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

The nineteenth-century popes taught that, where possible, Catholicism should be confessed not only by private individuals but by the state, which should legally privilege and protect it as the true religion. Joseph Trabbic has recently argued here at Public Discourse that this teaching is still the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

He has been opposed, also in Public Discourse, by Robert Miller and Christopher Tollefsen. Robert Miller claims that this teaching was no more than undefined doctrina catholica of Leo XIII and other nineteenth-century popes, and was taught neither as revelation nor as natural law. In any case, the teaching has now been abrogated by Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II. Thus, he argues, current Catholic doctrine is precisely the opposite: the state must not privilege Catholicism legally in any way but respect a general right to religious liberty.

Christopher Tollefsen denies the very legitimacy of a confessional Catholic state, but on more general philosophical and theological grounds. States, he maintains, are simply not in the business of confessing any religion. States are not capable of the act of faith that saves, and a state’s attempt to represent that Catholicism is true would either be oppressive and unwarrantedly coercive, or else simply pointless. In either case, the attempt to proclaim Catholicism’s truth would be outside the state’s legitimate authority. The function of state authority is to defend against external attack, to enable successful cooperation by facilitating coordination, and to help meet material need. None of this involves proclaiming the truth of a religion.

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In my view, neither Miller nor Tollefsen’s case is compelling. Miller ignores the very important fact that well before the nineteenth century, popes and general councils had long and repeatedly been instructing Catholic states to support the Church and the faith, and to restrict heresy and false religions. The legitimacy of this was ordinary teaching. Besides, for example, Pope Leo the Great (letter 156, to the Emperor Leo), Lateran IV (Constitution 3, De haereticis, making a willingness of Catholic rulers to remove heresy from their states a condition of communion) and Trent (Session 25, chapter 3), there is the witness from the canonical tradition—consider canon 2198 of the 1917 Code, calling on the state to act as the Church’s secular arm in enforcing Church law, citing Trent and other general councils and the former corpus of canon law as authorities for this duty of the state.

There is, however, a certain truth in the secularity of the state. Pope Leo XIII taught in Immortale Dei that with the coming of Christ, religion—the giving of worship due to God—is removed from the natural law-based authority of the state. Its regulation and protection have been put under a new and sovereign legal authority, the Church, based not on natural law but on the revealed law of the New Covenant. This was because religion no longer exists as it once did, as merely rational religion, the worship required by natural law of a God naturally known from created things, but now involves baptism and other sacraments to take us to a supernatural end, transcending nature and our created human capacity, the beatific vision in heaven. So there are now two distinct legal orders—a natural-law based civil order governed by the authority of the state, and a new order of religion governed by the Church and based on a divine positive law revealed by Christ. While the state remains the sovereign potestas over civil questions, the Church is now the sole potestas over religion, with a sovereign jurisdiction based on baptism to legislate for religion and to enforce that law through punishments.

The state should publicly recognise the truth of the Catholic religion. But since religion is now a supernatural good, it entirely transcends the authority of the state, as natural goods such as transport and education do not. So when the state legislates and punishes for purely religious ends, such as to privilege a religion just on grounds of its truth or to further people’s salvation, it can only properly do so as agent for the authority of the Church—as the Church’s secular arm. And that the state, when publicly Christian and so directed by the Church, is bound to do—as canon 2198 of the 1917 Code reflects. Since the supernatural good of religion is higher than any natural good, the state should submit its authority to that of the Church in matters specific to religion, as (Leo XIII’s parallel) the body submits in intellectual matters to the soul.

This Leonine teaching has an obvious consequence, though not one much emphasized before Vatican II, when the Church’s primary concern had still been to address the state as potential religious agent. If the state is not willing or able publicly to adhere to the Church’s mission, and act as her agent in matters of religion, then—detached from the sole religious potestas—the state can only act under its own native and purely civil authority, and lacks all authority to regulate religion, even a borrowed one. In matters specific to religion itself, we will then have a complete right to liberty from state coercion—precisely because religion entirely transcends state authority, just as Dignitatis Humanae goes on to teach. Legislation and punishment for specifically religious ends has no place in the civil order, and so is beyond the authority of the state when acting solely within that order. No wonder that at Vatican II, an official relatio of September 1965 stated that the declaration on religious liberty depended on Leo XIII’s doctrine of the two distinct legal orders, religious and civil.

I do not have space to deal at length with Miller’s historical claims about Church doctrine, but I address the very similar arguments of Martin Rhonheimer in an essay available here. Suffice it to say that, if Miller were right, the Church must have taught error about religious liberty—either before the nineteen-sixties, or else since then. For the Church to contradict her own past magisterial teaching, and to do so invoking the very same authority that once grounded that teaching, would seriously undermine the authority so exercised.

