Certain Prerogatives Conferred by Jesus Christ Upon His Church: Part 4
Fr. W. Devivier, SJ
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messmer, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, Wisc.
Imprimatur, 1903


The Church has received from Jesus Christ all the powers necessary to attain her end, and all men who desire to be saved must obey her laws. On the other hand, man, a social being, naturally forms part of a civil society, which has also received from God the powers necessary to attain its proper end, and justly requires obedience to its laws. It is important to know what relations God wills should exist between these two societies composed of the same members; in other words, to know the reciprocal rights and duties of the Church and the State.

Leo XIII in his admirable encyclical on Christian States presents these relations very clearly. Let us quote a few passages from it, and then sum up this doctrine in a few theses, which will help to fix in our minds the ideas relative to this important question. It is particularly necessary to do so at the present day, when efforts are made to hamper the Church in the exercise of her authority and make her subordinate to temporal powers.

"God has divided the government of mankind between two powers, ecclesiastical and civil; one presides over Divine things, the other over human. Each in its sphere is sovereign; each is marked with limits perfectly defined, and traced in conformity with its nature and its special end. Hence there is, as it were, a circumscribed sphere, in which each exercises its action jure proprio. At the same time, their authority being exercised on the same subjects, it may happen that one and the same thing, though for different reasons, may come under the jurisdiction and judgment of both powers; . . . hence the necessity of having between the two powers a system of well-ordered relations, analogous to to that which in man constitutes the union of soul and body. We can form a just idea of the nature and power of these relations only by considering the nature of each of these two powers and by bearing in mind the excellence and nobility of their ends, since the special and immediate end of one is the promotion of temporal interests, and of the other, spiritual and eternal interests. Thus all that is sacred in human things in any respect whatever, all that relates to the salvation of souls and the worship of God, either through its nature or through the relation of its end, comes under the authority of the Church. As to other things which relate to the civil and political order, it is just that they be subject to civil authority, for Christ has commanded us to 'render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's.' "

Leo XIII in his encyclical on Civil Government has also said: The Church "recognizes and declares that all belonging to the civil order are under their (i.e. temporal rulers) power and supreme authority. In things the judgment of which, for various reasons, belongs to the religious and to the civil power, she wishes that there be mutual accord, by which blessed means both powers will be preserved from fatal dissensions."

First Thesis.----The Ecclesiastical Power and the Civil Power, Church and State, are Independent or Sovereign, each Within the Limits of its Proper Sphere of Action.


FIRST ARGUMENT.----This is clearly evident from the Divine will. To Peter and his successors Christ confided the government of His Church. "To her, and not to the State," says Leo XIII in the encyclical on Christian States, "belongs the right to guide men in heavenly things. To her has God given the command to make known and to decide all things relating to religion, to teach all nations, to extend as far as possible the frontiers of Christianity, in a word, to administer freely, and according to her own judgment, Christian interests." It is evident that to subject the Church to a power other than that which God has established would be to overthrow the personal work of God.

SECOND ARGUMENT, FROM THE SUPERIOR END OF THE CHURCH.----The direct end of civil society is to promote the welfare and safety of man here below, to further the preservation and development of his nature in the physical and intellectual order. The special end of religious society or of the Church is to help him to attain perfect and eternal happiness, to establish and extend the reign of God upon earth, to labor for the moral and supernatural perfection of man, to lead him to his supreme destiny, to insure him boundless happiness, which consists in the eternal possession of God. This evidently is a mission superior to that which is proper to the civil power. "As the end of the Church is by far the noblest of all," says Leo XIII, "her power should rank above all others, and cannot in any way be inferior or subject to any civil power."

THIRD ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE NATURE, THE OBJECTS, AND THE EXTENT OF THE CHURCH'S AUTHORITY.----a. A power directly Divine, universal, perpetual, and immutable in its origin is infinitely superior to that which is only indirectly Divine, which is variable, and limited by time and space. Now spiritual power was established directly and immediately by God Himself; moreover, it is universal and perpetual, and is founded upon Divine and immutable laws. The authority of civil rulers, it is true, also comes from God: "There is no power but from God" (Rom. xiii. 1). But in religious society, everything depends directly upon Him; not only spiritual authority itself, but also its form, its limits, and the manner of exercising it, rest upon a positive Divine right; the community possesses and transmits no power. In civil society, on the contrary, the form of government and the conditions of sovereignty are of positive human right; they depend on the free choice of men, and consequently are subject to change.

b. The objects and means of this spiritual power are all of a sacred and supernatural character: the word of God, sacrifice, Sacraments and worship, Christian virtue and sanctification. On the other hand, the civil power is confined exclusively to objects and means of the natural order.

c. Finally, in regard to the extent of their jurisdiction, the Church is essentially universal and perpetual; it must carry its mission to all nations, to the end of time. The civil power, on the contrary, is essentially national, circumscribed by geographical limits, natural or conventional, and has, moreover, only a limited and uncertain duration.

