Church and State: A Theological View
Transcript of the presentation given by
Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director, Priests for Life and President, National
Pro-life Religious Council
At the Symposium
The Church and Politics: Are We as Restricted as We Think?
Ave Maria School of Law
Ann Arbor, MI
June 17, 2003
The Church's Mission
Let me begin by sharing with you a passage from the Gospel of Mark,
which contains a mystifying verse. In Mark 8:38 we read, "whoever is ashamed of
me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of
Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the Holy
Angels. And then he said to them, truly I say to you, their are some standing
here who will not experience death before they see that the Kingdom of God has
come with power."
Of course what's mysterious there is, did Jesus mean to say that some of
those who heard him that day would be around when he came again? Because
obviously that's not what happened. Everyone who heard him that day has died. He
talked about the Kingdom of God "coming with power." Now he spoke that way about
his second coming at the end of time. But that's not the only thing that this
passage refers to. We see after he rose from the dead, he says the following
words at the end of Matthew's gospel, Mt 28:18-20, "Jesus came and said to them,
all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go therefore and make
disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of
the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have
commanded you and know that I am with you always until the end of the world."
We begin today's reflection by asking, What is the Church's mission? If we're
going to understand the relationship between the Church and politics, we have to
begin by looking at the Church's mission and how it impacts politics. Why should
it have anything to do with politics?
Here's the key: the person of Jesus Christ. The Alpha and the Omega.
The Kingdom of God Incarnate. The One, who according to his own declaration here
before he ascended to heaven, the One in whom all authority, all power, all
dominion has been placed because of who He is -- God by nature and also Lord by
the fact of his redemptive work. Jesus as a human being today with a human body,
with a beating heart, the same person who always existed as a human being,
today, rules the universe. He is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, judge of not only
individuals but judge of nations.
Taking the Body Seriously
This is where the Church begins. Really the problem that we wrestle
with today and all the time when we talk about how does the Church relate to or
interact with the State and where are the proper boundaries -- the problems
we're talking about here are really rooted in the fact that the Church takes
seriously the Incarnation. These are all incarnational issues because
this is really God and Man in Jesus.
In fact if you look at the different heresies that have existed from the
beginning of the Church in regard to who Jesus is, you find there the source of
various different ways of understanding or misunderstanding not only what the
Church is but therefore, what the Church's relationship is to the world, to the
State and to politics.
So, for example you have the old heresy that says Jesus only appeared to
be human -- he didn't really exist as a human being, he didn't really
suffer, he didn't really die. He only appeared to be human. And this gives rise
to a form of Christianity which is actually over spiritualized -- and being
over spiritualized can also end up being overly separated from the world.
Then of course you have the other extreme -- that Jesus Christ was a man
specially appointed by God but didn't really share the Diving Nature. Oh, he was
special all right. The hand of God was upon him, he was anointed, he preached as
no one else has preached, he did things that nobody else did but when it boils
down in the end, he was human, just one of us. And if that's the starting point
for an understanding of Jesus Christ, of course it's going to follow through
that the understanding of the Church and the Church's relationship to the State
which is just a human institution and therefore the power it might have is
simply in the end only political power, only human power.
And so you see right away from different ways of understanding who Jesus is,
you have the danger of going from one side to the other: a mystical,
super-spiritual kind of church or religion that is separate from the world,
totally detached, even not caring what happens in the political arena or a
completely worldly church that uses only human means and human ends and
eventually seeks to establish an earthly paradise.
In reality Christ and therefore also the Church are both human and divine.
The Church encompasses everything that's human. Everything that's human.
The Church takes humanity seriously. For the Church, "matter" matters. So for
example when we celebrate the Eucharist, the Catholic Church has always
proclaimed that this truly becomes the Body of Christ.
The problems that we face today, by the way, in terms of the sanctity of life
and the sanctity of marriage and sexual ethics in society, can be traced to a
dualism in the way that we look at the human person. Think about when people
say, "I can do what I want with my body." Well, what do you mean by that? I can
do what I want with my pen, but my body? Is my body a thing that I do
something with or is it me? The Church has always proclaimed that the body is an
aspect of the person. So the body is not some thing that you do something with,
it's you. As soon as you say I can do what I want with my
body, you see right away a separation between I and my body. I'm
over here and my body is over here and I'm doing something with it. This is not
the Church's view of the human person.
