This is a transcription (slightly edited for length and continuity) of a conversation between Matthew S. Leonard, who runs his Catholic Podcast “The Art of Catholic,” and Dr. Andrew Jones, author of the book pictured above, “Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX.” You can find the audio of this interview here, if you prefer, and I highly recommend it. I tend to listen to Catholic podcasts and lectures through the BlueTooth audio in my car. But I wanted to type this out so that I could search it and reference it as the need arises. And in doing so, I was reminded just how monumental this concept is. I read the book with great interest and joy, and that too, I highly recommend. The link is above. So in the interview below, I don’t really distinguish between what’s Matt, and what’s Andrew. But if you read through it, I have no doubt it will be quite eye-opening, and I hope you will take that as a cue to buy and read the book. Enjoy!
Almost all of us have been co-opted by a completely false narrative that has totally corrupted our view of the world and our practice of the faith. Among other things, we’re going to look at the whole notion of “church and state”: categories that are treated almost as gospel by the modern world. And we’re going to expose how what so many of us have taken for granted as gospel truth is basically bull. In other words, the very categories that we use are totally modern inventions that totally undermine the very fabric of a Christian worldview and the Catholic Church, frankly, in particular.
So much of what we have been taught all of our lives is intrinsically opposed to our beliefs, and many of us have accepted it blindly, even though it essentially crushes our faith.
The way we’re going to approach all of this is to set off the problem of the narrative we’ve been fed, and then go back and look at how things really were, using the high middle ages as an example: the time before there was such a thing as “Church and State.” What we’re going to see is that the way things have progressed from there (or regressed, as it were) basically has made it so that Christianity has nothing to say about the way things are structured in society. So we’re going to try to start to put things back in their right order and realign our perspective to a truly Catholic worldview.
And to help us begin this rethinking is a guest with whom regular listeners to the program are familiar: Dr. Andrew Jones. He’s got a PhD in Medieval History from St. Louis University, and is an expert on the Church in the High Middle Ages. He is a faculty fellow at Franciscan University, and is also the Executive Director at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He loves to destroy the anti-Catholic paradigms and the false narratives we’re all taught to believe. He has a new book: “Before Church and State – A Study of the Social Order in Saint Louis IX’s Sacramental Kingdom.” I think many of you will find this book, and hopefully our discussion today particularly relevant, given what’s happening in society.
History’s about human beings, and it’s about the course of human beings in time. In order to do history, you necessarily bring in the theory of anthropology, or theory of humanity: who is this thing that I’m studying, called man? What are we? And modernity has a certain answer to that question, and Christianity has a different one. And so if we go to history, to the evidence of history as a Christian, we’re going to see things differently, because we believe human beings are different than the way modernity presents them as.
In the past, in the Middle Ages, which we all imagine as rainy and dark and muddy, there was the Church, and there were the kings. The pope and the bishops on one side, and then there was the king and the knights and all of those. These are two different institutions, and what you’re looking at in the middle ages, there’s a lot of conflict between the two. This is the typical narrative to those who read history.
And the way we normally tell it is that the Church (so the bishops and the papacy) are corrupt, by which we mean (and you see this by the way Hollywood makes movies about them) that they’re trying to be involved in politics, basically. So they’re after power, or wealth, or whatever the things that politics are about, the Church is trying to be in charge of that, or take over it, or somehow be involved, and the result is conflict with the monarchy, with the various kings and the emperors. And so, you have the battle between the Church and State. And this manifests itself in multiple different conflicts, most famously with the investiture controversy, which if you’re kind of a history buff, you recognize the story. But basically, the story is normally told, is that over the course of the middle ages, the papacy in its attempt to beat the monarchies, sort of corrupted itself to the point where it lost all credibility. And when it did that, that’s when you get into the Avignon papacy, where the papacy is moved into France, because it’s dominated by the French monarchy. While at the same time, the papacy is sort of corrupting itself, and the bishops along with them.
In politics you have the construction of the monarchies. So the French and the English in particular, starting in the 11th century. And so you have the two corresponding movements: the decline of the power of the papacy, and the rise of the monarchies. And they’re presented as necessarily correlated in that way. Because the power of the papacy is defined, basically, as its ability to coerce monarchies. So if the monarchies are getting stronger, the papacy’s getting weaker. That’s the way we normally tell the story.
