Authority comes from God
The relationship between political power and spiritual power derives directly from the origin of political authority in its own right. The Church has always taught that authority (politics) comes from God. St. Paul is quite clear about this: “No authority exists without God’s permission” (Rom.13: 1-4). Jesus Himself said this to Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above” (Jn 19:11). Leo XIII taught the same principle: “God is the source of human authority” (Diuturnumillud, 1881).
This principle does not mean God appoints the persons who are to govern. The indication regarding ‘who’ is to govern occurs in many ways, and nowadays through democratic election as well. Neither Mr. Renzi nor Mr. Conte (the previous and the current Italian prime ministers) were singled out by God to be at the helm of the national government in Italy. It is one thing, however, to indicate ‘who’ is to govern, and another thing to morally legitimate said person in the sense of laying the grounds of the ‘why’ it is just for him/her to govern. Now, the sole reason why one person may exercise command over another person is that this is done for the good of the latter. The sole reason legitimizing power is therefore the common good that it must serve. The common good, however, remains groundless without the Utmost Good. God is the Guarantor of Good, and therefore of any power of man over man claiming moral legitimacy in the sense of being authority and not just power.
It would also be possible to argue in just the opposite direction. On what else could the power of man over man be based if not God? On a majority vote? No, because that would be nothing other than the weight of numbers. On the decision of some assembly or parliament? No, because that would be the outcome of a biased position. On the rights and duties of man? No, because without God they would have no ultimate and absolute foundation, and could be manipulated. Without God there is no order, no good and evil, no justice, and political power would be abandoned to ‘might is right’. It would just be a question of who has the strongest muscles.
The duty of politics towards religion
If political authority does what is good, it is legitimized. If it does not, it is only designated, but not legitimized. Politics therefore has a duty with respect to what is good. This good, however, is not self standing because morals require an absoluteness that politics cannot give to itself. Moral good needs a religious foundation in God. This is the reason why politics has direct duties towards morals (it is called to pursue and ensure what is good), but also has indirect duties towards religion (it is called to render public worship to God). Otherwise, its duties towards what is good would also fade away. When politics refuses to have duties towards religion and towards God, it just so happens to forget it has duties regarding what is quite simply moral good. When politics loses sight of its duties towards the Holy Family, it ends us forgetting its duties towards the family. When it loses sight of the eternal life, it ends up forgetting to defend life as well.
If politics were to suffice unto itself and able to be self-founding, it wouldn’t need any relationship with religion. At the most, it could have contingent, accidental relations due to individual historical periods or extrinsic requirements. For example, during times of crisis and difficulty, or else because religion acts as a civic adhesive among citizens (the civic religion), heals wounds, or resolves acute forms of malaise (religion as an ambulance). Nonetheless, this would not be an essential relationship, a relationship without which politics could not be true politics.
The Church, however, teaches that politics needs religion, in addition to morals, in order to be true politics. In fact, without religion it loses its ultimate legitimacy, becomes weaker, is subject to biased interests, gradually forgets morals as well, and, in the ultimate analysis, loses any thrust and becomes nothing more than a biased administration of things instead of guiding men towards what is good.
The religion of the anti-religion
What happens if political power refuses its duties towards religion and towards God? The most interesting development, in addition to the things just illustrated, is that politics becomes God itself. When political power battles against the Absolute, it turns itself into an absolute. When politics ejects God from the public sphere – either in the violent Jacobin way, or in the liberal and tolerant manner of relativist democracy – it uses a force akin to that of religious importance, with the pretence of being a new religion. Contemporary laicism is dogmatic, violent, discriminatory, and inquisitor-like, just as if it wielded religious force. It quite obviously isn’t a true religion, but it does have a religious force, even though that force is anti-religious.
Thus do we understand a fact of considerable importance. Political power cannot assume a neutral stance towards spiritual power and God. If it isn’t with God, it is against God. Understood as a refusal of religion and God, political laicity is therefore impossible. Once God has been removed, political power will replace that public space with other gods, beginning with self-divinization. Surprising in the eyes of our fellowmen is also the parallel consequence: a true laicity of politics can only come about if politics accepts not only its dependence (direct) on morality, but also its dependence (indirect) on religion.
Which religion and which God?
In addition to being aware of its duties towards religion, the primary task of political authority is not to place all religions on the same level, but rather assess them in the light of political reason itself. It isn’t enough to open politics to the religious ambit in general terms since there are religions that conflict with the requirements of the political reason which should be the source of guidance for political authority. Therefore, political authority should tackle the issue of the true religion. In this regard, the Catholic religion advances a prerogative of its own. In the famous speech he delivered to the Federal Parliament in Berlin in 2011, Benedict XVI had said that the Catholic religion has never claimed to transform the Gospel into civil law, nor wanted to bestow directly political or legal substance on revelation. The Church’s constant point of reference has always been natural law, requesting countries to respect the law of nature, which is also that of reason. What Benedict XVI intended was that politics should never relate to a fundamentalist religion which turns revelation into civil law, because that would be the death of politics transformed into religion. Nor should it relate to an irrational religion which establishes no link between itself and political reason. For reasons of political reason and not faith, it should entrust itself to a religion that guarantees the autonomy of politics founded on natural law, and hence the bond (direct) with morals, and the bond (indirect) with the true religion. In effect, when we take a look at history, the Church has always maintained the distinction between temporal power and spiritual power, albeit in the various forms this distinction has assumed down through history. Nonetheless, it has never stopped teaching – not even today – that political power ends up becoming deranged if it does not maintain sound and solid relations with religious power, and hence with the Catholic religion and the Church, to which it turns during moments of disorientation in order to recover sense of self, to recover its own legitimization.
Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận