Judeo-Christian revelation has always taught that, in view of God’s absolute sovereignty over the whole creation, the First Commandment of the Decalogue obliges not just individuals, but societies as such, including the political community. Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII already acknowledged that American-style church-state separation (then fairly benign) was acceptable in countries with predominantly non-Catholic populations. However, he and all the popes taught that, as a matter of doctrinal principle, the nation or state has no more right than the individual to proclaim its independence from God and his revealed word. It is not morally entitled to say, “As a civic community we have no duty to worship and honor God, or to follow any specific religious creed in our laws and policies”.
Under the Mosaic Covenant the Decalogue and the Temple worship were the corner-stones of Israel’s life as a nation. And while, under the New Covenant, a clearer distinction between God and Caesar was made, the ultimate authority of the Incarnate Son of God over all the affairs of men became the foundational principle of Christian civilization. As Christ solemnly proclaimed in taking leave of his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me” (Mt. 28: 18).
In response to the growing secularization of Western society, this doctrine of Christ’s social kingship was classically expounded by Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei (1885), “On the Christian Constitution of States”, and by Pius XI in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas, instituting the liturgical Feast of Christ the King. Both these encyclicals are referenced in their entirety in the final (1997) edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its exposition of the First Commandment (cf. last footnote to #2105). In this sub-section, headed “The Social Duty of Religion and the Right to Religious Liberty”, the CCC also cites two affirmations of Vatican Council II. One is that a just religious liberty leaves intact “the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of individuals and societies to the true religion and the one Church of Christ”. (Just before they voted on this text, the Council Fathers were told by the official relator that these words from article 1 of the Declaration on Religious Liberty were to be understood as reaffirming the duty of the “public power” [potestas publica] to recognize Catholicism as the true religion.) The other citation comes from the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, #13, affirming that citizens should strive to “infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures, of the communities in which [they] live” (#2105, emphasis added in both citations).
This brings us to the interview given by His Holiness Pope Francis on May 9, 2016 to the French newspaper La Croix.
Among other provocative statements that have since prompted widespread discussion, the Holy Father replied as follows to a journalist’s question about Church-State relations:
“States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of history. I believe that a version of laicity accompanied by a solid law guaranteeing religious freedom offers a framework for going forward. We are all equal as sons (and daughters) of God and with our personal dignity” (emphasis added).
Taken in their most natural sense, the Pope’s first four words cited above go directly against the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s social kingship. Francis doesn’t merely say that in today’s pluralistic and secularized Western society it may now sometimes be more pastorally prudent for the Church, even in traditionally Catholic countries, not to insist on the exercise her divinely-bestowed right to be legally recognized as the true religion (cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, #76). No, his assertion that States have a duty to disavow any religious confession is unqualified. Absolute. And the second and third sentences cited in bold type above, expressing His Holiness’ personal historical judgments, confirm the universal, quasi-doctrinal character of the first. For, taken together, these three blunt assertions constitute a sweeping, negative generalization about Catholic (and other) confessional states in the past as well as the present, and with implications for the future (since such states “go against the grain of history”).
It would therefore be pretty hard to give a ‘hermeneutic-of-continuity’ reading to these words – one that would plausibly harmonize them with the doctrine of Christ’s Social Kingship that we’ve summarized above. Indeed, this doctrine has been so neglected and forgotten in recent decades that I wonder how much the Holy Father knows about it. His view, unfortunately, seems to be that the Church simply got it wrong when she promoted Catholic confessional states right through the post-Constantine era; and that only in the late 20th century has she finally learned that Church/State separation, along the lines pioneered by the U.S.A., is really the best arrangement for all nations – even those with large Catholic majorities. It seems likely that the Pope’s jaundiced view of Catholic ‘establishment’ has been fostered by the influence of his fellow Jesuits such as Fr. John Courtney Murray; for they have been leaders in advocating the pro-separationist thesis since Vatican II. (For a critique of Murray’s attempt to interpret the Council in this ‘Americanist’ sense, see my two-part article here: Part I and Part II.)
It’s true that the historical record of confessional Catholic States has been far from stainless: it has often been marred not only by excessive intolerance of minorities, but also by harmful government interference in church affairs. But in this fallen world, disestablishment eventually turns out to be worse, as we are now finding out the hard way in the apostate West. For once the Catholic Church is no longer legally recognized as the authentic interpreter of morality, even the natural moral law becomes perverted and finally jettisoned. Media-driven propaganda leads public opinion to accept grave injustices that undermine families and menace both temporal and eternal life: abortion, euthanasia, immoral sex education, ‘gay marriage’, gender ideology, artificial procreation, and so on.
To conclude on a brighter note: Catholic establishment does not necessarily end as “badly” as His Holiness supposes. The Dominican Republic remains an officially Catholic nation to this day. Its present concordat with the Holy See was signed over 60 years ago, but is still in force half a century after Vatican II, because while the Dominican State duly honors the Blessed Trinity and recognizes many special rights for the Church, the concordat already recognized for non-Catholic minorities the religious freedom proclaimed a decade later by the Council in Dignitatis Humanae. Much to the chagrin of UN élites, this Catholic republic has recently amended its constitution so as to recognize that human life begins at conception an that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
I find myself writing this on Corpus Christi Thursday – which reminds me that I was visiting friends in the Dominican Republic on that major feast day some years ago. We were driving through the capital, Santo Domingo, and I expressed wonderment that here, downtown on a weekday morning, the streets were practically empty. My friend at the wheel reminded me: “Padre, remember you’re in a Catholic country! Nobody works here on Corpus Christi!”
If you read Italian and/or Spanish, take a look at the Dominican concordat with the Vatican.
You might also add a little prayer that if someone draws this document to the present Bishop of Rome’s attention, he doesn’t order its abrogation by the Holy See on the grounds that “States must be secular”.
The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico.