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Is the Church a Friend of Tyranny?

persecution – en


Jason Jones and John Zmirak - published on 09/10/13

Marx said we must first make men atheists before they can be free. But Marx was wrong and in fact the opposite is the case: the Church is an important check to state power.

Last week, we briefly critiqued both the impact of and motives that lie behind Marx’s assertion that religion is the “opium of the people.” But it remains to ask how much objective truth it might retain. Just the fact that an assertion can be used in an evil way, or that the man who made it had a suspicious intent, does not make the statement necessarily false. To give an example, someone might make an assertion about the difference between the sexes which could be employed to further unjust discrimination; we might further find that the speaker was a misogynist. Nevertheless, he might have been speaking the truth.

So how much truth is there in the assertion that Christian faith encouraged the mass of men to become political quietists and economic victims? Is what evidence we do find sufficient to support Marx’s solution – which is to dismiss the religious impulse as in itself a secondary side-effect (his term was “epiphenomenon”) of political economic oppression, so that we must first make men atheists before they can be free? Or will we find that Christianity, like every other movement which has existed for thousands of years, has operated in a wide variety of ways – sometimes supporting, sometimes opposing, sometimes in cool coexistence alongside the structures of power? The Church was founded, of course, by the victim of judicial murder thanks to the collusion of Roman occupiers and a cabal of collaborating Jewish high priests – all on the false charge that Jesus was leading a political revolution. Its most effective apostle, St. Paul, was the first important voice advising Christians to focus on changing men’s hearts instead of the system of government. In a statement that would bedevil the victims of tyrants in subsequent centuries, he wrote:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13.1-7)

On the face of it, this seems like an injunction to absolute passivity in the face of civil power. And certainly, rulers used this passage when they sought the support of clergy and believers in repressing every kind of revolt. If Paul’s advice were all-encompassing and applicable to every exercise of authority, then Christianity really would have served the purpose that Marx attributed to it – as a political and civic anesthetic.

The first great historic challenge to such a compliant attitude to the demands of political power came when Roman persecution of Christians began – in St. Paul’s own lifetime, under the emperor Nero. (Indeed, Paul would die as a martyr in Rome, having used all the legal resources available to him as a Roman citizen.) If a Christian was asked by the legitimate Roman authorities to turn over sacred books, reveal where other Christians were hiding, or to worship the emperor as a god, was he still forbidden to resist them? Looking to Jewish precursors such as the Maccabees, Christians began to distinguish between just laws (which must always be obeyed) and unjust ones (which might be resisted), and assert the superiority of conscience to public authority. Indeed, while we moderns take for granted the notion that marriage is purely voluntary institution requiring both parties’ consent, that was not the case in pre-Christian Rome. A father’s absolute authority over his children (which could include putting one of them to death) also entailed the power to bestow one of his daughters on a man of his own choosing. The first organized resistance to this custom came from Christians – especially Christian women who had made vows of virginity. The lists of Roman martyrs are full of stories (some of them spruced up with legendary details) of young women like Agnes and Cecilia, who held their faith as higher than the commands of a father or magistrate, and the Church incorporated in its early canon law the absolute requirement that a marriage must be consensual, or it was invalid. (This would be challenged again by a different secular power – the Germanic barbarians who considered abduction and consummation sufficient to seal a marriage.) So from the most basic unit of society (the family) to the highest apex of power (the emperor), Christians – almost from the beginning – have discerned where obedience is demanded, where it is merely allowed, and where it is outright forbidden. Just as Antigone became a bone in the throat of the tyrant Creon because she insisted that piety outweighed the commands of the king, Christians have consistently over the centuries – and facing a wide variety of overreaching governments – held the private conscience as a higher authority than the state.  

St. Augustine offered the most enduring reflections on the relations between Church and state. In The City of God, he clarifies St. Paul’s observations on slavery, contradicting Aristotle’s claim that some men are slaves by nature; no, the existence of slavery is, like the existence of war, the side-effect of sin in the world. Augustine writes that God “did not intend that his rational creature, who was made in his image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation – not man over man, but man over the beasts.” This passage, by noting that slavery is contrary to God’s creative intention, could be seen as a seed of the Christian critique of that institution. However, Augustine was neither a pacifist nor an abolitionist; his main concern was not the political arrangements of the earthly city so much as their relevance for our journey as “pilgrims” to the heavenly city. So he warns masters to treat their slaves with justice and the same Christian love of neighbor that they treasure toward members of their families, and notes that slavery to sin is far worse than economic or political subjugation. One could, we suppose, assert that here Augustine is endorsing political passivity, urging people to ignore their “objective” enslavement in favor of merely “subjective” internal states. That is precisely what Marx would say. We would counter that here, Augustine is pointing to the spiritual freedom which believers have treasured in every kind of evil situation, from ancient slavery to modern prison camps managed by Marxists. In prizing the inner life as more important than external circumstances, he in fact was igniting an inextinguishable spark of hope for the millions of people who would find themselves trapped in situations that are really, objectively, beyond any earthly remedy. It was precisely such sense of a higher purpose immune to material suffering that Viktor Frankl would report in Man’s Search for Meaning as that which kept his fellow prisoners from killing themselves at Auschwitz. A spark of spiritual dignity was the difference between life and death. The same can be true for entire societies, as we will show.

On the broader issue of Christian obedience to civil governments, Augustine notes that organized government of society is just as needful as the organization of the body, and notes that Christians are obliged to be better citizens than pagans, since they accept not only just civil laws, but a higher standard imposed on them by their faith. He did not directly address the issue of civil (or non-civil) disobedience to unjust laws – though he approved of the martyrs’ refusal to obey Caesar by worshipping him, and he had learned the faith at the feet of the bishop Ambrose, the man who (as we noted before) rebuked the Christian emperor Theodosius for his massacre of a crowd and denied him entrance to his church or reception of the sacraments until he had repented. We see here the model the Church used through most of its history for resisting unjust governments: using the ecclesiastical sanctions to threaten the ruler with eternal punishment for his temporal misdeeds. This power was enough to stop the Holy Roman emperors from appointing their cronies as bishops, and to force the English kings to give the Church her independence throughout the Middle Ages. But the power was overused and misused during the Renaissance to serve the temporal quarrels of morally dubious popes and lost its force entirely after the Reformation taught kings a dangerous lesson: if the Church proved an obstacle to their agglomeration of power, they could take their whole nation (as Henry VIII did) out of the Catholic orbit, with the additional “signing bonus” of the Church’s accumulated property, which could be seized from the unarmed monks and nuns who had used it for centuries to support higher learning and social services for the poor. At that point, popes lost any power to restrain Christian rulers, and the Church ceased to serve as a counterbalance against the growing, centralizing power of the early modern state.

Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood.  His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at

John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism and blogs regularly at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).

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