The Divine Origin of Political Power
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Since the last decades of the fourth century, Christianity had been persecuted and banned in the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages Christian thinkers imagined that the power of rulers came from God. These thinkers believed that power was divided by the will of God into two major areas: spiritual and the temporal. Authority over special matters belonged to the Church whose leader was the Pope, and authority over worldly affairs was exercised by several institutions, at the head of which was the King. Both received from God the power to rule and to obey them was to obey God. Both powers should be used to ensure that – through harmony – human beings would reach their eternal destiny.
This version of the world with a duality of power posed the problem of which one had to obey in case there was a conflict between the two. This issue was raised and resolved by the Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo who became the most important theologian and philosopher of the fifth century. He raised the issue in his work entitled The City of God whose main objective was to separate the political order from the religious, although he expressly defended the obligation of believers to respect the laws of civil society. At the same time that he required believers to obey civil authorities, he insisted on the need for the latter to be obliged to submit to the mandates of the churches when passing laws, since ‘true justice resided in the nation, whose founder and ruler is Christ’.
The submission of civil authorities to the laws of the Church when enacting legislation gave rise to ‘political Augustinism’ since St. Augustine of Hippo was the most well-known political figure among Christians during the Middle Ages. He identified the Church with ‘the city of God’ which was governed by someone with absolute powers received directly from God. This person was the Pope who had full authority over all the churches, over Christians and even over the kings who were granted permission to rule in his name. This reached its peak with the coronation of Charlemagne as the Christian emperor of Europe.
This alliance of ‘the cross’ and ‘the sword’ began to experience a severe crisis in the sixteenth century as the phenomenon of nationalism gained strength and absolutism appeared. The kings of the different national states not only took temporal power but also sought to become head of the national churches. In the monarchies that were faithful to Rome there was increased interference by the sovereign in ecclesiastical matters, while in the countries where the Reformation triumphed national churches were created, headed by their respective monarchs.
In all these countries, both in those controlled by Luther and in those controlled by Calvin, it was accepted that the monarch’s authority had a divine origin and this enabled the monarchs of that country to replace the power of the Church with their own. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this spread across Europe as an attempt to curb the horrors of the religious wars by which it was being ravaged. Christian thinkers, supporters of the idea of the existence of a natural right in the divine doctrine of power, introduced an important variation in the theories of the divine origin of power when they affirmed that God, in creating the human being as a social being, was at the same time naturally the creator of society and everything necessary for its existence, such as government.
So the government could be chosen by citizens, but the power it possessed through its election came from God who had determined that human beings had to be ruled by a government, and it was not God who ruled through the government although power came from Him like all other natural phenomena.
In the twentieth century, regarding this same issue of divine power, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to affirming that political power came from God saying: ‘It is evident that the political community and public authority are based on human nature and therefore belong to the order preordained by God, even though the determination of the political regime and the appointment of its authorities are left to the free choice of citizens’
But the most interesting thing about the Second Vatican Council is its separation of Church and State: ‘The political community and the Church are independent and autonomous, each on its own sphere,’ although it is clear that this idea is misleading, because according to this principle each rules in the area that suits them and it is not specifically stated whether the common good corresponds to the salvation of their physical bodies or their souls.
Benedict XVI raises something similar in his First Encyclical where he says that ‘The just order of society and the State is a primary duty of politics’. According to Pope Benedict, the Church cannot and should not undertake the political enterprise of seeking the most just society possible. It cannot and should not replace the State, but it must not stay on the sidelines of the fight for justice. Pope Benedict XVI says at the end of his encyclical that the just society cannot be the job of the Church, but of politics. However, he is very interested in working for justice, striving to open the intellect and will of human beings to the requirements of the common good.
In short, the current Church wants to get involved in everything and not be responsible for anything.
Addendum: In my next article I will attempt a brief analysis of the origin of political power in Islam.