This second part of a post on Politics and the Clergy is a lesser addendum to Part I. I would like to note here several somewhat disparate matters. First, I make an historical point in order to distinguish past Christian ages from the present. I then define further the ‘distinction of offices’ by distinguishing it from the more recent idea of the separation of Church and state. I also here distinguish, on the one hand, the proper clerical role of teaching and of stating and inculcating moral principles from, on the other hand, the very different, political, and lay role of devising prudent ways and means to forward moral goals and principles. This distinction repeats somewhat points made in Part I. Finally here, I quote in full one reaction to Part I, which voices some of my own perceptions.
In the quotation from Lord Clarendon with which I began, Clarendon speaks slightingly of the political judgement of the clergy in comparison with ‘all mankind that can read and write’. The quotation is significant, because the authority of the medieval clergy in secular affairs had as one of its main bases the fact that the clergy were literate.[i] In the late Roman Western Empire educated men who held, or might well have held, political or administrative offices in the empire and its provinces and cities, sometimes were recruited to become clergy: the examples of Saints Ambrose and Augustine are well known. With the decline of social organization and order in western Europe after the fall of the Western Empire, the process was reversed: men who had clerical education and office were often faute de mieux recruited to serve in positions of secular authority. In an age of general illiteracy, literacy and the clerical state became virtually synonymous.
With a wider diffusion of literacy and a revival of secular learning at the Renaissance, kings and magnates became increasingly independent of the clergy to fill high and low administrative offices. Cardinal Wolsey gave way to two laymen: the first a lay saint in Roman Catholic reckoning, Thomas More; then the second, the sacrilegious despoiler of monasteries and shrines, Thomas Cromwell. The late medieval Wolsey gave way to the early modern Cromwell.
In places and communities where illiteracy is common, the clergy still may have social and political responsibilities based on their general and, in context, unusual literacy and superior education: the mission priest writes the local administrator on behalf of the village; the local council asks a bishop to intercede with a government official whom he once taught at the Grand Seminary or in a Church high school or whose family he once helped. The distinction of offices assumes that such cases are uncommon in most societies now, but they do exist.
Furthermore, even now attitudes persist that probably began in the earlier, more clericalist era of a largely illiterate and ignorant laity. In 19th century America, in the days of ‘Irish Need Not Apply’, in a heavily immigrant and peasant American Roman Catholic Church, the clergy assumed an authority that was practically understandable and even necessary. The resultant paternalism reinforced both the theologically based clericalism of the era and also the general tendency of Roman Catholics to feel justified in and competent to address almost all matters of public concern. These streams then have been further strengthened by more recent social-justice jargon and political co-option by influential lay politicians and their allies in the Church bureaucracy. The result is a national bishop’s conference and subdivisions thereof that seldom seem to feel incompetent to wade into political debates with dubious and vague answers to thorny practical and political problems.
For example, in 1975 the Appalachian [Roman] Catholic Bishops published ‘This Land is Home to Me’, an odd document on the problems of a vast and complex region of the United States: http://www.catholicconferencewv.org/docs/ThisLandIsHome.pdf
Much more recently the bishops and their subordinates have also opined in detail, for example, on immigration policy:
and on the extension of the ‘New START’ nuclear arms treaty (!):
The fact that these questions are extremely complex, with few obvious, specifically Christian answers, has not prevented the wading.
In any case, though the distinction of offices, however often neglected, did not originate with widespread lay literacy, it certainly grew in significance with the growth of learning and knowledge in the general populace. Educated, literate, and vocal laymen do not need clerical assistance to make their voices heard.
