Why Church and State Must Be Separate

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.