So then you move into the early modern period where you have confessionalization, basically all that means is the creation of State Churches, Protestant or Catholic, it doesn’t matter. And then you get the wars of religion spin out of that, where all these kings are fighting each other, and their religion is all wrapped up into it. And that’s universally viewed as being this horrible sequence of events that are primarily caused by the confusion of religion and politics.
And what we get out of that is the final modern “proper” sorting, where religion becomes a private, reflective category called “morality.” And then you have politics and economics, that are a different category. And the politics and economics become the social and public thing, and religion and morality becomes the private thing. The perfect example of this would be Catholic politicians who say things like, “Well, I’m personally opposed to abortion, but you know, when I’m voting for the public good or making laws, I’m going to act this other way, because my religion is separate from the secular world.”
But the reason why people can say those sorts of things is because when we say religion, now, what we mean is “things that don’t really matter.” That sounds like an extreme thing to say, but I believe that’s kind of what we mean. So, what doesn’t really matter? Heaven. And when I say it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter here and now, as I walk down the street. Your relationship with God. So, your prayer life. What you do on Sunday morning. You go to the Sacraments or you don’t. You go to church or you don’t. None of these things affect the stock market. None of these things affect the war in Iraq. And so they’re not important. That’s what I mean by religion. We’ve created this category, in the modern period, where we can sort certain things that used to have real significance, socially, and declare them to be insignificant, socially, and then have a place for them to continue to survive.
The modern period was not interested, at least in its early phases, with the annihilation of Christianity. That’s not really what it’s about. In fact I would argue that, in contrary, that the modern period in a lot of ways constructs Christianity as a religion as we know it, as something that can be compared to something like Islam or Buddhism, like one religion among many. Where do we get that idea? Well that’s a modern idea, where you have this category called “religion,” and there can be different kinds of people who have different religions. [And when we’re saying, “religion doesn’t matter, we’re talking about it from the view of modernity.] My argument is going to be that this is totally wrong.
Take someone like John Locke, for example. So John Locke basically defined religion as that category of a person’s life that is a matter of opinion, a matter of personal beliefs. And what defines it as that is that it doesn’t have social consequences. So, for example John Locke is all about religious liberty, but not for Catholics. Why? Because he’ll argue that Catholicism isn’t really a religion. Catholicism is political. Because Catholicism makes demands on the body politic, on society. And so that makes it political, as a matter of definition, not religious.
This is the same sort of thing, you can see this today, with Islam. In the pop culture we have the narrative of Islam is peaceful, it’s a peaceful religion. And that people who kill in the name of Islam are distorting it. Really (modernity will say), they’re being political. It’s a political action that’s using the religion of Islam as a tool for its ideological objectives.
But my point here is that, that’s a modern understanding of religion, and that’s all a matter of definitions. As soon as a religion becomes politically meaningful, then by definition it’s not religion anymore. So, Islam is peaceful, because all religion is peaceful. That’s what religion is. Religion is this peaceful thing we do in our private life. As soon as we try to take it out of that, and apply it anywhere else, then it becomes political, and then it’s a perversion of religion. And this is just modernity projecting its definitions of its terms. There’s no real substance there. So religion is defined as this private reflective peaceful (because it’s not politically relevant) category. And religion operates, then, within [the space politics allows it].
Here’s another example, which is great, where you can see this. The contraception mandate. What do we have going on there? The government is saying that certain businesses have to provide contraception to their employees regardless of their personal religious beliefs. Look at the way I just phrased that: “their personal religious beliefs.” So we’ve created this distinction. And what the government’s saying here is that, once you go out into the marketplace, then that’s in the public space; that’s no longer the place where religion operates. So your religious beliefs are relevant at home, and they’re relevant on Sunday, and they’re relevant those places, and that’s fine, that’s where they can survive. But once you go out into the marketplace, and start a business, then that’s where economics and politics happen, not religion. So it’s inappropriate for religion to govern how you perform those functions. And so, it’s ok for the State to coerce you to provide contraception.
The point, though, is that, that used to not be the case. So only a few decades ago, it would have seemed obvious that a private business owner, that the way he ran his business was a part of his religious beliefs. [Well you see this right now with the bakeries that won’t bake the cake to celebrate the wedding of two homosexuals.] Exactly right. So what you’re seeing happening is the re-definition of religion. So religion as a category is a category that functions within the secular politics [within the view of modernity]. That means that secular politics gets to define what the boundaries of religion are: what counts as religious and what doesn’t. That’s just another way of saying, to modernity, what are you allowed to do, and what are you not allowed to do. It doesn’t matter to us if you do this and this and this, so that’s religion. It matters to us if you do this, so that’s no longer religion, now it’s politics. What I’m arguing is that, within modernity, religion is a category of domination [by secular politics], really. To view Christianity as simply a religion, and to accept modernity’s terms on what that means, is to say that Christianity doesn’t really have anything to say about the structure of society. [And that’s where we are.]
