Jesus Did Not Covet – and Renounced Political Power

Feb 25, 2023 | 8 comments

In losing prestige and power in recent decades the Catholic church in Ireland must come to terms with that. One option is to recall the political powerlessness of Jesus and to welcome the same ‘cross’.  Another, called ‘integralism’, is to idealise a past era when the Church was powerfully connected to the state and capable of directing governments – and then to pursue that goal. This ‘fork in the road’ may well divide the Irish Catholic church of the future.


What if the third temptation of Jesus – as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew for the first Sunday of Lent – the temptation to desire ‘the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’ – was now to be interpreted as a temptation to break the ninth and tenth commandments, the temptation to ‘covet’ what was possessed by those ‘neighbours’ who are supposedly ‘splendid’ on earth?

And what if Jesus’s followers had always rigorously followed his example, as advised by the apostle James – renouncing above all the coveting of the power and status of social elites?

Certain it is that from c. 312 CE the Christian bishops who accepted the patronage of Emperors and kings were charting a very different course – a course that led directly to the embarrassment of Pope Francis in 2023. Currently pondering what to do about the ‘doctrine of discovery‘ – the 15th and 16th century Catholic church documents that encouraged European monarchs and adventurers to seize hold of the lands of their non-Christian inhabitants globally – Pope Francis could well be rethinking Matthew 4:8-10 these days.

Christian imperialism and colonialism – and enslavement – are surely but three of the many scandals of Christendom that the church needs to ‘repent’ if it is truly to take up the cross that Jesus offered.


And yet in this year of 2023 there are western Catholics, the ‘integralists’, who also reject the option of the imitation of Jesus in his refusal of worldly power. Instead they idealise the French monarchy of the thirteenth century, in which church and state were joined at the hip – and blithely embarked already upon the Inquisition. Their idealised King Louis IX was an enthusiastic crusader against Islam, supporter of the Inquisition to suppress the Cathars and mutilator of blasphemers.

Even stranger to relate there are Irish Catholic integralists who currently extol an Irish influence on US Catholic integralists, including the anti-Semitic radio demagogue Fr Charles Coughlin who opposed the government of Franklin Roosevelt and whipped up a paranoia that saw conspiracy everywhere in the 1930s, especially between Wall Street, freemasonry and ‘international Zionism’ – and supported the regime of General Franco in Spain.

This Irish influence on Coughlin was one Fr Denis Fahey CSSp, also an anti-Semite – who wanted the Irish constitution of 1937 to declare Catholicism to be the established church of the new Irish state – in spite of what was euphemistically called Ireland’s ‘northern problem’. Coughlin quoted Fahey’s copious and rambling medievalism frequently on his radio programme in the US – and Fahey went on to found the organisation Maria Duce in Ireland in 1942 to change Article 44 of the Irish constitution to make Eire an explicitly Catholic state.

Maria Duce languished after Fahey’s death in 1954. Presumably our Irish integralists, to be consistent, could seek to revive that cause in some form.

Turning the Clock Back by Eight Centuries

To illustrate the Catholic integralist view of the present moment, the following passage may help. Extolling a view of the kingdom of Louis IX (1226-1270 CE) as  the ideal society towards which the church should aspire, Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist, tells us in ‘First Things’:

Even a short time ago—with the ascendancy of the “religious right” in the Reagan and Bush years—it was plausible to argue that the separation of church and state was good for religion. The accelerating pace of secularization manifested, for instance, in the legalization of homosexual marriage, makes that position much less plausible today. (The 13th century kingdom of King Louis IX) offers an alternative vision, a vision that could be realized only by a profound and fundamental transformation of the whole of our society. I am convinced that in working toward such a transformation, we have nothing to lose.

The ‘we’ who would have least to lose would presumably be the future Catholic equivalent of Iran’s current morality police. That the deepest corruption of our hierarchical church – the concealing from Catholic families of the sexual abuse of children by clergy – was revealed first in the pluralist US democracy that integralists want to undermine, will never be recalled by them. In the cause of turning the clock back by eight centuries the most embarrassing evidence of the corruptibility of politically empowered Christians can easily be airbrushed from the record. So can the fact that the separation of church and state in the US has been hugely successful in preventing the religious strife that would certainly break out if US Catholic integralism was ever to seem likely to replace the present constitution with a Catholic state.

How Irish Catholic integralism could ever assist the cause of Irish constitutional unity is another puzzle!

The integralists won’t be of much help to Pope Francis either, in dealing with the ‘doctrine of discovery’ and in the cause of a humbler servant church – but then they don’t want to be.

Just what part of Jesus’s solemn injunction to the apostles not to ‘Lord it’ over anyone (Matthew 20:25-26) do Catholic integralists not understand?

Sean O’Conaill
23rd February 2023


  1. Neil Bray

    Surely Sean you can do better than this!

    Citing 2 Wikipedia articles which themselves are uncertain of their own reliability!!

    Representing the life of St Louis IX with simplistic partiality, amounting to a distortion not only of the man’s character but of the historical characteristics of the time. This does a disservice to your credibility as a historian.

    Further, failing to convey the complexity of the “First Things” article.

    And who exactly do you think you are addressing? What are you trying to achieve?

    Whatever a few individuals might want, Catholicism today does not aim at integrating temporal power with spiritual authority. But it does aim to influence the decisions of temporal power. Pope Francis persists in seeking to influence the activities of at least some heads of state.

    The integration of spiritual and temporal does correspond to the truth about humanity as revealed in Christ, and is therefore demanded by Christian orthodoxy. The Catechism in paragraph 898 sets out how this integration is one of the responsibilities of the laity:

    “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will…. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.”

    Should this objective not be one of the ministries of the ACI?

  2. soconaill

    Surely, Neil, you can do better than this – by taking the trouble to read and respond to what the article is actually about?

    Where does the article argue that Catholics should not seek to influence the exercise of temporal power?

    Why do you confuse Catholicism, a religious faith, with Catholic integralism, a political ideology aiming at the ending of the separation of church and state – the principle that no particular church or religion should control the state and determine the religious affiliation of its citizens?

    There is no excuse for you to confuse those two very different things, so I wonder why you do it. If you are truly not up to speed with Catholic integralism, try reading ‘The New Integralists’ by Timothy Troutner in Commonweal, at:

    If you do not foresee a future situation that could include the execution of citizens for heresy or LGBT+ activism, then you are not a Catholic integralist. To attempt to argue that no Catholics today could argue for that, and for the overthrow of the separation of church and state, is to be uninformed. If you doubt me, try googling ‘Catholic integralism Ireland’.

    Very serious differences exist between equally faithful Catholics on the interpretation of the past. Catholic integralism minimises the huge inequalities of power that existed in the past, and the abuses that flowed from that. To argue for a separation of power between the state and any church, and for a separation of powers within both state and church, is therefore entirely in conformity with both the Creed and common sense. To argue that on the contrary the single-faith arrangement that existed in any thirteenth century society could be a model for the future is to ignore even the abuses of power within the church that now so discredit it. Why go there?

  3. Neil Bray

    For the record I have re-entered some paragraphs from my original submission, with one addition of the word “the” and exchanging the word “and” for “with” once. There is one extras sentence – “Grace builds on nature.”

    The edited text is as follows:

    Whatever a few individuals might want, Catholicism today does not aim at integrating temporal power and (“and” replaces “with”) spiritual authority. But it does aim to influence the decisions of temporal power. Pope Francis persists in seeking to influence the activities of at least some heads of state.

    The integration of “the” (new word) spiritual and temporal does correspond to the truth about humanity as revealed in Christ, and is therefore demanded by Christian orthodoxy. Grace builds on nature. The Catechism in paragraph 898 sets out how this integration is one of the responsibilities of the laity:

    “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will…. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.”

    Should this objective not be one of the ministries of the ACI?

    New text:

    People have different definitions of Catholic integralism. Overall, I agree with Matthew Schmitz that Catholic integralism is ultimately a tradition of thought that insists that politics should take the person’s ultimate destiny, one’s final end into account.

    Several questions arise. Catholic integralism is only one such integralism. There are the atheistic versions, (official Marxist for instance and the unofficial Irish version). There is the secularistic version. Pope Benedict would not agree with the notion of “insisting” whereas some elements of South American liberation theology would have insisted on marrying Christian salvation with Marxist self-redemption.

    The Catechism paragraph 898 relies on the “belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him” (Dignitas Humanae, par 1) – in the Catholic context through the teachings of the Church. Rather than insisting on Catholic integralism the laity have the responsibility to project the wishes of God in their various interactions with society. This includes integration, for instance, learning from society in some ways. For example, Catholicism would reject August Compte’s positivism as a doctrine of salvation because he fails to recognise the supernatural goal. But that does not prevent us from recognising the scientific discipline of sociology he founded, adapting it to Catholicism and making its knowledge of social processes fruitful for Catholic teaching.

    Given the increasing level of marginalisation to which Catholicism is being subjected in the Anglo-European-American world nowadays, Catholic integralism is not an issue. Scaremongering about it serves the purposes of some groups wishing to beat other groups of Catholics over the head.

    There are two issues, one external and the other internal. The external integral issue for Catholicism is seeking to ensure that Catholicism is not subjected to the other integralisms listed above. That it remains free to promote the supernatural in social issues related to marriage, procreation and life issues at all levels of political practice.

    The internal issue relates to an integralism, a frame of thought that insists that the principle of dissent from Church teaching should have an equal standing as that of seeking to be faithful, in Catholic pastoral practice.

  4. Sean O’Conaill

    Neil Bray writes:

    “The integration of “the” (new word) spiritual and temporal does correspond to the truth about humanity as revealed in Christ, and is therefore demanded by Christian orthodoxy. ”

    Bearing in mind that this stark conclusion has in the past justified Inquisitions and the torturing and execution of those dissenting from ‘Christian orthodoxy’, there is surely an onus on anyone who holds this position to clarify exactly what they mean by ‘integration of the temporal and spiritual’ – as well as what they do not mean.

    For example, the ‘integration’ of the spiritual and temporal exemplified by the Good Samaritan in Jesus’s parable of that name was obviously significantly different from that advocated by St Augustine of Hippo in his letter to Vincentius of 408, in which he justified the use of state coercion of the dissenting Donatists. The position on integration adopted by the Catholic church in Dignitatis Humanae in 1965 is different again – declaring as it does that ‘The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.’

    Quite clearly then, the integration of spiritual and temporal advocated by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and in Dignitatis Humanae, occurs at the level of the individual conscience first of all, and then in active service of others. Furthermore, article 1 of Dignitatis Humanae goes on to insist that this obligation in conscience need never infringe upon the basic principle of religious freedom, viz. ‘ ‘immunity from coercion in civil society’.

    Further down Neil writes: ‘Given the increasing level of marginalisation to which Catholicism is being subjected in the Anglo-European-American world nowadays, Catholic integralism is not an issue.’

    Given that Christian orthodoxy also imposes upon believers an evangelical obligation – i.e. an obligation to present the Gospel, persuasively, as ‘good news’ for all – this is a stunning non sequitur. How can it be argued that the alleged ‘marginalisation of Catholicism’ poses no issue for integralism when the secular argument against Catholicism is securely founded on the argument from history that Catholicism is inherently intolerant and has no respect for religious freedom whatsoever?

    Does Neil’s ‘integralism’ respect the principle of ‘immunity from coercion’ in matters of faith? Does he recognise the danger that undivided political power poses for the freedom of the individual to dissent in matters of conscience, and the evidence from history that power does indeed tend to corrupt? Does his integralism respect the principles of separation of church and state and separation of juridical, legislative and executive powers within the state? He is far from clear and explicit on these questions.

    A Catholic integralism that does not respect Jesus’s injunction not to ‘lord it’ over others cannot be Christian. If it is not itself to be an ever -fertile source of ‘scaremongering’ it needs to adopt a heuristic of respect for the argument that any religious integralism is inherently opposed to the principle of religious freedom. To be compatible with the Christian’s obligation to represent the Gospel as altogether ‘Good News’ it needs to be worthy of the Lord who died rather than impose a ‘theocracy’ headed by himself.

    From beginning to end Jesus rejected the option of exercising a coercive power over others. The church has always grown quickest when it is closer to the powerless than the powerful. The western reaction against the Catholic church began when, led by bishops who were themselves in most cases aristocrats, it aligned with the aristocratic ancien regime of the early modern era – despite the insistence of a later pope that democratic aspirations to liberty, fraternity and equality were perfectly in accord with Christianity.

