06 Religion and Politics: Church and State - Austin Ivereigh & Kathleen Griffin

posted Mar 27, 2019, 10:23 PM by Neil D'Souza   [ updated Mar 27, 2019, 10:23 PM ]
The Church is often accused of "interfering in politics" when she speaks on issues that affect society. What should the relationship between religion and politics be?

The idea that the Catholic Church 'interferes' with national sovereign politics is nothing new. Rulers (and voters) have always resented being held to account by a higher law. In the age of democracy, the accusation is sometimes levied against the Church that it acts as a kind of lobby, using its spiritual influence to engineer certain political outcomes — acting, in other words, out of corporate self-interest. Critics accuse the Church of 'imposing its view' on the rest of society, in an attempt to thwart human rights — usually understood narrowly and one-sidedly as those of a woman to seek an abortion, or a gay couple to adopt a child. Religion is increasingly seen as a private matter, and public life as a neutral space. The prevailing ethic of autonomy is intrinsically hostile to allowing religion a voice in public life. Neither is true.

Right from the outset, we must be clear that there is a distinction between the Church and the State. This is rooted in the Gospel, in Jesus' guiding principle, "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." (Mt 22:21) The temporal and spiritual spheres are interrelated, yet distinct. The State must respect the freedom and practice of religion, whilst religion must respect the jurisdiction of the State.

The neuralgic issue here is the perennial one of 'mixing religion and politics'. What the secularist critique often forgets is that the radical exclusion of faith from politics has not led to utopia, but disaster. The greatest horrors of the twentieth century were inflicted by totalitarian states among whose first moves was the abolition of faith from the public sphere, and subordination of religion to the state. Conversely, some of the proudest moments of Western political history — the abolition of the slave trade, or the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — are uplifting examples of what happens when churches hold up a transcendent moral horizon to society, and guide the movement that shapes society towards that ideal, seeking to influence the state for the common good. The greatest achievements of Western society, in other words, stem from a civilisation in which Church and state co-exist and cooperate; the greatest disasters have arisen from efforts by the state to eradicate the Church, often justified by an ideology which interprets the 'will of the people' as a license for unchecked, unlimited state power.

Christianity believes in keeping the two spheres of faith and politics apart, yet interconnected. Unlike secularism, which proclaims the moral autonomy of the state, a healthy or positive secularity advocates a distinction between faith and politics (but not their divorce). The precise relationship of faith and politics, spiritual and temporal — 'the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God' is a complex one. But the underlying principle should be clear. Reason and religion need each other. They are intertwined. But they are distinct realms, and should not be confused, both for the sake of the Church and of the state.