By Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani

An exact reproduction of the American Ecclesiastical Review, May 1953, pages 321-334.

It is not surprising that the enemies of the Church have always opposed its mission, denying some, or even all, of its divine prerogatives and powers.

With its deceptive pretenses, the force of the attack was already directed against the Divine Founder of this two thousand year old and yet ever youthful institution. Against Him the cry is raised, as it was raised long ago, “We will not have this man to reign over us.”[1]

And with the patience and the serenity that come to it from the assurance of its divinely promised destiny and from the certainty of its divine mission, the Church sings throughout the centuries: “He who gives heavenly kingdoms does not take away earthly ones.”

On the other hand we are astonished, and our astonishment grows into bewilderment and finally turns to sadness, when the attempt to take the spiritual arms of justice and truth from the hands of this good Mother, the Church, is made by the Church’s own children, and even by those children who live in interconfessional states, coming into continual contact with dissident brethren, and who thus ought to recognize, more than others, their debt of gratitude towards this Mother who has always used her rights to defend, to watch over, and to safeguard her own faithful.


Today some hold that there is only a spiritual order in the Church, and consequently they come to say that the nature of the Church’s law is in opposition to the nature of the Church itself.

According to these people, the original sacramental element of the Church has become progressively weakened so that it has given way to the jurisdictional element, which is not the force and power of the Church. As the Protestant jurist Sohm held, the notion that the Church of God is constituted like the State has come to prevail.

But, Canon 108 #3, speaking of the existence of the Church of the power of orders and the power of jurisdiction, appeals to divine right. The texts of the Gospels, the assertions of the Acts of the Apostles, and the citations from the letters of the Apostles, all of them frequently cited by authors in the field of Public Ecclesiastical Law to prove the divine origin of the above-mentioned powers and the rights of the Church, demonstrate that this appeal of Canon 108 #3 is justified.

In the encyclical Mystici Corporis, the august Pontiff, now gloriously reigning treats of this subject in the following terms:


For this reason We deplore and condemn the pernicious error of those who conjure up from their fancies an imaginary Church, a kind of society that finds its origin and growth in charity, to which they somewhat contemptuously oppose one another, which they call juridical. But this distinction, which they introduce, is baseless. For they fail to understand that the same reason that led our divine Redeemer to give to the community of men He founded the constitution of a society, perfect of its kind, containing all the juridical and social elements, namely that He might perpetuate on earth the saving work of Redemption, was also the reason He wished it to be enriched with the heavenly gifts of the Consoling Spirit.[2]

Consequently its Divine Founder does not wish the Church to be a State, but He has constituted it as a perfect society, equipped with all the powers inherent in that juridical condition, so that it may carry out its mission in every State without opposition between the two societies of which He is, though in different ways, the Author and the Support.


There comes up here the problem of the association of the Church with the lay state. There are certain Catholics who, on this subject, are spreading abroad ideas that are somewhat inexact.

One cannot deny that many among such Catholics have a love for the Church and a right intention to find a way of possible adaptation to the circumstances of our times. But it is none the less true that their position is comparable to that of a timid soldier who wants to win without fighting, or to that of a naïve person who takes hold of a hand held out to him treacherously, without realizing that this hand is going to pull him across the Rubicon towards error and injustice.

The first fault of these persons consists precisely in their failure to accept fully the arma veritatis and the teachings which the Roman Pontiffs during the past century, and particularly the reigning Pontiff Pius XII, have given to Catholics on this subject in encyclical letters, allocutions, and instructions of various kinds.

To justify themselves, these people assert that in the body of teaching imparted within the Church there are to be distinguished two elements, the one permanent, and the other transient. This latter is supposed to be due to the reflection of particular contemporary conditions.

Unfortunately, they carry this tactic so far as to apply it to the principles taught in pontifical documents, principles on which the teachings of the Popes have remained constant so as to make these principles a part of the patrimony of Catholic doctrine.

