Not of This World: Why the Way of the Cross Opposes the Will to Power

This week Fr. Paul Samasumo, writing on behalf of Radio Vaticana, reported on an interesting development regarding the Catholic Church’s international relations:

Pope Francis Monday revealed that the number of ambassadors accredited to the Holy See has grown. In his annual address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, it also emerged that in the course of last year, the number of African countries that signed or ratified bilateral Agreements with the Holy See had increased. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a month ago, brings to 182 countries and entities that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See in the world. In his annual address to the diplomats, Pope Francis named the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Benin as African countries that signed or ratified agreements aimed at recognising the Catholic Church’s juridical status, last year (full text here).

Samasumo’s article brings to light, albeit somewhat incidentally, a sometimes neglected facet of Roman Catholicism, namely, its existence not merely as an ecclesial body but also as a political state. Indeed, the fact that official diplomatic relations exist between the Vatican and “182 countries and entities” that recognize it as a sovereign state capable of playing a significant role in international affairs reveals much about the way in which the Catholic 150928_pol_franciscongresscon-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2Church construes itself and its mission in the world. Italian theologian Leonardo De Chirico explains:

The Roman Catholic Church is the only church that also has a sovereign state with its own political, financial, juridical and diplomatic structure. It is the only ecclesial body that deals with other states as a state. When the Church signs agreements with another state in the form of a concordat, for instance, it does so according to the rules of international law, as one sovereign country with another. The Pope is head of the church and head of state. When he visits a nation he is welcomed as if he were a king, not simply as an archbishop or some other ecclesiastical figure. Though small and symbolic, the Church also has an army, like any other state. Its double identity (ecclesial and political) is the fruit of its long and complex history, and is also an indication of its composite institutional nature: both church and state in one. Theology and politics are so intertwined in the system of the Roman Catholic Church and its activities that it is impossible to separate them.[1]

For Protestants like myself, this conflation of church and state, of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, is highly problematic. It also represents, beyond whatever theological bones we Protestants may have to pick, one of the clearest signs that the Catholic Church has lost its way as a church, that is, as the communion of saints (disciples) called to follow their Lord by denying themselves, renouncing all that they have, and taking up their cross (Luke 14:25-33). As Jesus demonstrated through his own example, the way of the cross is fundamentally opposed to the will to power, even as we see clearly illustrated in his encounter with the imperial authority of Rome embodied in the person of Pontius Pilate. As John (18:36) recounts the scene:

Jesus answered [Pilate], “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The reason why Jesus refused (and prohibited his disciples) to inaugurate his kingdom by the same means as those employed by Pilate on behalf of the Roman empire was because his kingdom was not of the Roman empire, nor of any other form of earthly power and authority. His kingdom instead executes judgment on all the ways and works of the kings of the earth (Psalm 2). Like the vision, interpreted by Daniel (2:44-45), by which God confronted King Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of God is like a stone, not cut with human hands, that smashes all earthly kingdoms to dust. And with Jesus, the actual way in which the kingdom of God came with this earth-shattering power was not by military might, political pressure, or diplomatic maneuvering, but rather through the foolishness, weakness, and suffering of the cross. As Roman Catholic theologian Paul Molnar writes (in reference to T.F. Torrance):

The church cannot use temporal power to achieve [its] ends because that would undermine the reality of the church’s existence as the Body of Christ who suffered and died for the church. Its own historical form can only be one of taking up its cross and following Christ and of allowing the living Lord to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven through the Holy Spirit. What Torrance opposes, then, is the “use of political theology as a basic hermeneutic to interpret the Gospel and the mission of the Church in the world today” because in doing this they “become trapped in an ecclesiastical will to power” [Torrance, Theology in Reconciliation, 78]. He opposes using temporal power to attain spiritual ends because this is not the way the church as the Body of Christ exists as the Kingdom of God on earth between the time of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and second coming. The determination to use temporal power to attain unity or universality will always mean that the positive evangelical and spiritual forces at work in the church will be suppressed.[2]

Any church, therefore, that claims the name of Christ and yet adopts the very means of power and influence that Christ himself eschewed has, in reality, abandoned the way of Christ and followed in the footsteps of Pilate. This is not to say that the church should not be in any way involved in matters concerning worldly governments but that it should not assume the form of those governments or imitate their way of achieving their goals. Sadly, this is precisely what we see in the Roman Catholic Church. Is it any coincidence that the only church to have taken up the political will to power, in diametric opposition to the way of the cross, is centered in Rome?

It is for this reason that I, like Leonardo De Chirico (and the vast majority of Italian evangelicals), insist…

that it is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture to have a church whose heart is a political state that is a legacy of an “imperial” church from which it has inherited titles and prerogatives. Christian churches must refrain from imitating “the princes of this world” and follow the example of Jesus who came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:42-45)...While it is true that evangelicals should point to the fact that we are united with those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation, they should still find the Catholic church as an institution to be in need of radical reformation according to the Word of God. There is no “reconciled diversity” with sin and rebellion and with “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). [source]

What is therefore to be demanded of the Catholic Church? Simply this: that it deny itself, renounce its will to temporal power, and take up the cross. Only by forsaking its use of worldly means to accomplish spiritual ends will the Catholic Church begin to truly reflect the crucified Lord that it claims to represent. As Jesus responded to his disciples’ desire to receive from him the authority of an earthly kingdom:

You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:42-45]

If only the Church of Rome had yielded to the summons of Martin Luther to reform itself according to the New Testament’s “theology of the cross” in opposition to the “theology young-lutherof glory” that had come to prominence in its thinking and practice! In his famous “Heidelberg Disputation”, Luther wrote:

Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires….The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.[3]

Indeed, the wisdom of the cross is folly to the world. The wisdom of the world cannot be reconciled with or incorporated into the wisdom of the cross. They are diametrically opposed. Thus, as Luther urged, the church, when tempted by the desire to emulate the kingdoms of man to fulfill its mission in the kingdom of God, must not seek to satisfy it but extinguish it. Although the Catholic Church of Luther’s day turned a deaf ear to his admonitions and has continued to do so up to the present day, perhaps by the mercy of God it is not too late for it to finally repudiate the “wisdom…of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1 Cor. 2:6) and repentantly take up its cross to humbly serve the Suffering Servant whose kingdom is not of this world.

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[1] Leonardo De Chirico, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2015), pp.7-8.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, T.F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. (Surrey/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2009) p.279.

[3] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012) p.23.

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