Notre Dame lecture attempts to reconcile official theology and Church teaching

Thomas Pink, professor of philosophy at King’s College in London delivered a lecture at Notre Dame titled, “The Church, the State, and the Authority to Coerce” on October 31.

Pink argued that in modernity, the common Church teaching—known as the “official theology”—regarding the ability of the Church to coerce differs significantly from magisterial teaching. Pink claimed that this disconnect stems in part from a common misreading of Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document that outlines the Church’s position on religious liberty. Rather than Dignitatis Humanae abrogating earlier non-magisterial teaching, Pink told the audience that they should understand “Dignitatis Humanae as one of the last major exercises in Leonine [in the school of Leo XIII] political theology.”

To understand the Church as a potestas, one must specify what model of political authority she exercises. Pink first described the very familiar “coordinative model” of authority as one possible way to conceive of political authority. This political model “takes our passions and appetites for what they are—widely shared desires that people actually possess—and leads us best to satisfy them.” This coordinated satisfaction of desires happens through “paying taxes, driving on the left or right side of the road,” or other conventional—as opposed to moral—laws. “That cannot be what the Church is about,” Pink concluded.

The other model of political authority is not necessarily concerned with satisfying already existent, widely shared desires within the populace. Rather, it seeks to elevate the people’s desires: “What the Church is about is—through her teaching, sacramental system, and the laws governing all that—changing our motivation, changing our beliefs, and transforming us into a new creation, so to speak, raised to a supernatural level,” Pink explained.

Pink noted in an interview with the Rover that in modernity most societies ignore an important aspect of the Church’s role as a teacher: “the proper relation of the potestates [political powers] is that in which the state recognizes and is willing to support the mission of the Church and her legal authority.” In other words, the state should be ordered according to religious truth. Thus, even though the state should always be distinct from the Church, the two should not be totally separated.  

“One of the prices of a Church–state separation, although it may be inevitable,” Pink continued, “is that you’re going to have conflict between Church and state, because the state is unlikely to recognize religion as solely the Church’s responsibility.”

Pink argues modern arguments for religious liberty in America often have the right particular conclusions, but an incorrect underlying philosophy. He explained, “The state, acting on its own, detached from the Church, has no right to restrict any religious doctrine. That follows from Leonine political theology, and follows from Dignitatis Humane, which is a Leonine document.” However, “What you should be careful of is saying that it is good that the state is detached from the Church. But that tends to be done by those advocating for religious liberty.”

Pink held that this argument for the complete separation of Church and state, which is often made by Catholics, fundamentally misunderstands the thrust of Dignitatis Humanae. And its prominence has essentially divorced the official theology of the Church from actual magisterial teaching. Otherwise stated, the common understanding of what the Church teaches is different from what she teaches in fact.

Despite the current confusion over Church teaching, Pink argued that the legitimacy of the Church as a teacher remains untainted, as “Church teaching is only preserved from error if it’s actually magisterial teaching, if it’s imposing some sort of canonical obligation on the mind.” Nonetheless, official theology can stray from the truth at times—harming the faithful who are deceived by it. But, the Church itself as a magisterial teacher remains free of error, Pink maintained. 

Such divorces between official theology and magisterial teaching have precedent in Church history. Pink took as an example the “long standing canonical legislation governing Christian behavior towards the Jews.” He described how, over several centuries, the Church offered conflicting, strongly worded bulls and encyclicals on this matter. At one time, Christians were told to keep Jews at a distance—that they could not build synagogues near city centers and must wear distinctive dress.

Later popes went to the opposite extreme, commanding on pain of excommunication that all Jews must receive a Sunday sermon from a Catholic priest.

These conflicting messages were clearly not stemming from divine revelation, so they were not magisterially binding. Nevertheless, they composed the official theology of the day.

Likewise, Pink argued that it is merely the official theology that demands complete separation—as opposed to merely distinction—between Church and state, and that this official theology is distantly removed from magisterial teaching of the Church.

Nicholas Teh, the professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame who invited Pink to come to campus for the event, told the Rover via email, “Prof. Pink’s talk at Notre Dame was a wonderful opportunity for our students to engage with a leading philosopher who has carefully considered the distinction between the Church’s teaching and legislative authority, and its implications for present-day controversies.

Teh concluded, “Prof. Pink provided a model for how to approach this complex topic with historical sensitivity, analytical rigor, and stalwart orthodoxy.”

The lecture was live streamed, and a recording is available on the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government’s YouTube page.

W. Joseph DeReuil is a junior from St. Paul, Minnesota studying philosophy and classics. Ask him about his hopes to properly orient the two potestates in our nation at

Photo Credit: Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Studies