On this subject, the pendulum theory, excogitated by certain writers in an attempt to sort out the teachings set forth in encyclical letters at various times, accepting some teachings and rejecting others, cannot be applied. It has been written that:

The Church measures the rhythm of the world’s history like a swinging pendulum which, wanting to keep proper measure, continues to move by reversing its direction when it judges that it has gone as far as it should….In this light, and entire history of the encyclicals could be written. Thus in the field of biblical studies, the Divino afflante Spiritu comes after the Spiritus Paraclitus and the Providenitssiumus. In the field of theology or politics, the Summi Pontificatus, the Non abbiamo bisogno, and the Ubi arcano Dei, come after the Immortale Dei. [3]

Now if this be intended to mean that the general and fundamental principles of public ecclesiastical law solemnly affirmed in the Immortale Dei reflect only historical moments of the past, while the pendulum of the doctrinal encyclicals of Pius XI and of Pius XII would have passed in its reversal of direction to different positions, the teaching should be considered as entirely erroneous, not only because it misrepresents the actual content of the encyclicals themselves, but also because it is theoretically inadmissible.

In the Humani generis, the reigning Pontiff teaches how we ought to accept the ordinary magisterium of the Church in the encyclicals.

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not in itself demand assent, on the grounds that the Popes, in writing such letters, do not exercise the supreme power of their teaching authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is also true to say: “He that heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons pertains to Catholic doctrine.[4]

Fearing that they may be accused of wanting to return to the Middle Ages, some of our writers are reluctant to hold on this point of doctrinal positions which are constantly affirmed in the encyclicals as applying to the life and the law of the Church for all times. To them is directed the warning of Leo XIII which , recommending concord and unity in fighting against error, adds that “on this point we must see to it that no one connives at false opinions or fights against them less energetically than truth may allow.”[5]


Having touched upon the preliminary question of the assent that is due to the teachings of the Church, even in its ordinary magisterium, let us come to a practical question, which, in present-day terminology, we call “burning.” This is the question of a Catholic state and of its relative implications with reference to non-Catholic sects.

It is known that in some countries, in which there are absolute Catholic majorities, the Catholic religion has been proclaimed as the religion of the State in their respective Constitutions.

This has aroused the protests of many non-Catholics and unbelievers. And, what is still more displeasing, it is regarded also as anachronistic by some Catholics, who think that the Church can live peacefully and in the full possession of its own rights in a lay State, even when the State is composed of Catholics.

We know the controversy recently carried on between two authors of opposing views. One of these who supports the thesis we have just mentioned holds the following:

(1) The State, properly speaking, cannot perform an act of religion. (The State is a mere symbol or a group of institutions.)

(2) “An immediate illation from the order of ethical and theological truth to the order of constitutional law is, in principle, dialectically inadmissible.” That is, the State’s obligation to worship God can never enter into the constitutional sphere.

(3) Finally, even for a State composed of Catholics, there is no obligation to profess the Catholic religion. As far as the obligation to protect is concerned, this does not become operative except in determined circumstances, and precisely when the freedom of the Church cannot otherwise be guaranteed.

Hence there come attacks directed against the teaching set forth in the manuals of public ecclesiastical law, without consideration of the fact that such teaching is based, for the most part, on the doctrine expounded in pontifical documents.

Now if there is any certain and indisputable truth to be found among the general principles of public ecclesiastical law, it is the truth that the rulers in a state composed almost entirely of Catholics , have the duty to influence the legislation of that state in a Catholic sense. Three immediate implications follow from this duty.

(1) The social, and not merely the private profession of the religion of the people;
(2) The Christian inspiration of legislation;
(3) The defense of the religious patrimony of the people against every assault which seeks to deprive them of the treasure of their faith and of their religious peace.

