Fr Martin Rhonheimer, who teaches at the Opus Dei university in Rome, and who is known for defending various other indefensible things, such as the use of prophylactics and (so I’m told) the crushing of the heads of unborn children, both of course only in unusual circumstances, has renewed his attack on the Church’s teaching on the duties of the State. In a recent article in Nova et Vetera he argues that the pope and bishops should never have called upon Catholic civil magistrates to repress heresy. The civil power has no duty to submit to the authority of the Church, he says, because it is substantially secular. We used to think it did have such a duty, but we were wrong; Vatican II has changed all that.

He makes some strange claims. At one point he says that the view that the secular arm was subject to the spiritual arm has no roots in patristic tradition. Then a couple of pages later, he says that it comes from St Gregory the Great and St Isidore of Seville! When does he think the patristic period was? He also says that the two swords’ doctrine is ‘heterodox Augustinianism’ –  a misinterpretation of St Augustine’s ‘City of God’. But St Augustine warmly applauded the intervention of the Roman civil authority which helped to suppress Donatism in north Africa (the saint had been opposed originally, as he had thought it would be counter-productive; but when he saw that it led to sincere conversions, he changed his mind and said so.) I am surprised that Nova et Vetera would let such claims get through.

So, should the secular arm be subject to the spiritual one?

Now Eliseus was sick of the illness whereof he died: and Joas king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, and said: O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the guider thereof. And Eliseus said to him: Bring a bow and arrows. And when he had brought him a bow, and arrows, He said to the king of Israel: Put thy hand upon the bow. And when he had put his hand, Eliseus put his hands over the king’s hands, And said: Open the window to the east. And when he had opened it, Eliseus said: Shoot an arrow. And he shot. And Eliseus said: The arrow of the Lord’s deliverance (4 Kings 13).

What is the arrow that flies toward the East, if not the intention of man hastening towards Christ and Heaven, with undeviating aim? And whose hands direct him thither, if not the king’s, held firm by the prophet’s?

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