Due its divisiveness, it can be tempting to avoid the topic of politics altogether within the Church and instead focus on the seemingly less controversial issues of faith and spirituality. To avoid politics, however, would not be Christian. This is not because the Kingdom of God seeks to set itself up as a political regime, as this would vastly diminish its eternal power. Rather, Christians cannot avoid politics because faith cannot be restrained within any confines, political or otherwise. The Kingdom of God has power to transform every aspect of human life if we allow it to do so.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have engaged with politics in vastly different ways. From existing as a persecuted minority to wearing the purple of Caesars, picking up the scraps of a fallen empire, presiding over a richly Christian culture, entering into a bitter civil war, becoming an object of persecution once again, and finally groping to navigate an overwhelmingly secular world — in all of these stages, certain common principles emerge. Although the Kingdom of God is not of this earth, it does exist on this earth in the lives of Christians, who, as pilgrims journeying through the world, still seek to foster the good of all. Even in its early days, the Church drew converts from Caesar’s household, government officials and the army. Rather than removing these converts from their roles in society, they were given moral and spiritual guidance to fulfill their duties in a higher way, with the aid of God’s grace. The work of the laity in the world itself becomes an expression of the Church’s saving mission, witnessing to the power of God’s Kingdom to make all things new. The Church has never sought to void the distinct role of the political realm, even though God raised up saints to correct those who would blur the distinction between the two.
St. Augustine provided the image of two spiritual cities that overlap in the world, the City of God, formed of the union of all those who love God above self, and the City of Man, those who love themselves and the world more than God. The beauty and messiness of the relation between these cities comes out beautifully in Andrew Willard Jones’s new book, The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics (Emmaus, 2021). The book does more than simply focus on politics, as it presents the whole tapestry of Catholic thought and culture that is necessary to understand how the Church engages the world. Jones lays out a central thesis discerned by the early Church: “Christianity is about the salvation of mankind, and mankind is essentially social. The redemption of men through the Incarnation was the redemption of mankind as a political being” (75). The Middle Ages put this view to its strongest test, when political rulers saw themselves as guardians of the Church and spiritual leaders sought to shape the whole of society through their moral authority. Jones points out that during the Gregorian reform in particular, popes sought to turn “all of society into one ideal liturgical act of worship, into one properly ordered monastery” (101). Even if the Church did not seek to replace the State, it did claim ultimate authority over on the spiritual plain, seeking to direct politics toward the glory of God.
This spiritualized ideal of politics was not to last. With the rise of the modern world, “increasingly, people’s loyalty was not to Christendom but to their particular kingdom” (132). Within the confines of a stronger nationalism, the order of allegiance often was reversed, with religion seen as a tool for political subservience: “These confessional states were increasingly interested in religious observance as a form of submission to the State and not the actual spiritual well-being of the believer” (162). This in turn led to a growing secularism, as people found religion to be more and more bound up with the political establishment. And it was almost inevitable that from this position, people would claim that “the temporal power was now, somehow, superior to the spiritual power,” a situation that, for the Church, “was not tenable” (187). And yet, the supremacy of the political over the spiritual would only increase, especially through violent revolution. New secular regimes, with their accompanying ideologies, would threaten the very existence of Christians in the modern world, with liberalism trivializing faith’s public role and Communism seeking to stamp out the Church entirely. Thus, Christians face a new apostolic era, enduring a new persecution from the “gods of burgeoning postmodernity,” not “interested in sharing space with the Lord God,” while attempting a new evangelization of the modern world (339).
This brief history, aided by Andrew Willard Jones’s masterful narrative, reveals the way in which the Church shapes politics. By seeking the salvation of souls, the Body of Christ extends itself into the world as leaven to transform all things from within. Christians certainly have been tempted to make their home in the here and now, seeking material goods over spiritual ones, even in the Church. However, it is important to bear in mind that the proper position of the Christian is that of the pilgrim, leaving his mark upon the world, improving it when possible and enduring it when not, all the while pointing others along the path towards the kingdom that will last forever.