Why Church and State Must Be Separate

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An
excerpt from “Theology and the Church's Political Stance” in Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger Church,
Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology
(NY:
Crossroad, 1988).

[W]e
must take a clearer look at the relationship of the Church to the
political sphere. For this Christ's words remain fundamental: "Render
therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the
things that are God's" (Mt 22:21). This saying opened up a
new section in the history of the relationship between politics
and religion. Until then the general rule was that politics
itself was the sacral. Admittedly the later ancient world knew free
religious groups, what are termed the mystery cults, whose attraction
depended on the decline of the state religion. But tolerance with
regard to them rested on the presupposition that the state was recognized
as the bearer of a supreme sacrality. It safeguarded the ethical
binding force of its laws and with this the human guarantee of its
cohesion by these laws and in them the state itself appearing as
the expression of a sacral, divine and not purely human will; because
they are divine they must continue unquestionably and unconditionally
to bind men and women.

This
equation of the state's claim on man with the sacral claim of the
universal divine will itself was cut in two by the saying of Jesus
we have quoted above. At the same time the whole idea of the state
as cherished by the ancient world was called into question, and
it is completely understandable that in this challenge to its totality
the state of the ancient world saw an attack on the foundations
of its existence which it avenged with the death penalty: if Jesus's
saying was valid the Roman state could not in fact continue as it
had done up till then.

At
the same time it must be said that it is precisely this separation
of the authority of the state and sacral authority, the new dualism
that this contains, that represents the origin and the permanent
foundation of the western idea of freedom. 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. This is not in any
way to dispute the fact that this balance has often enough been
disturbed, that in the middle ages and in the early modern period
things often reached the point of Church and state in fact blending
into one another in a way that falsified the faith's claim to truth
and turned it into a compulsion so that it became a caricature of
what was really intended. But even in the darkest periods the pattern
of freedom presented in the fundamental evidences of the faith remained
an authority which could be appealed to against the blending together
of civil society and the community of faith, an authority to which
the conscience could refer and from which the impulse towards the
dissolution of total authority could emerge.

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.

With
this the fundamental task of the Church's political stance, as I
understand it, has been defined; its aim must be to maintain this
balance of a dual system as the foundation of freedom. Hence the
Church must make claims and demands on public law and cannot simply
retreat into the private sphere. Hence it must also take care on
the other hand that Church and state remain separated and that belonging
to the Church clearly retains its voluntary character.

This
also defines in its fundamental outlines the relationship of the
Church's political stance and theology. The Church's political stance
must not be directed simply at the Church's power; according to
what has been said this can become a direct contradiction of the
Church's true nature and would consequently go directly against
the moral content of the Church's political stance. It is guided
rather by theological perception and not simply by the idea of increasing
influence and power.

It
must incidentally, following our considerations so far, take care
for the safeguarding of the dual structure with regard to theology;
the Church's ministry should not become a central committee of the
party in relation to theology, a body that scrutinizes the party's
ideology for the strategy of gaining power. As we have established,
the Church understands itself rather as the actual environment of
reason in its search for meaning.

In
keeping with this it must on the one hand warn reason against an
abstract independence that becomes fictitious, but on the other
hand it must respect the proper responsibility of reason asking
questions within the environment of faith. Just as in the field
of the relationship of Church and state it is here also a question
of safeguarding the duality as a fruitful functional relationship.

Just
as in that case two fundamental distortions of this relationship
are possible. One is to be found when the Church's ministry cuts
away the autonomy of theology and leaves it merely the task of looking
for proofs of what the teaching authority has proposed; theology
in that case is degraded to the function of a party ideology. But
another distortion occurs when theology dissolves the Church or
only accepts it as a supportive organization without spiritual content.
Then it no longer reflects the spiritual basis of a living community;
in this case its active agent is merely the private reason of the
individual scholar, and that means, as has already been shown, that
it becomes either positivist or ideological. But then it ceases
to be theology. That means that by making itself completely autonomous
it attains not some higher level but its destruction as theology.
Whenever one of these two voices, that of the Church's ministry
or that of theology, loses its autonomy then the other side also
loses its essential content.

In
concordats this particular relationship is translated into the legal
form of the nihil obstat. As representative of the Church's
ministry the bishop does not take a positive part in choosing the
occupant of a professorial chair, but he has the negative function
of a right of objection, whereby the freedom of theology on the
one hand and its link to the Church on the other is in my opinion
expressed with complete accuracy.

If
I have been right in what I said earlier about the significance
of theology for the existence of the university and if for its part
theology cannot exist without reference to the Church, then such
an order of things ultimately serves the university as such and
as a whole. Of its essence this relationship of tension will always
be critical. But as long as it is critical it is also alive; this
critical liveliness is ultimately what the relationship of the Church's
political stance and theology is concerned with.

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