Religious liberty, religion, all these ideas, these categories, are concepts that the overriding fundamental secular dominance controls. So what does it mean to have religious liberty? It’s like, I have the right to do this sort of thing, this list of things, in juxtaposition to this whole other world which isn’t a part of those things. [You’re setting them up against one another.] But religious liberty, or the thing we’re free to do, which is called religion, subsists within the larger context, which is the secular. And the secular really gets to determine where the boundaries are. The government gets to say what counts as religious liberty and what doesn’t. [The secular is basically the reality, and religion just sort of exists as part of that reality.]
[So your whole argument here is basically is that there is an integration, there used to be, an integration of all this, so that these categories didn’t exist previously.] What I argue is not that in the past, the religious and the secular and the political and the Church were all mixed up together. What I’m trying to suggest is that those categories themselves didn’t exist.
Let’s talk about Sovereignty. Thomas Hobbes. 17th century, English. And he is one of the founding fathers of modern political thought. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote the book, “Leviathan.” And what he argues in it is that mankind, in its state of nature, as he calls it, is engaged in a war of “all against all.” So there’s just continual violence and each individual against every other individual, they’re all trying to seek their personal gain at the expense of each other, and that this is really sort of a nasty world. This is the famous Hobbes quote (I’m not sure I’m going to get it exactly right) that, “in the state of nature, man’s existence is nasty, brutish, and short.” What’s the solution to this war of all against all? And what Hobbes tells us is that the solution is for everybody to surrender their power to inflict violence against each other to one power, one person, who assembles together all of that power, and then has the ability to inflict violence everywhere and always; and that his power will be so overwhelming that all the other people in society will refrain from exerting their own violence, because if they do so, they’ll get the wrath of this Sovereign against them. So he’ll enforce peace. But the way in which he enforces peace is suppression of all violence. So the idea is that as soon as the overwhelming violence of the State, of the Sovereign, is weak enough that someone thinks they can get away with an act of violence against someone and profit from it, they’ll do it. Modern political thought starts here, with this idea of the conflict between people necessarily. This is human nature. There really is something to that. What is human nature? Human nature is totally depraved. [This is a completely Protestant notion, obviously, of original sin.]
One thing that is important, also, is that if that is correct, if Hobbes is right, then modern political theory may be correct. The only way you achieve any type of peace is with the overwhelming power of a State that monopolizes all violence in society, and is capable of enforcing a concord between people [a police force].
So, the Sovereign is that absolute power that all legitimate power in society is derived from. So it’s all delegation from the Sovereign. But it’s not simply that it’s the absolute power. It has to be all-encompassing power. So there’s nothing that falls outside of the power of the Sovereign. There’s no compartments of society that the Sovereign couldn’t exert force in if he saw fit.
So we have all these things like constitutions, and all these legal ways of managing the sovereign power. But when it really comes down to it, the Sovereign power can make war. Including civil war. And that is the suspension of whatever those legal formalities are. So we can have all the constitutions we want. But if there’s always the sovereign power to suspend that in the name of peace, that’s one of the defining features of sovereignty. So there is no legal limit to the power of the Sovereign. There can’t be.
[What’s the alternative?] This goes back to anthropology—the question of who we are as human beings. And this is the core of the argument I’m making. The underlying idea that leads to sovereignty is this idea of a ubiquitous and primordial violence, from the state of nature. And what Catholicism teaches us that that’s not the case. That in fact, the primordial condition is condition of peace and love.