The Church encompasses everything that is human, takes matters so seriously
that the physical body is the person. If someone steps on your foot and
injures you, they injure you. Yes, I hurt my foot but you can also
say, "you hurt me." And we do say that. "I cut myself." If you cut your
finger, you say "I cut myself as well as my finger because my finger is part of
me." The Church has always taken this view of the human person. At different
times and at different ages and different places we've suffered from one of
these two extremes: either too spiritual looking at the human person just as a
spirit who happens to use the body or getting too mundane, too worldly, too
secular and forgetting about the soul.
The Church of course has its origins however, not in humanity, and is not a
man made institution. It has its origins from above and it has its destiny above
as well. We're not seeking to build up some kind of earthly power, because the
Church exists precisely because the kingdom of God has broken into the
world. And this is what creates the tension. The Kingdom of God did not just
sweep us up into itself, the Kingdom of God broke into human history. It broke
into the world but didn't destroy the world. Here is the source of the tension
that we discover.
The Kingdom and the World
So what is the relationship between the Kingdom and the world? Of
course after Jesus says "all authority, all power, all dominion have been
given to me", then he tells the Apostles and tells us, "go therefore and
change the world. I'm in charge. Go therefore and make disciples of…" of
whom? Of all the Nations. He doesn't say of some. He means everyone. And
the Church has always taught that all humanity; every human being ever created
is called to belong to the new people of God, is called to share the benefits of
the new and everlasting covenant.
So we have a great commission. The Church has a commission: to make disciples
of all the nations, to carry out everything that he has commanded us. No one is
exempt. And the authority that has been given to Christ is not only over
individuals, it is over nations as well.
Now the same people who belong to the Church also belong to the State.
Because it's one and the same person who belongs to both we have a necessary
connection. The connection is rooted in us as individuals, in our actions.
That's where morality flows from: an analysis of our actions, good or bad. Are
they right or wrong? Well, when the State looks at our actions it's talking
about right or wrong before the law. When the Church looks at our actions, it
talks about right or wrong in terns of our relationship with God and our eternal
salvation. The kingdom of God has broken into the world. We have been called to
be part of that kingdom and yet at the same time we have to organize ourselves
politically in our society.
I would like to refer you attention to a passage in the second Vatican
Council's document on The Church in the Modern World. It's one of the
most beautiful documents, one of the richest documents that has ever come out of
the Magisterium. It's a document always worth going back to. "The Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." It says a lot about the topic
we're talking about today from the theological perspective. What is the Church's
mission? Particularly, sections 36-39 I want to reflect on for a moment. In
those paragraphs, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World asks this
question: We know that the Kingdom of God has broken into the world and
therefore the Church exists. We know that we are also members of governments and
states. How then, does the growth of the Kingdom relate to human activity and
the growth of nation's and states? And the analysis in those paragraphs is
Here's what the document says. The progress of mankind is not to be confused
with the growth of the Kingdom of God. They are distinct. But, we are not to see
them as totally separated because all of the good that through God's grace we
are able to accomplish in this life: the works of justice, of brotherhood, of
peace, the building of a just society and a peaceful world -- all the good that
we're able to do as individuals, as groups and as nations is not lost on the
Kingdom of God. That good is not forgotten! It is not in and of itself what
ultimately builds the kingdom, but it is used by God as building blocks of the
Kingdom and in fact the passage goes on to say that the good things we produce
in this world will endure in the world to come.
Now again, as soon as it says that it has to go back to making the
distinction and therefore reminds us that the Kingdom is brought to its
fulfillment only by the Second Coming of Christ. We do not look for an earthly
paradise, we do not look for a utopia, we look for Christ to come again. But
looking for him coming again is not a passive waiting; it is an active
waiting because we know that when he comes again -- what's he going to do?
He's going to take the good that we have been able to bring about in this world,
the justice, the peace, the brotherhood and he's going to purify it, he's going
to lift it up. It's going to become not only building blocks of the world to
come but it will be taken up and perfected because every good that we do in this
world is always all mixed up with evil and error and it's somehow deformed. Not
just limited, but tainted. And yet we move forward in bringing about as much
good as we can because we know that we're not ultimately relying only on our
human activity, we're waiting for the coming of Christ in glory and the good we
do will not be lost. So, it's not just like we're sitting back waiting, and
saying "let him bring all the good." Nor are we saying we're going to produce
all the good. It's a marvelous balance of the two. And more than a balance. The
Church is trying to point out to us just how deeply interlocked and intertwined
these things are, the mystery -- (and these are mysteries) -- the mystery of
human activity and the mystery of the growth of God's Kingdom which is
ultimately always a gift of His grace.