Within the Anglican world, the gradual restriction of the clergy to their proper ecclesiastical and religious roles can be seen in the matter of office holding during the long Stuart century between the accession of James I in 1603 and the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The 17th century in general was decisive in this regard and in all matters affected by the general defeat of classical political assumptions and by the corresponding victory of modern, liberal assumptions.[ii]
Among the early Stuarts, great ecclesiastics often also held great offices of state. Bishop John Williams, eventually the Archbishop of York, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal from 1621-1625, and as Laud’s authority waned in the 1640s, Williams’s waxed. Bishop William Juxon of London, later Restoration Archbishop of Canterbury, was made head of the Treasury in 1636. William Laud at one point was not only Archbishop of Canterbury, but also head of the Commission of the Treasury that replaced Lord Portland, first of the Junto for Foreign Affairs, and head of the Commission for the Plantations. A generation or two later, however, at the end of the Stuart dynasty under Queen Anne (Clarendon’s granddaughter!), while the bishops remained members of the House of Lords and often were privy counsellors, it was unusual and even controversial for a bishop to serve in a high state office. This change was true despite Anne’s sincere devotion to and generous financial support for the Church and her clergy.
Certainly in England and America, the distinction in offices is now so strongly maintained in at least one respect that few clergymen become public officials of high rank. There are exceptions, such as John Danforth (U.S. Senator, 1976-1995), but they are usually not widely known to be clergymen at all. They are exceptions, but are hardly recognized as such.
Nonetheless, the distinction of offices should not be confused with the American, much less Jeffersonian, separation of Church and state. The constitution of a nation may provide for the formal, legal establishment of a Church, such as the Church of England or the Church of Scotland, in which case Church and state explicitly are not separated. A country might even provide for the establishment of two or three Churches, as in Finland both the Lutheran and the Russian Orthodox Churches are given official status and as in Germany the Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Churches all have official status. In such lands it is inappropriate and inaccurate to refer to the Church and state as ‘separate’.
The distinction of offices, however, continues to apply whether the Church and state are legally separated or whether the Church is legally established. In fact, as a note already has suggested, the constitutional establishment of an official Church might itself reinforce the duty of the clergy to be reticent and careful about using their privileged and public positions to opine about or interfere in controversial, contingent, and debatable matters of public, political division. The parish priest and the diocesan bishop, like the Queen of England, have official duties, authority, and obligations that make official political neutrality expedient for all parties and all persons concerned. Such neutrality is not the result of constitutional separation but of the distinction of offices.
On this last point – the difference between ‘separation of Church and state’ and the ‘distinction of offices’ – I would observe that modern, enlightenment, liberal opinion has taken a traditional category and created a superficially similar but in fact quite different alternative. The clerical modesty and reticence implied by the distinction of offices is converted by the modern liberal state into its doctrine of ‘separation’. By this conversion the liberal state removes and separates religious bodies and persons from a position of possible moral superiority to the regime and its basic principles. The separation is often presented and defended as a way of protecting the Church from undue state influence, and no doubt at times that protection may be an actual effect of the separation. But in any case, there is on the theoretical level no doctrinal or specifically Christian support for the secular doctrine of separationism.[iii]
The distinction of offices does not mean that the clergy have no politically significant role or that their proper role and authority may not well have political implications. The proper role of the clergy in political terms is to form consciences, inculcate moral sensitivity and care, and to instruct and catechize the people in the Church’s moral teaching. The ways-and-means by which Christians seek to realize the Church’s teaching in the world are, however, not within the office of the Christian or clergyman as such.
For example, that an arm of an episcopal conference encourages Christians to support or oppose the extension of a particular arms control treaty is a clear violation of the distinction of offices. The just war tradition has a clear place in Catholic teaching, and its elements can and should quite properly be taught by the clergy. The detailed application of the principles so taught, however, belongs to statesmen, politicians, military advisors, and others whose expertise and responsibilities fit them to that role. Likewise, the Church’s moral teaching clearly prohibits directly willed abortion, and all clergy should teach that moral principle. But it is for citizens, politicians, jurists, and statesmen, not Christians and clergy as such, to work in the world to implement and make effective that moral principle. Whether a constitutional amendment or congressional legislation or judicial activism or business boycotts or street demonstrations are prudent and appropriate and likely to be effective are not moral or religious or clerical or specifically Christian matters: they are contingent, prudential, secular, debatable, lay, and worldly issues.
In short, what the clergy properly teach should have political and worldly consequences, but it is not for the clergy to govern the practical and contingent implementation of moral principles.
Finally, I would like to quote here a response to my basic position from a priest of my diocese. This blog post of mine (both Parts I and II) in large part is inspired by a question asked by this priest. In response to Part I of this blog post, the priest writes:
I am pleased my point on Facebook (a wretched place for wise discourse) provided some impetus for this lovely, learned article. I have shared it with a group of traditionally minded young ACNA clergy, and it reads to them like a breath of fresh air. There is desperately little interest among myself and the other younger clergy with whom I am friendly for engaging in fights over political ideology. Far too many of our congregations are already better catechized in the doctrines of their favorite politicians than they are in the faith which actually saves men’s souls, and I do believe people will only evangelize what they have been catechized. For some time, I was terribly disappointed that our coffee hours sounded more like a meeting of the [_________] Executive Committee than a fellowship gathering of joyful Christians resting in God’s eternal victory, and so for the last year or two I just go from table to table, and if the talk moves to politics, rather than give my two cents, I bring up God in some way. What I have found is that people are much more comfortable talking about politics, a topic which 24 hour news and social media have turned into entertainment, than they are about their faith. I fear for many it has become a replacement faith (an obvious reality among religious progressives, but a burgeoning reality among conservatives). In discussions regarding evangelism, it strikes me as key for this trend to be faced, attacked, and reversed. Clergy talking about God rather than politics seems to be the best way to lead by example.
[i] The second great basis for clerical authority was the sincere, though not uncritical, respect given to the clergy by laymen, high and low, in a deeply religious age. The third great basis was the relative order and prosperity of dioceses, the parochial system, and the Benedictine and other religious houses in an era of general disorder. As bishops and dioceses, cathedral churches, large parishes, great houses of religion, and, later, religiously-founded universities grew wealthy, they were able to offer hospitality and alms in their communities, performed public services in tending for the sick, keeping up roads and bridges, and providing education. Adam Smith attributes the decline of the clergy in France to the improvement of arts and manufactures through specialization, trade, and technical advances. In the Middle Ages the clergy could not consume their wealth – largely agricultural – on themselves, so they were profuse in their charity and thereby grew to be loved. When the clergy were able to consume most of their wealth themselves, their charity and popularity declined. What Smith desired – the increase of arts and manufactures and wealth – led to a decline of the Church, which lost the affection of those once ‘supported by the charity and hospitality of the clergy’ (see The Wealth of Nations, V.i.g, p. 25).
[ii] The central element in this process is the replacement of the classical assumption that political communities have as their main goal and purpose the inculcation of virtue in their members. The central modern assumption is that political communities have as their main goal and purpose the fostering of instrumental, secondary means (life, liberty, and property) and not the pursuit of virtue or salvation or other ultimate goals. Modern politics is the realm of instrumental goods, while ultimate goods and goals are treated as private. In England this replacement occurred under the combined influence of the English Civil Wars and the settlement that followed the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689, though the process remained incomplete, with periodic Tory glances back. Queen Anne at the end of her first Parliament spoke of ‘such of my subjects as have the misfortune to dissent from the Church of England’ and of ‘those who have the happiness and advantage to be of our Church’. Anne, while promising to tolerate religious dissent, assured Parliament that ‘I shall always make it my particular care to encourage and maintain the Church as by law established, and every the least member of it in all their just rights and privileges’. ‘Good Queen Anne’, the Church understandably calls her.
[iii] Similarly, secular society asserts a doctrine of toleration that can seem superficially similar to, but is in fact quite different from, the Christian virtues of charity and respect for conscience. See my post elsewhere on tolerationism:
Likewise, the modern virtue of altruism is a secularized version of (and alternative for) charity. Altruism is benevolence towards others even when there is no apparent selfish benefit or motive. Charity is benevolence towards others for the sake of the love of God and for the sake of an ordinate self-love that is itself commanded by God and directed towards Him as its ultimate and proper end. Altruism has its end in this world. Charity is ultimately oriented towards God and becomes with that general goal and motive the form of all other virtues.