From Church to Churches: The Historical Failure of Social Love

Love one another as I have loved you
—John 15:12, 13:34.

Jesus’s repeated injunction to his disciples in John’s Gospel is Christianity’s most fundamental imperative. It implies at least four things. First, it is a commandment: despite what we hear from quite a few preachers these days, apparently fearful of disturbing their congregations, Jesus did not “invite” his disciples to love, but rather commanded them to do so (the phrase “I give you a new commandment” [entolēn] would seem to be an exegetical clue). Second, it is social: it is not simply an exhortation to individual meditation or interior experience, but involves concrete actions directed towards other persons. Third, this embodied social interaction with others is not merely formal or procedural, but has substance: it is supposed to be marked by love (agape, caritas). And fourth, this love is imitative in character and includes a model to be followed, namely that of Jesus himself. The pattern for imitation is provided through many concrete examples in the gospels, reinforced and elaborated by other writings in the New Testament.

What is commanded is not difficult to understand; it is hard to enact. By loving one another in imitation of Christ, Christians constitute themselves as a social body, a distinctive collectivity marked by a certain way of life, a particular way of being human together. This, it seems to me, is the essence of the Church. Jesus had very high aspirations for it: referring not only to his disciples but also expansively “to those who will believe in me through their word,” he prayed to God:

That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one (Jn 17:20–23).  

If judged by this standard, it would seem that the history of Christianity considered as a whole must be regarded more as a failure than a success (I do not think my judgment is skewed by my expertise as a historian of Western Christianity during the Reformation Era). To my knowledge, in no region or even community, in any sustained way, has even any local church exhibited the sort of unity that Jesus prayed his followers would embody. To be sure, there have been, and continue to be, conspicuous examples of individual saints and impressive instances of particular parishes or religious communities alive with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And patterns of socially shared virtues were inculturated to some extent, certainly in aspirational terms, over many centuries in Europe.

But the Church’s history has not been a record of a united community of love ushering in the kingdom of God and thereby dramatically transforming the world as a whole in an enduring way. Its history is much more mixed—it has had an enormous influence, but far from thoroughgoing or sustained success.

This ought not to surprise us too much. Nor is it surprising that Christ’s hope ut unum sint has often been interpreted eschatologically rather than taken as an actual imperative for this life. We have only to consider the raw material in question. Both prospective Christians and those who make up the Church are fallen human beings, and both groups live in “the world,” which is itself the dynamic product of complex human aspirations and actions considered as a whole. One need not embrace a full-blown Augustinian anthropology to affirm that the human beings whom Jesus commanded to love are predisposed to selfishness rather than selflessness, to self-interest rather than self-sacrifice, to the indulgence of their desires rather than the practice of the virtues consistent with participation in the Church.

This is an overwhelming empirical banality to anyone familiar with human history or even casually aware of today’s news. As an anthropological reality it means that, in addition to the difficulties involved in following Christ’s commands so as to constitute and sustain the Church as a social body, the Church has also always faced, in widely varying contexts and in different ways, the profound challenge of existing in the wider world—with its institutions, social relationships, economic practices, and culture—and of establishing relationships with it. These relationships are not and cannot be all alike across time and space, because the concrete, particular situations in which the Church exists have not been and are not all alike.

The question of the Church’s relationship to the wider world brings us to the topics of ecclesiology and politics in history. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and Reformation era to the modern period and contemporary liberal democracies, the public exercise of power has been an issue in every context in which the Church has ever existed. The issue of publicly exercised power cannot be avoided so long as the alternative, namely social and political chaos born of a power vacuum, is to be avoided. But who should exercise that power, and how, and to what ends? These are the inescapable questions at the heart of Christian political theology broadly construed, just as they are at the heart of politics in general.

For Christians, politics cannot be either all or nothing. The public exercise of power cannot be a matter of indifference to Christians insofar as their charge is to love others in imitation of Christ, lest the powerful who would exercise it in exploitative, selfish, tyrannical ways harm the persons that Christians are charged to love. Caring about others therefore implies caring about politics. At the same time, the public exercise of power cannot serve as the be-all and end-all for Christians, because it is only a means to the higher end of shared life in the body of Christ—“that they may all be one”—as a prefiguring hope of eternal life in the communion of saints with God. Being a Christian means avoiding idolatry, and so never mistaking politics for an end in itself or the ultimate source of human fulfillment. Christians should never neglect politics or political theology, but neither should they ever inflate their significance.

The challenges of political theology and the civil dimensions of ecclesiology vary depending on the historical realities that have produced the political, social, economic, and cultural circumstances in which Christians find themselves. Our own, Western liberal democracies in the early 21st century remain critically indebted to the efforts made to manage the disruptions of the Reformation Era. Through the conflicts of 16th and 17th century Europe, the Church became the churches. Rulers from Portugal to Poland opted for rival versions of Christianity and, with conspicuously uncivil expressions of ecclesiology on public display, they engaged in recurrent religio-political violence that precipitated profound changes in the place of the churches in society and in the circumstances for Christian political theology in Europe and North America.

We are the heirs of that history and its enduring influence. The decisive importance of the Reformation Era for understanding the subsequent course of European and North American history, up to the present moment, is clearer if we compare it to the antecedent circumstances of the Church in Latin Christendom in the centuries between the Gregorian revolution and the eve of the Reformation.

Church and State in Medieval Europe

The Church was of course the most important, influential, and pervasive institution in medieval Europe, the only supranational institution in an era when most human experience was decidedly local. Except for the small minority of Jews and the Muslims in Reconquista retreat on the Iberian peninsula, virtually everyone in Latin Europe was a baptized Christian and member of the Roman Catholic Church. In popular discourse it is sometimes casually asserted that in medieval Christendom there was no separation of church and state, but that is not correct. Ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical authorities were acutely aware of the differences between their institutions.

Despite their jurisdictional division and collaboration for the common good in theory, they clashed constantly in fact, whether at the level of specific privileges pertaining to the oversight of local religious houses or in the conflicts between popes and emperors or kings (e.g. Gregory VII and Henry IV in the 1070s, or Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France at the outset of the 14th century). Rather than no separation of church and state, it would be more correct to say that there was no separation of religion from society or, put differently and more paradoxically, that religion was more-than-religion.

With respect to politics and political theology, medieval Christianity did not stand apart from the exercise of power or the administration of justice, but was intended to inform both politics and law as shapers of an institutionalized Christianitas. The Christian faith was not segregated from the buying and selling of goods or the pursuit of profit; its ethical teachings sought to circumscribe economic transactions and restrain greed. Education was imbued with Christian ideas, from the teaching of the alphabet in humble primary schools through instruction in the monastic and cathedral schools and, beginning with Bologna in the south and Paris in the north, in universities—those new educational institutions that numbered sixty or so in Europe by the early sixteenth century.

Social relationships and gender expectations were inseparable from Christian norms, and both public and private morality were conceived in Christian terms. Christianity was meant to influence not only how Christians worshiped and prayed, but also how they ruled and worked, bought and sold, taught and learned, interacted with their families and understood their lives. Society and culture at large, we might say, were themselves ecclesiologically influenced and inflected at every turn. Notwithstanding all the important differences evident if we compare the Latin Christendom of Gregory VII in the 11th century, Innocent III in the early 13th, or Julius II at the outset of the 16th, there is no doubting the Church’s pervasive influence.

But we should not take the Church’s ubiquity to imply that medieval Europe was peopled entirely or even notably by virtuous, devout lay and clerical Christians conspicuously imitating Christ and promoting the kingdom of God—as if, because nearly everyone was Catholic and the Church’s influence was inescapable, all was well. Quite apart from the masses of evidence to the contrary disclosed by medieval social, political, and economic historians, the constant complaints and expressions of anger from the most dedicated, best informed Christians—from Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century to Catherine of Siena in the 14th to Catherine of Genoa at the outset of the 16th—should disabuse us of nostalgic illusions that the reality of lived medieval Christianity was something like an externalized expression of the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.

It was no well-ordered hierarchy of saints in which everyone knew their place, loved their neighbors, and gladly accepted their roles in contributing to a realized common good. Theory is not human life, prescription is not practice, and texts are not the history to which they belong. (As a side note, those tempted by Catholic integralism today might benefit from learning something about medieval European history, not to mention the history of Spain from 1939 to 1975. The best cure for misplaced nostalgia is historical knowledge.) Not only virtuous acts but also sins were everywhere in medieval Latin Christendom, and those sins had consequences.

The Conceptual Instability of Medieval Political Theology

The endless contestation and clashes between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical authorities were not medieval Christendom’s only problem with respect to the public exercise of power. Theoretically and ideally, these authorities would cooperate and collaborate, in keeping with ideas adumbrated by Popes Gelasius, Gregory the Great, and others, for the sake of the common good and the salvation of Christians, “render[ing] unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). But how, exactly? The typical answer was: by distinguishing spiritual from temporal affairs and assigning them to the clergy and lay rulers, respectively. There are reasons why this did not work.