The Church's "Yes" and "No" to the State
In the light of this, the Church historically, starting with the person of
Christ Himself has always looked at the State and has said at the same time,
"yes" and "no." And I want to analyze with you, using Scripture, a little bit of
the "yes" a little bit of the "no" that the Church says to the State. Let's
start with the "no's." I'm going to recommend to you two of the many, many
excellent resources on all of this. Hugo Rahner's book, "Church and State in
Early Christianity", published by Ignatius is an excellent source especially for
documentation of the early Church in its relation to the State in both its "yes"
and its "no." Also a book by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger back in 1988, "Church,
Ecumenism and Politics". I'll be drawing some of these reflections form these
The Church has a balance between her "yes" and her "no." Rahner says in this
book, "The Church has never confronted the State with a "no" of inflexible
refusal dictated by another worldly mysticism or with a "yes" of unqualified
acceptance based on political indifference. The Church of the martyrs with a
sure political instinct illuminated by grace knew how to find a balance between
'yes' and 'no.'"
Let us begin with the "no" of Christians to the State. It is based, or so it
seems, on the very nature of Christianity as a religion of a kingdom not of this
world. And of course we know that Christ Himself said that to Pilate when he
asked him whether or not he was a king. And of course the famous question
presented to Jesus about paying the tax to the Emperor. Should we pay the tax to
Caesar or not? Now, notice what Jesus does. He asks whose image, whose
inscription is on the coin and they say "Caesar's." "Then give to Caesar what is
Caesar's," he tells them (that's the "yes") "but give to God what is God's"
(that's the "no" to the State). In other words there's something higher here.
There's a duty to be given. Now, from where does that duty flow? Think of what
he said. The coin belongs to Caesar because it bears the image of Caesar, so
give it to him. But "give to God what belongs to God." Well, what belongs to
God? That which bears the image of God, namely human beings -- including
Caesar himself! So Christ establishes the framework. Caesar himself belongs
to God. The State itself belongs to God.
The State, the Church always has held, does not contain the fullness of human
hope or embrace the totality of human existence. The state rather, exists for
the human person, not the other way around. And what is our destiny? Our destiny
ultimately is the new heavens and the new earth. So we can never put our
ultimate hope and trust in what the State can do for us. In this consists the
Church's "no" to the State. It frees us from the myth of some kind of political
salvation and, you know, sometimes when we in practical terms ask the Church to
be more politically involved this is one of the criticisms. "Oh, we can't rely
on those people anyway; they're all crooked, they never keep their promises."
And the Church is the first to say, we're not asking you to put ultimate hope
and trust in any political party, candidate or system. We're saying that it has
a key role. We're not saying that it demands your ultimate hope or trust.
Our destiny is not comprised by this world alone.
At the same time the Church says a profound "yes" to the State and this is
rooted in a very simple fact: that all authority, all power, comes from God. And
therefore the fact that there is an earthly, civil authority that we need to
obey becomes part of our obedience to God himself. Scripture is filled with
examples of this. Perhaps one of the most striking is in the book of the Prophet
Jeremiah and there are other examples. Even when the state and the powers of
civil authority are persecuting believers, believers are exhorted to be good
citizens. So you may recall the letter written in the book of the prophet
Jeremiah, chapter 29. Let me read a portion of this letter. The people are being
taken into exile in Babylon. And they're not told to create a revolution.
They're not called to overthrow the Babylonians. What are they called to do?
"Thus says the Lord of hosts, to the exiles whom I have sent into exile from
Jerusalem to Babylon." Here's what he tells them: "Build houses and live in
them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives, have sons and daughters.
Take wives for your sons that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there,
do not decrease". Verse 7: "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you
into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare you will
find your welfare."
Seek the welfare of the city even if the city is holding you in exile!
Now we're more familiar with the New Testament exhortations. Peter for
example says, "Maintain good contact among the Gentiles, so that in case they
speak against you as wrongdoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God.
Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the Emperor. Let
none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, or wrongdoer. But if one suffers as a
Christian let him not be ashamed." And then of course the exhortation to pay
taxes, and the example of Jesus himself paying the temple tax and taking the
coin out of the mouth of the fish to do so.
St. Augustine has a beautiful passage on the Church's "yes" to the State. Let
me read this paragraph from "The City of God." He says, "We all know how often
the Body of Christ, His Church, is persecuted by the rulers of this world, but
in what way do Christians injure the worldly state? I ask again, in what way do
Christians injure the worldly state? Perhaps Christ their eternal King has
forbidden soldiers to enroll in the service of worldly authority? Did not he
himself say when the Jews attempted to trap him, 'give to Caesar what is
Caesar's to God what is God's'? Did he not pay taxes with a coin taken from the
fish's mouth? Did not one of his followers, a close companion on his journey,
say to his colleagues, to Christ's fellow citizens, 'let everyone submit to
civil authority' and order the Church to pray for the emperor? In what way then
are Christians the State's enemies? In what way are Christians not subject to
the kings who rule this earth?"
So to put it simply, the fact that we are citizens of heaven does not give us
the right to ignore our duties as citizens of earth. One of the old criticisms
of religion is that because we focus on a world to come we are less concerned
about this one. But the Church's teaching has always been very clear. The fact
that we're preparing for the world to come makes us more concerned about
this one. Because after all, we want to spend eternity with the person next to
us. After all, it's a new heavens and a new earth that God is preparing for us,
not some kind of totally disconnected world that has nothing to do with the
things that go on in this life.
The king has a King
Let's look at this from a different perspective. Going back to the first book
of Samuel, (and this again is another great catechetical source when we're
talking to our people about this) -- First Samuel, Chapter 8. If you'll recall
the situation, the people of God are living on the land, with many other nations
around them who had strange gods, strange rituals. But there was also another
big difference between God's people who are going to the Holy Land and the other
nations around them. It was that the other Nations had a king. The people of
Israel, instead, were always talking about the Lord, the Covenant, the
Commandments God gave to Moses -- but they didn't have a king. So one day they
go to the prophet Samuel, and they say would you give us a king, please?
All the other nations around us have a ruler that leads them into battle and
fights their wars and provides for them and we don't have a king. Samuel says,
what are you talking about, the Lord is your king. No, no, no we want a king.
So Samuel goes to the Lord and the Lord says, they asked you for a king,
give them a king. But warn them that they're going to suffer for it. And
several chapters later we read the instructions that Samuel gives to the people.
He says to them, "You said to me, no we want a king to rule over us. But the
Lord your God was your king and now behold the king whom you have chosen, for
whom you have asked. Behold, the Lord has set a king over you. If you will fear
the Lord and serve Him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the
commandment of the Lord and if both you and the king who reigns over you will
follow the Lord your God it will be well. But if you will not hearken to the
voice of the Lord and rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand
of the Lord will be against you and your king." Again, the hierarchy is
established. You obey the king. You and the king obey the Lord.
If you read through the history of the Old Testament you are likely to be
confused. That's why most people avoid the Old Testament. They prefer the
parables even though the parables are mysterious at times. People find it a
whole lot easier than reading about all these long names and the kings of Israel
and the kings of Judah. And what makes it confusing is that you're actually
reading the history of two kingdoms interwoven one with another. Scripture
doesn't say, "Here's all about the history of Israel, the Northern Kingdom of
the ten tribes…And here's all about the history of Judah." No, it's all
intertwined; it goes back and forth. You have to read it very attentively. But
when you do, you find out very soon that you're reading theological history.
You're reading history, all right. These things happened, but it's theological
What do I mean? It's looking at history from the perspective of God and
understanding the God-related reasons why certain armies won the battles, the
theological reasons why. You could look at the many fights that the people of
Israel and of Judah had with the kings of the surrounding nations that at
various times came against them or wanted to overtake them. And you can try to
analyze it from a political point of view and say, "They made this strategic
mistake or they didn't have a sufficient number of soldiers or they didn't place
them properly." In fact you can find both brilliant strategies and terrible
blunders when you read through all the histories of these wars and these
battles. However, what scripture is trying to convey is not the brilliant
political strategies or the terrible blunders. Rather the fact that it was when
the people and their king observed and obeyed the covenant, things went
well and God delivered their enemies away from them. But when they, often at the
urging of their king and because of the sinfulness of their king, violated the
covenant it was God Himself who delivered them into the hands of their enemies.
