Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

90—Leo XIII on the State’s Duties Toward the Church—Thomas Pink

By Catholic Culture Podcast ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 30, 2020 | In The Catholic Culture Podcast

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Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Humanis Dignitatae, begins by noting that its discussion of religious liberty “has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society” and so “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” This episode is about discovering what that traditional doctrine was and is.

Our main source will be Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Immortale Dei, which is available in audiobook form on Thomas Pink guides us through a close reading of this document (with supplementary material from Libertas and Longuinqua). Here, and in the magisterium of other 19th-century Popes, we find a number of teachings on Church and State that have gone largely unmentioned since the Council, and which are sadly forgotten or even rejected by the majority of self-described conservative Catholics.

The core point is that the State, like the Church, receives its authority from God. Therefore the State has a duty of obedience to God, obedience which cannot be arbitrarily limited to what can be known by reason, excluding revelation. So, Leo says, the State has duties to profess, protect and foster religion, and not just any religion, but the true Faith:

“The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State.”

Other points discussed are these: Leo’s analogy comparing the relationship between Church and State to the harmony between soul and body. The evil consequences of the State’s indifference toward God and true religion. The authority of the Church to coerce the baptized in fulfilling their religious duties, and to have the State act as its agent (all the while remembering that the State has no authority of its own to regulate the supernatural good of religion). Leo’s condemnation of freedom of speech and opinion as commonly understood.

It is clear that a docile and orthodox reading of Vatican II cannot lead us to dismiss prior teachings on Church and State. Yet this works both ways: Church teaching is is a unity, so when discussing these older teachings, we must also ask what is the nature Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty and how all of these teachings can be understood in light of one another. The key lies in the limited scope of Dignitatis Humanae, which from the outset intends only to address religious coercion by the State, and leaves the duties of the State towards religion untouched in both senses of the word.

Though the Church’s teaching on religious liberty is much further from the ideals of the American Founding than many careless readers of Dignitatis Humanae have assumed, American Catholics can and must love their country. Therefore we close with Pope Leo’s friendly and encouraging words to the Church in America.


[3:09] The historical and theological context of Immortale Dei

[7:52] An overview of points from Immortale Dei and Libertas

[10:38] The source and nature of authority; its directive and coercive functions

[18:40] The State’s duty to profess, protect and foster the one true religion

[24:06] Reasons for toleration of other religions; coercion of the baptized

[34:15] Leo’s analogy of Church and State with soul and body

[43:36] Separate sovereignties of Church and State interact; State can act as the “secular arm”

[49:41] Obligations twd. religion of the State properly speaking, not just rulers as individuals

[55:23] Consequences of the State neglecting God and religion

[1:03:00] Dignitatis Humanae: drafting, intended scope, legacy, compatibility with tradition

[1:20:50] Papal condemnations of freedom of speech and opinion

[1:31:30] The Church’s move away from coercing baptized heretics

[1:36:33] The importance of docility in accepting difficult teachings

[1:41:49] Need for a synthesis of the whole magisterium on Church, State and religious liberty


Audiobook of Immortale Dei

Text of Immortale Dei (On the Christian Constitution of States)

Libertas (On the Nature of Human Liberty)

Longuinqua (On Catholicism in the United States)

Thomas Pink on Twitter

Thomas Pink, “Conscience and Coercion”

Theme music: “Franciscan Eyes”, written and performed by Thomas Mirus. Download the Catholic Culture Podcast soundtrack.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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