Think of Adam and Eve. And that sin hasn’t led to total depravity [the Protestant teaching of original sin]; sin has wounded us severely [the Catholic teaching of original sin] (and there’s all sorts of political consequences to that, which I can talk about in a minute), but it’s not complete. So, there’s still the ability for charity, for love. And that grace is what actualizes that ability. Through grace we can achieve actual virtue. What the Catholic anthropology shows us is that different people can be united with each other in their difference in a true unity that is not one of domination and submission, and it is not one of destruction of their differences. An example of this would be a father and a son. A father is a father only because he has his son. A son is a son only because he has his father. And they are very different from each other. So, the father’s responsibilities, his duties, his obligations, his role, is very different from that of the son. And their relationship, though, when they come together, if they have a relationship of perfect peace, it’s precisely in those differences that that peace exists. So, they each fulfill their obligations to each other, and they find peace, through love. But it’s not a peace of exchange—it’s a peace of gift. So, the father gives himself to the son, and the son gives himself back to the father. And they give themselves to each other in a way that’s reciprocal, that constitutes each other. Like I said, the father can’t be the father without the son, and vice versa. And it’s precisely their gifts of each other, in their difference between each other that makes their peace a real thing.
[So you’re saying that it’s differences that beget peace, and sameness will lead to violence.] In the Hobbsian modern view, the reason why two men go to war with each other is because they’re different. So one of them has more land than the other, or has land that the other guy wants, whatever it is. And those differences are what opens up the possibility of violence between the two, because they can look at each other and say, I have more power than you, therefore, I can take your things. Or, you have things I want, I’m more powerful, I think I can win, so I’m going to take it. So differences lead to conflict when two people encounter each other. And so the drive in modernity is toward sameness. How do we create peace? We create peace by making everyone the same. And the way that modernity does that is through things like rights. In the Catholic view, difference is precisely the place where there are things like gifts, duty, responsibility, love. And it’s only in giving those gifts to each other that they have the common good, which is a family. Obviously, the reason why I’m using the father and the son analogy is because of the trinitarian connection. And that is, that man is trinitarian. By analogy we are like the trinity. And the trinity is the ultimate example of different persons whose very personhood contains within it the other persons. You can’t even talk about the Father in the Trinity without talking about the Son and the Holy Spirit. They’re constituted by each other, and yet they’re not lost into each other. Their distinctions are so profound that it’s where we get the very notion of persons. And yet their unity is real. And it’s not the unity of contract, or agreement, or compromise. It’s a true unity of perfect charity.
So, what I’m suggesting here is that in the Catholic anthropology, the Catholic conception of humanity, it’s possible for human beings to associate with each other in a way that is not based in conflict. In fact, we would reverse the modern notion, and say that human beings’ normal way of interacting with each other is in love. And that sin, which is an aberration, which is a distortion of the norm (of the very structure of reality), is where that conflict comes in.
So, what that means then, is that if you go back to that Hobbesian idea, that violence is everywhere and always, and you have the Sovereign, which is just superior violence, and that’s the only path to peace and political order. But in the Catholic conception, we deny those points. It’s not the case that human beings are necessarily always and everywhere at war with each other. And it’s not the case therefore that we need a more powerful human being who has absolute total power over all of us in order to suppress all of our violence.
[So if the modern model is wrong, how does society look, if it’s not that?] The way that I would answer that is to ask, has there ever been a society ordered by Catholic principles, and what did it look like? And that, I think, is 13th century France. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. And that’s the thing. One of the things that’s overriding in this study is that the overarching thought is about conflict and violence and how we do deal with it, because we live in a fallen world. So it’s not some sort of utopia where there isn’t fighting. The whole father and son analogy is a perfect one, because fathers and sons fight with each other all the time. But we don’t think that a father’s relationship with his son should be the same as a father’s relationship with an employee. We think something should be really different about it. So if you imagine that relationship, of a family, extending out into larger concentric circles, involving more and more people. So you have a nuclear family, then an extended family, then a village, a tribe, a clan—but the difference in relationships is what you have in 13th century France. What that means is that relationships between people are personal.
The first thing is, stop being fooled by modernity’s linguistic games. So, Christianity is not a religion, in the modern sense. It’s a vision of all of reality, all of the cosmos. It’s a worldview that includes everything. So there’s no area of our lives that isn’t governed by what Christianity tells us to be true about the universe. All human interaction is necessarily about charity. It’s all ethical, it all has moral implications. There’s no such thing as an amoral interaction two people.
So what that is, is denying the existence of the secular. It doesn’t exist. If Christians internalize that, then it changes the way we do politics, profoundly. So what that means is that the division is not between the secular and the religious. The division is between the truth and untruth, between virtue and vice, between charity and hatred. Those are the divisions of the world. And so when you view the political scenario, that’s what you’re looking for. Not that there’s some realm of politics or economics that we can engage in in a sort of neutral way. So the first step is we stop thinking that way.