I have said, first of all, that the State has the duty of professing its religion socially. Men united socially are no less subject to God than when they are taken as individuals, and the civil society, no less than individual men, is in God’s debt, “under Whom, as Author, it is gathered together, by whose power it is preserved, by whose goodness it has received the great treasure of good things which it enjoys.”[6]

Thus, as it is not licit for any individual to fail in his duty to God and to the religion by which God wills to be honored, in the same way, “states cannot, without serious moral offense (citra scelus) conduct themselves as if God were non-existent or cast off the care of religion as something foreign to themselves or of little moment.”[7]

Pius XII reinforces this teaching condemning “the error contained in conceptions such as do not hesitate to absolve civil authority from all dependence upon the Supreme Being, the First Cause, and the Absolute Master both of men and of society, and from every bond of transcendent law which proceeds from God as from its primary Source, and that concede to civil authority an unlimited power of action, a power left to the ever changing wave or whims or to the sole restraints of contingent historical exigencies and of relative interests.”

And continuing, the august Pontiff shows what consequences, disastrous also for the liberty and the rights of man, flow from this error. “When the authority of God and the power of His law have been thus denied, the civil power, by a necessary consequence, tents to attribute to itself that absolute autonomy which belongs only to the Creator, and to substitute itself for the Omnipotent, raising the State or the collectivity to be the supreme end of life, the supreme norm of the moral and juridical order.”[8]

I have said, secondly, that it is the duty of rulers to have the moral principles of religion influence the social activity proper to the State and its legislation.

This is a consequence of the duty of religion and of submission due to God, not only on the part of individuals, but also on the part of society. This has the advantage of being for the true well-being of the people.

Against the moral and religious agnosticism of the State and of its laws, Pius XII held up the concept of the Christian State in his august letter of Oct. 19, 1945, for the nineteenth Social Week of the Italian Catholics, in which, precisely, the problem of the new constitution was to be studied.

Reflecting well on the evil consequences that such a constitution abandoning the “corner stone” of the Christian concept of life, and attempting to base itself on moral and religious agnosticism, would bring into the heart of society and into its transient history, every Catholic will easily understand how the question which before every other, ought now to attract his attention and stir up his activity, is that of assuring for this and for future generations the benefit of a fundamental law of the State which is not opposed to sound religious and moral principles, but which rather draws vigorous inspiration from them and proclaims and wisely pursues their lofty purposes.[9]

The Supreme Pontiff, on this point, has not failed to attribute “the praise due to the wisdom of those rulers who either always have favored or wished and knew how to honor, in the best interests of the people, the values of Christian civilization in the happy relations between Church and State, in safeguarding the sanctity of marriage, and in the religious education of youth.”[10]

In the third place, I have said that it is the duty of rulers of a Catholic State to protect from everything that would undermine it the religious unity of a people who unanimously know themselves to be in secure possession of religious truth. On this point, there are numerous documents in which the Holy Father reaffirms the principles enunciated by his predecessors, particularly by Leo XIII.

In condemning the religious indifferentism of the State, Leo XIII, in the encyclical Immortale Dei, appealed to the divine law. In the encyclical Libertas, he appealed also to the principles of justice and reason. In the Immortale Dei he makes it clear that rulers cannot “choose whatever they wish from different categories” because, as he explained, they are obliged to follow, in the matter of divine worship, those laws and those means by which God Himself has shown that He Wills to be honored, “quo coli se Deus ipse demonstravit velle.”[11] And in the encyclical Libertas he continues, appealing to justice and to reason: “Justice and reason forbid a state to be atheistic or to be what comes to the same thing as being atheistic, to have the same attitude towards various, so-called ‘religious’ and indifferently to grant the same rights to all of them.”[12]

The Pope appeals to justice and to reason because it is not just to give the same rights to good and to evil, to truth and to error. And reason rejects the notion that, in order to defer to the wishes of a small minority, the rights, the faith, and the conscience of almost all the people should not be harmed, and that this people should be betrayed by permitting the enemies of its faith to bring division within it, with all the consequences of religious discord.


