The Role of the Church in Society


Why is there a Church? The Church exists in every society. You can travel the world and find the Church in every one of the 160 sovereign nations that exist today. Why?

Every society, which honors basic human rights, has a role for the Church and the State. In this segment we are going to talk about the role of the Church in society. In another segment we will discuss the role of the State. Have you noticed that every city and county seat has both a Church and a courthouse? In Washington, D.C., we find the nation's Capitol, together with the Catholic National Shrine, and the Episcopal National Cathedral. The Church and the State are always found together.

The Church Endures While States Come and Go

The past 20 centuries, the Christian centuries, provide many illustrations of Church and State relations. We will go into this more later when dealing with the state, but here it is important to note that the Church has lived with, and under, every form of civil government known to man. Nations and governments come and go. The Catholic Church endures; it is the oldest living institution known to man. We Americans celebrated our nation's bicentennial in 1976 and pride ourselves in having the longest history of a democratic country. The Catholic Church, by comparison, has a history of some 20 centuries, maintaining the same hierarchical structure, the same doctrine on faith and morals, the same sacramental system, the same Lord and Master. The Church is a living witness to Christ's promise that He would be with us until the end of time (Mt 28:20).

Christ entered into our humanity and into human history when He took on our flesh, by the help of His human mother, Mary, our blessed Lady. He came among us to save us from our sins. He taught us the ways of God, a way of life that leads to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. He gave us those special helps we need to live the Christian life by giving us the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation. He established His Church to continue His mission on earth throughout the ages, generation after generation, from one culture to another.

Church and State

What is the difference between the Church and the State? Why can't we combine the two, or eliminate the one of the other? Recall the statement of our Lord when the Pharisees asked him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not. He replied: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22:17). Clearly there is a difference between Caesar's state and God's Church. Who gets what? What is the role of the Church and the role of the State in any society? If a healthy society requires a vibrant Church and an energetic State, what services do these two provide? What are their distinct functions?

Here is a simple way to explain the different roles of the Church and State in society. The Church deals with the eternal order, our eternal salvation, which is to be found ultimately in the Kingdom of God. The State deals with the temporal order, which is concerned with the here and now, the material well-being of citizens. God made us material bodies and immortal spirits. We are incarnate spirits, and spirit-filled bodies. Both dimensions of our being must be attented to. The spiritual well-being is by far the more important, but we cannot neglect the material needs of our bodied existence.

We are really citizens of two worlds. We live on earth for 70-80 years and then die. We were created to spend eternity either with God in Heaven, or without God in Hell.

The State looks after our temporal material needs. The Church must be equally concerned about getting us into Heaven, about sharing in God's eternal life. Generations of men and women have passed this way before us and are dead. The only thing that really matters to them now is whether they accomplished the purpose for which they were created.

The Church continues the work of her Lord and Master. She continues His work throughout the centuries. The aspect of the Church which concerns us here is her role as a teacher and moral guide. Jesus gave His authority to teach to His Church: "All authority in heaven and on earth are mine. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28: 19-20).

A Religious Mission

The Second Vatican Council teaches us that "Christ gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose He set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself came a function, a light, and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law" (Gaudium et spes 42). Politics and economics, then, are the prerogatives of the state. How and when does the Church get involved with the activities of the state?

Church Proclaims the Moral Order

The clearest articulation of this is found in Pius XI's social encyclical, Quadraqesimo anno, promulgated in 1931, when the world was in the throes of a depression. In paragraphs 41-3, Pius explains. The Church proclaims the moral order of the human universe. She is to proclaim and explain every aspect of the moral order. The moral order is somehting like the plan of an architect for a great project. God is the architect, and the human race is His great project. God has a design for His human universe. We are free agents, with intelligence and free will. We can discover the moral order and choose to abide by it, or we can ignore it and make up our own plan. Attempting to improve upon God's moral order is a dangerous undertaking. We have seen many examples of social engineering in this century alone, and know the disastrous results of Nazism, Fascism, and Marxism.

The moral order is based upon the dignity of every human person. That dignity flows out of the fact that each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, with an immortal destiny. All our human rights flow out of this dignity. Only God can give us this dignity, no one else. The state does not grant us our human dignities; it can only recognize and honor them and help to protect them.

Paragraph 43 of Quadragesimo anno reads as follows: For it is the moral law alone which commands us to seek in all our conduct our supreme and final end, e. g., God, and to strive directly in our specific actions for those ends which nature, or rather, the Author on Nature, has established for them, duly subordinating the particular to the general. If this law be faithfully obeyed, the result will be that particular economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal final order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.