And part of that is acknowledging that other people in society that are not Christians are not themselves neutral. If you really adopt a Christian world view, you’re going to see, you’re really going to start to understand, that the opponents of Christianity are rival theologies, rival churches, rival doctrines. In religion, everything involves these questions of truth and justice.
The second thing to recognize that human beings, that the only way you get out of violence and conflict is through transforming yourself into virtue, and the Church, moving into virtue as a community, who loves God and loves neighbor. To the extent that we don’t do that, to the extent that we are selfish and greedy, and grasping, then the moderns are right, and what we need is a totalitarian state that treats us as numbers, gives us our little battery of rights, and consigns us to our little place where we can not kill each other. But to the extent that we do move out of sin and into virtue, and to the extent that we do improve ourselves and become faithful and charitable people, that’s not true, and that’s not true of society, either. Because we become sons, and not slaves, as we move toward God.
The point, then, is that politics is not the answer. We can’t look at society and say, oh there’s this big sea of individuals out here and they’re just the way we are, and we need better policies. But Christianity teaches us that the big sea of individuals out there ought to be better people, not just better governed. So, converting society is the only path to peace. Not politics. In fact, politics, by which we mean the use of force to achieve some set of objectives, is precisely the area in the social life where sin reigns, because we’re using violence against people. So, politics is–the goal of our social action ought to be—to make politics as unnecessary as possible. To achieve social virtue to the point that the police functions of society, the coercive aspects, can recede. So, if you want liberty, if you want less state, the only way that works is through virtue. From a Christian perspective, we would like to have less people coerced, because our relationships are based on truth and love and charitable relationships, so that the need for an all-encompassing force just altogether disintegrates (or rather recedes). That’s the eschaton, in heaven. We have no problem imagining an individual getting better spiritually, but we have difficulty imagining society getting better spiritually. But human beings are by nature social, so the pursuit of sanctity is a social thing, it’s an ecclesial thing. And so for a society to pursue sanctity is inevitable if individuals are doing so. It’s two parts of the same movement.
So what does that look like? That’s the thing about a Catholic political theology. It doesn’t view humanity as this great sea of inert desires and movements like the way modern economics or modern political theory does. It views humanity as a large family of individual persons who are to love each other and have relationships with each other. And that that family’s dysfunctional. But correcting that dysfunction is the objective of the Church. And that correction is real. It actually changes. And the way people need to be instructed changes as they grow in sanctity.
If we believe that, we don’t say that there’s some sort of laws of society that are fixed. And if we figure them out properly, and design the correct mechanism, it will construct the perfect society and engineer the way people interact because we have these laws of human behavior. No, actually. The laws of human behavior change as human beings ascend toward God. So those principles of sociology, of economics, of politics, those modern principles, all assume sort of fixed nature of man. And that fixed thing is total depravity.
So you look at economics, and what’s the assumption? The underlying assumption is that man is self-interested, irrational, he makes decisions in his own self-interest, and that there’s a scarcity of resources. By which they mean that everyone would rather have more of everything at every moment if they could. So there’s always a scarcity because you would always take one more if you could. And then all of modern economics is based on that. So, I as a Christian say that’s just not true. That’s not the way human beings are. It’s the way human beings can be, and it’s maybe the way that a lot of are, and maybe the way a lot of society is. But we don’t have to be that way. And to the extent that we are that way, ok, modern economic theory may be very good at predicting the way we’re going to behave. But it’s not going to be good at predicting the way a convent of cloistered nuns are going to behave. Why? Because they’re not that way.
So we can move away from that starting point and ascend to a higher point. And then our way of understanding human society, politics, has to change with it. What I hope you take away from this discussion is that a lot of the things we take for granted as the narrative is not right, and it’s not the Catholic worldview. This other worldview that has been foisted upon us, a lot of us have just bought this without realizing this isn’t the way that it has to be. The objective of the book is to show a time and a place where things were different, and to allow us therefore to imagine that there is a more Catholic way to approach society than what we find in modernity. We wonder why it is we’re constantly running up against these walls, and butting our heads into the rest of society? It’s because there used to be an integration that does not exist anymore. Catholicism contains the answer, because it’s given to us, the Church has been given to us, by God, so that we can ascend the divine ladder toward Christ and toward our end goal, which is the complete and full integration, that grafting into the family of God for which every one of us was made. That grafting can take place now. This worldview is what everyone one of us is called to, and the only way we’re going to get through is through a life of grace and a life of prayer. It always come back to personal sanctity.