In the wake of Augustine’s magisterial City of God, and the ensuing weakening of the Roman Empire, the church continued to reflect upon, and develop its approach toward politics. After the schism that resulted in the formation of an Eastern Orthodox church distinct from the Roman Catholicism, some differences of approach emerged. In this installment, we will reflect upon the two traditions.
The Roman Catholic Tradition
Historically, many Roman Catholic Church theologians have related grace (God’s saving works and word, and his formation of a people—the church) and nature (the created realm of human life) hierarchically, implicitly dividing the world into an upper realm of grace and a lower realm of nature. In this view, when a Christian is having personal devotions or attending church, he is operating in the upper realm of grace. When he is engaging in activities such as business or politics, however, he is operating the lower realm of nature. The upper story is more important than the lower story, so he believes, but at the same time it is more damaged by sin. Thus, according to this view a Christian should draw upon Christian teaching in order to “repair” the upper realm, while he needs only to draw upon reason, common experience, conscience, political precedent, and other similar resources when interacting in lower realm activities such as politics.
The foundation of Catholic Social Teaching, as it relates to the political realm, is human dignity. God created man and woman in his image and likeness, commanded them to be fruitful and multiply, thus preparing the way for the formation of families, communities, and nations. Flowing from its teaching on human dignity, the Catholic church emphasizes the need to care for the weak and vulnerable of society, such as the unborn and the poor. Further, the Catholic church conceives of society as an organic and hierarchical whole, composed of the individual at the bottom, various mediating institutions and organizations (e.g. families, churches, schools) in the middle, and the state at the top. Known as the doctrine of subsidiarity, it emphasizes that social issues should be addressed by mediating institutions rather than by the state, if possible. Finally, the Catholic church stresses the obligation of Christian citizens to vote, pay taxes, and defend one’s country.
The Eastern Orthodox Tradition
The Eastern Orthodox tradition emphasizes the beauty of God’s transcendence. Yet, their emphasis on God’s transcendence does not lead to a denigration of the created order. The Orthodox tradition also emphasizes the ontological goodness of the created realm, a goodness which remains even after the Fall. Thus, Christians should not view activities such as politics as essentially evil.
Historically, Orthodox denominations were united with nation-states and, even today, while not united with the state, are closely associated with national groupings. Yet, from the early years of Orthodoxy until now, Orthodox leaders have also engaged politically by criticizing the flaws and deficiencies found in their national politics. Throughout Orthodox history, its religious leaders have criticized political leaders who served themselves rather than the citizens, who enriched their own coffers at the expense of the poor. More than anything, however, Orthodoxy sees Christians’ primary political contribution as their membership in the church which is itself an eschatological reminder of God’s communion with us and his promised return to set the world to rights.
The Catholic and Orthodox traditions formed the matrix within other streams of Christianity would develop. Further, they formed the context within which these newer streams of Christianity would develop their own distinctive approached to the question of Christianity and politics. To some of those newer traditions—Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and American Black Church—our attention will turn in the next installment of this series.