Henri de Lubac’s Criticism of Indirect Power

by Matthew Gaetano

In my previous post, I discussed theologians who offered interpretations of the doctrine of the two swords before the Second Vatican Council. While some hierocrats believed that the pope’s two swords made him lord of the world, Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez argued that popes had indirect power in temporal matters. Papal power was only indirect because temporal rulers were “supreme in their own order.” These theologians also believed that temporal rulers derived their authority from the political community, not from the pope. Nonetheless, for spiritual ends, the pope could use temporal authority, even to the point of deposing rulers in certain circumstances. (I mentioned the deposing power in the section on Suarez. Perhaps I could have mentioned it a few more times as a way of clarifying the extent of this “indirect power” in the thought of Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez, even though I was focused on what they said about the “two swords.”)

While some seventeenth-century contemporaries of Bellarmine and Suarez and modern scholars see the controversy between the hierocratic position and this idea of “indirect power” as a distinction without a difference, Bellarmine faced opposition from some in the Roman Curia for his idea. So, the debate certainly mattered at that time.

We should not ignore this seventeenth-century debate. While my previous post indicated that the “two swords” doctrine was interpreted in different ways long before Vatican II, we should not forget that twentieth-century challenges to the temporal power of the papacy (whether direct or indirect) saw Bellarmine (and not the hierocrats) as the major challenge. My goal here is not to oppose (or defend) Bellarmine, nor is it to endorse (or challenge) the twentieth-century arguments that follow. I hope that these passages might be of interest and useful for future discussion.

The great twentieth-century theologian, Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), took up the question of the indirect power of the papacy in the 1930s. (I am drawing from his article, “The Authority of the Church in Temporal Matters,” which is published in Theological Fragments, put together decades later – in the 1980s.) He associates the position with Bellarmine and Suarez and characterizes it as follows: “When the requisite conditions are met — entailing at least the verification of the ratio peccati […] — the leader of the Church could then, for example, depose (or even name) a head of state, promulgate a civil law, or act as a court of justice in case of war. In such circumstances, it is claimed, he would be exercising a divine right.” This claim, de Lubac says, “seems inadmissible” (199).

Henri de Lubac sees the advantage of this position against the “flood of absolutist doctrines on royal and state power.” He also mentions that major thinkers like Leibniz took the position seriously, quoting the great early-modern philosopher as saying, “The one who has received the full power of God for the salvation of souls also has the power to repress tyranny and excessive ambition, which cause such a large number of souls to perish” (200). He believes that the historical context has changed; even strong defenders of the papacy, he argues, have abandoned Bellarmine’s position as obsolete. Nonetheless, he wants to offer the theory of indirect power a serious theological examination.

Here are a few of his major points (accompanied by a lot of quotations):

The word indirect is unclear. 

The deposing power is a good example of the strange use of the word indirect. While Bellarmine’s theory requires that the pronouncement of a deposition only take place in special circumstances, for the “good of religion,” or for spiritual ends, it is still “directly intentional, directly aimed for, directly brought about” (202, emphasis added). So, whatever the ends may be, the action is an exercise of real secular (or civil or temporal) power.

Its foundations are shaky at best.

1) Bellarmine would argue that indirect power is necessary for the Church’s direction to be effective.

According to de Lubac, there is a middle way between the exercise of temporal power by the pope and mere advice or moral indications and instruction: “the commandment, the order is no less rigorous because it is addressed only to the consciences of the faithful” (205). Some of Bellarmine’s opponents, de Lubac suggests, might have turned the alternative to the pope’s indirect power into nothing more than “wise advice.” The weakness of this position understandably raised serious questions for Catholics. The middle way–the command addressed to Christian consciences–is effective; the Church can fulfill its mission without employing more “extreme” means.

2) Another argument for Bellarmine’s position is that, for the “proper functioning of society,” there must be some subordination when there are two powers in that society. And the spiritual should be superior to the temporal.

In reply, de Lubac suggests that Bellarmine’s account doesn’t exalt the spiritual power but actually “temporalizes” it (207). The real distinction between temporal and spiritual power–and the genuinely spiritual character of ecclesiastical authority–must be maintained for this order to be maintained and for this argument to work.

3) Bellarmine’s position has biblical foundations (in the view of its defenders).

