“Ask a Priest: What About Separation of Church and State?”

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Q: Is there a short answer to the question of separation of church and state? The question seems very misunderstood by many. -P.B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The short answer is that separation of church and state can be very healthy for a society, so long as the voice of the church is not stifled.

Church and state should enjoy autonomy within their own spheres of competence. It is not the church’s business to make or dictate laws (I mean “church” in the generic sense of any organized religious body), nor is it the state’s business to squelch legitimate expressions of religious beliefs.

Jesus himself recognized the legitimacy of worldly authority. At his passion he told Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above” (John 19:11).

Jesus also articulated the principle that should guide us in our dealings with the demands of the world and of the divine. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17).

How the Church has followed or failed to follow that principle has been a key ingredient in the drama of the last 2,000 years of history. In practice, the living of that principle stirs debate and passions. But that is OK; that is part of the ongoing challenge of how to live the faith in the world.

Sometimes the notion of “separation of church and state” has been interpreted to mean that religion should keep quiet in the public arena, that religion is a strictly private affair. This is not a view the Catholic Church shares, and it probably not a view the Founding Fathers of the U.S. had in mind.

The famous phrase about a “wall of separation of church and state” never appeared in the Constitution but was a line from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nowadays many people forget about that second clause. Free exercise of religion means that a person has the right to express and promote his views in the public square.

For further reading see Archbishop Charles Chaput’s article or his book Render Unto Caesar. Another resource is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, under the heading “The Catholic Church and the Political Community”.

I hope this helps. God bless.

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