    A Catholic integralism that disputes or ignores this history, and is altogether unclear on how it would it would seek to exercise power if it it achieved it, can only be counter-evangelical and an impediment to any New Evangelisation. It is therefore difficult to see how it could be truly Christian.

  5. Neil Bray

    “On her part. the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honours the sanctuary of conscience. To those who for various reasons oppose missionary activity, the Church repeats: Open the doors to Christ!” (Redemptoris Missio, 39. – St JP II)

    This summarises my two previous submissions.

    I prefer to operate in terms of the realities of 2023. Indulging on how we got here may be interesting but opening the door to Christ is what matters now. I find that historical narratives often contradict each other. And historical snippets, even accurate ones are of limited value. There are things in my own history that I regret. We have to be reconciled to the reality of personal Catholic wrongdoings and to the prudential mistakes of the Catholic past, but not hidebound by what we think we learned from history. We have to do better than that. We have to follow the lead given by Popes JP II and Benedict and Francis in admitting and seeking to assuage their negative effects. As Benedict outlined in His Letter to Ireland this adds up to integrating a spiritual task (prayer and penance) with temporal organisational and compensatory obligations on the part of the living branches of the Vine.

    Christ does not allow us to adopt an attitude whereby we say that because we did bad deeds in the past we cannot dare seek to open the doors to Christ now. Christ’s “feed my sheep” ordinance to St Peter bears that out together with the penitential attitude Peter brought to it. “Follow Me, I am the Truth etc.” “Go teach all nations … Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The Church has to try and persuade every nation to allow her as a Church and her members as guided by, say, Dignitas Humanae, to follow that mandate, irrespective of theories as to how particular integralisms contrary to the Church got there. And as cited above, Pope JP II has outlined the underlying principles guiding this endeavour. Axe grinding is not part of the process.

  6. soconaill

    Can you explain to me, Neil, how you would go about opening the door to Christ for an indigenous Canadian family, while at the same time telling that family that its own memory of the church-run residential school system – which did not respect individuals or cultures – was, for you, merely a partial narrative that was likely to be contradicted by a different one – so you couldn’t care if it was true or not?

    This declared indifference to the historical record is a deeply ominous warning of what Catholic integralism might set out to accomplish – viz. the confusing of an historical record that the church has already begun to acknowledge, e.g. in ‘Memory and Reconciliation’ (1999).

    What you are proposing, essentially, is ‘Amnesia and Reconciliation’ – something Pope John Paul II certainly did not approve.

    The realities of 2023 include the conviction that many still have – based upon copious historical evidence – that what ‘the church’ says at any given moment, and then does in another moment, cannot necessarily be trusted to align with one another. To dismiss this historical experience is to close the door to truth, and to what Christ is asking of us now: complete transparency and honesty.

    Is ‘Memory and Reconciliation’ to be dismissed as ‘axe grinding’ – and Pope Francis’s apology for the residential school system?

  7. Neil Bray


    Reconciliation, the term I use, implies a number of things:

    1) Recognition of wrongdoing by Catholics and prudential mistakes by same, in the past, present and future, including those which are committed by oneself.

    2) Realising that the acts of the people concerned, as part of fallen humanity, do not constitute a basis for rejecting Catholicism. The said acts are contrary to the the teachings of Catholicism.

    3) One does not dismiss incidences such as the Canadian one you refer to. One makes efforts at recompensation, but one does not accept every narrative, attempted or otherwise, pertaining to the sorry incident.

    Alternative narratives can arise on foot of deliberate efforts at false reporting or recounting. They can arise on foot of sloppy investigation. They also arise on foot of the discipline of history itself, which in its purest form pursues or seeks to provide a synthesis of diverse, indeterminate human events, a synthesis that is difficult in itself, and indeed is vulnerable to things like ideology, as is science. History often has great difficulty in identifying the nature of motivation that drives particular acts and in identifying the outcomes of same comprehensively. History also suffers in the ways it’s presented by novelists whose presentation tends to be accepted by the public without access to the work of historians. But one doesn’t tell the Canadian Indians what you infer me as telling them. A lot of people suffered!

    4) It’s unlikely that the Canadians you refer to take any comfort in being told that we have learned from our behaviours. But in reality, learning, being put on guard against any repetition are benefits we and others receive on foot of such revelations, benefits that unfortunately derive from the suffering of the victims.

    5) Reconciliation can indeed morph into amnesia. But the reconciliation practiced by recent Popes is characterised by confession, contrition, absolution by God, and exhortation to repentance and recompense. One does not expect absolution by the victims. But forgiveness does, almost unbelievably, occur.

    The axe grinding I refer to is that which obtains within Catholicism itself. It’s a form of “getting at the person.” A form of judgmentalism. It acts as a barrier to the notion of opening the doors of Christ to oneself. Individual Catholics do commit sins. These must not be the subject of amnesia. But the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and as the Communion of Saints is holy. Axe grinding focuses inordinately on the sins, not enough on the holiness, and stifles growth in faith, hope and charity.

  8. Sean O’Conaill

    What divides us precisely, Neil? If you accept that the church does indeed learn from its mistakes, and from the victims of those mistakes, mustn’t one of those learnings be that power does indeed tend to corrupt, and that the church that is holy cannot be identified ever with any particular living person, ordained or otherwise – in case that particular person might not in fact be holy, might even be dangerous?

    Had the parents of children of my generation known what parents know now I would have been warned before going to school to be on my guard against adults who were too friendly, and, especially, too tactile. I would have been taught that belief in Christ did not require me to believe that those who were professedly ‘in persona Christi’ were necessarily to be completely trusted or above criticism in the present reality. They should be listened to respectfully, but not taken as infallible or necessarily well informed on everything to do with faith and God.

    Have we had that conversation yet in the Irish church – on the mistake of anyone , and especially of a child, thinking of clergy as necessarily ‘right’ or holy ‘ex officio’? Not in my experience – even though seventeen years have passed since – in the wake of the revelations that led to the Ryan and Murphy reports of 2009 – Pope Benedict twice instructed Irish bishops “to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected, and above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes”.

    In the wake of Bishop Noel Treanor’s call for a full multi-disciplinary inquiry into the causation of the Ryan-revealed phenomena in 2009 in church-run institutions no such inquiry ever took place, and Bishop Treanor later informed friends of mine that he did not expect that it would. This was in effect a declaration that there was in fact no pressing commitment on the part of the Irish Bishops Conference to ‘establish the truth of what happened’ and, on foot of that, to ‘take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again’.

    Can you understand then, my deep misgivings about a Catholic integralism that would carry even a hint of support for the subordination of a civil government to a Catholic clerical authority? I can accept the teaching on the holiness of the church only if it is not stipulated that this holiness is necessarily personified by the holder of any religious office, or that any such person must ex officio be considered to possess the authority to bind my conscience or direct a civil government.

    As for the duty of a Christian to seek to advance the kingdom of God, I would consider that duty to require of me to promote the basic principles of solidarity, equality and subsidiarity of Catholic social teaching, but not the advancement by me of the power or interests of any particular cleric or group of clergy or Catholic association. The obligation to love my neighbour involves also, I firmly believe, an obligation never to assume or seek a controlling authority over them.

    What I am saying, I think, is that at all times all of us adult Christians should be directed by our own consciences – advised by personal prayer first of all, and only secondly by any other human, ordained or otherwise. To think that any cleric or body of clerics should be considered to have a binding authority over us would be – I am convinced a mistake – a denial of the sole Lordship of Christ over us, capitulation to a lesser entity seeking to usurp that lordship.

    When, in my own lifetime, some men of the highest rank in the Catholic church have shown that they can abuse minors in the most egregious way, while others generally have been complicit in keeping entirely secret such behaviour – thereby endangering other young people – it would be entirely foolish of me to ignore this teaching on the fallibility of everyone without exception, and the consequent need for each of us to be our own authority on all matters, decisively advised by prayer alone.

    Faith in God above all – who absolutely condemned any misleading of a child – must, logically, imply an inferior level of trust and faith in any other authority. This has been the most important teaching of the hierarchical Catholic church in my lifetime. That teaching may have been inadvertent, but it is nevertheless unforgettable.


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ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.


"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

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