Non-Establishment of the Church

Please, allow me to begin with some wisdom from St. John Henry Newman’s Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. Speaking of the establishment of a state religion, Newman wrote:

Now, you may say that Catholicism has often been established also. True, but Catholicism does not depend on its establishment for its existence, nor does its tradition live upon its establishment; it can do without establishment, and often dispenses with it to an advantage. A Catholic nation, as a matter of course, establishes Catholicism because it is a Catholic nation; but in such a case Catholicism and its tradition come first, and establishment comes second; the establishment is the spontaneous act of the people; it is a national movement, the Catholic people does it, and not the Catholic Church. It is but the accident of a particular state of things, the result of the fervor of the people; it is the will of the masses; but, I repeat, it is not necessary for Catholicism.

“Establishment,” thought Newman, was more characteristic of Protestantism than Catholicism. “Establishmentism is the very life of Protestantism,” he wrote.

Protestantism cannot last without an establishment, though Catholicism can; and next, I say, that that establishment of Protestantism is not the work of the people, is not a development of their faith, is not carried by acclamation, but is an act of calculating heads, of State policy, of kingcraft; the work of certain princes, statesmen, bishops, in order, if possible to make that national which as yet is not national, and which, without that patronage, never would be national; and, therefore, in the case of Protestantism, it is not a matter of the greater or less expediency, sometimes advisable, sometimes not, but is always necessary, always imperative, if Protestantism is to be kept alive.; or, in other words, Protestantism comes in upon the nation, Protestantism is maintained not in the way of reason and truth, not by appeals to facts, but by tradition, and by a compulsory tradition; and this, in other words, is an establishment.

There are some Catholics in our own day who oppose “non-establishment” of religion and favor “integrating” the Church and the State, not as a “spontaneous act” brought about by “the fervor of the people,” but as “an act of calculating heads of State policy, the work of statesmen and bishops, “in order, if possible to make that national which as yet is not national, and which, without that patronage, never would be national.”  This, as Newman wisely advises, would be a mistake.


But if Newman seems too old-fashioned, how about some words of wisdom from the great Pope Emeritus whose passing we now mourn.  In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. (28)

And again, in the same encyclical:

Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly.

And finally: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State.”

In this regard, we might take note of an infelicitous figure of speech often heard during the ceremonies after Benedict’s death. Some accounts said he was “lying in state” in St. Peter’s.  I know this was meant respectfully and the term “lying in state” was being used broadly. But strictly speaking, “lying in state” is when a deceased governmental official, such as a head of state, is placed in a state building to allow people to pay their respects. St. Peter’s is not a government building; it is a church.  Nor is the pope really a “government official.”  Granted, he is the “head” of the Vatican “state,” which encompasses a grand total of 109 acres with a reported population of 825 persons.  But there are small towns in Iowa with larger populations and more area than that.

What happened in St. Peter’s would more accurately be described as the “visitation” before the funeral.  The people coming to pray for Benedict were doing so not primarily because he was head of a state, but because he was the Vicar of Christ, the successor of Peter, the “rock” upon which the Church was built, a man whose body was lain without fanfare in what was then empty, bare ground beneath what is now St. Peter’s, having drunk from the same cup of crucifixion from which his Lord had drunk, in a Roman Empire in which the blood of martyrs were the seeds of the Church.

Remembering our origins, it would be good for those on all sides to remember that the pope is not a monarch, nor is he the “Chairman of the Worldwide Catholic Church Bureaucracy.” He is the “servant of the servants of God” – a title that should remind all Catholics that we do not establish the Kingdom of God by ruling, but by serving.

*Image: Crucifixion of St Peter, 1660 by Luca Giordano [Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice]

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.