But why is it Catholic teaching that the state should be Catholic, and confess the true religion? To that I now turn.

Catholic Integralism and the State as Confessor of Public Reason

Integralism—the need for a confessional Catholic state—is part of Catholic teaching about grace. Grace is required to repair and perfect all of human nature. Human nature involves the political not as a mere expression and instrument of the private, but as a distinctive sphere of existence and understanding in its own right. Unless we commit ourselves to Christ as a political community, a vital part of human reason will remain untransformed by grace. The result will be spiritual conflict and degradation.

To see this, we need to understand what states are and what they do. That brings me to Tollefsen’s essay. Tollefsen puts forward a model of the state as instrument or facilitator for the satisfaction of individuals’ ends, providing much needed protection and coordination. Individuals or small private groups could often arrange that protection and coordination on the small scale for themselves. But when ill will threatens serious force and issues of coordination grow complex and involve multitudes, a powerful monopoly provider is needed: the state.

The Catholic tradition is different. It takes the state, and coercive authority in general, to have a teaching function. One central mode of teaching is through legal coercion. The supposition that it is the proper business of the state to teach, and teach coercively, extends back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. And if states are in the teaching business, then to give some sort of confessional character to the state is not a category mistake, but report of an inevitable feature. Church and state each have a distinct jurisdiction, governing different goods; but each may teach, and each may use legal coercion in so doing.

This teaching function underpins the traditional Catholic conception of coercive authority over adults as belonging never to individuals directly, but only to a communitas perfecta, a whole community capable of governing itself. The right to punish adults was never viewed as John Locke conceived it—a right originally possessed by private individuals but transferred by them to the state. This authority to punish was exclusively political from the outset.

As individuals, we are naturally capable of a private reason. Consider a value such as property. Individuals are able to think rationally about property at the private level—whether, for example, I should give another person something of mine. In thinking about what and whether to give, I am not thinking about the consequences of what I do for an entire political community but for the particular persons involved. And I am thinking about property in a context where rules governing property already exist. I do not have the competence or authority to devise these rules myself or to abandon them once they have been established.

It is another thing to deliberate about property employing a genuinely public reason. Such a view does not take the rules of property for granted, but properly reasons about what those rules should be. And it considers those rules and property distributions in the light of the interests of a political community as a whole. Such a use of reason requires political institutions. It is through the state and our participation in political life that we come to understand what constitutes the bonum commune—the genuinely common good—and are enabled to pursue that good, as opposed to our own good or the goods of particular friends or neighbours.

That is why in Catholic tradition, as in Aristotle, the state is not just a facilitator of protection and cooperation. The state is also a public teacher. Through its laws, we as private individuals come to understand what the common good involves and how it should be pursued. All states are confessors: confessors of the content of reason as it concerns the bonum commune. A properly functioning state can bear witness to the common good in a way that private individuals cannot.

So states bear witness to the common good. But why should they also bear witness to religious truth?

Why the Christian State? The Fall and the Degradation of Public Reason

The reason is that the state’s grasp of public reason depends on its public commitment to religious truth. This is owing to the Fall, which has not destroyed human reason, but which has still seriously corrupted it. Divine grace, received with faith and through the sacraments, is needed as gratia sanans to restore our damaged rationality. This is true not just in relation to private reason but in relation to public reason too. Baptism obligates Christians, where they can, to commit their political community publicly to Christ. For if a state is not publicly so committed then, the nineteenth-century popes predicted, reason will not be informed and repaired by grace at the public level, and the state will give false witness about the bonum commune and what would further it. As Pius IX warned in Quanta Cura: “where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost . . .”

Leo XIII developed the point in Tametsi futura, emphasizing the need to repair reason in its public as well as its private form, the role of the state as teacher of public reason, and the threat posed by the Fall to the public reason of a non-Christian state:

Therefore the law of Christ ought to prevail in human society and be the guide and teacher of public as well as of private life. Since this is so by divine decree, and no man may with impunity contravene it, it is an evil thing for any state where Christianity does not hold the place that belongs to it. When Jesus Christ is absent, human reason fails, being bereft of its chief protection and light, and the very end is lost sight of, for which, under God’s providence, human society has been built up. This end is the obtaining by the members of society of natural good through the aid of civil unity, though always in harmony with the perfect and eternal good that is above nature. But when men’s minds are clouded, both rulers and ruled go astray, for they have no safe line to follow nor end to aim at.