These principles are firm and immovable. They were valid in the times of Innocent III and Boniface VIII. They are valid in the days of Leo XIII and Pius XII, who has reaffirmed them in more than one of his documents. Thus, with strict firmness, he has also recalled rulers to their duties, by appealing to the warning of the Holy Ghost, a warning which knows no limits of time. Pius XII speaks thus in the encyclical Mystici Corporis:

We must plead with God to grant that the rulers of peoples may love wisdom, so that this severe judgment of the Holy Ghost may never all on them: “The Most High will examine your works and search out your thoughts; because, being ministers of his kingdom, you have not judged rightly nor kept the law of justice, nor walked according to the Will of God; horribly and speedily will he appear to you: for a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule. For to him that is little, mercy is granted: but the mighty shall be mightily tormented. For God will not exceed any man’s person, neither will he stand in awe of any man’s greatness: for he made the little and the great, and he that equally care of all.”[13]

When I refer back, then, to what I have said above about the agreement of the encyclicals in question, I am certain that no one can prove that there has been any kind of change, in the matter of these principles, between the Summi pontificatus of Pius XII and encyclicals of Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris against Communism, Mit brennender Sorge against Nazism, and Non abbiamo bisogno against the state monopoly of fascism, on the one hand; and the earlier encyclicals of Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, Libertas, and Sapientiae christianae, on the other.

“The ultimate, profound, lapidary fundamental norms of society,” says the august Pontiff in his Christmas radio message of 1942, “cannot be damaged by the intervention of man’s genius. Men can deny them, ignore them, despise them, disobey them, but they can never abrogate them with juridical efficacy.”[14]


But now it is time to answer another question, or rather, a difficulty, so specious that at first sight it may seem insoluble.

At this point the objection is raised: you maintain two different standards of norms or action according to what is expedient for you. In a Catholic country you uphold the idea of a confessional state, with a duty exclusive for the protection of religion. On the other hand, where you constitute a minority, you claim the right of tolerance or frankly to the equality of cults. Hence for you there are two standards or two measures. This is proposed as a truly embarrassing duplicity from with those Catholics who take the actual developments of civilization into account want to be freed.

But it is not a question of that. It is a question of a different situation.

Men who perceive themselves to be in sure possession of the truth and of justice are not going to compromise. They demand full respect for their rights. How, on the other hand, can those who do not perceive themselves secure in the possession of truth claim to hold the field alone, without giving a share to the man who claims respect for his own rights on the basis of some other principle?

The concept of equality of cults and of tolerance is a product of free-thinking and of the multiplicity of religious professions. It is a logical consequence of the opinions of those men who hold on the matter of religion, that there is no place for dogmas and that only the conscience of individual persons may give the criterion and standard for the profession of faith and the exercise of worship. In that case, in those countries where such theories flourish, what wonder is it that the Catholic Church seeks to have an opportunity to carry out its divine mission and strives to have recognized those rights which it can claim as a logical consequence of the principles inherent in the legislation of those countries?

It would prefer to speak and to advance its claims in the name of God. But, among those peoples, exclusiveness to its mission is not recognized. In such a case it is content to advance its claims in the name of that tolerance, of that equality and of those common guarantees by which the legislation of the countries in question is inspired.

It ought to be considered strange that the Church appeals at least to the rights of man, when the rights of God are not recognized.

It did this in the first centuries of Christianity, in the face of the empire and of the pagan world. It continues to do this today, especially where every religious right is denied, as in the nations under Soviet domination.

Should not the present Pontiff, in the face of the persecutions to which all Christians are subjected, and Catholics first of all, appeal to the rights of man, to tolerance, to freedom of conscience, just when there has been made so hateful a shambles of these rights?

He vindicated such rights of man in every field of individual and social life in his Christmas message of 1942, and, more recently, in the Christmas message of 1952, on the subject of the sufferings of the “Church of silence.”

It is clear, then, how wrong is the attempt to spread the impression that such recognition of the rights of God and of the Church, which existed in the past, is irreconcilable with modern civilization, as if it were a retrogression to accept the just and the true that transcend any individual historical period.