The first thing we should notice about the commonplace medieval distinction between “temporal” as opposed to “spiritual” matters is that they are conceptually asymmetrical; they are not mutually exclusive but rather overlapping categories, and so cannot be invoked successfully to distinguish between the respective responsibilities of “earthly rulers” and members of the clergy. This is the first and basic reason why all attempts to delineate separate, respective spheres for ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical authorities were inherently fraught in the Middle Ages, yielding an instability that persisted into the early modern period (when Jesuits such as St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suárez wrestled with the same problem). The contrasting conceptual complement of “temporal” is not “spiritual,” but rather “atemporal” or “eternal”—that which exists outside of or apart from time.

Yet, however much this applied to the ecclesia triumphans of the saints with God in heaven, it definitely did not pertain to the ecclesia militans, whose clerical members, whether in rural parishes or at the papal court, were no less temporal, created human beings than the members of a city council or the assembled representatives at an imperial diet. So too, the contrasting conceptual complement of “spiritual” is not “temporal,” but rather “material” or “fleshly,” categories familiar to medieval thinkers from their exposure to neo-Platonic and (beginning in the 12th century) Aristotelian as well as biblical ideas. Members of the clergy and religious orders were no less creatures of flesh and blood than were members of the laity, including those who exercised public power; conversely, laypeople were no less spiritual in any anthropologically constitutive sense than were their clerical contemporaries.

This points to the second reason for the unstable, contested character of medieval political theology, and of all efforts to distinguish neatly between the duties of ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical leaders in the exercise of public power. Whether conceived in neo-Platonic or Aristotelian terms, human beings were (and are) embodied souls, or ensouled bodies. That means that it is impossible in any workable way to allocate responsibility for the souls to the Church and the bodies to the state, just as it clarifies nothing to say that spiritual matters are the concern of the Church whereas temporal matters are the concern of the state.

Integral human beings, body and soul, exist in time and nothing in their lives is without spiritual implications as part of God’s creation. The human souls animate and inform the human bodies, which are inseparable from the souls before death. As we shall see, the modern “solution” to this conundrum in relationship to the exercise of public power does depend on an institutional dichotomization parallel to and premised on a dubious anthropological bifurcation, the result of which has been and remains the control of human beings and churches by modern states.  

The Ecclesiological Incivility of the Reformation Era

The consequences of the Reformation Era explain the basic contours of the fundamental institutional and ideological arrangements within which we live, and in which contemporary political theology faces its distinctive challenges. In contrast to the medieval heretical movements from the Waldensians to the Hussites, which were contained and controlled, in the 16th century the Church became the churches in ways that would endure. What distinguishes the Protestant Reformation, in its multinational and fissiparous totality, from late medieval reform efforts within the Church is fairly simple: in the 16th century, those who rejected the inherited Church regarded it not as reformable by living in imitation of Christ, but as fundamentally flawed by doctrinal errors.

Many of the Roman Church’s teachings, Protestant reformers believed, were self-serving lies masquerading as God’s truth, dangerously jeopardizing the salvation of millions of Christians. The solution was to return to the pure Word of God itself, in scripture, and to extract the truth on the basis of which authentic doctrine and worship, right social relationships, and the proper public exercise of power might be combined so as to refashion Christianitas and to imbue shared human life with the civil ecclesiology intended by God.

Seen as a whole, things did not go so well. On the one hand, those “evangelicals” who eventually became known as “Protestants” did not and demonstrably could not, from the very start, agree on what God’s Word said and therefore what Christians should believe and how they should live. The Reformation’s cornerstone was simultaneously its stumbling block; the Church became many rival churches, even within Protestantism. At the same time, far from all rulers agreed with Martin Luther, John Calvin, or other Protestant leaders in their denunciations of the Church of Rome as the synagogue of Satan. Instead, emperors such as Charles V and kings such as Philip II of Spain defended the Roman Church and opposed these new movements, which they regarded as latter-day manifestations of heresy, the suppression of which was no less their duty than it had been the duty of their medieval predecessors to suppress the Albigensians or Lollards.

Conversely, the only forms of Protestantism that stood reasonable chances of survival, growth, and widespread influence were those protected by political authorities such as German Protestant princes or Queen Elizabeth I of England. The rival confessional institutions began taking shape already in the 1520s, pitting Catholic against Protestant regimes, and these regimes against the newly emergent Christian religious minorities within them. Prior to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), the most destructive, costly conflicts were those between Catholics and Huguenots in France, which raged on and off in eight separate, major episodes between the Massacre of Vassy in 1562 and the Edict of Nantes in 1598.  

