What is the temporal order and what does it encompass? Temporal means time - and the temporal apart from the eternal is not free but corrupts, passes away. What does the temporal encompass? Work, science, family, and the Church militant.
Autonomous from what? From God? No, because God sustains everything. The eternal embraces the temporal, and the stable eternal vanishing point gives depth to the everyday passing away. From the Church? No, because the Church is made up of the faithful who work, explore science, and raise families. What does autonomy mean, then? the autonomy of work from the direction of the clergy and the pastorate? Very well, but workers and clergy are both part of the temporal order. Any pastor worth his salt is also a decent if not necessarily a brilliant general manager.
It occurred to me that this phrase must be from the recent history of the Church, so I looked at vatican.va, and was reminded of Gaudium et Spes, 36:
36. Now many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences.So I see that GS admirably starts by looking at the positive value of the phrase, and rounds things out by correcting a mistaken understanding of the phrase - which to my mind, is the obvious one.
If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. (6) Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.(7)
But if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible.
Autonomy of the temporal order, in a correct sense, means then that creation unfolds in ways which theological insight can't anticipate or presume to know without looking at things. However, men and women living in the world live in a world in which Christ became man - a world which Jesus did not abandon to its own autonomy.
Here's the question: we think of theology, priests, and religious as otherworldly. Why? Such an attitude is hardly Christian but more to be expected among the paganisms of human culture: the monasticisms of India for example (theoretically, that is - in practice the monks of the East live close to the full human life). Looking at history, we see that the earliest bishops were worldly men who studied worldly curricula: epic literature, judicial oratory. Patristic writing is earthy, passionate, and filled with poetic imagery and the vivid worldliness of Scripture. As for religious life, consider these extended fragments from Balthasar's fuller treatment of the matter:
"Thus the whole of monastic life before Benedict, the monastic world of Egypt, of Syria, and of Palestine, was a lay world: it was indeed in close contact with the clergy, but was cleanly separated from the clerical world. Basil, too, founded his Order, not as priest and bishop, but as a monk, and he wrote the Rules before his priestly ordination. Just as there were a few priests in the monastic communities that existed before his time, for the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments, so Basil, too, laid down that each monastery should have a couple of priests; but the real body of the monks consisted of laymen who were handworkers and farmers, people who looked after the poor and sick and did not live in strict seclusion from the world. Benedict, too, was most probably a layman, who opened the doors of his monastery to laymen, and the hierarchy of the monastery up to the abbot was a hierarchy of laymen; rank, unless determined by the offices held in the monastery, was decided by the date of profession. A long time passed before this situation changed, and the number of the priests increased. 'The reason that monks began to be incorporated increasingly into the ecclesiastical hierarchy is because of the missionary work of the Benedictine monasteries' and also because of the 'necessity of pastoral work among those who lived in the countryside'" (68-70).
"A similar shift can also be observed in the founding of Francis of Assisi's Order, which was initially wholly lay. His disciples were meant to be layman, portraying the perfect life of the poor Christ in the midst of the world through their penitence, their prayer, and their preaching" (72).
The Dominican Order was founded as a priestly Order. This makes sense insofar as the aim of the Order, the defense of the faith, could only be achieved through educated members, and education was to a large extent the privilege of the clergy" (74).
"Although this [the shift from lay to clergy in monastic life] meant the frustration of the original conception that the great founders Benedict and Francis had of the state of the counsels, according to which laymen could form together an autonomous community even of a hierarchical character, or at least priests and laymen could live together under the perspective of the state of the counsels in complete equality of rank and of rights, nevertheless there were sufficient number of fields, in which it was possible to put such a community into practice. There were all the fields in which, in the Christendom of that time, something like 'Catholic Action' in today's sense of the word was desirable and was necessary. For there was in fact no potential field of Christian activity that laymen in the state of the counsels did not make their own and cultivate at that period." (76). Examples follow: the dairy farms of the Cistercians, art including architecture, etc.
Pages cited refer to Balthasar, The Laity and the Life of the Counsels: The Church's Mission in the World.