And some observations on the Nouvelle Theologie

In this article the intent is to consider the relation between Church and State based upon the relation between grace and nature. It is believed that a failure to do this leads to all sorts of misconceptions about Church and State relations.

As well, however, any mistakes made in theology about the relation in us between divine grace and human nature must have repercussions upon our understanding of the relation between Church and State. Accordingly, some attention is given to the views of the Nouvelle Theologie in the course of the discussion.

Grace and Human Nature

The person of grace is not a purely divine being. Only God is that. The Christian remains in substance a human being, something natural, someone created, a human person, not a divine person. Only Christ is a divine person, because he is God.

That we are made in the image of God does not mean that we cease to be creatures. It is because we have a spiritual soul or form that we are so differentiated from the rest of material creation. Christians are made of the same substance and nature as Christ, but only as he is human. The humanity of Christ is the perfect model for us in every way. But it too is graced or divinised without for that making him in this respect divine in substance. Grace as St Thomas puts it is a quality added to our human nature.

Grace is not ‘another nature’

The first mistake we have to avoid is to think of the supernatural dimension of our graced existence as another nature had in the same way as our own. We speak of grace as a “super-nature” added to our human nature, as us having both a human and divine nature, like Christ. But this is not to be understood as if this made us equal to God, like Christ.

Those who criticise the “neo-Thomists”, as de Lubac does, seem to think they make the mistake of thinking of grace as some sort of separate or separable divine nature had together with our human nature. That is to say grace is a super-nature as some kind of reality independent of our human nature. Though de Lubac does not of course say this, the existence of grace is made to be like the existence of the divine nature in Christ, separable from his humanity. Such critics talk of the neo-Thomists as thinking of grace in “extrinsic” terms. In truth this misinterpretation of the Thomist position flows from a failure to note the ambiguity there is in the notion of “nature”.

It flows from the loss of the proper philosophical understanding of the distinction between substance and accident. It is one thing to speak of the nature of a substance, but quite another to speak of the nature of a quality, even if this quality is a participation of the divine substance. Ever since the beginning of the modern era philosophers have ditched the notion of substance. Inevitably then, all talk of natures “hypostasises” objects because the distinction between substance and accident has disappeared. That is to say it makes quantity, qualities, actions etc. discussed as if they were independently existing objects, because they can be considered by themselves.

Grace does not ‘transform’ nature

Not clearly noting this fundamental philosophical distinction, the critics of Garrigou-Lagrange and others then tend to the opposite error: that is to subsume or “sublate” (in the language inherited from Hegel) our human nature into the higher nature of grace. What tends to happen in the relation between grace and nature is that grace becomes the “substantial” part of being a Christian and the lower part, our human nature, is absorbed into it.

The supernatural dimension of our lives as Christians transcends infinitely the natural dimension. So too the supernatural end (the (Beatific Vision) infinitely transcends the natural end (the highest contemplation of truth naturally possible to a creature). But the elevation or divinisation of our being as creatures does not transform us into gods in substance. It makes us participants in the divine nature; it makes us like unto God, adopted children of God, but not in nature, as substance, divine.

If grace transforms human nature so as to constitute a total substantial transformation then we lose the substantial nature of being human. In our view de Lubac falls into this way of thinking but tries to avoid its implications by his distinction between human nature in the “abstract” and in the “concrete”. But that distinction is not relevant. The real distinction between substance and accident holds for both. In the concrete, grace does not transform one into some being other than what is purely human, or into some substance other than what is purely natural. Other than the Trinity themselves (one God) there are none other than angels and humans in Heaven.

This confusion bedevils de Lubac’s and his followers’ whole discussion of the relation between grace and nature. It is operative, however, more in criticism of what he imagines the “neo-Thomists” such as Garrigou-Lagrange hold than in any positive way. So it is that when pressed de Lubac retreats from the implications of treating grace as substantially transforming human nature “in the concrete”. As Lonergan notes he is more mixed up in the matter than anything.

Others, however, are more daring in their denial of the significance of the substance/accident distinction in  theological discussions. This spills over into the discussion of the person where relation, which naturally is an accident, is made to do service for substance beyond its identification with substance in the divinity. (cf. my article “de Lubac, von Balthasar and Ratzinger”).

It is a mistake of method in discussions of matters that pertain to both philosophy and (sacred) theology to start out from theology. This is especially so if one’s grasp of fundamental metaphysical notions is not all that strong, a situation that is all but universal today and not just in the proponents of the Nouvelle Theologie.

Church and State

To avoid getting mixed up then in this question of the relation between the State and the Church we should be clear about the philosophical meaning of the term “State”. We should expect that the relationship between Church and State will follow that between human nature with divine grace, on the one hand, and human nature by itself on the other. The same sort of mistakes will therefore tend to be made. The very expression of the relation between Church and State in terms of “separation” is already an indication of the presence of the mistake of thinking of grace and nature in terms of separation.

