Church-and-State: Still a Hard Balance

Interview with Author Rafael Navarro-Valls

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MADRID, Spain, JUNE 17, 2001 ( Despite the secularization of Western society in recent years, religion continues to play a key role in public life and political action at the state and supranational levels.

The interplay between church and state over 20 centuries is the subject of a recent book published in Spain. «State and Religion: Texts for Critical Thought» (Ariel Publishers, Barcelona) is the work of Rafael Navarro-Valls and Rafael Palomino, professors at Madrid´s Universidad Complutense.

ZENIT recently interviewed author Navarro-Valls, who also is secretary-general of the Spanish Royal Academy of Jurisprudence.

–Q: «State and Religion» — a very explicit title for a secular mentality. Why write such a book?

–Navarro-Valls: With this book, we try to address a double objective. On one hand, to give the teaching profession — expressed in university disciplines such as political science, the history of church-state relations, or ecclesiastical law itself — an instrument of analysis that will make possible a comparison of theoretical contributions and direct reflection on the reasons for the different historical solutions.

On the other, the work is the result of a deeply rooted conviction of both authors: A historical perspective is necessary to explain the present articulation of relations between the states and religious groups, particularly the contributions of doctrines and theses stemming from Christianity in Europe.

–Q: However, this look at history seems to show a negative balance: After 2,000 years of history of a civilization, it seems that religion has been a factor of division, wars and intolerance.

–Navarro-Valls: It has been so, without a doubt, but no different from other philosophical systems, ideologies or cosmic views. The great disasters of the past 20th century were not caused specifically by religion. At times, it is interesting to … imagine, precisely, what would have become of humanity, Western civilization, or the present articulation of civil rights, if Christianity had not existed.

–Q: Muslim veils in Canadian schools, the war of crucifixes in Germany, anti-sects legislation in France, the latent danger of fundamentalism of different kinds — was there no success in reducing religion to the private arena for the sake of an egalitarian society?

–Navarro-Valls: This was defended, and continues to be defended, by some sectors, but religion has not left the public arena. It is a dimension that is present in a latent or explicit way, and not necessarily present in a violent way.

In fact, the repression of the presence of the religious factor in society and politics is one of the possible causes that a «rebound effect» will take place, which will return religion to the public arena, perhaps even with fundamentalist traits; it is a well-studied phenomenon.

Moreover, as we analyzed in our book, the absence of religion in the public realm does not create aseptic or neutral spaces, but almost inevitably — perhaps because this is what was desired deep down — gives way to a form of pseudo-religion that we usually call «ideocracy,» which at times is much more virulent in the defense of dogmatic postulates than religion itself. Some forms of ideocracies are well known.

–Q: Where do you think the border could be traced between the spiritual and the temporal? Is it possible to establish boundaries to avoid conflicts?

–Navarro-Valls: There is an uncertain border area between the spiritual and the temporal. Only someone who is naive can be ignorant of the fact that, where there is a border, it is almost impossible not to have incidents.

In the face of these incidents, history reports two not-infrequent reactions. The extreme temptation for the state has been to rid itself totally of religion. For the religious power, it has been to suffocate the necessary and imperative autonomy of the political power. In the long run, both positions have cost the state and churches dearly.

At present we are faced with a cleansing process of those unfocused views. In this process, the role of institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights, is important, because they are drawing the profile and traits that must make up a «positive secularism.»

To arrive at this secularism, it would be good for the churches and states to rediscover their own natures and the framework of their relations. Then they will stop being «windowless monads» in those societies where they mutually ignore one another, or «Siamese twins» in those where they are mingled.

In order to arrive at this «hard nucleus» of what church-state relations should be today — which necessarily include religious liberty — there still are reversals and ambiguities, conflicts and misunderstandings by one or the other power, on the way to understand the common good. From this stems litigiousness, which I hope is transitory. As for the rest, such conflicts are not always negative. Sometimes such conflicts, even on the topic that concerns us, open spaces of freedom for the individual.

–Q: In the international realm we are witnessing a proliferation of world reports on the «state of health» of religious liberty worldwide. How do you evaluate these international works?

–Navarro-Valls: It is very difficult to attempt a brief evaluation of such heterogeneous reports. Perhaps, common to all of them, is the awareness that religious liberty is — also today, and not only in the history of constitutionalism — the first and primordial liberty, a kind of bank of proofs that certifies the «state of health» of human rights in a country or region of the world.

At the same time, each report has its own peculiarities and parameters. The annual report of the special relator of the United Nations, for example, is a model in the sense of proposing once and for all adequate preventive work against intolerance, based fundamentally on education.

For its part, the Report of the North American Ambassador on Religious Liberty shows how the state of law and religious liberty are both needed in our day.

Lastly, the special reports of the NGOs — because of its novelty, it is important to mention the third report of Aid to the Church in Need — which show the growing role that NGOs are having in defense of religious liberty, in areas where the coercive activity of state law is ineffective, nonexistent or useless.

–Q: Europe is moving toward a process of integration that might seem completely foreign to the common religious tradition of the past. Moreover, the advent of an ever more acute immigration of religious orientations different from the Christian one could endanger the common values that are more or less present in the Continent.

–Navarro-Valls: I think that one cannot affirm so flatly that the unification is marked only by economic elements. In fact, it is interesting to read in the Preamble of the Declaration of Fundamental Rights of the European Union: «In awareness of its religious, spiritual and moral legacy, the Union is founded on the indivisible and universal values of the human being: liberty, equality and solidarity.» The European Judeo-Christian legacy beats in these words.

This text could easily constitute — as Cardinal Ratzinger has graphically maintained — the «spiritual nucleus of the economic body of Europe.» And, as regards the ethnic multiplicity that endangers the community of values in Europe, I think that it is a question that is still too far from the world of law to be able to speak of an indiscriminate destabilization in the common values that re the foundation of coexistence.

Very probably, more than the world of law or political science, it will be the world of education — educating in tolerance and respect — and of the confessions and religious groups themselves — through the interconfessional dialogue — that will have to elaborate an answer that of
fers a hopeful future.

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