FOURTH ARGUMENT, FROM THE CONDUCT OF CHRIST AND HIS APOSTLES.----Nowhere do we find Jesus asking permission of earthly rulers to preach, to assemble His Apostles, to establish His Church. Nor do we find that He commanded His Apostles to take counsel with civil governments in order to propagate the Gospel and exercise their ministry. He predicted, on the contrary, that they would be cruelly treated and persecuted by earthly rulers and magistrates because of their mission. If He commanded them to render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, that is, to submit to him in matters purely temporal, if He Himself gave an example of this submission by paying the tribute, they have not to consult civil authorities in matters belonging to spiritual government. Thus we find the Apostles announcing the good tidings everywhere, founding churches, consecrating bishops, ordaining priests and deacons, making disciplinary laws and precepts, regardless of the temporal powers; when driven from one place they go to another; if they are overwhelmed with outrages and insults, they glory to suffer for the name of Jesus. They cannot, they say, be silent concerning that which they have seen and heard, and they must "obey God rather than men."

The Acts of the Apostles offer us a remarkable example of this independence of the spiritual power. The Jewish magistrates forbade the Apostles to teach the doctrine of Jesus, alleging that they disturbed the public peace. What do the Apostles reply? "We must obey God rather than men." Here we have on the one hand the Church commanding the preaching of the Gospel in order to fulfill its end, the salvation of souls, a thing of spiritual interest; on the other, the magistrates forbidding this same preaching, in view of the public peace, a matter of temporal interest. Now the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of Peter, commanded them to disregard this prohibition. The Apostle does not say that public order shall not be disturbed; he only alleges the will of God (iv. 19; v.29).

FIFTH ARGUMENT, FROM ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY.----The example of the Apostles has been faithfully imitated by their successors, not only through long periods of persecution, but throughout all history. "This authority, perfect in itself and absolutely independent, the Church has never ceased to claim or to exercise publicly.  . . . Moreover, it has, in principle and in fact, been acknowledged by princes and heads of government, who in their negotiations and transactions, by sending and receiving ambassadors, and by the exchange of other good offices, have constantly acted with the Church as with a sovereign and legitimate power. Thus it was by a special providence of God that this authority was furnished with a civil principality as the best safeguard of its independence." (Leo XIII on Christian States.)

REMARK.----There is nothing in common between the superiority of the Church's jurisdiction, of which we have just spoken, and theocracy, with which writers sometimes affect to confound it. Theocracy, which is the government of a temporal society by a political law Divinely revealed, and by an authority supernaturally constituted, has never existed except among the Jewish people, and only during a period of their history. It is true that by theocracy is sometimes meant the domination which many attribute to the clergy in purely temporal matters. But the Catholic doctrine, in proclaiming, as we shall see, the independence of civil power in these matters, renders such domination impossible.


As long as it does not violate the laws of God and the rights of the Church, as long as the spiritual interests and the supreme end of man are not endangered, the State is free to take whatever measures it pleases in regard to customs, imposts, finances, armies, public works, etc. The Church has nothing to do with these purely human details, relating only to the temporal happiness of nations. In other words, the Church has not and does not claim, in virtue of its institution, any power over civil society in purely temporal matters relating to a temporal end or an exclusively temporal interest. "The civil order," says the present Pope, speaking of temporal rulers, "is entirely subject to their power and to their sovereign authority." [2]

COROLLARIES.----1st. It follows from the preceding thesis that there exists between Church and State a real distinction decreed by Jesus Christ. Let us observe, however, that this distinction is not rigidly essential. In fact God could have confided to the same authority the office of promoting at the same time the spiritual and the temporal end of man. He could have made the kings of the earth the ministers of the head of the Church, receiving their power from Him and governing in His name. But He has not willed to do this. Christ in reality has ordained that each of these two ends should be promoted by a special authority, each, in its proper sphere of action, independent of the other.