It is grace that can be lost, not human nature, because grace is not another substance but a qualification of something natural existing in its own right. This gives the clue to the relation between Church and State. It is a mistake to view the Church as something separate or separable from human society as naturally constituted, a supernatural society somehow existing alongside but independent of the natural society which we call the State, so that the Church on earth could exist apart from natural human societies.

Lumen Gentium, though speaking specifically of the laity as distinct from the clergy and religious, puts it this way:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. (LG 31)

Natural Social Bonds – in this World and the Next

The relation between Church and State has therefore to be carefully analysed. Grace cannot exist except in nature (human or angelic). But we have to distinguish between natural social bonds appertaining in this life and in the next. With marriage, for instance, though it is a natural social institution here below, it is not in heaven. For it is natural because of the necessity of continuing the human genus and the need for mutual support between the sexes in that work of reproduction.

Civil society or association, and communication and exchange as well, is natural on account of the necessitous condition of human beings. But that does not apply in heaven. So besides there being no marriage in heaven, we can say fairly confidently that there will be no political regimes, or the State as we know it. Nonetheless, in this life, both marriage and political rule are socially necessary and natural. And the Church as a whole must live with and according to these natural social institutions, for the same reason that grace cannot exist and operate except in nature as human. The Church depends upon the orderly functioning of the State for it to do its own work for humanity effectively.

We are not denying the pre-social or embryonic nature of the Church in the beginning. We are talking about the Church once it had grown up, as it were. Nor in this latter case do we deny that the Church can exist and operate outside a viable State. For, to take the case of marriage, though here below it is an essential institution within the Church (even a sacrament) grace can come to human beings outside marriage, and does often in a higher way. Similarly, in regard to political life, there are the hermits and monks some of whom eschew altogether dependence on social or civil life. Even from a natural point of view such humanly natural ways of life are not necessary in individual cases. But they are exceptional. Community life is the norm.

Romano Guardini puts it better than we can:

… the grace of God is self-sufficient; neither nature nor the work of man [culture] is necessary in order that a soul may be sanctified. God “can awaken of these stones children to Abraham.” But as a rule He wishes that everything which belongs to man in the way of good, lofty, natural and cultural possessions shall be placed at the disposal of religion and so serve the Kingdom of God. He has interconnected the natural and the supernatural order, and has given natural things a place in the scheme of His supernatural designs. (From note 12 to Chapter 1 of The Spirit of the Liturgy.)

The State exists for the Good of the Person

It is to be carefully noted, as St. Thomas says, that even in the natural order man exists in, and is subject to, the civil community (no matter how extensive and even if it embraced the whole world) not according to all that he is. His personal relationship, as an individual, to God transcends the civil society of which he is a member and in that respect natural civil society or the State exists for the good of the person and not vice versa.

Each person is subject to the common good of the civil community only according to part of himself, and that the more material part, i.e. according to the goods that belong to the material universe in which he lives temporarily. That is why the citizen is required to sacrifice, if necessary, every material good, even physical life itself, for the natural common good, yet cannot sacrifice his spiritual or moral good in even the smallest matter.

That vital distinction in social and political theory is not grasped by the modern ideologies of individualistic liberalism or radical socialism. Nor could it be for they are both materialist and radically humanistic (atheistic). The only political alternatives then seen are to deny the need for the State or to make it all absorbing.

The Church is totally opposed to the State as conceived in this  latter way as it totally subjects the individual person to the State. But she is also opposed to the former, not only because of its humanism and atheism, but also because it denies the legitimate role of the State. It is  no co-incidence that the Church is virtually the only institution which defends the natural rights and freedoms of individuals and of the State in a political atmosphere where the two opposed political ideologies hold the field.

Note what Pope Benedict has said in this regard:

Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law. (From Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the German Bundestag at the Reichstag building 22 September 2011.)

Liberalist and Socialist Secularism

Secularism takes two forms politically, the liberalist and the socialist. The Nouvelle Theologie spends most of its time criticising the liberalist kind and mistakenly associates this kind of secularism with the “neo-Thomists” championing of nature and natural rights.

By attacking the liberalist/capitalist ideology, and not the other, the position of de Lubac and the Nouvelle Theologie may be seen as lending (unwittingly no doubt) support to the socialist error. For just as the socialist extreme is prepared to sacrifice the natural rights and freedoms of individual persons for the good of society as a whole, so the lubacians downplay individual natural rights and freedoms, by fusing nature and grace, by absorbing  the natural common good into the supernatural common good. Indeed, it is not only the natural rights and freedoms of individuals which suffer under the theological/political domain envisaged by them, so too do the natural rights (and duties) of the State.