The objection is made, “almost all of those who up until now have tried to mediate and to examine the problem of ‘religious pluralism,’ have run up against a dangerous axiom, the statement that truth alone has rights while error has none. As a matter of fact all agree today that this axiom is misleading, not because we want to recognize any rights as belonging to error, but simply because we agree on this fundamental truth, that neither error nor truth, which are abstractions, are the objects of rights, are capable of having rights, that is of engendering mutual duties between person to person.”

It seems to me, on the contrary, that the fundamental truth consists rather in this: that the rights in question have very well as their subjects those individuals who find themselves in possession of the truth; and that other individuals cannot demand the same rights by title of the error they profess.

And, in the encyclicals we have cited, it appears that the first Subject of these rights is God Himself. From this it follows that only they who obey His commands and who possess His truth and His justice have true rights.

In conclusion, the synthesis of the doctrines of the Church on this subject have been expounded most clearly in our day in the letter of the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities sent to the Bishops of Brazil on March 7, 1950. This letter, which refers continually to the teachings of Pius XII, among other things warns against the errors of a renascent Catholic liberalism, which “admits and encourages the separation of the two powers. It denies to the Church any sort of direct power over mixed affairs. It affirms that the State must show itself indifferent on the subject of religion…and recognize the same freedom for truth and for error. To the Church belong no privileges, favors, and rights superior to those recognized as belonging to other religious confessions in Catholic countries,” etc.


Now that we have considered the question under the doctrinal and juridical aspect, please let me make a little excursus into the practical order.

I want to speak about the difference and the disproportion between the outcry raised against the principles I have just expounded when they are acted upon in a European Catholic country and the small resentment which, on the other hand, the world of laicism has shown against the Soviet legislative system that oppresses all religion. And yet there are abundant results of that system, the martyrs who languish in concentration camps, in the steppes of Siberia, in prisons, not counting the companies of those who with their lives and with all their blood have experienced unto the end the iniquity of that system.

Article 124 of Stalin’s constitution, promulgated in 1936, and intimately connected with the law of religious associations of the years 1929 and 1932, reads as follows:

To the end that the citizens may be assured freedom of conscience, the Church is separated from the state and the school from the Church. Freedom of religious profession and freedom of antireligious propaganda are recognized for all the citizens.

Leaving aside the offense committed against God, against all religion, and against the consciences of believers, in the Constitution’s guarantee of complete freedom for antireligious propaganda which is exercised in the most licentious manner, it will be a good thing to bring out clearly the nature of that famous liberty of faith guaranteed by the Bolshevistic law.

The existing norms that regulate the exercise of cults were put together in the law of May 18, 1929, which interprets the corresponding article of the 1918 constitution, and in the spirit of article 124 of the present constitution was formed. This denies all possibility of religious propaganda and guarantees only antireligious propaganda. As far as worship itself is concerned, this is inside only the Church buildings. All possibility of religious formation is forbidden, whether by way of discourses or through the press, in journals, books, pamphlets, and the like. All social and charitable initiative is blocked, and the organizations that are inspired by these ideals are deprived of every fundamental right to expend themselves for the well-being of their neighbors.

In proof of all of this, it is enough to read the summary explanation of this condition of affairs given by a Soviet Russian, Orleansky, in his work on “The Laws on Religious Association in the Socialist, Federal, Soviet, Russian Republic.”[15]

Liberty of religious profession means that the action of believers in the profession of their own religious dogmas is limited to the believers sphere itself, and is considered as bound up strictly with the religious worship of one or the other of the religions tolerated in our state….Consequently, all propagandistic or hortative activity on the part of churchmen or of religious – and a fortiori of missionaries – cannot be considered as activity permitted to them by the laws on religious associations, but is considered as going beyond the bounds of the religious freedom protected by the laws. It becomes, therefore, the object of penal and civil laws, insofar as it is opposed to these laws.