2d. From what we have stated of the powers conferred by Christ upon His Church, and the independence in regard to civil authority which He has guaranteed to her, it results, in virtue of the definition itself previously given, that the Church is truly a perfect society. It also follows that pagan Cæsarism and all encroachments of the civil power upon the religious related in the history of the Church must be condemned.

It will not be beside our purpose to enumerate here a few of the rights which the Church justly claims. To rob her of these rights is to violate the independence which belongs to her as a perfect society, possessing in herself, according to the sovereign order of Jesus Christ, her Founder, all the means necessary to attain her end.

A. The Church has the right to fulfill the mission and exercise the power she has received from her Divine Founder without having to ask the authority of the civil power, and without being subject to its control or its interference. Thus she is absolutely independent in everything relating to the teaching of dogma and of morals, the administration of the Sacraments, the election of her pontiffs, the erection and direction of her seminaries and religious communities, the distribution of ecclesiastical offices. No one has the right to prevent the sovereign Pontiff from communicating with the clergy and the faithful, or to prevent the promulgation of his briefs or the execution of his decrees; the royal placet and exequatur with which civil authority sometimes claims to control the acts of the spiritual power are illicit and of no value unless they are the result of a concordat, [3] that is, of a concession of ecclesiastical authority.

B. As each member of the Church is composed of a double nature, of a soul and of a body, he must be led to his final end by means appropriate to this double nature. Hence:

a. The Church has a right to impose upon its members not only purely spiritual but also material things, such as fasting, almsgiving, assistance at Divine worship.

b. The Church has the right and the duty to carry on Divine worship exteriorly and publicly, and consequently to prescribe public, exterior ceremonies, such as processions, pilgrimages; to require the material means necessary for the exercise of her worship, for the support of her ministers, for the construction and preservation of sacred edifices, and, since material means are necessary for this purpose, to acquire temporal goods, to hold and possess them.

c. The Church has the right to command the obedience of her members, to impose upon the rebellious spiritual or material penalties, either for their amendment or as an example to others.
None of these rights can be taken from the Church without violating the independence which she justly claims as a perfect society, that is, as a society possessing in itself, by the sovereign will of Christ, her Founder, all the means of preservation and of action necessary to attain her end.

Second Thesis.----In Cases of Conflict, that is, when in Mixed Matters the Two Authorities Prescribe Contradictory Obligations for Members Owing Allegiance to Both Powers, the Authority of the Church must Prevail over that of Civil Society.

In temporal matters there arises, sometimes in the ordinary course of things, sometimes through exceptional circumstances, a spiritual interest which the Church must safeguard; at the same time the purpose or object of such interests may not be of a sufficiently supernatural character to place them altogether in the spiritual or supernatural sphere; hence these are called mixed matters; a case in point is the question of the temporal possessions of the Church.

"All," says Leo XIII, "which in human things is sacred for any reason whatever, all that pertains to the salvation of souls and the worship of God, either in its nature or its end, comes under the authority of the Church." This is the proper domain of the Church, and consequently she has a right to exercise her authority in regard to governments as well as in regard to the individual faithful. Nevertheless history attests that in questions of this nature the Church always tries to act in concert with the State, in order that such matters may be regulated by a common agreement, rather than by a summary and supreme decision on her part. Let us add further the following words of the encyclical already quoted: "At times it may happen that another means of securing harmony and guaranteeing peace and liberty avails; this is when the heads of governments and the sovereign pontiffs have a special agreement upon some special point. Under such circumstances the Church gives striking proof of her motherly charity in carrying indulgence and condescension as far as possible."

The thesis announced is only a logical deduction of what has gone before; nevertheless, because of its importance at the present time, it is well to insist a little further on some of the arguments upon which it rests.

FIRST ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE END ITSELF OF THE CHURCH.----This end is infinitely superior to that of the State. What, in fact, are temporal goods compared to eternal? What, says Our Saviour, will it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his own soul? All earthly possessions, and civil society itself, are only means given by God to man to lead him to his final end, the possession of eternal happiness. The proper and immediate end of the State is to promote the temporal happiness of man; therefore in everything relating to the final end of man it must be subordinate to the Church. "The art of the pilot," says St. Thomas, "regulates that of the sailor, the art of the architect that of the mason, and the arts of peace those of war."


