Rejecting the poison chalice of church-state unity

Sean O’Conaill ©The Irish Times 2000

There is no question that the papacy of John Paul II will be best remembered for its attitude of penitence about disastrous historical errors of ecclesiastical praxis.

The document Memory and Reconciliation is unprecedented in its acknowledgment of these. It will probably remain as the best evidence of the necessary continuation at the millennium of a process of descent from the hubristic insanities of Christendom.

It comes close to the terminus of an arc of spiritual inflation that began with the persecution of the Donatists at the end of the 4th century, reached its appalling zenith with the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 and began a rapid and salutary descent in the 17th century with the scientific revolution.

However, that arc remains to be completed, for Memory and Reconciliation – although aiming at the purification of memory – chooses to forget, or ignore, crucial errors of doctrine and praxis which lie ready for repetition were the church again to be offered the poison chalice of church-state unity.  It is clear that Catholicism still contains a chauvinist rump, not at all happy with any kind of apology, and this must at all costs be deprived of the means of disgracing the church again.

Chief among these doctrinal time-bombs is Augustine of Hippo’s appalling exegesis of Luke 14:16-23. This is the parable in which the rich man, whose friends won’t attend a marriage feast, instructs his servants to search the by-ways for strangers, and “compel them to come in”. It is clear from the context that the “compulsion” approved by Jesus here would be no more than that required to overcome the natural hesitation of a tramp invited out of the blue to feast with his social superiors.  Augustine, principally in the letter to Donatus, stretched this to a justification of the use of state coercion to suppress the Donatist movement in north Africa, compelling all to accept his brand of orthodoxy.

In The Letter to Donatus, Augustine addressed the argument for toleration used by a Donatist correspondent. This was to the effect that Jesus’s question “Will you, too, go away?” to the disciples following the eucharistic teaching (John 6:45-47) was an acknowledgment of their full right to do exactly that.

Augustine contrasted Jesus’s humility on his way to the cross with the divinely-ordained and new-found power acquired by the post-resurrection church, from Emperors Constantine and Theodosius. This gift, he argued, was in itself proof that the church did have the authority to compel whom it wished into conformity.

“Compel them to come in” became the fundamental text of Christian intolerance for 1,500 years. It has still not been challenged or repudiated by the teaching church, even though a contrary teaching was adopted by Vatican II (that “the truth may convey itself solely by virtue of its own truth”.)

It is clear also that the genesis of this Vatican II teaching came via the 18th-century Enlightenment, rather than via the church’s own theology. The fact remains that the church has still to provide a scriptural foundation for the principle of religious freedom.

On the other hand, the corruptive effects of the church-state alliance are absolutely clear, and this is the second major omission from the Memory and Reconciliation document. Although it alludes to the church-state link as the context within which mistakes were made, it does so in order to exonerate the church from full responsibility. This simply will not do.  As we witness here in Ireland the cost to the prestige of the church that has flowed from its period of secular power following independence, we must insist upon the perennial truth that power corrupts – specifically the coercive power of the state.

The truth is that Christendom itself replaced Christ’s self-sacrifice with coercion as the major argument for Christian conversion. We are still lumbered with explanations of the crucifixion that misrepresent the Christian deity as so wedded to self-satisfaction as to require the son’s payment of a debt his Father would not cancel.

This is so contradictory and nonsensical as to make the whole idea of atonement, and of a Trinity founded upon love, totally opaque. On the other hand, the cross for many today has become symbolic of divine solidarity with their victimisation, an entirely contrary perspective.

Which interpretation does the church now officially hold?  Behind virtually all of the errors admitted by the church in Memory and Reconciliation – the persecution of heretics, of Jews, the Inquisition, the toleration of slavery, the rape of cultures in the New World – lies the spectre of the church’s alliance with the state, the ultimate source and locus of coercive power.  Until that has been acknowledged fully, the church’s memory will remain partial, and a resumption of Catholic coercion a future option.

Let us purify the church’s memory perfectly, and secure its future credibility by highlighting the basic source of its historical mistakes.  Jesus’s separation of church and state – unique among religious leaders in the ancient world – was betrayed by the church, with terrifying consequences.

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