Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a Berkley Center faculty fellow. He is also a former Long Room Hub Fellow of Trinity College Dublin and a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. His books include, among others, Transforming Interreligious Relations: Catholic Responses to Religious Pluralism in the United States (2020); Religion, Authority, and the State: From Constantine to the Contemporary World (2016, editor); True and Holy: Christian Scripture and Other Religions (2014); The Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada (2011, with Peter Feldmeier); Revelation, the Religions, and Violence (2000); and The Buddha and the Christ (1993). Lefebure is president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, a research fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a trustee emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He has previously taught classes supported through the Berkley Center's Doyle Seminars project. He obtained his STL from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
In the historical narrative, Tom cites events such as the Reformation and the Peace of Westphalia in this process. This is certainly true, but the process of secularization of governing authority has roots that go back much earlier. Medieval historians often stress the transformational significance of the conflict between the popes during the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century and the Holy Roman Emperors. During the early Middle Ages, Christian rulers in Western Europe followed the Byzantine model of sacred empire derived from Constantine and Eusebius of Caesarea; they viewed their governing authority as a divine mandate to care for both ecclesia (church) and mundus (world), with little sense of any distinction between these areas. Eleventh-century popes beginning with Pope Leo IX challenged this paradigm. While the most dramatic moment in the long conflict was the penance of Emperor Henry IV in the snows at Canossa in January 1077 seeking absolution from Pope Gregory VII, arguably the most important moment came in 1111, when Pope Paschal II and Emperor Henry V made a formal distinction between the secular and the sacred roles of bishops and agreed that the emperor would no longer invest bishops with the symbols of the sacred authority, the ring and the crozier. This was confirmed and formalized in Concordat of Worms 1122, where Henry V agreed to invest the bishops with the scepter as a symbol of secular authority but not to confer any symbol of sacred authority. This resolution of the investiture controversy was accepted by the First Lateran Council in 1123. The formal distinction between the sacred and the secular paved the way for later political theorists to explore alternative theories of governance.
Regarding the role of religion in world affairs today, Tom rightly points to areas where religion continues to play an important role. He mentions the civil religion of the United States, which to my mind presents an interesting irony. The founders of the United States of America generally viewed the legacy of Constantine and Eusebius in a negative light. They very pointedly did not want to imitate Constantine and found a new Christian Byzantine Empire, and they certainly did not want a sacred monarch to rule over them in the name of God. Nonetheless, in launching a nation with a worldwide mission to spread peace and justice under God’s providence, they may have resembled the Constantinian heritage more strongly than they would have cared to admit. Constantine affirmed religious freedom in principle but also set ominous precedents in legislation regarding Jews; the Constitution of the United States promised the free exercise of religion, but this was never granted to enslaved African-American Muslims. Moreover, the God-given “Manifest Destiny” of the United States meant repeated attacks upon the people of the First Nations of the land, the Native Americans. The experience of sacred empire and religious freedom in the United States involves a complex, conflicted, and sometimes contradictory relationship with the Constantinian heritage. Reinhold Niebuhr warned that we should be distrustful of those who pretend to play the role of God in history, warning: “All historic virtues and achievements are more ambiguous and fragmentary, than we are inclined to believe.”
Tom also mentions the possibility of transregional catastrophes altering the current international system and possibly giving rise to new religious movements. The current debacle of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East seeking refuge in Europe may be a harbinger of far larger forced migrations to come. Some scholars, including Prof. Norman Myers of Oxford University, have warned of massive forced migration due to global warming in the coming decades, possibly affecting 200 million people; Secretary of State John Kerry recently made a similar warning at a State Department conference on climate change. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si places the issue of integral ecology at the center of the international interreligious agenda, and he may well raise this issue before both the US Congress and the UN General Assembly during this coming week. Time will tell what effect religious interventions may have on this ongoing challenge.