A Note on the Separation of Church and State

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

It seems to be around election time that the principle of "separation of Church and state" is more frequently invoked by the media, and always in connection with moral issues. Both in Canada and the United States, separation of Church and state is currently interpreted to mean that the state cannot impose the moral conclusions of the Catholic faith, for example, on the citizens at large. To do so is to violate this principle.

But this popular understanding is a misunderstanding. Separation of Church and state means just what it says. No secular prince can rightly usurp ecclesiastical office, as we saw happen in 16th century England. And since the Church is universal (Catholic), bishops could not hold political office without destroying the "universal" nature of the Church. A political party represents a particular constituency of a particular nation. But a bishop is an official teacher of the Church of "all nations" (Mt 28, 19) who represents not a constituency, but Christ, the King of kings. Separation of Church and state is a principle that protects the Church so that it can flourish, and in the minds of the American founders, a flourishing Church makes good citizens, who in turn make good government possible.

But separation of Church and state has somehow come to mean "separation of state and religion". This, however, was not originally the case. Consider article 3 of The Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Moreover, in 1833, Joseph Story, who served on the Supreme Court for most of the first half of the nineteenth century, writes in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: "...at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the first amendment to it…, the general, if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all religions in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation."

The Establishment Clause, which runs: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", never meant indifference to religion, nor did it imply that the state must not encourage religion. American schools at the time taught morality, the Commandments, and about the virtues, such as justice, fortitude, temperance, frugality, etc., and this went on well into the twentieth century and continues in some parts of the United States even today.

The feast of Christ the King is precisely the reason why, for the Catholic, religion and politics are not and never will be separate. Christ is the King of kings, and the kings of the world have a duty to listen to the voice of this King, whether they are Christian rulers or not. We believe Christ is the Incarnation of Wisdom, but one need not explicitly believe this in order to submit to Wisdom. In the Old Testament book of Wisdom, we read:

Listen then, kings, and understand; rulers of remotest lands, take warning; hear this, you who have thousands under your rule, who boast of your hordes of subjects. For power is a gift to you from the Lord, sovereignty is from the Most High; he himself will probe your acts and scrutinize your intentions. If, as administrators of his kingdom, you have not governed justly nor observed the law, nor behaved as God would have you behave, he will fall on you swiftly and terribly (Ws. 6, 1-5).

This does not mean that a political leader has a right to compel citizens to accept articles of faith, such as the trinity, the real presence, the incarnation, etc. These articles of faith exceed the grasp of reason and thus cannot be imposed. However, the principles of practical wisdom and civil rights issues like abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, etc., are not properly speaking matters of faith, but matters of the natural moral law that require nothing but reason in order to be understood. That is why in a multicultural country like Canada and the United States, it is not necessary to privatize religion in favor of moral relativism. As C.S Lewis noted, what is striking about the moral wisdom we find in the religions of the world is how congruent they are to one another and to our own.

But Canada has begun to appropriate the popular misconception regarding "separation of Church and state". This wasn't always so. In section 264c of the Ontario Education Act (1990), the teacher is said to have a duty "to inculcate by precept and example respect for religion and the principles of Judeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry, frugality, purity, temperance and all other virtues." This does not violate "separation", and it only fosters reverence for the moral teachings of other religious traditions.

If the leaders that we choose have a duty to love wisdom and rule with it, then it only follows that those who participate in the political process (us) have a duty to vote for that person who will readily place himself (or herself) not in opposition to Wisdom, but under her dominion; for "loving her means keeping her laws, obeying her laws guarantees incorruptibility, incorruptibility brings near to God; thus desire for Wisdom leads to sovereignty. If then, despots of nations, you delight in throne and sceptre, honour Wisdom, thus to reign for ever (Ws 6, 18-22).