The current situation in which American Catholics find themselves at sword’s point with a government bent on imposing an agenda hostile to both human life and religious liberty, puts me in mind of a similar dust-up forty some years ago. The year was 1970, Paul VI was on the chair of St. Peter, and the Church found herself on a collision course with a bunch of Colonels running the show in Brazil. They’d been kept fairly busy bullying huge numbers of their own people and the Pope, who was not pleased, told them to cut it out. “Stop torturing your own people!” is pretty much the gist of the letter he’d sent them. What moved him to do so? Well, it was really quite simple. Inasmuch as every human being on the planet is subject to the Keys of the Kingdom entrusted by Christ to Saint Peter, no government is ever at liberty to oppress anybody.
I am not sure how soon after launching that particular papal warhead that the Colonels decided, in lawyerly fashion, to cease and desist. Or if, indeed, they ever really did stop doing beastly things to the people of Brazil. Who knows, perhaps they treated the pope’s displeasure with an insouciance worthy of Joseph Stalin, who, on being informed that his latest outrage would almost certainly discommode Pius XII, reportedly asked, “And how many divisions has the Pope?”
The answer, of course, is none. (Unless you count a handful of Swiss Guardsmen as sufficient deterrent to the aggressive designs of tyrannical states.) But that does not dispose of the question, which is whether or not it is ever the business of the Church to tell the Secular State what to do. Or not to do, as in the case of governments torturing their citizens. Not even rogues are exempt from the obligation to acknowledge moral limits to the raw exercise of their power. And the Church has not infrequently made it her business to point out when those limits have been transgressed, especially when such violations impinge on the dignity of the human person.
Eugenio Pacelli certainly thought so. “That which does not correspond to the truth or to the moral norm,” he declared in ringing apodictic tones, “possesses, objectively, no right either to existence or to propagation or to action.” Who could mistake the distinct magisterial accent there? Now whether or not such strictures are enforceable in a world rampant with recalcitrance and evil is another matter; but it is hardly relevant to the Vicar of Christ who, in the performance of his duty, is enjoined by God himself to call the wicked to account. “When the Pope speaks,” St. Catherine of Siena reminds us, “it is Jesus himself whom we hear.”
And even ordinary bishops may have to speak that way now and again. St. Ambrose, for instance, the sainted fourth century Bishop of Milan, famously refused to be intimidated in his dealings with pagan emperors. When Theodosius inflicted mass reprisals against the citizens of Thessalonica for having killed one of his barbarian generals, he ordered him to perform public penance. Of course, the emperor’s initial response was one of calculated insolence, saying in effect that if he was guilty of murder then he was in good company since King David himself had done likewise and see how beloved by God he was. But Ambrose wasn’t buying it. “You have imitated David in his crime,” he bluntly told him, “now imitate him in his repentance.”
What happened next is the stuff of legend. Appearing in sackcloth and ash outside the cathedral in Milan, stripped of every vestige of imperial power, a prostrate emperor implores Ambrose and God to forgive him. Which they do, of course, but only after the poor man has put in eight months of penance.
On one side, then, there stands the immense machinery of the all-powerful imperial state; on the other side, there lies the thinnest reed of the Church’s moral authority. Who vanquishes whom?
However, in this world certainly, not all victories belong to the blessed. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness may have to postpone their satisfaction for another world. Think of Henry Tudor of England, whose appetite for lust and power not even the threat of papal excommunication, not to mention an eternity spent in hell, could deflect. Or Adolph Hitler, the former altar boy who grows up to become a genocidal maniac—how effective were Church sanctions in putting the breaks on him? Or the former seminarian, Joseph Stalin, who casually wiped out millions in methodical pursuit of Soviet-style perfection. Why hadn’t the moral order upheld by the Russian Orthodox Church inhibited him any?
“If you want a picture of the future,” wrote George Orwell in the last year of his life, “try to imagine a jack-boot stamping upon a human face forever.” Imagine, in a word, 1984, the title of his nightmare novel in which every decent impulse of honor and love has been pitilessly suppressed. He depicts a world where human beings are programmed never to think, never to behave, in terms of relations defined by tenderness or love. Only hatred and lust and violence are permitted to prosper, to metastasize even, within the human heart. Those who dare to mount the least resistance, like Orwell’s hapless hero, are routinely sent to the Ministry of Love, there to be tortured into compliance.
Well we certainly have come a long way since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the happy outcome of which not only made it easier for men to be good, but, thanks to his insistence on the subordination of the State to God, made it that much harder for rulers to be bad. Humbugs, yes. But not so depraved as to allow such state-sanctioned horrors as the Death Camps. Only wholesale and detestable evacuation of the moral law itself would make possible aberrations of that sort. “If you will not have God,” warned T.S. Eliot on the eve of the Second World War, “and he is a jealous God, then you can pay your respects to Hitler and Stalin.”
It was Constantine, in point of fact, whose conversion to the true faith would enable so many to practice unmolested the religion that as recently as the day before pagan Rome had cruelly sought to destroy. “To cleave to Christianity called then for a strength of character of which the majority of men are not capable,” writes Jean Cardinal Danielou in Prayer as a Political Problem. This little book struck like lightning when, under the shadow of El Escorial, Spain’s massive poem in stone, I first came across it years ago as a very young man. Because, argues Danielou, “Constantine removed these obstacles, the Gospel was accessible to the poor, that is to say, to those very people who are not numbered among the elite. The man in the street could now be a Christian.”
And the newly baptized Constantine, pursuant to the demands of his freshly found faith, did something else, too. He outlawed by imperial edict the branding of criminals. His reasoning was simple yet profound. Because all men bore the image of their Creator, and because God had himself become a man, there is something imperishably sacred about the flesh of any man, even that of a felon.
Who says religion and politics should never mix?
As I write this, my eyes fall across lines of an essay written by an esteemed colleague and friend, Professor John Crosby, describing his great teacher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose brave personal witness against the madness of Hitler’s Third Reich, reminds us that “All of Western Christian Civilization stands or falls with the words of Genesis, ‘God made man in his image.’” It is, after all, the cornerstone of everything we believe about the human person. If we are to take a stand against the depredations of Caesar, therefore, and of all those in power who defile the image of divinity we possess, we need finally to do so on grounds the Church herself recommends, which is Christ, who bore that image from womb to tomb.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Dedication” by Edmund Blair Leighton painted in 1908.