Negative Service

Whenever any component of society, e.g., the economic order, a political system, education, etc., debases human dignity by violating basic human rights, the Church becomes involved. How? By upholding the full truth of the moral order and clearly calling real abuses of this by name. This is a negative, critical service of the Church. We saw examples of this when Pius XI, in 1937, wrote encyclicals highly critical of National Socialism in Germany and of atheistic Marxism in Russia. More recently we say Pope Paul VI doing this in his social encyclical On the Development of Peoples (1967), and John Paul II in his On the Social Concerns of the Church (1987). Very often, the Church is the only voice available to the poor and exploited.

Positive Service

Much more important is the Church's positive role in explaining and promoting the various components of a just social order. She does this through her social teaching. This is the role of Catholic social teaching. Whenever the social, political, or economic order touches the moral order, then the Church speaks out of her competency. Since the moral order affects and touches everything in society that has moral implications, the opportunities for the Church to address society are many. In this country, think of such documents as the American bishops' pastoral letter on the nuclear deterrent in 1983, The Challenge to Peace, and their pastoral letter on American capitalism in 1986, Economic Justice For All. Churchmen do not claim to have the expertise of economists, political scientists, or military strategists. Their strength lies in the moral order. As moral teachers they point to what fosters morality, and what destroys it. Like our Lord, they are a light in the darkness.

The Church is Hierarchical

The Church is a hierarchical organization. She is not a democracy. Some people think that the political order of a country should be the model for the Church, e. g., a democracy in the United States, a one party system in the Soviet Union, and a military dictatorship in Cuba. The Church must live with every form of government know to mankind, but identifies with none of them. Governments are designed by their citizens. The Church was designed by Christ. Public officials are chosen by the people to perform the service of the state. The hierarchy of the Church is chosen by God to carry out His work. Because churchmen (bishops, priests, deacons) teach and act on behalf of Christ Himself, they are accountable directly to Him, not to the people. Priests are not allowed to run for public office, since the art of politics often jeopardizes the clarity of principles which the priest must defend. If a priest were perceived to be defending the alleged right to have an abortion, it would create a terrible scandal. Jesus once took Peter to task. "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mt 16:23; Mk 8:33). The Pharisees once said to Jesus: "Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men" (Mt 22:16). The hierarchy will have accomplished their mission in life only if they help their people get to heaven. Present popularity with the people is not the best criterion of success. Very often a good bishop or priest must confront sinful practices of their people, and call for conversion. Like parenting, pastoring is a service which usually is not appreciated until many years later.

Church is Both Human and Divine

Catholic social teaching is found primarily in the papal social encyclicals and major documents of the Vatican. As such it shares in the teaching authority, or Magisterium of the Church. Jesus promised us that He would remain with His Church until the end of time (Mt 28:20), and that He would send His Spirit to teach us the full meaning of His revelation (Jn 16). A person of faith places great trust in the Church's moral teaching, both in the private and the public spheres. He does so because of the promises Christ made to us. That is why he informs his conscience with the principles of this teaching.

Some people, even some Catholics, look upon the Church and its leaders as mere mortals, frail, fallible human beings, whose opinion are no better than anyone's else's. Here we must be very clear. The Church is both human and divine. It is like our Lord Himself, who while being one divine person, had a human nature as well as a divine nature. The great mystery of the Church is that God chooses to work through human instruments. God reaches us through the humanity of Jesus. We reach God through the humanity of Jesus and through His Church. Jesus is present to us today where He chooses to be found, and that is in His Church where He employs flesh and blood persons in His service. Why do we look to the Church for moral direction? Because she speaks on behalf of Christ, not of herself. She claims Christ's authority, not her own. She is under God's law, subject to it, not above it, or able to change it. The Church is a reliable moral guide. We can sink absolute confidence in her. The Church is human, in that she is made up of people like you and me. But she is also divine: she is the body of Christ. Christ is the head of the Church. We have every reason to trust in Jesus' promise to His disciples: "He who hears you, hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me" (Lk 10:16). This is why the Church exists in every society, and in the world at large.

Good Sources on This Topic:

1) Pope Paul VI's Ecclesiam suam (1964)
2) Vatican II document Lumen gentium (On the Church)
3) Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World)
4) Social Justice Review Nov. - Dec., 1989