This essay is part of our series on the relationship between Church and State. See the full collection of related articles here. 

As a contribution to the growing movement to reevaluate the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal politics (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here), I’d like to offer some comments on relevant statements by two recent popes and relate them to previous papal teaching.

The two popes are Benedict XVI and Francis, and their statements deal with the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state. Although Benedict’s remarks can be squared with previous papal teaching, it’s harder to see how Francis’s can.

I shall argue, perhaps not very controversially, that according to previous papal teaching, a Catholic confessional state is the ideal, even if in most modern situations it’s not a practical possibility, and prudence would steer us away from it. But I shall also argue, perhaps more controversially, that that teaching continues to be normative for Catholics. I conclude, then, that the principled liberal demand for a separation of church and state remains in conflict with Catholicism. I end with a brief reflection on what that means for Catholics today.

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Benedict XVI’s Embrace of Liberalism?

Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas address to the Roman curia on Vatican II has become famous for its discussion of the “hermeneutic of continuity” (the idea is present if not the exact language). But in that same address the pope speaks of the Council’s teaching on the relationship between religion and the state, and these remarks have received considerably less attention. Here’s the heart of what Benedict has to say on this score:

The Second Vatican Council, recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22: 21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time. The ancient Church naturally prayed for the emperors and political leaders out of duty (cf. I Tm 2: 2); but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the State.

The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith – a profession that no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.

I said a moment ago that previous papal teaching upholds a Catholic confessional state as the ideal. What Benedict says above could be construed as contradicting that. Martin Rhonheimer, for instance, reads Benedict’s address in that way. According to Rhonheimer, the pope is evidently rejecting a state religion and the idea of a Catholic state along with it.

But I don’t see anything in the foregoing remarks or the rest of the address that forces that reading. As I see it, Benedict is speaking primarily about freedom from being coerced against your will to worship a divinity you don’t believe in. Indeed, that was the situation faced by the early Christians he mentions. They refused to worship the Roman emperor. That’s what precipitated the martyrdom, for example, of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, in the second century. As far as I’m aware, Polycarp and the other Christians of his time never said that the Roman state shouldn’t have an official religion. But what they did do was refuse to worship a god—in this case, the emperor—in which they didn’t believe. They weren’t rejecting established religion per se. They were only rejecting a particular state religion, one that took the emperor to be divine.

It’s highly unlikely that Benedict was ignorant of the relevant historical facts. It’s not at all obvious, therefore, that Benedict intended in his 2005 address to reject confessional states. Thus, without additional justification independent of the above text, we can’t take him to be contradicting previous papal teaching, which, it is important to note, never called for states to coerce non-Catholics into acceptance of the Catholic faith.

Francis’s Embrace of Liberalism?

Now I turn to recent remarks by Pope Francis. Like Benedict’s, they don’t seem to have received much attention.

Last December, the Vatican press office released an interview the pope gave to the Belgian Catholic newspaper Tertio. In his first question, the interviewer tells the pope that in Belgian politics there is currently a desire to “separate religion from public life.” In light of this, he asks the pope: “How can we be both a missionary Church, going out to society, and live in this tension created by public opinion?” In his response, Francis makes it clear that the matter has a certain complexity:

Well, I don’t want to offend anyone but this position is an obsolete one. This is the legacy of the Enlightenment – is it not? – in which religion becomes a subculture. It’s the difference between secularism (laicismo) and secularity (laicidad). I spoke with the French about this . . . Vatican II speaks to us of the autonomy of things, of processes, of institutions. There is a healthy secularity (sana laicidad), for example, the secularism of the state. In general, a lay state is a good thing; it’s better than a confessional state because confessional states always finish badly.

I don’t think anyone would contest the pope’s claim about the effects of the Enlightenment. He plainly wishes for a greater integration of religion and public life and so clearly wishes to oppose the movement in Belgium toward their separation. And yet, this does not bring him to affirm the ideal of the Catholic confessional state. On the contrary, he asserts the superiority of the secular state, but one that is not anti-religious. He appears to suggest that this is the teaching of Vatican II. Perhaps there is some way to reconcile his dismissal of confessional states with previous papal teaching, but if there is, I don’t immediately see it.

Before moving on, I’d like to say a word about the “healthy secularity” to which Francis refers. Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI all made use of this same expression and typically in the context of Church-state relations. But, as far as I know, Pius XII was the first pope to use the term. According to Pius, “the legitimate healthy secularity of the state” (la legittima sana laicità dello Stato) is “one of the principles of Catholic doctrine.” For Pius, it means keeping the Church and the state “distinct but also—always in line with the right principles—united.” He insists, moreover, that the “constant effort” to maintain such a relationship is “a part of the tradition of the Church.” From his above remarks, it’s unclear how far Francis agrees with Pius’s characterization of a healthy secularity.

Previous Papal Teaching and Its Normativity

Having referred to it several times already, I now need to provide some details on previous papal teaching on the Church and the state. We had a glimpse of it in the words of Pius XII I just quoted. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to be expansive, so the details I provide on the teaching will necessarily take the form of a brief summary.

Some people believe they can find an early papal endorsement of separation of the Church and the state in the fifth century letter of Pope Gelasius I to Anastasius. But Gelasius merely distinguishes the areas of competence of ecclesiastical and political authority, something likewise done by later popes who taught the confessional state as the ideal.

