Lucien Laberthonnière's Introduction to Le catholicisme et la société (1907)

[Le catholicisme et la société was a book published in 1907 by Maurice Legendre and Jacques Chevalier. Laberthonnière, a controversial so-called “Modernist” priest, was asked to write the preface (“L’Eglise et l’Etat a travers l’histoire”) and the introduction (shown here) to the book. It should also be noted that Jacques Chevalier later on became the Minister for education under the Vichy Regime.]

[…] By its morality, Christianity commands [inspire], up to the very last detail, the conduct of its followers, who are at the same time citizens; — moreover, it has set up an indispensable method for the realization of its moral ends, a visible society, which has its hierarchy, its leader, and which is invested with its own authority: the Church. This is why civil society must allow not only Christian individuals but even Christian society; likewise, the Church recognizes the legitimacy of civil society, which has its proper ends and whose power comes from God. It is therefore impossible to conceive of a rigorous separation between the two powers, civil and religious, except in a despotic state where the citizens (and Christians among others) would be nothing. But we understand that there can be a separation relative to a previous situation; in a limited sense, this condition may signify the loyal effort made by the two sides to mark a clear boundary in dangerous areas of friction; such a separation allows space for a future agreement, just as an abusive [vexatoire] separation can only complicate the entanglement of the temporal and the spiritual. 

Yet, the temporal and the spiritual are two ideal terms which historical reality does not present to us ever in a pure state; between them, to a certain extent, entanglement is the rule and not the exception. As both societies are comprised of the same members, and they are diverse in their principles and purposes, their actions must complement each other. As both [societies] develop, it is not possible to trace, once and for all, the demarcation of their respective domains, and [nor is it possible] to get rid of, through some fixed maxims, the unceasingly renewed responsibility of ensuring the equilibrium which requires justice. 

A question arises here: is this equilibrium realizable? and these two developments, of religious society and civil society, are they not exclusive of one another?   

To such a question, history alone can respond; it alone is significant and instructive for the various schools. 

Going back in history, we have obeyed a necessity that Mr. Aristide Briand and Mr. Maxime Lecomte felt in their reports on separation (1). In the Church, development itself is intimately tied to tradition: to judge it on an isolated moment in its progress is to risk being unjust, if it is not already.

But this tradition is not always clear in history, and can be assessed in various ways. Which rule to follow? It is an obligation, for those who want to be fair, to distinguish in the Church — as well as in the state — the politics of the Church, that is, what is conformed to her principles, and the politics of parties who are using her. When we have followed the action of these parties from the epoch when contemporary passions had not arisen, we discern them today as well, fairly easily; — as to the principles on which the politics of the Church is founded, they are proclaimed in the Gospel clearly enough not to be susceptible to equivocation. We have to briefly recall what they are.

As the Church is in the Gospel, the politics of the Church is there as well. It is summed up in a few points: the Church does not come from the world; — but she is established in the world by God; — she must reform it constantly, and thereby constantly exposes herself to persecution. The Christian must respect the civil power and serve it; by virtue of this belief, they admit to the temporal power a genuine authority: they do not bow before force. — Men are brothers, all are equal before God; conscience is not the responsibility of the government. — The two powers meet where one ends [and] the other commences; but in intervening in the world, the spiritual power has not taken as its model the governments offered to it by Asia or the Roman Empire.

We insist on this point: the Church is not of the world, but she is in the world, as leaven is in dough and salt in food (Matthew 13:33).

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15), St. Matthew (Matthew 19:27-30) and St. Mark (Mark 10:28-31) transmit to us a precise teaching on the place of the Church in the world. —  We forget too often that the Church includes the laity, and that she proposes the conversion of all men: she must therefore, without being of the world, fill up the world. 

The Church wants to reform the world: the world persecutes the Church; it only exists because of propaganda (2): it is from the world which she is drawn, it is from the world where she gains her strength: conflict is inevitable:  “If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19).

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law

(Luke 12:49-53)

There can be no midway between the persecution and the triumph of the Church, but of such a triumph, the vanquished are the most fortunate.  

— Just as Christianity is opposed to the world by its morals, so too is her sole existence a scandal in the eyes of the world (3), — just as her notion of authority is in principle contrary to that of civil society:

Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

(Mark 10:42-45; Cf., Luke 9:46-48 and Matthew 20:25-28)

This temporal authority is so different from Christian authority. Jesus, the son of David, could claim it, but he ignored it, so as to not diminish and compromise his true authority (4), he strictly conformed to the established temporal order:

Pilate … [asks] him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

… Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.’

(John 18:33-37)

There is in the attitude of Jesus in regards to the temporal power a great condescension:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’

‘Yes, he does,’ he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’

‘From others,’ Peter answered.

‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’

(Matthew 17:23-27)

If Jesus displays such a condescension, if the submission to the temporal authority is for him an occasion of manifesting his divine omnipotence in the eyes of those who believe in his spiritual authority, it is because he himself is the son of the kings of this earth. But it is precisely because his submission was free, because he himself renounces his right, that this submission is complete and that the words of Christ takes on their full meaning: 
… “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:17-22, Luke 20:21-26, Mark 12:13-17). 

These words are very clear, but they are often badly interpreted: it distinguishes two domains, but what it neither does nor could do is to exactly draw up the line which separates them. Religious society is not composed of souls without bodies [and] civil society is not composed of bodies without souls. 


(1) These two reports also contain a lot of inaccuracies.
(2) This truth is demonstrable even by the rules of organization: the ministry of conquest (countries of missions) precedes the hierarchy (provinces of the Holy See). The “Propaganda” governs Christian countries before other Roman congregations.
(3) “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’
‘But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:22-27)
(4) “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)