A Pope Reproves Head of State:
-One example of how the Church used to be a check and balance against the State
Historically, the Catholic Church was a kind of divine check and balance against the overreaching arm of the State. In ancient paganism, the rulers of nations were virtually omnipotent, enjoying unlimited power. The cult of the State was manifested by the common mandate to worship Pharaohs, Emperors and Kings in their respective eras. Today, few know that under civil authority in ancient times, pagan religion and pagan politics were indiscriminately mixed together. The Egyptian Pharaoh, for instance, served as a kind of high priest and a ruler. Indeed, he was the arbiter over life, death religion and politics. The totality of life was under his jurisdiction.
However, with the advent of Christianity, the immortality of the soul was revealed and eventually recognized by the State. No longer could rulers or tyrants treat citizens as cattle. In light of the Gospel, the human person was believed to be created by God, created for God and created in the likeness of God. As such, each person belonged first and foremost to the Creator and not to the State. Popes throughout the ages have reminded political leaders about this very truth. With this, the Church was that “check and balance” against the misuse of political power.
Whenever the hierarchy of the Church was armed with men who possessed a world-renouncing faith in Christ, quite often, rulers of nations were publicly challenged to govern with justice. But when the leaders of the Church were worldly and timid, kings and princes became unfettered in their quest for power.
Below is a fine example of when popes and bishops were not only shepherds but watchmen. Here,we have an excerpt of a letter from Pope Symmachus (498-514 A.D.) addressed to the Emperor Anastasius:
“I declare that the insults you leveled against me will not deter my speaking and you must judge before God whether your insults were motivated by real piety…Let us compare the position of an emperor with that of a bishop. There is a great difference, since the former is concerned with human affairs, the latter with divine.
Though you are an emperor, you are baptized by a bishop, you received sacraments from him, you ask his prayers, you hope for his blessing, and you ask him for absolution. You govern human affairs; he confers divine favors on you. Consequently, he is, I will not say, your superior but your equal.
Do not think that this world’s pomp and circumstance make your superior, for 'God’s weakness is more powerful than men' (I Cor 1:25). Consider what is appropriate for you. Nevertheless, when you set yourself up as an accuser, you place yourself on the same level with me before divine and human law; if you prove my guilt I am dishonored; if you do not, you are equally dishonored.
There is a judgment in this world before God and his angels; we are 'a spectacle to the universe' (I Cor 4:9) to which good example is given by a bishop of irreproachable life or an emperor of humble faith.
The human race is governed by these two offices, and no one should assume them who offends God, especially since each office seems eternal, and both should guide the human race. I beg you, Emperor, and I say this for your good, remember that you are only human and your authority is given to you by God.”