At the time of the Babylonian exile, do you know what happened to Jeremiah?
Jeremiah the prophet got thrown into a cistern. He sank in the mud. Do you know
why he was treated so poorly for preaching the Word of God? Because the people
said he was a traitor to the Babylonians. Jeremiah was saying, "The Babylonians
are coming against you. Submit to them! The people responded, "What are you
talking about, submit to them? We have to fight against them!" And Jeremiah
said, "To fight against them is not going to work because the reason this is
happening is because of your sins."
We read about evil kings in the Old Testament, who even set up sacred pillars
of false worship that involved the sacrifice, the burning of their sons and
daughters. Scripture tells us that that is ultimately why the Babylonian exile
and the Assyrian exile that wiped out the ten northern tribes happened --
because they sacrificed their sons and daughters to false gods and goddesses.
False altars built by the king -- not by the people, but by the king.
Responsibility rested on the shoulders of the sovereign; the people followed
after them and God wiped out both kings and people alike.
The Prophets arrived in scripture to admonish the kings and to instruct the
people. You see the role of the Prophets very clearly in the Old Testament as
one of admonishing the kings, telling them again that they need to be faithful
to the Covenant. You and I are in a position today in America that gives us even
more responsibility than the Prophets had when they spoke to the kings. We too
are prophets by our baptism into Christ. We have a prophetic role, not in the
sense of telling the future but of speaking the Word of God. We do it as
clergy when we preach but we all do it as baptized members of the faithful when
we bear witness to the Word of God in our daily life. The greater responsibility
that we have is that we not only have the opportunity to speak to our "kings",
our rulers, those in government authority. We have the opportunity to choose
them. This is not an opportunity that the people in the Old Testament had. We
have the power to choose them. And if our system of governance works the way
it's supposed to work, we in fact govern ourselves.
What this means is that all the scriptural responsibilities that God places
on the sovereign, on the king, on the ruler, are placed on us! If you read the
Bible from the beginning to the end you see a whole series of very, very serious
responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the ruler of the people. The ruler
of the people was to do justice, reaffirm the Covenant, lead the people in the
ways of the Lord, promote peace, defend life, rescue the poor and the widow. All
of the responsibilities of the sovereign and their people are now on us. We
don't only have the responsibility that belongs to the people; we have the
responsibility that belongs to the sovereign because of our ability, our
opportunity to take part in the political process and to elect our leaders.
What I'm tracing for you here, in other words, is the profound spiritual
responsibility not to escape from the world and politics but to be immersed in
them. The profound spiritual reason, not political reason. I'm not
talking about the political reason; I'm talking about spiritual reason. And
here's where the healing has to take place, brothers and sisters. The healing
has to take place from a defective, distorted, truncated view of spirituality
that somehow runs away from a responsibility to choose the right leaders and
admonish them when they go wrong. Now the kings either affirmed the covenant or
denied the covenant. When we speak about the role of Christians in politics,
we're not talking about wanting to establish a theocracy. We're not talking here
about wanting to establish a state in which by law people have to believe in the
divinity of Christ or get a fine if they don't go to Sunday Mass. We're not
talking about that at all. Let's reflect for a moment about why that's true
theologically. We will reflect later about why that's true legally.
Freedom of Belief
Why is it not true theologically that we want to establish a
theocracy? Because the truth has a power of its own. You don't need the power of
the State to impose on people the truth about God. How theologically does the
truth capture people? By being proclaimed. I believe, therefore I speak. Who is
to believe unless he hears? How can he hear unless it is preached? The word is
preached, the seed is sown, and the dignity of the human person requires that
they hear it and accept it -- how? Freely. Always, always freely. When people
who heard the Lord Jesus' words did not like them and turned and walked away, He
never forced them to come back. Never. He called them to come back. He
preached the word and proclaimed the message, but it is the living power of the
truth itself. We were made according to the truth. You and I were constructed
according to the Word of God. The word of truth fits, if you will, into the
human heart and into the human mind. How did God create us? By speaking.