Here is a last question which is very practical. I want to deal with the pretext of those who wish to determine, on their own judgment or in the light of their own theories, the sphere of the action and the competence of the Church, so as to be able to accuse it of passing beyond that sphere, to accuse it of acting as a political institution.

It is the pretext of all those who would like to enclose the Church within the four walls of the temple, by separating religion from life, the Church from the world.

Now the Church must act in accordance with the divine commands, rather than in accord with the pretexts of men. “Preach the gospel to every creature.”[16] And the Gospel refers to the entire revealed message, with all the implications it carries for man’s moral conduct, with regard to his individual life, to his domestic and social life, to his public life, and also to his political life, using “political” in the sense of what has to do with the well-well being of the polis.

The august Pontiff tells us:

Religion and morality in their intimate action constitute and indivisible whole. The moral order, the commandments of God, are equally valid throughout the entire field of human activity. There is no exception. And as far as these reach out, there extends also the mission of the Church, and therefore also the word of the priest, his teaching, his admonitions and his counsels to the faithful confided to his care.
The Catholic Church will never let itself be shut up within the four walls of the temple.
The separation between religion and life, between the Church and the world, is contrary to the Christian and Catholic idea.

Specifically, and with apostolic firmness, the Holy Father continues:

The exercise of the right to vote is an act of grave moral responsibility, at least when there is a question of electing the men who are called upon to give the country its constitution and its laws, especially those laws which have to do with the sanctification of holy days, marriage, the family, the school, and the equitable regulation of many social conditions. It is therefore the Church’s task to explain to the faithful the moral duties that come from the right to vote.[17]

This is the truth which, not for any desire of worldly advantage, nor for the sake of depriving civil society of that power which the Church cannot and must not desire for itself (for we must remember that “He who gives heavenly kingdoms does not take away earthly ones”), but only for the reign of Christ, so that there may be “The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ,” the Church unceasingly preaches, teaches, and fights for until the final victory.

For this truth the Church suffers, mourns, and pours out her blood.

I do not believe that I can offer a better homage to the august Pontiff, on the happy anniversary that the Pontifical Lateran University celebrates today, than by concluding this solemn convocation with a repetition of the masterly teaching which he gave the Catholic world in his Christmas discourse of 1941.

 “We behold today, beloved sons, the God-man, born in a cave so that He might raise many up to the greatness from which he had fallen by his own fault, to put him back again on the throne of freedom, justice and honor which centuries of false gods had denied him. The foundation of that throne will be Calvary. Its ornament will not be gold or silver, but the blood of Christ, divine blood, which for twenty centuries has poured forth on the world and which has reddened the cheeks of His Spouse, the Church, and purifying, consecrating, sanctifying, and glorifying the children of the Church, becomes the brightness of heaven. O Christian Rome, this blood is thy life!”[18]

1. Luke 19:14.
2. Acta apostolicae sedis (AAS), XXXV, 224.
3. Cf. Temoignage chretien, for Sept. 1, 1950, reported in Documentation catholique of Oct. 8, 1950.
4. AAS, XLIII, 568.
5. From the Immortale Dei, in the Acta Leonis XIII, V, 148.
6. Ibid., Acta Leonis XIII, V, 122.
7. Ibid., Acta Leonis XIII, V, 123.
8. From the Summi pontificatus, AAS, XXXI, 466.
9. AAS, XXXVII, 274.
10. From the Holy Father’s 1941 Christmas Radio Message, AAS, XXXIV, 13.
11. Acta Leonis XIII, V, 123.
12. Acta Leonis, XIII, VIII, 231.
13. AAS, XXXV, 244. The citation from Scripture is from Wisdom 6: 4-8.
14. AAS, XXXV, 13 f.
15. The book was published in Moscow in 1930. The citation is from p. 224.
16. Mark 16:15.
17. From the Holy Father’s Lenten Discourse to the Parish Priests and the Lenten Preachers of Rome in 1946, AAS, XXXVIII, 187.
18. AAS, XXXIV, 19, f.