The most theologically developed papal teaching on the relation of the Church and the state didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century. The historical reasons for this aren’t hard to identify. In the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century, the push to separate church and state was widespread and powerful. In the history of the Church, the refinement and defining of her teaching typically occurs when particular issues become a matter of controversy. It wasn’t until the early fourth century, for example, that the Church clearly defined the divinity of Christ in response to Arianism. It wasn’t that Christians didn’t believe in his divinity until then. It was that his divinity had become a matter of controversy.

In the nineteenth century, both Gregory XVI and Pius IX denounced separation of the Church and the state. However, it’s in Leo XIII that we find the most developed teaching on the question. Two of the documents to which scholars standardly refer for Leo’s teaching are the encyclicals Immortale Dei (1885) and Libertas praestantissimum (1888). But I’m going instead to draw upon a lesser known and much later encyclical, Longinqua oceani (1895). There are a couple of reasons to do this. First, it contains a particularly good summary of Leo’s teaching and, second, it makes clear that he isn’t only concerned—as commentators like John Courtney Murray allege—with circumstances in which totalitarian secular states are hostile to the Church.

The encyclical is addressed to the American hierarchy. It speaks of both the positive experience of the Church in the United States and the problems the pope sees with certain attempts to accommodate Catholicism to American culture and politics. Leo acknowledges that

thanks are due to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and to the customs of the well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced. The fact that Catholicity with you is in good condition, nay, is even enjoying a prosperous growth, is by all means to be attributed to the fecundity with which God has endowed His Church, in virtue of which unless men or circumstances interfere, she spontaneously expands and propagates herself; but she would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.

That Leo is insisting on a Catholic state here as the ideal is undeniable. John Courtney Murray did his best to play down this statement, since it evidently demolishes the revisionist reading of Leo he worked out in the early 1950s in his polemic against critics like Francis Connell and Joseph Clifford Fenton.

But what authority does an encyclical written over a century ago have for Catholics today? Well, for Catholics, definitive Church teaching doesn’t carry an expiration date. We could just as well ask about the present authority of a fourth century council in Nicaea. When the Church intends to teach on a matter of controversy, that teaching is taken as having definitive weight. As Pius XII explains in Humani generis (1950), in such circumstances, once the Church has expressed her judgment on the matter, the question is closed (cf. §20). In the nineteenth century, as I have observed, the relationship of the Church and the state was certainly a matter of controversy.

However much we Catholics can, as we should, appreciate and promote the good points of liberalism, it would seem that we can’t endorse, as a question of principle (prudence is a different matter), its call for the separation of church and state.

Vatican II on the Church and the State

Some people believe that Vatican II reversed previous papal teaching on the Church and the state. Given the doctrinal principle articulated by Pius XII, the Council couldn’t have reversed Leo’s teaching on the ideal of the confessional state. But more than this, we can say that there is nothing in the Council documents that truly conflicts with the Leonine teaching. Here again I’ll have to summarize, and I’ll have to limit myself to Dignitatis humanae.

Nowhere in Dignitatis humanae (and nowhere in any Council document) is separation of the Church and the state formally affirmed. In fact, in §6, the only place in the declaration where confessional states are explicitly addressed, there is no call for disestablishment. The Council merely says that the freedom of the non-established religions in such states should be effectively recognized. Interestingly, in some comments on §6, Murray himself acknowledges that “The Council did not wish to condemn the institution of ‘establishment,’ the notion of a ‘religion of the state.’” Yet, he also claims that the Council wished to “insinuate” that establishment, “from the Catholic point of view, is a matter of historical circumstance, not of theological doctrine.”

Perhaps the most important point to mention is the well-known intervention by Paul VI to add the following clarification to Dignitatis humanae, §1:

[The Council] leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

Avery Dulles reports that in explaining the purpose of this addition, the spokesman for the committee in charge of drafting Dignitatis humanae, Émile-Joseph De Smedt, the bishop of Bruges, told the Council that the “text, as revised, did not overlook or deny but clearly recalled Leo XIII’s teaching on the duties of the public authority (postestatis publicae) toward the true religion.” This problematizes Murray’s claim about the Council’s implicit teaching on the historically relative nature of establishment.

What Do We Do Now?

Supposing we grant the continuing normativity of the Catholic confessional state, as I think we should, what does that mean for us today? The vast majority of Catholics don’t live in Catholic states, and many live in liberal regimes in which church and state are officially separated. In most of the latter, there is no Catholic supermajority, and even where there is such a supermajority, most don’t practice their faith. No pope has ever taught that in these kinds of situations Catholics should rise up and establish a confessional state by force. Catholic and liberal teaching agree that it’s never a good idea to impose a political order on a large group of people who have no desire for it.

The principal point of a Catholic state, I take it, is for the Gospel to inform deeply not only the culture but the legislation too. However, we always need to work on the culture first. Of course, that doesn’t mean abandoning the political sphere. The idea is simply that without a receptive cultural base, the political superstructure will be of little value. A Catholic political order will emerge organically and freely only from a Catholic culture. Such a culture is what Catholics should focus on building today.