Reformation Era conflicts were a huge problem because Christianity remained and was intended to be so much more than religion. Society was still to be shaped by ecclesiologically informed relationships, as it had been in the Middle Ages. Only now, instead of providing a common set of doctrines, practices, and institutions shared by those concerned with Christendom’s problems, the content of Christianity itself was in dispute—ecclesiology, exegesis, sacraments, soteriology, ministry, and more.

Everything was adversely affected because Christianity was supposed to inform all areas of human life, since the Gospel was obviously relevant to much more than just Christian worship and prayer. But in which church? The civil dimensions of ecclesiology were intended to influence all of life—the results of which proved disastrously uncivil as rival churches were riven by reciprocal hatreds.

At the same time, even in regimes that were at peace and relatively homogeneous in confessional terms, Lutheran, Reformed Protestant, and post-Tridentine catechisms were taught, sermons delivered, and devotions fostered frequently with heavy-handed resolve in an era of confessional antagonisms. Ironically, Protestants and Catholics alike agreed that no virtue was more important than obedience in family, church, and state. In proportion as authorities exercised public power with severity in the pursuit of confessional conformity, they risked the provocation of resentment and reaction.

Again, France is a good example: the successes of Louis XIV and Bossuet and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in the late 17th century helped to fuel the anti-Catholic vigor of the French Enlightenment and the Revolution. Similarly, the ways in which laïcité has been institutionalized in France since 1905 is indebted to a history that extends back much further than the counter-revolutionary reactions of the 19th century.

The Legacy of the Reformation Era

Different countries in Europe, and later North America, have addressed the problems inherited from the Reformation in disparate ways. From the perspective of the United States, for example, France’s prohibition of public displays of religious symbols by individuals looks like a blatant disregard for freedom of religion. But in all Western countries today the churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, no longer exercise any direct influence on the public exercise of power—a complete reversal of what obtained in medieval Christendom. Correlatively, religion itself has a much narrower scope compared to its range in the Middle Ages or the Reformation era: it is a distinct part of life (for those who choose it) rather than something intended to inform all of life, separable not only from the way power is publicly exercised, but also from economic activity, social relationships, education, and culture.

It has been radically redefined and restricted compared to what it once was, a matter now of individually chosen (or not) interior beliefs, collective worship, and devotional practices. This is a long-term outcome of the conflicts and ecclesiological incivility of the Reformation era; it is the way Western modernity has sought to manage religion, rendering it tolerable by drastically reducing its scope. This has turned out to be a critical contribution to secularization in the Western world, including the varied but shared circumstances in which European and North American Christians today find themselves, facing novel challenges of political theology, evangelization, and the imitation of Christ.

Probably no other single theorist was more influential than John Locke in articulating this modern management plan for coping with confessional contestation (certainly his influence has been profound in England and the United States). Locke published his Letter concerning Toleration in Latin, as well as in Dutch, French, and English translations, in 1689, the same year the English Parliament passed its influential Toleration Act. His advocacy of toleration (in ways that are still routinely cited by liberal political theorists) depended on the reduction of Christianity to individually preferred interior conviction and an outward worship strictly separated from the public exercise of power or any concern with property or other material things.

It also depended on an institutional distinction between church and state that tracked an anthropological fiction, namely the separability of human souls (or minds) and human bodies. Hence Locke placed on one side of his scheme human bodies, material things, civil interests, obligatory membership, and the state; on the other side he situated human souls, spiritual things, public worship, voluntary (non-)participation, and churches. In contrast to medieval and Reformation Era Christianity, Locke theorized religion as something individually preferential and interior, restricted to belief and worship, in no way concerning shared public life, politics, or commerce, and properly pertaining to human souls rather than bodies. That supposition is of course absurd, because every person who has ever believed, prayed, and worshiped on Earth has done so in and through their ensouled body; and the ways in which power is exercised, property is distributed, and material goods are used affect embodied human souls in every polity and period.

What Locke’s scheme really meant, of course, was that the state would control embodied human souls through a monopoly on political sovereignty and the public exercise of power, becoming the exclusive maker and enforcer of laws that govern human bodies. In effect, in the public sphere everything belongs to Caesar, nothing to God. Seen from this perspective, political theology is a contradiction in terms and a confusion of categories, an objectionable mixing of religious and secular, a “trespass” of religion in the public sphere—not a Christian imperative that responds to a commandment to love others.

