The Two Swords of the Church

The one holy Catholic and truly Apostolic Church has two types of authority: spiritual and temporal. The spiritual authority of the Church is Her teaching authority, called the Magisterium. But the Church also has temporal authority. For in order to do the work of salvation, deeds are needed in addition to teachings. The Church needs to have rules for Bishops, priests, and deacons, for religious orders, and for all Her members. The Church needs to make decisions of the prudential order, and to issue judgments and rulings in particular cases. All of these types of deeds fall under the temporal authority of the Church, not under the Magisterium.

These two types of authority by the Church are symbolically represented by the two swords of the Gospel: “So they said, ‘Lord, behold, there are two swords here.’ But he said to them, ‘It is sufficient.’ ” (Lk 22:38). The Church has the authority to teach (doctrine), on matters of faith, morals, and salvation. But the Church also has temporal authority, so that She can make practical decisions (discipline) needed to function as a Church within the world, as a Church whose members on earth are sinners.

The temporal authority of the Church includes authority over Vatican City-State. But the main exercise of Her temporal authority is not political, but practical. The laws of Canon Law (in so far as these are not direct expression of teachings on faith or morals) are of the temporal authority of the Church. Decisions such as to approve or disapprove of a claimed private revelation, a written work, a particular translation of the Bible, or some other endeavor, are of the temporal authority. Rulings in particular cases, as when a marriage tribunal decides whether or not to grant an annulment, or a Bishops decides to suspend the faculties of a priest, or to close a parish church, are of the temporal authority.

The spiritual authority (Magisterium) of the Church issues dogmas and doctrines, but the temporal authority issues rules and rulings. The Magisterium teaches either infallibly (dogmas) or non-infallibly (doctrines that are not dogmas). The Magisterium acts either infallibly or non-infallibly (limited possibility of error). But the temporal authority is fallible. The rules and rulings of the temporal authority of the Church, including of the Pope, of an Ecumenical Council, of the Holy See, of Cardinals and Bishops, of Bishops’ Conferences, are all fallible exercises of the temporal authority.

The temporal authority of secular governments is, in theory, under the authority of the Church. The Church permits secular governments to exercise some temporal authority. But She also always retains the authority to judge if that exercise has not been good. All authority is of God, and there is only one God; therefore, both the spiritual authority and the temporal authority are One Authority, from God, given to the Church. And although civil authorities exercise, in part, this temporal authority, they do so on behalf of the Church. And the Church truly retains possession of that temporal authority which is lent to civil governments.

The spiritual authority is always above the temporal authority. Even when the Church exercises some temporal authority over Her own members (e.g. in Canon Law), Her spiritual authority is above her own exercise of temporal authority.

For more on this topic, see my translation and commentary of Unam Sanctam.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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