Church-State Separation Is Good for the Church

Even Roman Catholics agree:

The danger in democracy is that Christian churches lose their capacity to be genuinely countercultural—or teach the truth that will be neglected “on the street” in middle-class democracy. And so the separation of church and state is to keep the church from being corrupted by excessive concern with endlessly egalitarian justice and the logic of the market. The separation is for the integrity of the church by limiting the claims for truth and morality of the democratic “social state,” which includes the democratic state.

But it’s both futile and even un-Christian to think that there could be, in the modern world, a state that favors or properly appreciates the church. Orestes Brownson, the greatest American Catholic thinker ever, said all the church should need and want from America is freedom to pursue its evangelical mission. That means, of course, that Americans should understand political freedom to be freedom for the church, for an organized body of thought and action. And we can see that the church flourished in America in the relative absence of politicized intrusion or corruption for a very long time.

The danger now, as always, is that the individualistic yet highly judgmental democracy—our creeping and creepy mixture of progressivism and libertarianism—will seek to impose its standards on our countercultural churches. Tocqueville was alive—although maybe not alive enough—to that danger. Who can deny that that the danger is greater now than ever? Today’s issues, Tocqueville would probably say, have their origins in the surrender of our contemplative Sunday to commerce and “seventh-day recreationalists.”

But anyone who thinks today’s remedy would be an established church would do well to remember how the establishments in Spain, Ireland, and Quebec worked out, the hyper-secularist and sometimes nihilistic countermovements in the name of democracy they generated. Those attempts to wield fundamental political influence produced clericalism and a kind of intrusiveness we Americans associate with the Puritans.

Of course, this outlook was not always so agreeable to Rome:

There being, then, an obligation upon the State as such, arising out of the Natural and the Divine Positive Law, to render public Divine worship in accordance with the guidance of the Church, in whose charge Christ has placed the worship due in the present order of things, an obligation also to protect the Church and to promote her interests, the Church clearly has a perfect right to demand the fulfilment of these duties, since their neglect would infringe her right to the benefit proceeding from the fulfilment. To have the further right to command the State in their regard implies that the Church has a right to impose the obligations of her authority in their regard, to exact them authoritatively from the State. Now in purely temporal matters, while they remain such, the Church cannot command the State any more than she can command the subjects of the State, even though these are at the same time her own subjects. But in spiritual and mixed matters calling for corporate action of the State, the question depends upon whether the physical persons who make up the moral personality of the State are themselves subjects of the Church. In case they are, then the Church has in consequence jurisdiction therein over the State. The reason is that owing to the supremacy in man’s life purposes of his eternal happiness, man in all his capacities, even of a civil nature, must direct his activities so that they shall not hinder this end, and where action even in his official or civil capacity is necessary for this ultimate purpose he is bound to place the action: moreover, in all these activities so bearing on this end, since they are thereby spiritual matter, every subject of the Church is under the jurisdiction of the Church. If, then, the physical persons constituting the moral person of the State are the subjects of the Church, they are still, in this joint capacity, subject to her in like matters, namely, in the fulfilment of all civil duties of the State towards religion and the Church. The Church, because of the uselessness of her insistence, or because of greater evils to be so avoided, may waive the exercise of this jurisdiction; but in principle it is hers.


8 thoughts on “Church-State Separation Is Good for the Church

  1. “To have the further right to command the State in their regard implies that the Church has a right to impose the obligations of her authority in their regard, to exact them authoritatively from the State.”

    How humble.


  2. And it wouldn’t be difficult to gather quotes from the current and past Popes and councils supporting both views. Ah yes!… but then again… but maybe not… it all depends… Once again, the superior RC system is clarifying teaching?

    – development and infallibility hand in hand…


  3. Jack, it makes you think about Protestant versions of the same. The fact is, RCism and Prot proper likely agree on what infallibility means. It’s the papists that insist that the dude telling us Atheists doing good works have a shot is able to correct little ol’ AB’s doctrine of Justification. I say horse hockey. I bet the pontiff doesn’t even golf. I wonder what kind of movies he’s into.

    It’s a shame my curiousty of such matters is about as much as what’s for dinner tonight. Somehow, this fight just seems so old. I wish the Callers could understand that, but I guess from a historical standpoint, the debate today that started oh so long ago is of some value, entertainment more than anything else, it seems.

    You just kinda keep movin’ along, wondering if something original or quirky hits your eyeballs, more so today than yesterday. With an eye for what God may be doing, and maybe even getting to take part. I guess that’s what gets us Christians up in the morning. I digress..


  4. Question, do you think that separation of church and state is best practiced in the American model? I’m Canadian and we are a democracy that is a Constitutional Monarchy. We do not have an official separation of church and state as the US does.


  5. Justin, The American model is not necessarily the best, but it beats the French in some ways. My reservations about Canada is that your monarch is the head of a church. That’s an odd kind of separation.


  6. I can agree with you on that Dr Hart. Although the Queen has no role within the church in Canada. Her role as the head of the Church of England is only within England. So strictly speaking in a Canadian context she has no ecclesiastical role on Canadian soil.


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