Catacombs or New Jerusalem?

Friday, October 17, AD 2008

There are two poles, I think, to Christian attitudes towards the state. 

At the one pole is a catacomb mentality.  Here Christians think of the state as an unrelievedly secular force, and they seek to render what they must unto Caesar while keeping themselves aloof from its corrupting influence. 

At the other pole is what might be termed the New Jerusalem mentality, in which the Christian sees the state as a means to achieve a more just and loving society which will reinforce virtue.

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3 Responses to Catacombs or New Jerusalem?

  • I think the categories you construct here are very helpful for Catholics thinking about politics. It helps to organize our thoughts and to see that the political good is somewhere between these two extremes.

    The New Jerusalem mentality makes me think of Plato’s perfectly just regime in the Republic. In seeing the absurdity of the requirements of perfect justice, Plato helps us to realize that perfect justice is not possible in this world, and so what we should work for is much more limited. Justice in the polis first requires justice in the soul, and this is a lifelong battle every individual fights.

    I think one of the other flaws with the Catacomb approach is that it is not right for everyone. As Catholics, we cannot isolate ourselves from the world. There will be some of us who will be politically engaged, others not. We must be “for the world but not of the world”, as someone maybe said somewhere. In short: we can’t all be hermits, but hermits are important too.

  • This is well put, and captures something I have been thinking but haven’t been to express as well as you have had. The New Jerusalem approach seems to me to be the theological equivalent to the secular quest for perfection. It disregards human nature and really, in a sense, deifies man.

    I guess the follow-up that we should all pursue is how to find a happy medium between these two attitudes. Or is there a happy medium? Is the correct approach something different altogether?

  • Yeah, I really needed to have some coffee today. That’s what I get for eating meat on a Friday instead. Anyway, that first sentence was butchered, but hopefully you caught my drift.

    Thankfully the weekend begins in about ten minutes.