THIRD ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM CATHOLIC TRADITION AND PONTIFICAL DECISIONS.----"All the Fathers of the Church," says Tarquini, in his excellent and sound work, Les principes du droit public de l'Eglise, "have constantly taught that the end of civil society, and its government, must be subordinate to the Church, as the body is to the soul." The same thing is affirmed by the decisions of the Holy See. Not only did Pius IX condemn the 42d Proposition of the Syllabus thus formulated:

"In cases of conflict between the two powers the civil power prevails," but in his Encyclical Quanta Cura Pius IX, basing his decision upon the words of several of his predecessors, expressed himself in these terms: "It is certain that it is the interest of rulers, whenever there is question of the affairs of God, carefully to follow the order which He has prescribed, and to yield, and not to prefer the royal will to that of the priests of Christ."

Third Thesis.----The Church and the State should Mutually Help Each Other.

The conflicts of which we have just spoken are extremely to be regretted; they are injurious to the good of the Church, as well as to that of the State. Hence there should be between the two powers, as Leo XIII says, "well-ordered relations, analogous to those which constitute in man the union of body and soul." The wise providence of God, which has established both powers, has provided for their needs by tracing the relations that should exist between them. These relations will form the subject of the present thesis.


This duty, which does not need to be demonstrated, the Church does not dispute; she fulfills it by her teaching concerning the Divine origin of temporal power, and the necessity of obedience to all lawful authority; by her prayers, her Sacraments, and her worship, which help subjects to fulfill their civil obligations. The Church is even obliged, when necessary, to resort to spiritual penalties to induce her subjects to perform their duty toward the State. There may be even circumstances when it will be her duty to help the State by pecuniary sacrifices, by relinquishing some of her possessions, etc.


1st. INDIRECTLY. a. By causing justice, order, and tranquillity to reign in the State, in order that the Church may be able to exercise efficaciously her salutary influence.

b. By refraining from violating the rights of the Church, and never permitting her to be hampered in any way in the fulfillment of her Divine mission, in the preaching of the Gospel, in the exercise of her worship, in the administration of the Sacraments and in her government.

2d. DIRECTLY. The State owes the Church positive and direct assistance, without, however, going outside its proper sphere. Its duty, for example, is to make laws in harmony with the Divine and ecclesiastical laws; to sanction, as far as circumstances require and permit, the laws of the Church, by temporal penalties; to provide, if necessary, for the maintenance of the ministers of religion, and religious worship itself. Let us give a few proofs of this direct duty, which is usually contested.

FIRST ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE DESIGNS OF GOD HIMSELF.----God's special design, together with His glory, is the eternal happiness of man. If He delegates a part of His authority, it is in the interest of this supreme end. It was to procure man this happiness that He sent His Son upon earth, that He established His Church, that He wills its extension and its freedom. If the heads of government receive a portion of this Divine authority, if they can exact obedience in the name of God, it is, no doubt, that they may secure peace and temporal prosperity, but they must make these blessings all contribute to the final end of their subjects. The latter, moreover, cannot seek and desire the things of this world, except in as far as they serve to realize their eternal destiny. Hence depositories of civil power use it lawfully only when it serves to promote this same end. They also must labor as far as circumstances permit, and in the limits of their sphere, for the progress of the true religion, the only religion which leads souls to salvation.

SECOND ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE SOCIAL ROYALTY OF JESUS CHRIST.----Jesus Christ is God, and as His absolute sovereignty over all that exists is a necessary attribute of His Divinity, He is King of civil societies, as well as of families and individuals. This royalty is clearly proclaimed in the Old as well as in the New Testament. "Let peoples serve Thee and tribes worship Thee," said Isaac, prophetically addressing the Messias (Gen. xxvii.). "All the kings of the earth shall adore Him," says David, "all nations shall serve Him" (Psalms lxxi.). "Kings shall be His ministers" (Isaias lx.). "God has given to the Son of man power, and glory, and a kingdom: and all peoples, tribes, and tongues shall serve Him" (Daniel vii.). "God," says St. Paul, "hath exalted Him, and hath given Him a name which is above every name: that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow of those that are in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth " (Philip. ii. 9). "God has subjected all things under His feet; . . . He hath left nothing not subject to Him" (Hebrews ii. 8). He is "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Apoc. xix. 16). We know, moreover, the categorical affirmation of Our Saviour Himself: "All power is given to Me in Heaven and in earth." "All things have been given to Me by the Father." In virtue of the authority which essentially belongs to Him as God, Jesus Christ could have assumed the temporal as well as the spiritual sceptre of the entire world. He has not done so; it has pleased Him to leave to earthly rulers power over purely human things. But if His kingdom is not of this world, if He commands us to render to Cæsar the things which are Cæsar's, He cannot permit that we render not to God what is God's. He has made His religion binding not only upon man individually, but upon societies; nations as well as individuals must obey the law of the Gospel, and the depositories of civil power are bound to see, as far as it is in their power, that His sovereign will is carried out. [Emphasis added.]

