Friday, April 28, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI on 'Church and State'

The relationship between church and state and their proper jurisdictions have figured heavily in the remarks of Pope Benedict in the first year of his pontificate, as well as in his very first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The Holy Father has advocated "a healthy secularism of the state," yet he has defended the legitimate role of religion in the moral and cultural development of the nation and the Church's role as a voice of moral conscience, reminding the state of its obligations to the common good.

Writing in his former capacity as Cardinal, the Pope has stated "the Christian is always Someone who seeks to maintain the state in the sense that he or she does the positive, the good, that holds states together." At the same time, in a lesson rooted in his childhood experience of National Socialism, he has commented on the dangers of a totalitarian state -- a state which presumes itself to be "the whole of human existence [and] the whole of human hope," insisting that "the first service that Christian faith performs for politics is that it liberates men and women from the irrationality of the political myths that are the real threat of our time."

What follows is a brief compilation of some of our Holy Father's remarks on this pertinent issue:

Pope Benedict and Alexis de Tocqueville

A Tocquevillian in the Vatican, by Dr. Samuel Gregg.* According to Dr. Gregg, the publication of Deus Caritas Est reveals not only the influence of St. Augustine upon Benedict, but that of the nineteenth-century French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville:

Upon being inducted into the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France in 1992, then-Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America has always made a strong impression on me.”

Describing Tocqueville as “le grand penseur politique,” the context of these remarks was Ratzinger’s insistence that free societies cannot sustain themselves, as Tocqueville observed, without widespread adherence to “des convictions éthiques communes.” Ratzinger then underlined Tocqueville’s appreciation of Protestant Christianity’s role in providing these underpinnings in the United States. In more recent years, Ratzinger expressed admiration for the manner in which church-state relations were arranged in America, using words suggesting he had absorbed Tocqueville’s insights into this matter.

What has this to do with Deus Caritas Est? The answer is that Benedict XVI has taken to heart Tocqueville’s warnings about “soft-despotism.”

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Recently added to the archives of Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club we find two earlier writings of Cardinal Ratzinger:

  • Biblical Aspects of the Question of Faith and Politics A homily that was delivered on 26 November 1981 in the course of a service for Catholic members of the Bundestag in the church of St. Wynfrith (Boniface) in Bonn. (LewRockwell.com):
    Christian faith has destroyed the myth of the divine state, the myth of the state as paradise and a society without domination. In its place it has put the objectivity of reason. But this does not mean that it has produced a value-free objectivity, the objectivity of statistics and a certain kind of sociology. To the true objectivity of men and women belongs humanity, and to humanity belongs God. To genuine human reason belongs the morality that is fed by God’s commandments. This morality is not some private affair; it has public significance. Without the good of being and doing good there can be no good politics. What the persecuted Church laid down for the Christian as the core of its political ethos must also be the core of any active Christian politics; it is only when good is done and recognized as good that a good human social existence can thrive. To bring to public acceptance as valid the standing of morality, the standing of God’s commandments, must be the core of responsible political activity.
  • Why Church and State Must Be Separate excerpt from "Theology and the Church’s Political Stance" in Church, Ecumenism and Politics (NY, Crossroads, 1987). Ratzinger notes that "the origin and the permanent foundation of the Western idea of freedom" lies in the "separation of the authority of the state and sacral authority":
    From now on there were two societies related to each other but not identical with each other, neither of which had this character of totality. The state is no longer itself the bearer of a religious authority that reaches into the ultimate depths of conscience, but for its moral basis refers beyond itself to another community. This community in its turn, the Church, understands itself as a final moral authority which however depends on voluntary adherence and is entitled only to spiritual but not to civil penalties, precisely because it does not have the status the state has of being accepted by all as something given in advance.

    Thus each of these communities is circumscribed in its radius, and on the balance of this relation depends freedom. . . .

    Benedict goes on to suggest something which might be brought to bear on the recent attempt to establish constitutional democracy in the Middle East and the necessity of preserving the Christian foundations of Europe:
    The modern idea of freedom is thus a legitimate product of the Christian environment; it could not have developed anywhere else. Indeed, one must add that it cannot be separated from this Christian environment and transplanted into any other system, as is shown very clearly today in the renaissance of Islam; the attempt to graft on to Islamic societies what are termed western standards cut loose from their Christian foundations misunderstands the internal logic of Islam as well as the historical logic to which these western standards belong, and hence this attempt was condemned to fail in this form. The construction of society in Islam is theocratic, and therefore monist and not dualist; dualism, which is the precondition for freedom, presupposes for its part the logic of the Christian thing. In practice this means that it is only where the duality of Church and state, of the sacral and the political authority, remains maintained in some form or another that the fundamental pre-condition exists for freedom.

    Where the Church itself becomes the state freedom becomes lost. But also when the Church is done away with as a public and publicly relevant authority, then too freedom is extinguished, because there the state once again claims completely for itself the justification of morality; in the profane post-Christian world it does not admittedly do this in the form of a sacral authority but as an ideological authority – that means that the state becomes the party, and since there can no longer be any other authority of the same rank it once again becomes total itself. The ideological state is totalitarian; it must become ideological if it is not balanced by a free but publicly recognized authority of conscience. When this kind of duality does not exist the totalitarian system is unavoidable.

* * *

Some Remarks in the First Year of Pope Benedict XVI's Pontificate

  • Back in September 17, 2005, Zenit News Service published an article on Benedict XVI on Religion and Public Life, which included his June 2005 remarks to Italian President Carlo Ciampi on church-state relations.

  • On October 17, 2005, in a letter to the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera (with whom he co-authored Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam), Pope Benedict expressed his support for a "healthy secularity of the state" -- or that which guarantees "to each citizen the right to live his own religious faith with genuine freedom, including in the public realm" and includes "a commitment to guarantee to all, individuals and groups, respect for the exigencies of the common good, [and] the possibility to live and to express one own religious convictions."

    The full text of the letter can be found here.

  • On November 19, 2005, Benedict XVI conveyed the Catholic Church's respect for civil authority:
    Benedict XVI explained to the bishops of the Czech Republic that in her work of evangelization, the Church doesn't seek to meddle in the sphere of public authority.

    "The Christian community is a grouping of people with their own rules, a living body that, in Jesus, exists in the world to bear witness to the strength of the Gospel," the Holy Father told the bishops in Rome for their five-yearly visit.

    "It is, therefore, a group of brothers and sisters who have no goals of power or selfish interest, but who joyfully live the charity of God, which is Love," he added.

    "In such a context, the state should have no difficulty in recognizing in the Church a counterpart that in no way prejudices its own function at the service of citizens."


Dr. Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute and an Adjunct Professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and the Family within the Pontifical Lateran University. He is author of several books on Catholic social doctrine including Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching (2003) and On Ordered Liberty (2003), a critique of 'the liberal tradition' in its many forms.


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