We are made according to the truth, and therefore, when we hear the word of
truth it resonates. There are many things that stand in the way, but the word
also purifies and burns away those things that stand in the way. So the Church
has always stood up for religious liberty.
Now some have misinterpreted the meaning of liberty to mean religious
indifferentism. What is the difference? The difference between religious liberty
and religious indifference is this: religious indifferentism says you can't
require people to belong to any particular religion because after all, all
religions are the same, and are of equal value. You can take whatever religion
you want and choose from its teachings like you choose from a menu at a Chinese
restaurant. Isn't that what freedom of religion and freedom of belief are all
about? No religion is inherently superior to any other religion. Now, there are
many people in our society that think that way. But the Church does not
think that way. The Church does not defend religious liberty based on the
idea that all religions are equal. The Church defends religious liberty based on
a different idea -- the dignity of the human person. That dignity requires that
he or she embrace the truth without coercion, that he or she embrace the truth
freely. That doesn't mean that there is no such thing as truth. This is a big
point of confusion in our day, that somehow we are supposed to be free to
embrace whatever religion we want because ultimately it doesn't matter which one
you choose. The Church says it matters very much which one you choose. There is
only one path to salvation, that's Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ has laid out
some very clear teachings that have been preserved and handed down to the
Apostles and taught to this very day. And they're true. They're taught not
because they're consoling, but because they're true.
It is, again, the dignity of the human person that requires that we embrace
these truths freely. We're not talking about passing laws or electing candidates
that are going to enact the Covenant by requiring us to celebrate certain
sacraments or lead certain prayers or say the rosary. However, just as in the
Old Testament, the leaders, the rulers, must reaffirm the Covenant.
Church, State, and Morality
And in what sense must they do that? Let's put another piece of the
puzzle here on the table. The Church does not only teach religious truths. The
Church does not only teach revealed dogmas. The Church also teaches things that
we can know by human reason alone. The Church teaches natural truths. The
Church teaches about fundamental rights. The Church teaches things which we
could find out even if we didn't have the Church. Let's consider some examples
of the difference between the two. The Church reveals to us the mystery of the
Holy Trinity. That is not something we could come to by human reason alone. God
is one in three Persons. They are co-equal Persons. There are relationships
between the three. We could not come to that by human reason alone. That is a
revealed dogma of faith. The Church also teaches that it is wrong to steal.
There is a fundamental human right to one's possessions and those possessions
have to be reasonably secure in order to have a functioning society. That is an
insight that we can come to and that people do come to without being believers
or member of the Church. That truth is reinforced by the Church but it can be
reached by human reason. We never hear people complain that the laws against
stealing are an imposition of religious beliefs. However, if you go to the
Bible, it's on the lips of Jesus. It's on the tablets of Moses, inscribed by the
finger of God and it's in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "You shall not
steal." You don't hear anyone say, "In America, I don't have to be Catholic, I
don't even have to be Christian, I don't even have to believe in God. Therefore,
I can steal."
There is a third term in the formula "Church and State." The third term,
which is common to both, is morality. It is critical to understand
the three: "Church, State, and Morality." I told you earlier one of the key
foundational points here that gives rise to the dilemma that we wrestle with
here today is that the human beings who are members of the Church are also
members of the State and we are talking about the same group of human beings. So
human beings choose and they act and they fail to act, and an analysis of those
actions give rise to morality. So we can't just talk about Church and State as
if we're just talking about some sphere of religious teaching divorced from the
governance of people. There is a morality that flows through both -- and norms
on stealing or killing gives a good illustration of that.
The recent document that came out of the Vatican, the Doctrinal Note
regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, emphasizes this
point. Catholics are not called to create a theocracy. We affirm that there is a
legitimate autonomy of the Church and the State. Yet when we say that there is
in fact a legitimate separation of the two, willed by God Himself, we are not
saying that the way that we conduct ourselves politically is value free.
Democracy cannot be value-neutral. It cannot fail to ascertain that there are
certain things that are good, there are certain things that are right. And we
can know those things.
