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Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

The Roman Catholic Church May Coerce the Faith

In a 2012 essay, Dr. Thomas Pink of King’s College London both provocatively and persuasively argues that the Roman Catholic Church still retains the right to use coercive force against all persons who have come under its jurisdiction. He acknowledges that many Roman Catholics, including many of the clergy, find this idea highly offensive, and yet, Dr. Pink maintains, the facts are what they are.

In an online conversation with a traditional Roman Catholic acquaintance, I was pointed to the current state of canon law on this question. It can be found online here, and it reads as follows:

Can. 1311 The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions.

Can. 1312 §1. The following are penal sanctions in the Church:

1/ medicinal penalties, or censures, which are listed in  cann. 1331-1333;

2/ expiatory penalties mentioned in  can. 1336.

§2. The law can establish other expiatory penalties which deprive a member of the Christian faithful of some spiritual or temporal good and which are consistent with the supernatural purpose of the Church.

§3.Penal remedies and penances are also used; the former especially to prevent delicts, the latter to substitute for or to increase a penalty.

Now, to Protestant eyes these are rather scandalous claims to power, but from within the Roman Catholic framework, they are perfectly intelligible. According to papalist theory, both powers, the spiritual and temporal, are given to the church for its use. The temporal sword is then given by the clergy to the civil magistrate, but it ought to still take direction from the clergy. Thus both body and soul fall squarely under “spiritual” jurisdiction.

The modern Roman Catholic Church would certainly want to use this coercive power carefully and, as it puts it, “consistent with the supernatural purposes of the Church.” But it remains the case that it does claim such coercive power, even today.

While many would dismiss this problem as a relic of a more barbaric age, the fact is that moderns mostly only ever react viscerally and without any argument. Conservative Christians especially ought to feel the burden to consider this matter and arrive at an informed point of view. We believe that this is of the utmost importance, and the Protestant doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” as well as the distinction between magisterial and ministerial power will prove necessary in order to offer a consistent Christian alternative.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.