The State becomes absorbed into the Church just as nature into grace. That is generally felt as a more crushing oppression of individual citizens. Hence the odium felt for theocracy and the attempt by her enemies to identify the Church with totalitarianism. The degree of this odium even allows the socialists to deflect attention away from socialism’s suffocating oppressiveness onto the Church.

The metaphysical mistake behind this is that one cannot unite grace to nature so as to make one concrete thing or subsistence (person) which does not retain its natural substantial form fully and intact. What Guardini says in connection with the Incarnation can be applied to the union of nature with grace. “A being in whom the human blended with the divine in a single, undifferentiated substance would be a myth.” (From The Humanity of Christ, Preface, pp. 3-4)

Grace cannot change the nature of man in this sense, not even in the concrete. If the Christian is not possessed of a substance which is purely human and purely natural then he can no longer be called human, nor can any purely human powers, habits and actions be attributed to him. Nor can any purely natural association, whether it be marriage or civil society (State), belong to individual human beings.

The Church is One, Societies are Many

There are still difficulties, of course, in envisaging the nature of the relation between Church and State. The Church is a society which is one and universal; it embraces all humanity. The State, in the concrete, has to be many. We might compare the situation at the level of marriage and the family. The Church is the one spouse of Christ. The members of the Church belong to the one supernatural family. At the natural level, however, there have to be a multitude of marriages and families. How can the Church as something supernatural be united to the natural order in regard to these natural institutions and associations? How can these natural associations be the natural subject for the Church and yet maintain their natural rights and freedoms against it, as it were?

It seems that de Lubac felt that the neo-Thomists of the likes of Garrigou-Lagrange made the Church to be some body of people separate from the secular world or the natural life of men. In this mistaken notion he saw the root of modern secularism. Hence, he was prepared to put at least some of the blame for the rise of the modern secularist state upon such neo-Thomists.

It can be seen, however, that de Lubac has transposed to the political sphere his mistake in regard to the relation between grace and nature. One can assert the real distinction between grace and nature without this amounting to an assertion of separateness. Separation applies between two things as substances. Grace is not another substance. Grace is something that comes to a human substance or nature modally, or qualitatively. It may be difficult to comprehend how this is so but it does not make grace a separable substance.

‘The Church’ and ‘The States’

The relation of the Church to the State is not to be put in precisely the same terms as that of grace to nature but it can be said that in this life the Church does not exist as a body separate from the civil societies in which its members need to live. There are indeed difficulties in understanding the nature of the tie between the Church and the State, or more accurately the States. The relationship is complex even without other considerations that enter into the question from history.

With the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the modern nation-states the question of the relation between Church and State became even more complicated. There was an incipient separateness present in the Protestant notion of the Church (with its Old Testament vision of the Kingdom of God constituted by an elect or “separate” people) together with a leaning to an individualist interpretation of the relation between man and God – a matching of two extremes. Both these tendencies are alien to the correct understanding of the Church. The Church as understood in Catholic theology is not a particular State, in the sense of a people of God separate from the rest of humanity, like the Jewish Nation. The People of God in the New Covenant embrace the whole of humanity, i.e. the multitude of nations or States.

Nor is the Church a purely spiritual association that does as it were without the natural civil societies of man, as in the individualist notion of Protestant Christianity. That individualism parallels the individualist interpretation of the relation between man and civil society. Both these individualisms, religious and secular, combine to reject the Catholic Church which they view as monolithic.

The Catholicity of the Church

The Church is rather the whole of humanity in so far as from baptism human beings initially receive grace and Faith (which can however become dead – without works). In a more sublime sense the Church consists of those living members of it – with charity.

We need to work however with the more common meaning of Church. What is this? The Church is universal or catholic. The City of God, therefore, has to encompass all humanity at least potentially. Strictly speaking, only that part of the Church Militant in the state of grace and the Church Triumphant (and Suffering) represent the living Church. “By this shall all  men know that you are my disciples: that you have love [charity] one for another.”

The Church in the sense of all the faithful, without taking charity into account, is a much wider concept. This is what is generally identified with the Catholic Church, though even this has its practical problems.

The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart”. (LG 14)

It is further to be noted that there are those in a sense “outside” the body of the Church so understood who may very well have a vital connection with it which the dead members have not. But we need not go into these finer considerations here. Whether we take the Church as comprising only those of living faith (saints but still subject to venial sin), or as including those of faith that is living and those of faith that is dead (the latter mortal sinners; dead branches on the vine), it has a bodily existence in its members in this world. And these members at the natural level, in the concrete, are members of the many cities or civil societies.

