Sunday, July 31, 2011

Values in a Time of Upheaval Chapter 4 Conclusion: Heaven and Earth

In last week's post discussing Chapter 4 of the Holy Father's book, Values In a Time of Upheaval, I highlighted his reflection on the fact that for society, and the government whose task it is to regulate life in that society, to function properly, both society and government most first acknowledge the existence and preeminence of the transcendent Truth that precedes them.  The state is not the source of morality, nor is the will of the people in a democratic society able to "change" what is true.

Pope Benedict ended the chapter with a wonderful reflection, entitled Closing Reflection: Heaven and Earth.  In it, he took a step back from his previous discussion of the historical role of truth in forming the moral and ethical fiber of a society, to the eschatological perspective, the fact we are destined for something far greater, and a citizenship far more significant than that of our pilgrimage on this earth.  As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Philippians (3:20), "Our commonwealth is in heaven."

In his conclusion, the Holy Father pointed out that there has long been a perception among Christians that these two perspectives are separate, that our love and longing for the things of heaven is somehow opposed to and detracts from our "political task" here on earth, and vice versa.  But that perspective is mistaken.  The two are complimentary.  It is ultimately our love for the things of heaven that enables us to carry out the tasks laid before us here on earth.  In the Pope's own words,
"In reality, it is precisely this 'eschatological' attitude that guarantees the state its own rights while simultaneously resisting absolutism by indicating the boundaries both of the state and of the Church in the world.  Where this fundamental attitude prevails, the Church knows that it cannot be a state here on earth, for it is aware that the definitive state lies elsewhere, and that it cannot set up the City of God on earth.  It respects the earthly state as an institution belonging to historical time, with rights and laws that the Church recognizes....By both demanding loyal cooperation with the state and respect for its specific nature and its limitations, the Church provides an education in those virtues that allow a state to become good.  At the same time, it puts up a barrier against the omnipotence of the sounds the cry for resistance whenever the state might demand something genuinely evil and opposed to God." (p.71)
Jesus Christ did not come into the world--and he did not establish his Church in the world--to be a government in the political sense.  That is exactly what Israel expected him to do, but as our Lord tends to do, he defied and exceeded human expectations.  As he answered Pilate's continued interrogation, "My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews" (John 18:36).

On the flip-side, he also did not dismiss political activity and the political power of the secular state in the regulation of the affairs of men (regulation in its original meaning, to "make regular," including self-regulation and being very different than control).  Instead, he established the former as a leaven of the citizens of the latter and entrusted us with the enormous responsibility of maintaining the proper relationship between both.  The bottom line is that the Church was established to work within the world, as an outpost of heaven and a standard of his law and kingdom that will never end.  As the world needs God, so it needs the Church.  And, one step further, mankind needs a healthy functional relationship between the Church and the state.  It falls to Christians, who are both temporal citizens of earth and destined to be eternal citizens of heaven, to see to it that His work of bringing mankind to salvation is continued:
"The fact that Christians are journeying toward the other city does not alienate them.  In reality, it is this that allows us to be healthy and our states to be healthy.  For if men have nothing more to expect than what this world offers them, and if they may and must demand all this from the state, they destroy both their own selves and every human society.  If we do not want to get entangled anew in the tentacles of totalitarianism, we must look beyond the state, which is only one part, not the totality.  There is no antithesis between hope for heaven and loyalty to the earth, since this hope is also hope for the earth.  While we hope for something greater and definitive, we Christians may and must bring hope into that which is transitory, into the world of our states." (p.71-72)

1 comment:

  1. Very relevant to today's political landscape. Thanks for sharing the Holy Father's thoughts on the matter!