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Caesar's due

Culture | The state has a God-given authority of its own, and priests and pastors are not above the law of the land

Issue: "Bureaucratic burial," June 29, 2002

"Don't call the police," Catholic bishops were telling parents of children abused by priests. "We'll take care of it."

Of course, they didn't. The bishops "took care of it"-as news reports have told us for months now-by having the offending priest go in for counseling and transferring him to another parish, thereby multiplying the offenses.

Child abuse, molestation of children, sexual assault-these are felonies. Churches are not equipped, nor are they authorized, to deal with crime. This is why God gave us the state.

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Back in the Middle Ages, the clergy really were exempt from secular laws. If a priest or a monk or a nun were accused of committing a crime, they were subject to separate church courts, which judged them not under the laws of the land, but by canon law, the legal code of the Roman Catholic church.

Many a scoundrel facing the gallows back then could claim "the benefit of clergy." This meant that they were a member of some religious order, so that the king's law had no jurisdiction over them. Often, an accused criminal could receive "the benefit of clergy" simply by proving that he could read. In an age of illiteracy, being able to read reflected some kind of religious education. If the accused criminal could read, this meant that he may have been some minor functionary of the church. Local magistrates, who did not relish a churchly inquisition, simply released many "clergy" thieves and murderers.

Not only did the state have no jurisdiction over the church, according to medieval Catholicism, the church had jurisdiction over the state. The pope claimed temporal supremacy over earthly kings and emperors, including the power to depose rulers.

Queen Elizabeth of England was a Protestant. When she ascended the throne after the death of her Roman Catholic sister Queen Mary (affectionately known as "Bloody" Mary for her executions of Protestants), the pope deposed her, giving the throne instead to Mary's husband, King Philip of Spain, and ordering English citizens not to obey their new queen.

This meddling in the governance of the state raised the specter of civil disorder, the chaos and anarchy of citizens refusing to obey the lawful authorities. But the people rallied around their young queen, defeated Philip's Spanish Armada, and started persecuting the Roman Catholics. All in all, the supremacy of the church over the state proved a bad deal for both parties.

The rejection of the church's temporal authority over the state was an important, though lesser known, issue of the Reformation. Drawing on Romans 13, the Reformers insisted that the state has a God-given authority of its own. That text describes earthly rulers as "ministers of God," and the Apostle Paul makes clear that God works through civil magistrates to punish evildoers.

It is not that earthly rulers are absolute. God has given them their office and holds them responsible when they abuse it. Nevertheless, God works through "secular" authorities to punish sin, just as He works through the church to bring forgiveness through the gospel.

That the American bishops meeting in Dallas this month agreed to turn over the names of sex-offender priests to the local authorities is thus a significant concession, historically and theologically.

Protestant ministers and laymen must remember the same lesson. Yes, Christians serve a higher Master and a higher law than those of the state. Yes, the state can sometimes act outside its God-given bounds. But one of the very few things the state is assigned by God to do is to be "an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4).

When church entities fall into corruption-from scamming TV evangelists to church foundations that have become nothing more than Ponzi schemes, from embezzling church treasurers to pastors sexually exploiting those under their care-it is generally the legal system of the state that puts things right. This means punishing the guilty (who can plead no "benefit of clergy") and, in effect, cleansing the institution.

It is still God who is doing the punishing and the cleansing, but He does so through the secular arm.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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