Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Church, State, and Politics

In an attempt to clarify principles in the mind of Louis XVI, the Pope sent him a second letter dated August 17, 1790. In this letter he explains the Civil Constitution of the Clergy within the context of the principles that govern the relationship between the spiritual power and the temporal power (letter to Louis XVI, 17 August 1790, 47-53). The pope begins this letter indicating that the political power cannot alter the discipline and the rules of the universal Church. Each power has spheres of government that are proper to it, and, if each power recognizes its domain, the two powers can offer each other mutual aid. If the state attempts to extend its authority into the sphere of the spiritual authority, the harmony between the two will be disrupted and it will lead to disorder in the state itself. The state should leave the Church free so that she can “carry out with faithfulness everything that applies to the living of the Catholic faith.” Examples of the areas where the Church should be left free are appointing her own rulers, regulating marriages, and educating her faithful according to her doctrines.

The Pope reminds the king that the Church “has approached with tolerance the affairs of France during these years, judging it better not to raise our voice, nor to make break out a more rigorous severity, during which we heard the first hot opinions and the vehemence of the errors; but letting the fury of the times to calm down, and hoping for the spirits to return to themselves, and the knowledge of true principles of belief and evangelical rules.”

The Pope was exercising a certain detachment from his own opinion about what might be the best political regime for France. He resisted speaking during the first year of the French Revolution, in the hope that political events would take their course. He also hoped that once the political regime changed that the leaders of that regime would find themselves more amenable to leaving the Church free in her sphere, or even return to the cooperation that used to exist between the Ancient Regime and the Church. Instead, the Pope found the new regime becoming hostile to the Church, to the point of taking over functions that belonged to the Church and did not belong to the state, no matter what regime was in place.

The Pope made clear again the reason for his silence. He also made clear to Louis XVI that he would speak out against the designs of the revolutionaries either when the situation returns to one of calm or when, for the good of preserving the Catholic faithful in the faith, he had to speak. He hoped, however, that France could deal with her own problems. The Pope stated that if the Christian political actors in France were to make clear the distinctions between the proper autonomy of the State and the proper autonomy of the Church, that it might offer a way of avoiding the evils that the Constitution could bring about. And so, he advised the king: “you also could give confidence to all, if you were to speak clearly in the defense of the religion that is under attack in your realm by so many writings that have distributed to the faithful the poison of impiety.”

The Pope reminded the king that silence from Rome did not mean neither that the Vatican was wavering on the truth, nor that it was attempting to dissemble, which the Pope feared would only lead to disastrous consequences for Louis XVI. The Pope also stated that he had written or spoke the same thing to every sovereign leader and member of the Church that he had spoken to. And so, the King should not take the silence of the Pope as a reason for reconsidering, compromising, or changing what are necessary principles of the doctrine and discipline of the Catholic faith. He ended the letter not by threatening any punishments to the King, but by calling the King to courage and patience. True courage and patience would lead the King during a time of trial to be “firm and invariably determined to keep to true principles.” He also indicated to the King that the Bishops in France will for the most part concur in what the Pope has written to the King.

In addition, he told the King that he was gathering a group of Cardinals at the Vatican to study the principles of Church and State relations over time in order to better evaluate the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. From what the Pope has said in the letters that he had written to the Cardinals and to the King up to this point, it is clear that he was not calling the Cardinals together because he was considering deviating from the principles of discipline and dogma established in the Church. Instead, it seems to be the case that he wanted to study the principles in the context of history, so that when he spoke publicly about the Constitution, his words would be precise.

In addition, it would be clear that what the Pope was about the say would be the collected wisdom of the ages, not a reaction to a singular event. This is an important point to emphasize: that if the King knew how to read, it would be very hard for him or anyone else to be mistaken about what the Pope was saying and about how he would judge the Civil Constitution. If there was confusion about the nature of the Civil Constitution with respect to Catholic discipline and doctrine, that confusion would have to be coming from a source other than the Pope.


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