Walking the Church-State Tightrope

Pope Lays Out Guiding Principles

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ROME, MARCH 5, 2005 (Zenit.org).- While the world focused on John Paul II’s health in recent weeks, his own attention was directed toward an issue of long concern: Church-state relations. A message dated Feb. 11 and sent to Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux, president of the French bishops’ conference, raised some points on this subject.

The letter came after the conclusion of the French bishops’ five-yearly visits to Rome during the past year. The Pope noted that the 1905 French law on Church-state relations, which replaced a Concordat of 1804, «was a painful and traumatizing event for the Church in France» (No. 2).

John Paul II observed that the 1905 law «relegated the religious factor to the private sphere and failed to acknowledge the place of religious life and the Church institution in society.» He added, however, that after 1920 the French government did take some steps to improve the situation.

France, he continued, embraces the principle of secularity («laïcité»). The Church too, he pointed out, is convinced of the need for a separation of the roles of Church and state, following Christ’s injunction, «Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s» (Luke 20:25). The Second Vatican Council, in fact, explained that the Church is not identified with any political community nor bound by ties to any political system. At the same time, both the political community and the Church each serve the needs of the same people and this service will be carried out more effectively if there is cooperation between the two institutions.

This cooperation has continued to improve in France, the Pope commented, «to the point that in recent years a forum for dialogue has been created at the highest level» (No. 4). This has enabled relations to be developed in a climate of mutual respect. John Paul II also called upon French Catholics to participate in public life.

Speaking out

The Pope also observed that giving space for religion in French society is necessary so that they do not «withdraw into sectarianism which could become a threat to the state itself» (No. 6). This could lead to an increase in intolerance and harm the coexistence of the groups making up the nation.

To this end, the Pontiff continued, Christians must be allowed to speak in public and express their convictions during the democratic debates, «challenging the state and their fellow citizens on their responsibilities as men and women, especially in the field of fundamental human rights and respect for human dignity, for the progress of humanity but not at any price, for justice and equity, as well as for the protection of our planet.»

And the Pope did not let the occasion to go by without returning to a constant theme in past few years, the need to give Christian values a place in the European continent. «Christianity largely shaped the features of Europe,» he wrote. «It is up to the people of our day to build European society on the values that prevailed when it was born and that are a part of its richness» (No. 5).

Maintaining freedom

On Jan. 24, the Pope addressed a group of Spanish bishops during their visit to Rome. He said that the spread of a secular ideology in that country’s society «leads gradually, more or less consciously, to the restriction of religious freedom to the point that it advocates contempt for, or ignorance of, the religious environment, relegating faith to the private sphere and opposing its public expression» (No. 4). Moreover, «Religious freedom cannot be curtailed without depriving human beings of something fundamental,» the Holy Father added.

The Pope also insisted that it is necessary for Catholics «to seek the Kingdom of God in dealing with temporal realities and in ordering them in accordance with the divine will.» And he urged them to be courageous in giving witness to their faith in the public arena.

Faith and practice

Late last year John Paul II also touched on Church-state relations in his speech Dec. 4 to a group of U.S. bishops. Addressing prelates from the provinces of Louisville, Mobile and New Orleans, the Pope encouraged them to make it a pastoral priority to help the lay faithful combine harmoniously the duties they have as members of the Church and as members of human society.

Quoting from «Lumen Gentium,» No. 36, the Holy Father said that lay men and women, after receiving a sound catechesis and continuing formation, have a clear mission «to extend the Kingdom of God in and through their secular activity, so that ‘the world will be imbued with the Spirit of Christ and more effectively attain its purpose in justice, in love and in peace'» (No. 3).

Hence, the faithful need to receive clear instructions on their duties as Christians, and on their obligation to act in accordance with the Church’s authoritative teaching, the Pope added. And to those who object that such instruction has overly political tones John Paul II stated clearly: «While fully respecting the legitimate separation of Church and state in American life, such a catechesis must also make clear that for the faithful Christian there can be no separation between the faith which is to be believed and put into practice and a commitment to full and responsible participation in professional, political and cultural life» (No. 3).

John Paul II further urged the bishops to give priority to their work in this area. «Given the importance of these issues for the life and mission of the Church in your country, I would encourage you to consider the inculcation of the doctrinal and moral principles underlying the lay apostolate as essential to your ministry as teachers and shepherds of the Church in America.»

European model

The need to reinforce spiritual and moral values in civil society was also the subject of a recent document published by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. On Feb. 25 the executive committee of COMECE made public its discussion paper on the subject of the renewal of the European Union’s Lisbon Strategy. The Lisbon strategy is aimed at addressing reforms regarding matters related to social and welfare policies.

The European bishops observed the need for a greater attention to spiritual values in the construction of the European Union. «Still too little attention is paid to promoting an awareness of being rooted in a religious and cultural tradition and to the understanding of European history,» they said.

And while the Lisbon strategy does mention the term «spirit,» it does so only in terms of strengthening the entrepreneurial spirit. «Europe can produce dynamic and outstanding individuals if they are shaped by a cultural and religious education aware of Europe’s history,» the bishops added.

«Europeans also seem to have lost their sense of what is holy, transcendent and ceremonial,» the prelates noted. In fact, «it is depressing to see that in many places in Europe, Sundays and even religious and national holidays, have become ordinary working and shopping days.» Religion, the bishops’ document argued, can play an important role in strengthening the European social model. More than ever, they contend, secular society is in need of a helping hand from religion.

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