Monday, December 14, 2009

On the separation of STATE and Church

The U.S. Bishops and in-the-pew Catholics have been more active in the last few months as the health care debate has played out in seeking to influence legislators to make sure that tax payer dollars do not pay for abortions.  I have done a tremendous amount of reading on these issues as they continue to unfold because of course the issue is extremely complex and necessitates that we keep up with changes if we hope to understand and effect change.

One of the troubling things that I have noticed in reading these articles are some of the comments that have been made by readers online commenting about stories, and even more startling comments made by some legislators in relation to Catholics making their voices heard; and in particular Bishops making their voices heard.  These comments have generally gone along the line of, "What ever happened to the separation of Church and State."

The implication is that if you are a person of faith, or worse if you are a member of the clergy or church hierarchy, somehow the freedoms afforded citizens in the Constitution of the United States are left at the Church doors.  The implication is that if faith is your guide, you have no right to voice your opinion, your hope, your dream, your expectation of what our country should be.  Baptism apparently, in addition to washing away the stain of original sin, also washes away freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of press, freedom to influence our representatives and those who work on our behalf in Washington.

They would have us believe, I suppose, that we are a truly secular state, perhaps even an atheist one.  They would have us believe that we've got it wrong on our currency.  In fact it is not "In God We Trust," but "In Ourselves We Trust."

The problem is that they have failed to read our Constitution well; have somehow forgotten the heritage of our nation built upon not a secular state, but a religiously plural and free one; and forgotten what our founding documents actually say.

So, what ever happened to the separation of Church and State?  Well, quite simply, it never existed!!  Our Constitution does not call for a separation of Church and State.  It calls for a seperation of STATE from Church.

To quote the relevant text.  The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." 

The concept of a seperation is not a concept that hopes to silence religious voices; it is a concept that seeks to stop our government from trying to silence religious voices.  So, when a citizen or a legislator suggests that we should keep silent, aren't they "prohibiting the free exercise" of our religion?

Obviously, legislators remain free to make decisions and laws that they feel are best.  No matter how loudly the Church, its members or its leaders speak, they do not have the power to effect law in this land; but they most certainly retain the "God-given" right to speak out for the government that they hope for just like each and every last citizen of this great land does.

So, if anyone should be keeping their nose out of things, it is the government.  When the Church speaks, listen!  Just as you would listen to any of your citizenry.  We have the same right to freedom; to speak; to participate; to effect without anyone prohibiting our free exercise of our faith.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."


  1. I agree that the Constitution prohibits the selection of one religion over another as the "State Religion" and prohibits the state from exerting control over religions (with the exception as to whether Mormons can have multiple wives and with regard to the practices of a few peyote-chewing Native American religions). What worries me is when one religion — including my own — tries to impose its beliefs on the rest of the country through laws. Today it may be Roman Catholics and abortion; what if in some far future it's a substantial group of Moslems trying to limit women's garb. Laws reflect the morals of the majority. It is only when we have won through argument and persuasion that our then-common beliefs should be codified in laws.

    I just got through reading the history of the Spiritual Franciscans. It is sad to think that within 80 years of the death of Francis, some Franciscans were dragging others — usually from the same province! — to the inquisition and, from there, they were "relaxed" to the secular arm to be burned at the stake by the civil authorities.

    There can be too much of a connection between the state and religion. We have to tread lightly when seeking to impose our beliefs on those who have a serious and well thought out belief in another direction. I truly believe that the path to success is through convincing people and not simply imposing laws upon them.

  2. Jim,

    I hear your point, but I don't see how the bishops and the rest of us Catholics voicing our concerns over a health care bill equals forcing our position on people. We are simply voicing our position and then legislators can make their decision.

    Why is that any different than any other group that lobbies for what it hopes for?

    My objection is to the people who react saying that the Church's voice should be silenced.