A Catholic Understanding of the Separation of Church and State

The separation of Church and State, as defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, takes on two main forms, classified as American and French. These two are similar, in appearance, but work toward opposite ends. The American form: “as implied in the Constitution of the United States, was supported by a tendency to leave to the church, set free from state supervision, a maximum freedom in the realization of its spiritual, moral, and educational tasks” (source). This puts emphasis on freedom of religion, allowing the Church to operate free of State control or interference. The restriction is put entirely on government, with no restrictions on religion at all. Government is prohibited from interfering in the internal affairs of religion, but religion is free (through democratic and parliamentary processes) to interfere with the internal affairs of government. It is this American form of “separation of Church and State” that is more in line with Catholic teaching, and is not contested here in this essay.

What is contested in this essay, however, is the French form of the “separation of Church and State,” which according to the Encyclopedia Britannica is “based upon an opposite tendency,” elaborated as: “The attempt was not only to restrict the public role of the church but also to work toward its gradual disappearance. The church was to be replaced with a secular ideology” (source). This model was later adopted by the Soviet Union and all communist nations under its sphere of influence. It was also adopted by European and American Leftists, many of whom are Marxists. It has also been adopted by the US Democratic Party influencing the minds of most Leftist politicians, government officials and judges. Over the last 60 years, the American understanding has been drifting more toward the French understanding. It is this form of “separation of Church and State” that this essay vehemently opposes. It is in opposition to Catholic teaching and must be resisted by Catholics as a matter of Faith.

What is orthodox Catholic teaching on the separation of Church and State? Simple. The American form is fine, so long as it remains in its more pure American form, which has not been the case for the last 60 years! As for the French form, which has tragically become more “American” over the last six decades, the Catholic Church only tolerates it, as a less-than-ideal circumstance that Catholics are allowed to permit, but it should in every way be overridden (and undermined) whenever possible for both the moral and spiritual help of society. The moral law, and natural law, which are embraced by the Church, are to reign supreme in the lives of Catholics, and whenever possible, yes, they are to be imposed on all people, including non-Catholics. THAT is official Church teaching.

For regular Catholic voters in society, this principle only applies minimally. So, when a Catholic votes, he is morally and religiously obligated to vote according to Church teaching on all matters related to laws and politics that touch on moral and natural law. For example; on the issue of abortion, a Catholic must vote for laws and politicians that would restrict abortion. This is because the Church, embracing both moral and natural law, teaches that abortion is the murder of innocent human life, and therefore cannot be tolerated. The same goes for other areas of moral concern. (To understand this in greater detail, please read my essay on how a Catholic should vote.) The “separation of Church and State” can never be used as an excuse to permit the murder of innocence or other intrinsic evils.

The Church simultaneously recognizes that there must be a “separation” of religious and political competencies, which means that just as politicians are incompetent in proscribing the details of religious life, so churchmen (clergy) can simultaneously be incompetent in proscribing the details of political life. This is recognized in the difference between “essential and prudential” matters. Essential matters are those political issues that touch directly on moral and natural law, as embraced and taught by the Church. In essential matters, a Catholic is obligated to vote in strict adherence to Church teaching. So, once again, in the area of abortion, the Church mandates that Catholics vote in a pro-life manner, which restricts the activity of abortion (the murder of innocence). However, other areas of morality are more generalized. These are what are called prudential matters. The Church teaches that we must be kind and hospitable to foreigners. But what exactly does that mean? On issues such as these, the correct answer is not always so clear cut, and so the Church only obligates Catholics to follow this teaching in principle, leaving the details of how to implement such policies up to the prudential judgement of Catholics in the political realm.

When a Catholic runs for political office, or seeks appointment to a government position, he can (and in some cases should) accept the separation of Church and State only insofar as it keeps the peace. However, he is morally and religiously obligated to override this separation whenever doing so is necessary for the general welfare of society, and is potentially tolerable to the society at large. Case in point; the wholesale murder of children in the womb is harmful to innocent life, motherhood and society in general (“Thou shalt not murder” — Exodus 20:13). The legal restriction of abortion is tolerable to most Americans, in some form or another, and indeed demonstrated successfully in some countries. Therefore, a Catholic politician is morally and religious obligated, in every sense, to work toward the restriction of abortion in any way possible. 

For a Catholic politician to abdicate his moral and religious responsibility to safeguard society against muder, citing the “separation of Church and State” as his rationale, is a dereliction of Catholic duty (according to orthodox Catholic teaching), and to vote in favor of such an intrinsic evil is nothing short of material cooperation in the mortal sin itself.

To back my point that this is indeed Church teaching, I cite the following official documents, ranking extremely high in the hierarchy of Catholic truth, just below infallible dogma…

‘Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man: Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows. The Church, because of her commission and competence, is not to be confused in any way with the political community. She is both the sign and the safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. “The Church respects and encourages the political freedom and responsibility of the citizen.” It is a part of the Church’s mission “to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it. The means, the only means, she may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all men according to the diversity of times and circumstances.”‘ — Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2244-2246

“The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other… Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all. For man’s horizons are not limited only to the temporal order; while living in the context of human history, he preserves intact his eternal vocation.”  — Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, 1965

“In fact, to wish that the State would separate itself from the Church would be to wish, by a logical sequence, that the Church be reduced to the liberty of living according to the law common to all citizens. It is true that in certain countries this state of affairs exists. It is a condition which, if it have numerous and serious inconveniences, also offers some advantages—above all when, by a fortunate inconsistency, the legislator is inspired by Christian principles—and, though these advantages cannot justify the false principle of separation nor authorize its defense, they nevertheless render worthy of toleration a situation which, practically, might be worse.” — Pope Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes, 1892

“That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error. … [It] is in the first place a great injustice to God. … [W]e owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him… [The separation of Church and State] limits the actions of the State to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life only. … But as the present order of things is temporary and subordinated to the conquest of man’s supreme and absolute welfare, it follows that the civil power must not only place no obstacle in the way of this conquest, but must aid us in affecting it.” — Pope St. Pius X, Vehementer Nos, 1906

In summary, orthodox Catholic teaching on the separation of Church and State is as follows. The Church tolerates it when it needs to, but it is not ideal, and can never be used as an excuse to permit intrinsic evil. It is the duty of every Catholic (voters, politicians, and appointed officials) to uphold the moral and natural law, as embraced by the Church, regardless of the so-called “separation of Church and State.” Furthermore, Catholics are obligated to push for the Church’s understanding of morality and natural law whenever possible, regardless of the nation’s position on Church and State. In other words, Catholics cannot use the “separation of Church and State” as an excuse to abdicate their responsibility to further the Kingship of Jesus Christ in the social order.


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