February 3, 2019
Recently an op-ed piece in a local journal suggested that the Constitution of the United States calls for the separation of religion and politics. I would like to take exception to that – not as a citizen, but as a religious thinker and a preacher.
The Constitution is pretty clear that the ‘separation’ (if that’s the right word) is between ‘congress’ and religion. This is extremely important. Because it means that the work of government/legislation and the work of religion are not to be confused or mingled in such wise that religion becomes a branch of government (think of the ‘lords spiritual’ in the English parliament or the ‘second estate’ of the French one). This is exactly what the Second Vatican Council said!
If there is a ‘problem’ about Church/State relations, arising from the ambitions of the Church, it is not between Roman Catholic thought and the American Constitution. Politicians and members of government must find another paper tiger.
But, government and legislation are not the same as ‘politics’. Politics is about the partisan, governance is about the commonweal. Politics is about vote-getting, government is about the creating order. Politics is about the acquisition of constitutional power, governance is about the use of constitutional powers. Politics is about persuading and winning individual minds and hearts, governance is about reason and discipline and good public order.
Politics and religion alike are supposed to stop at the doors of legislatures, courts and executive offices.
We are currently caught up in a mess created by the continuation of politics into the creation and execution of laws; by those pandering to a ‘political base’ rather than dealing with those issues (you name ‘em) that only legislatures and executives and manage!
In England, the inability of ‘the government’ to govern would generate a vote of no confidence and a general election. Here, it produces universal gridlock and a shutdown and chaos for we must endure until one political party blinks or we ‘throw the bums out’ in two more years (you decide on who the bums might be).
It is attractive to think that Churches cannot meddle in governance. Churches certainly thrive when governments must follow a ‘hands’off’ policy. But if the Church had not gotten involved in the politics of race or housing rights or voting rights or health care, we would be in a sorry state indeed.
So, here is the Catholic position (and this Catholic’s position) on the separation issue: the church is not a branch of government, political parties are not branches of government; government does not serve religion’s ends (except coincidentally); neither does it serve the ends of one or other political party (except coincidentally).
If you think that Church and Government are supposed to be separate you are both American and Catholic. If you think that Church and politics are supposed to be separate, you are hopelessly naïve. If you think that politics and government are the same thing … well, that’s just asking for trouble and it will make it really hard to be Catholic …
Really and truly and constitutionally yours,