As is well known, many of the American founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were deeply impressed by Locke, among other Enlightenment thinkers; both Jefferson and Madison concurred with his opinion that religion was interior, individual, and self-determined. Each person could believe whatever they wanted to, but none of their convictions, as such, would or should inform politics, economics, or society at large. Jefferson thought it did not matter whether, as he put it, someone believed in 20 gods or no god, because religious beliefs picked no one’s pocket and broke no one’s leg.

The divisiveness of the Reformation Era had rendered unworkable any explicit civil ecclesiology and any established Church in a polity as religiously pluralistic as the fledgling United States (although some states, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, had such churches into the 19th century). Still, the de facto public ethos of the early United States was unmistakably Protestant, and became markedly more so with the advent of the Second Great Awakening in the 1790s.

Alexis de Tocqueville certainly noticed it, and analyzed it with his customary insight, after he visited the United States for several months in 1831. As long as the large majority of Americans, including those in positions of authority and influence, more or less shared an Anglophone Protestant Christian worldview with more or less settled assumptions about morality, politics, society, and culture, into which millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants could more or less be assimilated starting in the mid-19th century. The United States looked as though it had squared the circle of religious coexistence through its version of religious toleration and the separation of church and state.

What was not foreseen was how deeply dependent on those shared assumptions the American scheme was, an awareness that has only become evident in recent decades as those assumptions and the practices and institutions related to them have withered. The result is a drastically altered context for Christians seeking a political theology both faithful to Christ’s commandment to love and condign to the rapidly changing political and cultural realities that now surround us all.

In different respects in both Europe and North America, Vatican II looks more and more paradoxical as time goes on: as things have turned out, the Catholic Church was seeking to reconcile itself to some key aspects of modernity—individual autonomy, self-determination, and freedom, for example—just as these very aspects began demonstrating their protean open-endedness in ways that have proved irreconcilable with some of the Church’s basic teachings, whether on abortion, same-sex marriage, consumerism, or unregulated capitalism.

To the extent that these developments have become mainstream, been codified in law, and are now backed by the coercive power of the state, the Church has been forced to become a “political problem” if it is to remain true to itself. The alternative is self-destructive, conformist capitulation to a radically constructivist voluntarism and acquiescence in a false anthropology imposed by an oppressive state that fancies itself liberal and liberating.

The compatibility between the Church and states depends on what states, reflective of the wider culture and its power brokers, require and permit; states’ demands might necessitate noncompliance and its laws call for protest or obstruction, insofar as “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). What might have seemed a promising partnership at the end of Vatican II in 1965 looks considerably less hopeful, for a host of reasons, in 2020.

Yet we should not imagine that there was a time centuries ago when all was well because society and culture were thoroughly Catholic, whether in the 13th century, alive with the fervency of the early friars and the model of Saint Louis, or after the Wars of Religion had yielded to le siècle des saints of François de Sales, Louise de Marillac, and Vincent de Paul. The theoretical and practical challenges of political theology are different in a Catholic society, but they are far from absent. This awareness can perhaps give us some hope when we are tempted to despair about the trajectory and evident depravity of our own times.

Certainly, it should disabuse us of fantasies about recovering, reconstituting, or reinstituting Catholic institutions in ways that might conduce substantively to a common good, rather than provoking massive resistance in our deeply secularized, extremely pluralistic societies.

It seems to me that if there is ever to be a genuine Catholic revival given the circumstances in which we find ourselves now, it will happen not through appropriating the coercive machinery of the state and its laws against millions of resistant, resentful fellow citizens, but because critical masses of persons voluntarily embrace the faith and live holy lives in community—a community, the Church, to which people want to belong, because what they see there is good, beautiful, holy, and desirable.

What can we do in the meantime? The same thing we have always been commanded to do: “love one another as I have loved you.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a version of the paper delivered at the colloquium The Civil Dimensions of Ecclesiology: A Political Inquiry on 27 May 2019 in Paris, France. The event was organized by the Faculté de droit de l’Université Paris Descartes and the University of Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, with the support of the Centre d’études du Saulchoir. It took place under the direction of Gladden J. Pappin, Giulio De Ligio, and Thierry Rambaud. Church Life Journal will feature all the essays from this colloquium in the coming weeks. 

Featured Image: Photo by, Alex DROP, Golden morning in Prague, taken on 12 July 2018; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Brad Gregory

Brad S. Gregory is Dorothy G. Griffin Collegiate Chair in European History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of The Unintended Reformation and Rebel in the Ranks.


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