April 25, 2012
Some thoughts about Church and State
Over the past several weeks, questions of interest to the Mirror of Justice community dealing with the relation between Church and State have been occupying many discussions. As a consequence, I have been rereading a number of items regarding this topic. One of them is John Courtney Murray, S.J.’s 1966 article in Theological Studies where the author makes an important connection between two of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, i.e., the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) regarding Church-State matters. While noting that only religious freedom, per se, was addressed by the Council, Murray demonstrated in his important essay the obvious link with matters of Church and State relations that are very much with us at the present moment—and will be for the future.
While noting that Church and State matters in modern times were addressed by Leo XIII, the issues in the relationship dramatically changed as the twentieth century progressed. During Leo’s reign, the identity of State and Society were very close; however, as time progressed, the distinctions grew. If the Church and Society had a relationship, it too got distanced from the State. This separation of State and Society had an impact on the relation between the Church and the State.
At the root of the common ground formerly shared by Church, State, and Society was the idea of the human person. What is he or she? But with the passage of time, the State saw the person in a vast array of ways. For the Church and some elements of Society, there was a greater understanding of the notion about the dignity of the human person and the idea that there is one human family. Many States did not see or accept these understandings. Politicians and civil leaders may have offered lip service to both, but Christians tended to have a better understanding of why changes were occurring and why the Church had a clear, positive, and crucial role in all these matters dealing with dignity and rights. Why?
The State, through its civil functionaries, had varying views of the human person—quid est homo—but the Church had a universal understanding. While some civil authorities may have spoken about human rights and the dignity of the human person, the Church offered a deeper and unified understanding that went beyond serving the political interests of the moment. Murray saw the distinction first emerging in 1892 when Leo wrote his encyclical dealing with the emerging laicité in France. By the time the Second Council was in session, the insights first captured by Leo XIII were more clearly cognizable in the first half of the 1960s by Christians including the Council Fathers. To offer a counterpoint to the growing totalitarian or monolithic sense of “human rights” by States in the twentieth century, the Church saw the need to concentrate on freedom in two ways: that of the individual, and that of the community of individuals. In an ecclesial context, this meant (1) the freedom of the individual person who simultaneously has obligations and duties to all others and (2) the freedom of the community which is the Church. In furtherance of his thesis, Murray recognized that these two freedoms—these two non-derogable rights—are inextricably related.
Murray also understood that when the Council ended and Paul VI gave his exhortation to the civil authorities of the world, the Council acknowledged this twinning. As Pope Paul said in his remarks to the temporal powers, the Church “asks of you nothing but freedom—freedom to believe and to preach her faith, freedom to love God and to serve Him, freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life.”
I think that this passage of the pope is crucial to the present day examinations, discussions, and debates about religious freedom and the proper relationship between the Church and State. The fact that the Church and State are different and distinct does not necessarily imply that they cannot have a relationship. Moreover, separation is not synonymous with indifference. Why? Both the Church and the State have a critical interest in the common good and its furtherance. The American State talks about the general welfare; the Church relies on other words, but the interests, if not the same, largely overlap. It is in the interest of republican democracy, which we claim to have in the United States, to understand and embrace the differences between the Church and State but simultaneously to respect and support their common or mutual objectives.
I am not sure this is particularly well understood today as a read the ongoing discourse about Church and State matters. Murray noted that the Church sees her mission in the world of temporal affairs concentrating on the realization of human dignity, the advancement of authentic human rights, the promotion of unity within the human family, and “the sanctification of the secular activities of this world.” The transcendence of the human person, which is of major importance to the Church, is not in this particular equation for the State. So if it is not, why should the secular State (and its citizens who are of the secular persuasion) then mind having a relationship with the Church as the Council developed the concept of relationship and freedom?
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