THIRD ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE WELFARE OF THE STATE ITSELF.----The prosperity of the State, the realization of its proper and immediate end, that is, the temporal happiness that it must procure its members, require that it contribute, as far as it may, to the prosperity of the Church. In fact without religion, no public, stable, and prosperous society is possible. Religion is the basis of society, for it explains the origin of society, the lawfulness of social power, gives a solid foundation to obedience, and causes harmony, justice, and charity to reign among citizens. [Ibid.] Evidently the true religion, that which contains all truth unmixed with error, which renders to God the worship due Him, and gives man supernatural strength to fulfill his duties, is, by this fact itself, the strongest support of the State, and a powerful aid in the attainment of its proper end.

FOURTH ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE FORMAL AND EXPLICIT DECLARATION OF THE CHURCH.----See, for example, the Encyclical of Gregory XVI in 1832, of Pius IX in 1846, and the Propositions 55, 77, and 78 of the Syllabus. But let us hear particularly what is said upon this subject by the Pontiff gloriously reigning: "Political societies cannot, without crime, conduct themselves as though God existed not at all, or dispense with religion as something foreign and useless, or indifferently admit any religion according to their good pleasure. In honoring the Divinity they must follow strictly the rules and the mode of worship by which God declared that He wished to be honored. The heads of the State must, therefore, hold the name of God as holy, and rank among their principal obligations the duty of protecting and favoring religion, of supporting it with the tutelary authority of the laws, and of avoiding any statutes or decisions contrary to its safety and integrity.  . . . Civil society should, in favoring public prosperity, provide for the welfare of the citizens in such a way as not only to place no obstacle to religion, but to afford every possible. facility for the pursuit and attainment of that supreme and unchangeable good to which they aspire. For public power was established for the benefit of the governed, and though its immediate end is to promote the temporal prosperity of citizens, it is the duty of rulers not to diminish but, on the contrary, to increase man's facilities for attaining that supreme and sovereign good in which eternal happiness consists and which is impossible without religion." (Encycl. already quoted.)

REMARK.----We have just stated, taking as guide the encyclical Immortale Dei (on Christian States), the Catholic doctrine in regard to the relations which should exist between Church and State. In this statement we have reasoned from an absolute thesis, without taking into consideration circumstances which, at the present day particularly, modify these relations in the interest itself of both societies. We shall speak later [next sub-chapter] of these modifications, and we shall explain when and why a Catholic may accept a constitution which deviates from these general principles, swear allegiance to it, and even defend it at need.


1. Allies, Church and State; Earnshaw, Molitor, Sweeney, O'Reilly; Manning, Newman, and others against Gladstone; Manning, Miscell., vol. ii., n. 4, 5, 6; Vat. Decr., ch. 2, 3; Hergenrother, Church and State, vol. i., Essay 1; vol. ii., Essays 13, 14, 15; Manning, Essays, in I. and II. Ser. (Lucas); A C. Q. ii. 430, xvi. 20; C. W. xxvii. 111, liv.389; M.xliv.457; D.R. New Ser. xxiv. 170,454, xxvi. 351, xxix. 308, xxx. 174; Br. W. vii. 554, x., xi., xiii. often; Lacordaire, conf. 5 on the Church; TheYorke-Wendke Controversy, p. ii.
2. See Rickaby, Essay I; Moral Philosophy ch. 8; Balmes; Civilization,ch. 49 ff.
3. Hunter, vol. i., n. 303; Hergenrother, Church and State, I., p. 71