The words “Empire” and “Imperial” do not evoke positive images today, but have become nearly synonymous with tyranny and disordered abuses of power. Since negative examples of empire abound, one may rightfully wonder why, in every new chapter of history, some new form of imperial pretension asserts itself. No matter how hard mankind studies his own history, his ambitions for universality, his sincere desire to aspire for widespread unity and collaboration between nations, however ill-advised or disordered, reemerges. Indeed, it seems built into the fabric of human society; it asserts itself as a pressing need, that humanity organize itself, that administration of internal affairs be perfected, that efforts at coordination be maximized. And, however well-intentioned, these aspirations are plagued by the problems of pride and the insatiable appetite for power. The Neros, Stalins, and Hitlers of today think that they are finally the ones getting human civilization right.
However disordered, imperial projects appear to be faint echoes of our original commission from God to Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation account: to fill the earth and multiply, to exercise dominion and authority over the earth. Human history is a record of this original mandate marred by sin: humans are called to wield authority, but to wield it justly. St. John Henry Newman cogently argues in the sermon “Sanctity, the Token of a Christian Empire” (1842) that a truly just empire is not only possible, but has actually arrived in our midst by the grace, the free gift, of God in the form of the Church, and that it is marked by an authentic sanctity that is entirely different than the empires marked by human sin. Upon conversion in 1845, Newman would realize that this empire was made definitively present in the Catholic Church, which exists precisely because it refuses to operate by what every other merely human institution desperately clutches at: worldly power, carnal dominion through might, force, coercion, or manipulation. The Catholic Church is the oldest, most lasting, most global and universal Christian Empire because it operates on the principal of its founder, Jesus Christ: power “made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor. 12:9-10) spreading its influence through self-giving love, or what Pope Benedict XVI called “the logic of the gift,” self-donation, even to the point of death. The Christian mystery is made manifest visibly in human history insofar as the Church is united with Christ her head: paradoxically, the more it gives itself away in love, the more it multiplies. Its power is persuasion, and its strength is the witness of self-donating love.
Newman’s sermon suggests that the Church’s power and influence is not only modeled on Christ’s “preaching and teaching,” but is also positively derived from Christ’s institution of her authority, from his having handed over the keys to his apostles and their successors: her heavenly power to “bind and loose,” (Matt. 16:9), to cast “judgment and sentence… denunciation and anathema.” Christ’s Kingdom is “not of this world,” both in the sense that its origin is from heaven, but also in that it refuses to exert worldly methods of domination. The Church wields authoritative words on Christ’s behalf, not weapons or manacling chains, in order to exert her influence. The Christian empire is “of a moral nature,” and language of “law” and “justice” and “righteousness” are used in this sense. Christian truth is not a bludgeon, but an invitation to “an inward change resulting from moral influence, not an outward conquest… it is a conquest by persuasion, a winning over, not a tyrannous compulsion.”
Newman sees many passages in Isaiah as prophetic of the Church as a truly vast, global kingdom, of divine love’s arrival on the human scene in Christ to an imperial degree. Christ’s desire to see his fire of love cast across the whole world (Luke 12:49) was indeed foreshadowed in the Jewish Scriptures and has indeed played out in 20 centuries of human history in which Christianity, unlike any other tradition or institution, has completely transformed the world in every quarter. Christ did not just start the Church, but his sacrifice on the cross sustains the Church actively by the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit, giving to the Church the ultimate mark of its sanctity: suffering, sharing in cooperation with Christ’s suffering. The Church is built up not in overtures of aggression, but in “simplicity, innocence, concession, passiveness, resignation.”
Now, it is not the case that the Church as she journeys still on earth is free from stain: her members still sin, they fail to live up to the call of a suffering sanctity and a humble holiness, imperiling her life and harming her purpose. The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” (1 Timothy 3:15) against whom the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18) does not fail in faithfulness, though her individual members often do. Holiness is a visible mark of the Church, but a mark that subsists with paradox in this life that Christ will sort out on judgment day: “vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth” (2 Tim. 2:20) remain in the Church below. While the Church is sustained by an inherent structure of loving sacrifice conformed to Christ’s cruciform love, and while the visible tokens of her leaders and sacraments, her orders and ministries, are sure signs of her integrity, the problem of the fall and its effects on the human heart ripples into the precincts of the Church herself. But in his mercy, God does not make his Church on earth an elite core for the perfect few, but a “field hospital for sinners,” in Pope Francis’ winning words. The Church exists to draw all into holiness, and to provide the means to strive and strive again even as we struggle to make full use of God’s bountiful mercy to us.
And such mercy, such a virtuous way of forgiveness, sacrifice and love, is magnetic, attractive, compelling. Only the fully depraved and psychotic would not be moved by heroic stories of self-sacrifice. Newman notes that while securing material blessing and temporal power are not the Church’s animating principle, she does indeed acquire them, because her holiness inspires generosity:
…when men see disinterested goodness, and holiness which has no selfish aims, and conscientiousness which is strictly bound by a sense of duty, and faith which sacrifices this world for the next, they cannot help giving to those who display these excellences that which such persons are content to lose, and for which they ask not,–credit and influence.
Authentic virtue sought for its own reward is indeed its own reward, but is also honored materially by those of good will who recognize it. Seat yourself in a lower seat and the master will invite you higher; seek the place of honor, and you will be demoted (cf. Luke 14:9-10). It is a human, not only divine, rule that true humility and self-abnegation is worthy of highest praise, but that seeking honor, glory and might for its own sake is reprehensible. “The saints live in sackcloth, and they are buried in jewels. The Church refuses the gifts of this world, but these gifts come to her unbidden.” Seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, and all else will follow (Matt. 6:33).
A Christian Empire is not only possible, but has been imminent among us for 2,000 years in the hearts and minds of all who lose their life in order to find it, who turn the other cheek, forgive so that they may be forgiven. In a generation that viciously clutches at constructing the mere appearance of virtues, let us commit again to deepen our adherence to true virtue, true humility, and a true loving self-donation in Christ.