In other words, look at how society structures itself. If somebody says that
a particular policy is good or bad, or a law is just or unjust, do they come to
those conclusion because of what the Church says? If I look at a law, if I look
at the position of a candidate or a party and I say good or bad, right or wrong,
who's saying that? Do I get that from what the Church says -- in which case it's
simply in the arena of private belief and personal choice? If so, then I can
believe it if I want (but I don't have to) and if I try to make someone else
believe it, I'm guilty of imposing beliefs. So is my judgement about a policy
being right or wrong something that flows from the mouth of the Church? It
might, but it might also flow from somewhere else. Take again the example of
stealing. I acknowledge that this law against stealing is necessary -- but not
because the Catechism says so, but because human reason tells me. And human
reason is something that is shared by all of us. Now we all don't all exercise
it with the same degree of skill. But the fact is, it is a common heritage of
humanity that we are able to reason, we are able to know and discern the
difference between right and wrong and that there are certain things about right
and wrong that are so fundamental that the state absolutely cannot depart from
Here we come to a distinction between fundamental rights and other positions
that might be subject to various interpretations. What do we mean by a
fundamental human right? We mean a human right without which we cannot be
persons -- life itself, liberty. You can't live as a person if you're enslaved.
A person by definition, by his or her very nature is free, and has to be able to
act freely. A person by his or her very nature has to be alive. The very right
to life has to be respected and protected. These are fundamental rights. The
person has to able to acknowledge God. These are certain things without which
you're not existing as a human person. This is what the Church means by
fundamental human rights -- rights without which you cannot function or cannot
be a person.
When it comes to fundamental rights the Church teaches that we can discern
these by human reason alone and therefore they are not simply a matter of
religious teaching. Therefore, to hold the state accountable for protecting
those fundamental rights has nothing to do with imposing religious beliefs.
This is one of the key points of this doctrinal note that came out this in
November 2002 from the Vatican.
Church, State, and Human Rights
Let me give you an example from some court history over the last
century. In Alabama and Tennessee, there were some state court cases regarding
snake handling. Some Christian Churches included the handling of poisonous
snakes in their worship service, based on Jesus' words in Mark 16 that believers
could handle such snakes without harm. The city, however, passed an ordinance
saying that the Church could not have snake-handling, because it was endangering
the lives and health of people. It should be noted that the snake-handling was
fundamental to the belief of these churches; it was fundamental to their
creed that faith would enable them to handle poisonous snakes. So the question
that came before the court was, was whether the state was justified in passing
ordinances and laws restricting or even prohibiting the handling of poisonous
snakes in the religious service.
We have here some very, very profound constitutional issues. Freedom of
religion -- the state cannot interfere with what a Church believes or
preaches or how they worship. But at the same time, the lives and health of
people is on the line here. What the court ultimately said was this: we are not
going to interfere with the freedom of belief -- believe what you want. However,
we have a responsibility to protect people, and if we see their lives are in
danger we can in fact prohibit certain actions so that they are secure. The
state courts relied on a Supreme Court case from the last century (Reynolds
vs. US in 1878) which posed a hypothetical situation in which the Church
would come along and say that as part of its worship service it would sacrifice
a little child on the altar. Suppose a church like that came along. The Supreme
Court said, "Supposed one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part
of religious worship. Would we seriously contend that the civil government under
which he lived could not prevent a sacrifice?"
Why is that not an infringement of the separation of Church and State?
Because neither the Church nor the State can infringe upon fundamental human
rights. And when the Church infringes on fundamental human rights by
claiming that as part of it's worship service it can sacrifice a child, the
state must step in and say "no." For the same reason and by the same
principle, when the State infringes upon fundamental human rights, the Church
should step in and say "no." That's the situation in which we find
ourselves with respect to the abortion controversy. It has nothing at all to do
with passing laws that impose religious dogma, and has everything to do with
securing fundamental human rights. Brothers and sisters this is the key
distinction that needs to be made strongly when we talk about this particular
Concretely, we at Priests for Life have been doing everything we can,
particularly over the last two election cycles, to push to the farthest limits
what the Church can do. The focus of our work is abortion, and the Church has
stated repeatedly that this is the fundamental moral issue of our day. That does
not obviously exhaust the arena of consideration about Church-state
relationships. But let me share some examples of how we have concretely
addressed those relationships in the context of pro-life work.