Dignitatis Humanae’s strict teaching is the right to religious liberty in the civil order. This is not opposed to past magisterial teaching at all. But there is a related and still currently dominant background theology that is opposed to past magisterial teaching, and that treats Church-state separation not as an evil to be regretted, but a good to be encouraged. This theology supposes that states that cease to be Christian will still reliably adhere to natural law. The nineteenth-century popes taught differently: Human reason requires repair through grace, and, its public operation through the state is no exception to this requirement. Their doctrinal case is strong. And subsequent history tends to support it.

Whatever form political commitment to Christianity has historically taken, western states have generally been departing from public Christianity in any substantial form. And the warnings of Pius IX and Leo XIII do look very prescient. For with that political secularization we find states also departing from natural law on an ever-widening field of issues, including abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. We find the state still confessing, as states must do, but falsely. The secularizing state bears increasingly false witness to the common good. It moves with depressing speed, in many countries, to repress and marginalize opposing Christian witness to the natural law in public life.

Why the Christian State? Christ and the Elevation of Public Reason

There is another reason why the state should be publicly Christian. A state that is not Christian may perhaps give some respect to religious liberty. What a non-Christian state is much less likely to do, however, is recognize the kind of right to religious liberty taught in Dignitatis Humanae.

Dignitatis Humanae teaches that we have a right to religious liberty against the state because religion is a good that transcends the civil order.

Furthermore, those private and public acts of religion by which people relate themselves to God from the sincerity of their hearts, of their nature transcend the earthly and temporal levels of reality. So the state, whose peculiar purpose it is to provide for the temporal common good, should certainly recognize and promote the religious life of its citizens. With equal certainty it exceeds the limits of its authority if it takes upon itself to direct or prevent religious activity.

But this is only true, as the official relatio at Vatican II of September 1965 emphasized, because as Leo XIII had earlier taught, religion is now, “by the positive law of Christ,” removed to a new and specifically religious legal order. The nature and orientation of religion has been transformed by Christ, from the worship of a rationally known creator that serves our earthly happiness to sacramental worship directed at a heavenly end transcending nature.

The claim that the nature of religion altogether transcends the authority of the state is a very radical claim and depends on a Catholic or at least Christian view of religion. It assumes that religion now exists as a supernatural good, and not a merely natural one. The claim that religion transcends state authority is far stronger than the simple claim that, where religion is concerned, we have a genuine right to liberty that the state must respect. After all, human nature gives us rights to many forms of liberty. Take one such fundamental right: the right to liberty of movement. This too is a vital right that the state must respect. But no one would suppose that movement is a good that transcends the authority of the state. The right to liberty of movement does not preclude some legitimate state regulation of movement, through traffic laws and the like. The right can be thus limited for the common good.

Religion as worship of one creator God could have been no more than another natural good, albeit one of surpassing importance at the natural level. Religion so understood would have been an essential component of the natural happiness served by the authority of the state. Then we might still have had some right to liberty in religious matters, but the state could still have regulated religion for religious ends just as it regulates transport.

Whether a state recognizes religion as a good transcending its authority depends on what religion, if any, the state confesses. And unless a state is at least broadly Christian, it is unlikely to recognize religion as a good above its sphere for very long. So, besides general conflict about natural law, we should expect secularizing states eventually to encroach on the very religious liberty that Dignitatis Humanae teaches for the civil order. Of course, as history has developed in our fallen world, a non-Christian state is now unlikely to understand and treat religion as a genuine and distinctive good at all, brashly intruding into religious life in ways that it has no authority to do.


It is part of Catholic revelation, evident from the writings of St Paul, that the authority of the state is divinely established, just as is that of the Church. That is central to Leo XIII’s teaching of the two legal orders, each based on a law of God, be it natural or revealed. It must then be possible, as two divinely instituted authorities, for Church and state to co-exist in harmony; the attainment of that harmony will be an essential mark of their proper functioning and constitution. But now we see that unless a state is to some degree Christian in its confession, it will not recognize religion as a supernatural good with which it should not interfere. And unless the state recognizes that, there can be no harmony between Church and state. This, in shortened form, is a basic argument of Leo XIII in Immortale Dei.

The argument can be run another way. The state should be Catholic, or at least broadly Christian, not because the state is a believer to be saved as an individual is, but because political authority has been divinely established to confess public reason in the service of a genuinely common good. This is only possible if the state recognizes both natural law and the transformation of law and public reason brought about by the raising of religion to a supernatural good. No genuinely non-Christian state can be relied upon to recognize either of these things. States that do not recognize them will become confessors of false belief opposed to Christianity, and their great power will turn from supporting Christianity to opposing or even repressing it, especially in relation to its moral teaching. As the rapid movement of many western states from genuine support to increasing enmity toward Christianity illustrates, there is no stable middle way.