According to de Lubac, trying to find support in Luke’s reference (22:38) to the two swords “has been abandoned” (207). (As I indicated in the previous post, many theologians suggested–for centuries–that this was a mystical reading. John of Paris and perhaps even Vitoria were critical of how the passage was being used.) He dismisses “extravagant proofs” for the indirect power of the pope in temporal matters like Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” He says a bit more about “whatsoever you shall bind on earth” and “feed my lambs,” but he says that “theology ought to have more respect for Scripture” (208). There is no problem, de Lubac says, with “illustrating any evangelical doctrine whatsoever by an evangelical image.” He is even “charmed” by Gregory VII’s way of commenting on the two sources of light in order to clarify the doctrine of the two powers. “But,” de Lubac tells us, “it is one thing to cite them as illustrations of doctrines founded elsewhere and quite another to prove that they are the sources of the doctrines” (208).

In this section, de Lubac mentions that Suarez saw the power of the pope to depose heretical kings as a dogma of the faith. Bellarmine was apparently a bit more modest, describing the denial of the deposing power as “perilous, erroneous, and close to heresy.”

4) The indirect power of the papacy finds support, its defenders say, in the “superior interests of God’s kingdom.” The good of religion at times requires the pope’s intervention in temporal matters.

According to de Lubac, this position comes close to affirming that the end justifies the means. “Necessity,” he says, “does not make right” (209). Setting aside the question of a raison d’état, de Lubac asserts that there is certainly no raison d’Eglise. He believes the idea that the Church must act with temporal means even for spiritual ends suggests a lack of faith. Is it not sufficient that the Church can command and bind souls? Must it constrain bodies as well? He asks, “Does [this attitude] stem from a fear that, without certain measures taken in the temporal order, the Church might fail before reaching her destiny? Should we not have more confidence in the Spirit who has been promised to assist her until the end of time?” (209).

5) The defenders of Bellarmine might point to the many historical examples which confirm this indirect papal power in the temporal order.

His response to this this argument is worthy of further discussion, but he says that we must make a distinction between a papal condemnation of a temporal measure and actually abolishing a law or political policy. We must remember, he tells us, that modern popes were, in many cases, addressing only the faithful. And there is a difference between a “consultation of conscience” and exercises of temporal power for spiritual ends. (Also, see his point below about the “tradition of deeds,” which is a more direct reference to the practice of deposing kings, etc.)

The doctrine harms the Church.

I’ll just provide a couple of noteworthy passages without comment:

1) “Moved by the best intentions, theologians who claims that the Church has a jurisdiction over temporal matters do not notice the harm they do to her. By making hopeless claims that do not correspond to any right, they keep alive in many sincere men a wariness, even a hostility, that is invincible. Even more seriously, they do not notice that they are tempting the Church, just as Satan tempted Christ in the desert. Believing that they are justified in spreading her empire, they are ready to expose her (if that were possible) to the loss of sacred authority, to lower her–even if only temporarily and under the holiest of pretexts–to the rank of the powers of the world. … Do not call this liberalism. The scandal provoked by such a doctrine has nothing in common with the one that will always be provoked by the mystery of the Cross” (210-11).

2) “The Church’s greatness is not a worldly greatness. She does not lower herself to this level, not even occasionally or ‘indirectly’. If she did, it would be difficult to understand why the resort to the sword should be denied her: the non decet customarily invoked would be sheer hypocrisy.”

The Church’s authority is entirely spiritual, and the theory of indirect power does not take that seriously enough.

While (for de Lubac) the authority of the Church is limited to the individual conscience, this is not a restriction. Not only is Christianity universal because Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men but also because “all of man” finds salvation in Jesus Christ (211). Faith and morality can be involved in every activity and thought, which means that, even if the Church does not exercise temporal power, no area of activity or thought is closed off from the Church. He offers a useful analogy: when we speak of a Christian philosophy or a Christian society, “we are thinking in terms of directing ideas, not of their full realization. And, if these ideas were promoted by trying to make secular power the instrument of ecclesiastical power, the effort would be as futile as making philosophy the slave of theology.” Philosophy is “not a handmaid unless she is free” (212).

The Church is the messenger of Christ; the Church can ennoble and inspire the State to be a “more human one.” The Church can condemn all legal measures that set out “to destroy her work by persecution or impious legislation,” just as “faith rejects theories that mutilate reason” (212-13). In the most extreme cases, the Church can address the consciences of the faithful and, when there is a clear injustice, point out the imperative of resistance, “even to martyrdom, if necessary.”

The Church’s spiritual character does not introduce a dualism or separation.

De Lubac shows how his rejection of Bellarmine’s position on the indirect power is consistent with the teaching for which he would eventually become famous: his rejection of a dualism of the natural and the supernatural.

1) “Since the supernatural is not separated from nature, and the spiritual is always mixed with the temporal, the Church has eminent authority–always in proportion to the spiritual element present–over everything, without having to step out of her role. If this is not true, then we might as well admit that the Church has no authority over anything, that she can speak only in the abstract. She must not limit herself to outlining absolute principles, to proclaiming doctrine and ethics from ‘above the fray’. When circumstances require it, she must be able to make decisions … about concrete activities where doctrine and morality are involved” (214-15).

2) “All separation–even all dualism–is false. But, at the interior of the synthesis whose elements should never, if possible, be disassociated, progress can be realized by a series of differentiations. As complexity increases, it assures more and more the free play of inferior elements. The work of St. Thomas Aquinas marked progress of the first rank in the history of the human mind when it established, within the heart of Christian thought, the permanent distinction between philosophy and theology. … [T]he era of ‘separated philosophy’, which in itself was a misfortune … will not have been without a certain benefit in that there has been intellectual progress in determining precisely the character and the rights of rational speculation. There is no doubt either that the Church’s theology will turn the painful experience of these last centuries into something positive if the Church gains a purified notion of spiritual power from this experience” (216-17, emphasis added).

Theologians have refined, developed, and even corrected earlier accounts regarding the proper exercise of spiritual power in the world.

1) “[Bellarmine’s] theory was conceived to assure the essential rights of the Church, while avoiding the criticisms raised, even by the School, against the theoreticians of what was called direct power [the hierocratic account]. It witnesses to a more precise idea of the mission Jesus Christ gave to his vicar … [A]fter reflection, it becomes obvious that the theory of indirect power is a hybrid and untenable compromise between the theory of direct power and one called the theory of directive power. It is not so surprising, then, that the attempted reconciliation was not successful.” De Lubac mentions that the Curia was unhappy with the theory’s supposedly weak view of papal power while the Gallicans and others opposed it for undermining the authority of kings and other secular governments. “It was a transitional thesis,” he continues, “that, in spite of its ingenuity, was not fully satisfactory. It would seem to point to the conclusion that, between the ‘political trusteeship’ of governments and the ‘moral direction’ of consciences, there is no via media” (204-5).

2) “It can be objected that there is the tradition of deeds as well as that of doctrine and that to repudiate a ‘thesis truly incorporated into the Christian heritage’ would be to unbalance the Tradition. The Tradition, however, is not always easy to interpret. In former times, it was invoked in favor of the Church’s right to direct power in temporal affairs, an assumption that is roundly condemned today. In this matter, as in all others, we should be able to admit the legitimacy of a certain evolution in the Christian conscience. And, even though this progress has come about as a result of the pressure created by regrettable events, even though it is in part the effect of the secularization of a society that was hostile to the Church, it is not to be rejected. Misfortune sometimes causes reflection, good sometimes profits from evil, and it is not forbidden to gather certain captive truths from the errors of our adversaries, in order to free them and set them on the right path” (215-16).

3) “While admitting the abuses, the Church would nevertheless not have to repudiate the Middle Ages or feel obliged to say that ‘the Roman Pontiffs and ecumenical councils went beyond their power and usurped that of princes'” (217). There were some historical and some divine rights involved in these circumstances. “It was,” de Lubac says, “necessarily a contingent, deficient–and even rather crude–incarnation of the Church’s ideal in history. That ideal will never be perfectly realized.” The challenge is to distinguish the eternal from the contingent, while being willing to learn from the lessons of history.

4) De Lubac quotes Msgr. d’Hulst: “The dream of a pure and simple return to the institutions of the past must be renounced. … The mission of the Church to earlier societies had the character of a solitary guardianship over their still-immature state. Today, the Church faces adult societies, emancipated by science, economic progress an the development of a civilization that certainly has no less need of the Gospel’s ferment than had the earlier ones. But the attitude of an adult son towards his mother, however respectful it may be, is entirely different from the attitude of a child. And a wise mother would be afraid of abusing her authority if she exercised it on the adult in the same way she had exercised it on the child” (219).

Again, I am not in a position to defend de Lubac’s position here. It might be helpful to remember that de Lubac, like Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez, rejects the hierocratic theory of direct power. On the other hand, like these theologians, he believes that the authority of the Church–and the bishop of Rome–cannot be “above the fray”; the Church has the power to command, to address Christians consciences in a manner that is not merely giving advice or moral counsel. Nonetheless, he thinks that theirmiddle way“–their account of the pope’s “indirect power”–is inadmissible, untenable, and even harmful.

In a future post, I’ll examine whether de Lubac’s view might find support in the theological account of John of Paris (d. 1306).

Leave a Reply