I'll bring you back to the example of the elections of 2000. In the summer of
2000 we had a press conference in Washington, DC at the National Press Club. We
brought in priests from about 25 different states and we had them all standing
together at the podium at the National Press Club. What a marvelous sight, a
marvelous display of unity it was. The room was full of cameras and reporters,
and it was a fabulous press conference. We figured it might be only a half-hour
-- we would make a ten minute statement and answer questions. We were on for an
hour and a half. These reporters were sitting there and it became a catechetical
session. They were asking question after question. They were delving into the
issue; they wanted to know more. I pointed out to them on that day that what
they were seeing unfold before their eyes was something that has happened for
2000 years, because it is the mystery of the Church facing the State. We were
standing up, and facing the State that day. We were not telling people how to
vote or what to believe. Rather, we were telling them to be consistent. If you
are a believer, if you believe that certain things are true, first of all that
does not make you a second-class citizen. We are not to accept the status of
second class citizen. If you come to your conclusions about how our nation's
policies should be shaped or how our leaders should be chosen based on your
religious beliefs, that does not disqualify you from having just as much of an
input in what those policies are or who those leaders will be as do the views of
somebody who is motivated by exactly the opposite belief or no belief at all.
That was point number one. Believers are not second class citizens. We are here
and this is as much our country as anyone else's.
Then we said that the country was founded on certain key principles and clear
concepts and acknowledged from its beginning certain fundamental rights. We
spoke out at that press conference about the right to life as the fundamental
issue -- not because we are the Church but because we are Americans. We produced
print ads, radio and television spots and conferences across the country
emphasizing this point. Our friends like Barry Lynn at Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, and Catholics for a Free Choice, and all of
those others groups got wind of it pretty fast and they started to say about me,
"Fr. Frank is calling for a Vatican takeover of America." That was the
accusation. At the press conference I said we're not talking about a Vatican
takeover of America. We're talking about an American takeover of America.
We have departed severely from the founding principles of our Nation when we
have leaders in government who say that government doesn't have to protect the
right to life. We've lost sight of the purpose of government itself. If a
politician can't respect the life of a little baby, how is he supposed to
respect yours? You can't be a public servant if you turn your back on a whole
segment of the public who are being destroyed. You can't get up and say, "I have
to be pro-choice because I have represent all the people" when representing
all the people is precisely our argument. You are not representing
all the people if some of the people are declared not persons. You're just going
to throw them away, you're going to ignore them and say that doesn't matter. If
they are defined out of existence you are not serving them; you are not serving
all the people.
So we got up and we enunciated that as the fundamental issue in elections.
And we pointed out that this is non-partisan message. Many in the media were
trying to turn it into a partisan issue. I said, "Look, I didn't name a single
name, I didn't even refer to a party. And I can prove to you that our message is
completely non-partisan." And here's how I proved it. "No matter what candidate
is running, no matter what position he or she takes and no matter what the
platform of the respective parties might be, our message is always the same.
That proves it's non-partisan. Would I say a single thing differently if the
positions of the two major parties on abortion suddenly flip-flopped and
reversed themselves? Would I be saying the same thing? Yes, I would. What if the
major candidates in this election suddenly reversed their positions on this
issue? Would I be saying the same thing? I would be saying exactly the
same thing. And we would be here in the same place on the same date having the
same press conference, calling for the same thing."
And that's how it always is. That's the way it is in our pulpit. The way to
demonstrate that it's not a partisan issue is to simply keep our message, keep
our target, say the same thing. And we call the people, to do what? To be
active. That was our other major call both in 2000 and 2002 and now for next
year to call people to be full participants in all the opportunities that our
Nation gives us to shape our public policy and to choose our leaders.
Brothers and sisters we have taken lessons today from Christian historyand
Scripture, and those lessons continue right up to the most recent encyclical of
our Holy Father, a beautiful encyclical on the Eucharist. I hope you have a
chance to read it. When you do read it you will see that there is a passage in
which he talks about how the Eucharist transforms the world and points us to the
world to come. In that passage he declares that citizens of heaven are not
called to neglect their duties as citizens of earth. In the encyclical on
the Eucharist he makes the very point that I have been reflecting with you about
today, that Christians are called to fully exercise their citizenship in the
various nations to which they belong.
Let us pray today that as a result of our conversation and as a result of the
commitment that we all have, the Church will in fact become more herself,
proclaiming Christ -- not a Christ separated from the world but a Christ who
transforms the world.