Church as/and Polity

Church as/and Polity May 11, 2017

In The Watershed of Modern Politics, the last of a trilogy on the emergence of modern political thought from the Latin Middle Ages, Francis Oakley observes that “arguments based on secular
political analogies, or arguments simply taking for granted something of a
constitutional overlap between political and ecclesiastical modes of government, had served as a mainstay of ecclesiological discourse, whether high papalist or constitutionalist” for many centuries, and persisted well into the nineteenth century (209-10).

Many historians acknowledge this “when it comes to the ideology of absolute monarchy and to the notion of sovereignty itself,” but Oakley emphasizes that ecclesiology was also important to “the emerging tradition of constitutionalism in the West, as also to the
process whereby the practices of representation and consent in the European kingdoms came gradually to be theorized.” He is referring to the conciliarist movement that developed in the aftermath of the Great Schism and “flourished during the era dominated by the Councils of Pisa
(1409), Constance (1414–18), Basel (1431–49) as well as by the so-called
conciliabulum of Pisa (1511–12).” He cites John
Neville Figgis’s observation conciliarism “raised the constitutionalism of the past three centuries to a higher power,
expressed it in a more universal form, and justified it on the grounds of
reason, policy and scripture” (210).

In Basel, for instance, some drew on analogies between the church and urban republics and communes to attribute “unlimited
jurisdiction to the Church­-in-­council, with the pope as its merely executive
servant (primus minister)” (232). Further,  “both John of Paris and Pierre d’Ailly had linked that oligarchic limitation with the notion of the church as a ‘mixed monarchy’” (249).

What might such a mixed constitution look like in the church? John Milbank sketches a portrait in one of the essays in The Future of Love. “Catholic Christianity,” he argues, carries a “classical tradition” of mixed government: “Democracy, which is ‘the rule of the Many,’ can only function without manipulation of opinion if it is balanced by an ‘aristocratic’ elements of the pursuit of truth and virtue for their own sake on the part of some people whose role is legitimate even if they remain only ‘the Few,’ although they should ideally be themselves the Many. Democracy equally requires the ‘monarchic’ sense of an architectonic imposition of intrinsic justice by a transcendent ‘One,’ however constituted, that is unmoved by either the prejudices of the few or those of the Many” (245).

The democratic dimension is pneumatological: “truth lies finally dispersed amongst the people (although they need the initial guidance of the virtuous) because the Holy Spirit speaks through the voice of all.” In this theological context, the old axiom of vox populi, vox Dei is true and “along legitimates democracy” (245). 

By the “aristocratic” element, Milbank has mainly in mind the role of education. Educational hierarchy isn’t a threat to democracy, but a condition of its health: “Democracy will collapse into sophistic manipulation, as Plato taught, if it is not balanced by the element of ‘education in time’ which requires a certain constantly self-canceling hierarchy.” Teachers teach so their students rise to their level—that is the self-canceling bit; but they teach—that is the hierarchical bit. Without this aristocratic element, democracy, especially as it is justified by social contract theory, “tends to deny the sanctity of life, the importance of the child, the procedure beyond mere political participation to old age and death” because “its ‘normal’ person is rather the freely choosing and contracting autonomous thirty-one year-old” (248–9).

For all its democratic and aristocratic elements, the church is fundamentally a monarchy, “headed by Christ.” This monarchy is itself democratically realized: “the people are the body of the King; the King can only act through the people” (253). Milbank unpacks Christ’s kingship Trinitarianly. By virtue of creation, “to this infinite good within the Trinity is added the ecstatic mysterious ‘extra’ of finite dependence and finite worship.” God, he claims, “lacks worship of himself, since he does not . . . depend on himself anymore than he causes himself.” Yet “the Incarnation goes further: “God ceases to lack even this and in coming to share God’s life we are returned by God in Christ always back to specifically finite excellent.” In this way, “the invisible points back to the visible as well as the other way round” (254). Though God needs and “can receive nothing,” yet “God comes to receive our worship of himself by joining to the personhood of the Logos our human worship.” As a result, it’s not merely that the finite receives unilaterally from the infinite, or that the finite offers unilateral praise to the infinite. In the incarnation, God establishes “an infinite-finite exchange of gifts” (254).

A king rules by generosity, and thus this is how “Christ is not king on earth,” as the locus of this divine-human reciprocity, as the divine giver and the human responder in one. Milbank draws the conclusion that “there should be always a secular fusion of democratic dispersal with monarchic liberality and objectivity.” It should trend toward “monarchic anarchy,” exemplified in the Lord of the Rings where there is “no law in the Shire” but “the orderly echo of remote kingship”—remote, and future kingship, we might add. In this model “sovereign authority can exercise . . . a light touch” (254–5). Sovereign authority subjects only “because it is obliged to offer them the gift of good coordination of diverse talents and needs” (246). Thus, “human kingly rule is entirely Christological, since it echoes the kenotic and deificatory exchange of worshipping and worshipped (the King manifesting in a faint degree the glory of divine rule as such) that is fused in one corpus by the Incarnation.”

All this becomes a real political option because through Christ there is “a new paracosmic reality—a new order somehow embracing both God and the Creation and a new order which abolishes the previous absolute dominance and semi-universality of the law . . . and so of political process as such” (254). It becomes possible because the church arrives as an unprecedented political reality.


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