, to be open to every good enterprise." (Tit. 3:1) He suggests, further, that St. Timothy have his flock offer "prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings . . . for kings and for all in authority." (1 Tim. 2:1-2)
St. Peter likewise stresses obedience to authority. "Be subject to every human institution for the Lord's sake," St. Peter states in his first epistle, "whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the approval of those who do good." (1 Pet. 2:13-14) He gives a short motto to guide the faithful, clearly adverting to the two kingdoms, the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of Caesar. "Fear God, honor the king." (1 Pet. 2:17)
There is already in germ in the notions of St. Peter and St. Paul, a Christian political philosophy. Praying for those of authority--even an unfriendly authority--"implicitly indicates what political authority ought to guarantee: a calm and tranquil life led with piety and dignity." (Compendium, No. 381) Moreover, the "biblical message provides endless inspiration for Christian reflection on political power, recalling that it comes from God and is an integral part of the order that he created. This order is perceived by the human conscience and, in social life, finds its fulfillment in the truth, justice, freedom, and solidarity that bring peace." (Compendium, No. 383) In short, statecraft is soulcraft.
It is significant that St. Paul invokes conscience, and not principally fear of punishment, as a reason for obedience to civil authority. Similarly, St. Peter enjoins obedience, propter Dominum, "for the Lord's sake." But this obedience has its limits. Recall that it is the same Peter who stated that he was compelled to obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29) What they are advocating is "free and responsible obedience to an authority that causes justice to be respected, ensuring the common good," and not a forced or irresponsible obedience. (Compendium, No. 380)
Both St. Peter and St. Paul, then, understood that there are limits to the authority and power of the State. "When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, [and] it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission," it "becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor 'drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus' (Rev. 17:6)." (Compendium, No. 382)
This is apocalyptic language, but has concrete applications hre-and-now. It is meant to inform the Christian: This Apocalyptic vision of the Beast "is a prophetic indication of the snares used by Satan to rule men, [the Beast] stealing his way into their spirit with lies. But Christ is the Victorious Lamb who, down the course of human history, overcomes every power that would make it[self] absolute. Before such a power, St. John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them." (Compendium, No. 382)
Though the New Testament has a positive view on human authority, it also issues forth something entirely new. Politics was no longer the highest art. Man was meant for an eternal destiny, and this spiritual destiny, and the authority and power that related to it, was not in the hands of the State, but in the hand of the Church, to whom Christ, Lord of heaven and earth to whom all authority had been given, had given it. (Acts 17:24; Matt. 28:18)
"Christ reveals to human authority, always tempted by the desire to dominate, its authentic and complete meaning as service. God is the one Father, and Christ the one Teacher, of all mankind, and all people are brothers and sisters. Sovereignty belongs to God." (Compendium, No. 383)
The Lord, however, "has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power." He gives his creatures freedom and allows them a share in His Providence. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church eloquently puts it: "The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence." (Compendium, No. 383) (quoting CCC, § 1884).
How many of our secular liberals see themselves as "ministers," that is servants, of "divine providence"? Not many, I would suppose, or they would not flout His Law.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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