Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Garnett on "Why Liberalism and Constitutionalism Need Christianity"

Here's a short essay, based on a talk at Notre Dame Law School a few weeks ago, on Liberalism, Constitutionalism, and Christianity.  A bit:

[T]he suggestion is that “liberalism” and “constitutionalism” rely for their success, both in theory and in fact, not only on the separation and limitation of the powers of the political authority, but also on the existence and the health of authorities and associations outside, and meaningfully independent of, the state. As I and many others have argued, our tradition of constitutionalism was made possible, and might still depend today, on the independence of the church from secular control, an independence that it is fair to say Christianity first proposed and insisted upon.

The “distinction,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it, “between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21)” is “fundamental to Christianity.” It is this core tenet of Christian political theology—the differentiation between “church” and “state,” along with the freedom of the former and the limits on the latter—on which, it seems to me, both liberalism and constitutionalism depend. This differentiation, the late pope contended, “came into the world first through Christianity. Until then,” he observed, “the political constitution and religion were always united. It was the norm in all cultures for the state to have sacrality in itself and be the supreme protector of sacrality.” Christianity, however, “deprived the state of its sacral nature.”

Again: constitutionalism and liberalism—and liberal constitutionalism—need Christianity. Indeed, the “separation” between church and state that has long been treated, with more or less care, as a foundation of the American law of church and state is better regarded as a limit imposed by the former on the latter than vice-versa. Correctly understood—and, to be sure, it often is not—this “separation” stands as a safeguard against governments tempted to assume for themselves the power to direct religious life. It is a limit on government and such limits, again, are essential to liberal constitutionalism. Our Constitution separates church and state to curb the ambitions and reach of governments. In and through our constitutionalism, “Caesar recognizes that he is only Caesar and forswears any attempt to demand what is God’s.” The differentiation between religious and political authority means that Christianity is not merely a recipient of constitutional protection; it is a safeguard for the enterprise of constitutionalism.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink