The National Catholic Review

In an earlier issue of America (3/27), I discussed three New Testament passages that are often used to argue for a separation of faith from public life: “The poor you will always have with you,” “Render to Caesar...” and “The kingdom of God is within you.” I tried to show that those passages, read in context, do not support such a divorce of Christian life from political responsibility. At least two other passages are sometimes enlisted for this purpose:

 

• “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36a, in the King James, Rheims and NIV versions, the wording that most people recall), in which the reign of Christ is interpreted as transcending entirely matters of social life and governance.

• “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” (Rom 13:1), understood as a divine legitimation of any and all civil authority, placing such authority beyond the reach of ecclesial critique.

Like the three texts discussed earlier, both of these passages easily lend themselves to a separation of Christian practice from the public life of citizenship. But again, a closer reading of the texts shows that in each case such an interpretation lacks warrant.

Heavenly Authority

“My kingdom is not of this world.”

While the common translation, “my kingdom is not of this world” is valid, the phrasing is open to the misunderstanding that Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with the world in which we live. It sounds as if Jesus is insisting on a separation of his reign from this world.

The original Greek, obscured by most English versions, says something else. The phrase in question is ek tou kosmou toutou. As those familiar with Latin might guess, ek, like the Latin ex, is best translated “from.” So the New Revised Standard Version renders the sentence, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Appearing in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate, the issue being treated is not the reach of Jesus’ kingly authority but its source. Jesus’ authority derives not from the emperor but from the Father.

The parallel sentence that comprises the third element in this verse makes this clear: “As it is, my kingdom is not from here [enteuthen]” (18:36c, NRSV; compare the rendering of Rheims and KJV, “from hence”). This is the meaning of enteuthen elsewhere: “Throw yourself down from here”(Luke 4:9), “Get away from here” (Luke 13:31), and “Take these out of here” (John 2:16).

Unfortunately, those whose churches use the more prevalent translation of 18:36c will instead hear Jesus tell Pilate, “As it is, my kingdom is not here” (NAB). In point of fact it most certainly is here; it is just not derived from here. The authority by which the risen Jesus endows the disciples with the Holy Spirit and sends them as he had been sent by the Father (John 20:21-22) is surely an authority that has effect here, in this world. For exponents of the Catholic social tradition, this means that any issue of public policy impinging upon the dignity of persons must be addressed within the Christian perspective of Jesus’ reign over our lives here and now.

Be Subject

“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.”

This verse is not often quoted in Catholic church-state discourse. Rather, the sentiment of the fuller passage, Rom 13:1-7, is sometimes invoked to support a passive and uncritical attitude toward public officials. The danger of such an interpretation became famously evident during the rise of Nazism in Germany, when some Christian pastors, urging their congregants to cooperate with Hitler and his agents, quoted Romans 13 as justification. Hitler was, after all, a legitimately elected official.

Paul was indeed making the case here that normally civil authorities are servants (knowingly or not) of divine providence. Obedience to such officials was a way of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and fostering the order necessary for harmony in society. Civic cooperation was a way of being obedient to God. Similar sentiments are expressed in other New Testament writings, as well; for example, 1 Pet 2:13-14: “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, 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.” This way of thinking was, moreover, a theme in other Jewish writings of the time; for example, the first-century historian Josephus notes that Essene candidates were required to promise to “cooperate with all men, especially the powers that be, since no ruler attains his office save by the will of God” (The Jewish War, 2.8.7).

Given this, is there not a biblical mandate for the resistance of officials and laws judged in conscience to be unjust? The fuller context of the entire canon of Scripture provides a clue, in the instructive tension between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 (by happy coincidence, the same chapter number). Operating in the relatively benign structures and policies of the Roman Empire around A.D. 50, Paul interprets secular officials as instruments of God. John the Seer, however, writing some 40 years later, when Roman officials in some quarters were trying to compel Christians to participate in local liturgies of emperor worship, portrays Rome as an instrument of Satan, indeed as all four evil empires of the vision of Daniel 7 rolled into one.

A canon that contains both Romans 13 and Revelation 13 supports the Catholic tradition that Christian citizens are called to exercise intelligence and conscience in their collaboration with (and sometimes resistance to) public authorities. The authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reflect this in their treatment of the obligations of Christian citizens to civil authorities: “Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God, who has made them stewards of his gifts” (No. 2238). The text quotes Rom 13:1-2, but hastens to add, “Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticism of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.” Proper respect for secular authority does not release Christians from the responsibility of engaging as faithful citizens in political action and of advocacy for justice and peace.

Deus Caritas Est  on Justice and Charity

The varied responses to Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, suggest that some have read this document as drawing the church back from political engagement. The thoughtful commentaries of Susan A. Ross, Richrd Ryscavage, S.J., and Thomas Massaro, S.J., in America (3/13) have already illuminated this encyclical’s treatment of church and state, charity and justice. Permit me to add to this discussion.

The pope takes up the relationship between the church’s missions of charity (a direct responsibility) and justice (an indirect responsibility) in sections 26 to 29. In No. 28 Pope Benedict makes four assertions that at first glance appear to distance the church from public life. He states (1) that “it is not the church’s responsibility to make this [social] teaching prevail in political life,” (2) that building a just social and civil order “cannot be the church’s immediate responsibility,” (3) that “the church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible” and (4) that “a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church.”

However, each of these four assertions is followed by a powerful complementary assertion introduced with “rather” or “yet.” I quote these statements in sequence: (1) “the church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest”; (2) “since it is also a most important human responsibility, the church is duty bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution toward understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically”; (3) “she [the church] has to play her part through rational argument, and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper”; and (4) “the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the church deeply.”

The official teachers and preachers of the church, then—the pope, bishops and pastors—are bound to promulgate the principles of our social teaching—that is, to help form consciences, purify reason, reawaken spiritual energy and open minds and wills to the demands of the common good.

But what about direct engagement with political life? That, says Pope Benedict in No. 29, is the responsibility of the majority of the members of the church, the laity:

 

The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society...is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the state, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation “in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good” [John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (1988), No. 42]. The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competencies and fulfilling their own responsibility.

 

As in the case of New Testament texts, a proper understanding of statements in papal encyclicals requires that we read them whole and in their full context. Love of God and neighbor requires that we participate in public life as faithful citizens—clergy and laity both, each in its own way.

Dennis Hamm, S.J., holds the Amelia and Emil Graff Faculty Chair of Catholic Theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. His most recent book is a commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, published by Liturgical Press.