What IS the proper relationship between Church and State?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 18, 2018

My last commentary (Crosses on public buildings: Yes or No?) indirectly raised the question of the right relationship between Church and State in a well-ordered society. This is a relationship that has been deeply distorted by the division of Christianity in the sixteenth century, and further distorted by religious conflict around the world. It is fairly easy to settle in theory, but much harder in practice.

In the West, we now take for granted what we call the “separation of Church and State”. Surprisingly, this concept actually began as a teaching of the Catholic Church. Initially the issue was framed with reference to Catholicism as “the Church” in combination with any State—not with reference to one State in combination with many “churches” or religions.

The Catholic position has always been what Pope Gelasius described in the late fifth century as the doctrine of “the two swords”. The State (the temporal order) is a natural society over which government presides with a natural authority, exercising that authority for the common good of the community it rules. This is the “temporal sword”. The Church, on the other hand, is a supernatural society which presides with a supernatural authority over souls, exercising that authority for the spiritual welfare of the community, both as a contribution to the common good and so that all its members may attain their final end, which is eternal life with God. This is the “spiritual sword.”

It follows that the Church is our authority for defining moral truth (which is inscribed in natural reality by the Creator) and also the truth which God discloses to us solely through Revelation. To expound these truths is the purpose of what we call “Christian doctrine”. It also follows that the State is our authority for devising and implementing the measures necessary to enforce the moral law most effectively for the good of the commonwealth, as well as the many other measures which will be needed to secure and advance the common good of all under its jurisdiction.

We should notice here that in moral analysis—in distinguishing the principles of right and wrong—the Church’s authority is absolute, whereas the State’s authority is prudential. In other words, the Catholic Church alone can teach with certainty the difference between good and evil. But for the right ordering of a commonwealth, it is the State which must make the prudential judgments about how and when moral behavior ought to be encoded into law, and how and when the breaches of those laws are to be punished temporally. These prudential decisions are aimed at the maintenance of the order required for the natural common good of all, regardless of each person’s attitudes and beliefs.

To put the matter even more simply, the proper relationship between Church and State in the natural governance of the human community is this: The Church must determine the moral ends of natural government and the moral means by which natural governments may justly rule. The State, on the other hand, must govern prudentially within the framework provided by this absolute moral understanding. (I should also note that it is because all can recognize these moral principles in the natural law that they may be justly imposed on everyone, regardless of religious beliefs or other personal “points of view”.)

The Problem of Pluralism

It is not the job of the State to determine what is right and wrong but rather what works best to advance the common good within a prior understanding of right and wrong. In the same way, it is not the job of the Church to decide the most effective means for protecting and promoting the common good of society as a whole, but rather simply to insist on the moral framework within which these prudential decisions must be made.

In a nutshell, morally speaking, both totalitarianism and theocracy are out of the question.

Unfortunately, while it really is this doctrine of the two swords which ensures a proper understanding of the separation of Church and State, the concept cannot be correctly applied without a proper understanding of “Church”. With the decline of a proper understanding of “Church” in the West, separation of Church and State has typically degenerated into a refusal to accept “religious values” in political life. This concept of “separation” is easily exploited by civil government, which is constantly tempted to increase its own power.

Most people can grasp as a kind of general principle that values ought to be derived from a transcendent perspective—ideally an authentic religion that really does convey God’s will, or at least a competent and disinterested philosophy. Similarly we can see in the abstract that one of the stupidest and most dangerous errors possible is to imagine that values ought to be created by political authority. All the totalitarianisms since the French Revolution have been rooted in this fundamental absurdity, with the most disastrous consequences for the common good.

But this whole issue becomes confusing when there is no generally recognized religious authority, that is, no clear conception of “Church”. And it becomes utterly chaotic when people come to believe that the values offered by political authority represent the will of the people. This may well be the greatest mythical piety of modern politics. On the one hand, the idea that “the people” are the ultimate source of moral authority is both philosophically absurd and totally unworkable; on the other, the idea that government typically rules in accordance with the values of “the people” depends on definitions of “the people” which can never be adequately tested or proved.

It has been truly said that nature abhors a vacuum. What has gradually happened over the past several hundred years in the West is that the failure of people to agree on their religious beliefs—a failure which must always deeply disturb the cohesiveness of a culture—has led to the usurpation of moral authority by the State. The result is the generation of values through propaganda.

The Need to Rethink Everything

I hope the reader will see several reasons in this essay to explain why it is so important for human communities to seek, find and adhere to a source of moral authority that transcends the State. For a healthy human community, this source cannot assume the power of the State (as in a theocracy), nor can the State assume the powers of a real moral authority (as in totalitarianism).

In the West today we find a curious state of affairs. Church and State are supposedly separated. But in fact public opinion is very selectively horrified by apparent breaches of this misunderstood separation. Public outrage is conveniently generated whenever the Church seeks to correct the mistaken moral values created and implemented by the State, but the public remains perfectly serene whenever the State makes up moral values out of whole cloth in defiance of what the Church has taught over two millennia (and in defiance of what had been largely defined for far longer, when we consider Jewish history, the teachings of many other religions, and the natural law tradition inherited from the Greeks). This tells us something about the temptation to totalitarianism which is so characteristic of the secular West.

Finally, I hope also that the reader will also see several reasons here to rethink the Church-State question in its original terms, that is, as pertaining to the relationship between the Catholic Church and all human governments, and not to some secular theory of human government in relationship with every religion in the world. Without a Catholic culture, we can only muddle along, slogging through competing interests, for there is no recognition of “Church” as a source of absolute value. We may glimpse some general principles; indeed, we should be able to glimpse the natural law. But these glimpses cannot be anchored by an authentic moral and spiritual authority.

There is only a cacophony of competing voices. Spiritual chaos cannot guide the temporal sword; it can only unleash it.

It is only through Catholicism that a proper understanding of Church and State can be grasped. This is why no lasting political good will be achieved in our time without both widespread conversion and a vibrant and widely recognized Church. Separation of Church and State is the right idea, but for it to work there must be not only a recognized State but a recognized Church. The doctrine of the two swords is the right doctrine. But its first principle is that we need both swords.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - May. 27, 2018 12:43 PM ET USA

    I think it's helpful to add the Church has been on the losing side of every contested battle in the culture wars since 1956. I get it's not about "winning", but 62 years is quite a losing streak when it comes to the renewal of the temporal order.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - May. 21, 2018 3:44 PM ET USA

    A brilliant, comprehensive, and subtle essay. More subtle than the Boniface VIII quote. However authoritative it might be when contextualized or parsed, as it is given, it tempts one to retort that a pontiff may also sin.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 18, 2018 7:05 PM ET USA

    Reminds of the much-abused declaration of Boniface VIII: "It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of all human creatures that they submit to the Roman pontiff" (DH 875). Five months prior when accused of asserting direct power over kings, he said: "For 40 years We have been experienced in the law, and We know that 2 powers have been ordained by God. ...We wish to usurp the jurisdiction of a king in nothing...A king or any other person among the faithful...is subject to us by reason of sin."