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Alpha and Omega
Pablo Pérez López
Full Professor of Contemporary History. Professor of Master's Degree in Christianity and Contemporary Culture.
I can't help but feel a sense of bewilderment when I hear talk of the King of England as the head of his church. It is a clear sign of what my cultural matrix is. The idea of an alliance of the throne and the altar is completely out of place, it would be better to say out of time, for one who has been formed in the ideas of the liberal revolutions according to the French mold, so insistently embedded in my mind and those of my fellow citizens. It is true that in Spain it was difficult for the idea to be accepted. It cost several civil wars that we call Carlists because the monarchies are concretized until they reach the proper name...
As if that were not enough, which it may be, seeing how liberal principles are faring today in our societies, as a Catholic I tend to feel even more perplexed. The head of the Church is Christ: it was so in the most elementary catechesis I received. It is very clear in St. Paul and his doctrine of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. In any case, for a Catholic, the visible head of the Church is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ.
I have once heard Philippe Nemo, a French specialist in the history of political ideas, say to Full Professor , that the papacy in the Catholic world has been a strong protection against theocracy. Islam, which has no analogous head, tends to it and to the confusion of the political and religious spheres almost inevitably. It remains to be seen whether the current attempts to avoid it will succeed in lasting. And it would also be a vaccine against nationalism and the autocratic or totalitarian idea of State power: the Pope of Rome, with his authority over states and nations, prevents the idea of absolute temporal power from taking root in the Catholic citizen's imagination. These would be two great temporal advantages of the papacy if Nemo gets it right, and I think he does.
Moreover, at the end of the twentieth century the Pope and the Council established very clearly the doctrine on religious freedom and abandoned as periclesis the idea of the alliance of throne and altar or its analogues. It is common doctrine among Catholics that this is the way things should be, at least in our time and, it is to be hoped, in times to come.
That is why it is so disconcerting that a country with a liberal government like England suddenly appears before our eyes with its king at the head of its national church, the Anglican. National, and to a certain extent imperial, by the way... It is the effect of the preservation of traditions, of that very British continuity that looks with pity and commiseration at the rupturist manias of the continent. It is very interesting because the British have preserved in a purer state than others the rupture of the Protestant Reformation and its affinities. And they preserve it not because it is Protestant, but because it is national and therefore traditional. Here the tradition is what weighs even if it is a tradition that was born of a rupture, which has its irony.
The set of these disconcerts may incline us to think about the interesting and uncomfortable relationship that the church of Christ always maintains with the temporal. A complete conciliation is impossible. The temporal power feels uncomfortable before the spiritual, which does not allow itself to be dominated and has timeless pretensions. It always wants to domesticate it, to make it part of its sphere of control, to subdue it. Henry VIII decided to do it by force: he defied the pope and those who obeyed him and established a new Church. The motive was simple: the pope was also a temporal lord, and as such he defied him and expelled him from his own lands. He thought that he would preserve the true religion better than the popes, those corrupt men of Rome incomparably more clumsy than the kings of England.
It is now almost five centuries since that rupture and things are becoming clearer and clearer. The Anglican church is less and less convincing to its own faithful. It is less and less of Christ and more and more temporal. The new traditions (invented, like any human tradition) have led it to a status in which it is hardly more than a sect of little entity surrounded by a grandiose ritual and an enormous patrimony, in great part subtracted from the Catholics.
The spiritual prey has once again escaped from the clutches of the temporal beast. The alliance with the earthly power has again proved to be a deadly trap for the believers. Few doubt that the headship of the Church of British kings has a not distant expiration date. It is worth thinking about if one is to contemplate and attempt to understand that mysterious reality we call the Church of Christ. Everything that is not united to Christ is irremediably temporary, expired like the pretended crowned head of a church. Even human history, which looks at the temporal, can glimpse it.