The Catholic Church is universal – all are meant to belong to it – and it cuts through, as it were, the natural divisions of States – but it does not exist separate from them. The Council puts it this way:

All men are called to be part of this catholic unity of the people of God which in promoting universal peace presages it. And there belong to or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation. (LG 13)

This universality of the call and catholicity of the Church enables us to resolve the problem of how all can be saved yet all must be saved through the Church. The Holy Spirit of God works in and through Christ’s Church drawing all to it in such a way that only those who reject the invitation, whether explicitly (in regard to faith) or implicitly (in regard to works), are not saved.

The Church has Supernatural and Natural Aspects

The distinction between the Church and the civil communities is a difference related to that between grace and nature, or between the order of charity and justice. But it is to be remembered that grace has to live in nature and charity has to operate with justice. The latter coupling cannot be separated without losing both, and separation of the former coupling leaves a human nature bereft of both its natural and supernatural ends. The discussion of the relation between Church and State has therefore to take into account a unity with humanity which in this life normally consists of multiple natural civil associations.

This is how the Vatican Council put it:

Since the kingdom of Christ is not of this world the Church or people of God in establishing that kingdom takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people. On the contrary it fosters and takes to itself, insofar as they are good, the ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself. Taking them to itself it purifies, strengthens, elevates and ennobles them. (LG 13)

The point, then, is that the Church itself has not only a supernatural aspect but also a natural one which in this life involves the natural domestic and political orders. Each Christian/Catholic family is called the domestic church; so too might each body of Christians/Catholics within a civil or political association be called the local or regional church. The division of the Church into parishes and dioceses is historically related to the civil order. The relation between the bishop and the ruler of a city or region ought to be close and in times past they have been the same person. This latter combination remains only in the Vatican State.

The Era of Christendom

It needs an effort of mind, and imagination, to try to envisage how Church and State might work co-operatively (and freely). Something of the solution of this problem was evident in the historical era known as Christendom. For the various groupings of civil associations known then as cities, whilst retaining their independence attained a degree of unity as if they were one great civil association. This came about at the natural level, not by the amalgamation of states into one but by their union spiritually/naturally into one civilisation – one in culture, one in language.

The ideal was to form one political regime, like the Roman Empire. But this was not realised and perhaps could not be so naturally. For the Roman Empire, though a great State, was unified by force rather than consent, and freedom is the fundamental condition of a true civil society or polis and of their greater union into an association of cities and their connected regions.

An Intimate Interconnection

Not only because of this world’s wickedness but also its transitoriness it is a big problem how to apply this connection between revealed religion and secular politics in the concrete, i.e. to the world in which we live today. The interconnection is most intimate.

The Church is in a way dependent upon the State but it is more true to say that the State is dependent upon the Church. Grace can only live in a nature that is good in itself. Without faith it is impossible to be moral, even in the natural order, and, conversely, charity requires prudence and, in the political context, justice to be present in the natural social order. This interconnection however means that there cannot be good social order, i.e. good State politics, which means there cannot be natural rights and freedoms, without the Church. The expression “outside (without) the Church there is no salvation” takes on a much greater significance.

A Serious State of Affairs

In the modern era the proper relation between Church and State has become quite difficult to discern. It might fairly be said that modern Western society is evolving at an ever-increasing rate to the same totalitarian political condition that previously prevailed for a time in Germany and the U.S.S.R.  In such a social climate it is difficult to see any possibility of a reconciliation between Church and State, let alone some sort of unity.

This is a desperately serious state of affairs, not just for the States themselves, but also for the Church. As far as the moral and religious condition of the secular world is concerned, we are evidently in worse case now than at the time of the Council, if the situation then was bad enough.

It is hard to maintain faith in the natural goodness of man and human society (politics) in a world that seems to have totally rejected morality and religion. But despite appearances much good is present in modern society, if largely because of the influence of the Church both in the past and the present. It is this natural order of goodness upon which the Church does depend, as part of the temporal nature of the human subjects which her divine life inhabits. The Church can still work with what is naturally good within States (for evil cannot totally overcome good) and indeed needs the help of these naturally good elements of secularity that must remain whilstever a secular society exists. That seems to be the main message of the Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes.

The City of God

The Christian may be a member of only one city, the city of God. But here below this city has two modes of existence, derived from that of nature and grace. In this world the normal condition for the Christian as a social animal is to be a member of some State.

Ideally, the multitude of States will form one civilised community – a Christian civilisation, where the secular city provides the natural support, if temporal only, for the heavenly city. But even without this ideal unity the normal life of the Christian is in some secular State wherein the Church also must live as best she can.

Dr Donald George Boland practiced law for many years, and he has taught Thomist philosophy for over 40 years.