Finding a Harmonious Note

A Look at Models of the Church-State Relationship

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 30, 2008 ( Last Tuesday, demonstrations, inclement weather and uncontrolled traffic sent Rome into a fever pitch of high anxiety, but at the very epicenter of chaos, Piazza Venezia, harmony reigned as two intellectual powerhouses intoned a duet on religion and liberty.

In the beautiful setting of Palazzo Colonna, the Rebecchini Foundation hosted a forum featuring two distinguished speakers, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, retired vicar of Rome, and Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The topic centered on the models of religious liberty in Europe and the United States, and took as a starting point Benedict XVI’s words of praise directed toward the American vision during his visit to the United States last spring.

Glendon’s opening aria drew from Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations on how liberty is good for religion and religion is good for liberty. The positive laicism that marked the American founding allowed numerous religions to coexist and prosper in the early United States, unfettered by federal regulation and serving as a guiding conscience for the American people.

“As an American, I felt a certain pride the first time I heard the Holy Father praise the American method of organizing the relationships between religion and the state,” said Glendon. But then she pointed out how this relationship in the present time is facing grave threats.

As of the 1940s a more negative type of laicism has been gaining ground, one that would limit religion’s presence in the public square and silence its voice in civic issues. From the banning of prayer in public schools in 1962, to the growing tensions between lifestyle rights and religious freedom, the American model of positive secularism praised by the Pope has been under steady attack.

In this light, Glendon realized that the Holy Father’s words were more of a pastoral exhortation to recover the best elements of the model admired by Tocqueville than an expression of contentment with the present situation.

Crescendo, diminuendo

Cardinal Ruini lent his powerful voice to the evening by explaining the European concept of laicism, especially in the recent past. In the post-Reformation era, he pointed out, state churches cropped up all over Europe, except in Italy which would always remain a unique case in Church-state relations.

This intertwining of the government and religion led to a concept of laicism completely emancipated from and hostile to religion, which the cardinal, the former head of the Italian bishop’s conference, referred to as the “French model.»

Cardinal Ruini added a counterpoint to the Holy Father’s U.S. address, and its subtle warning of imminent threats, by recalling French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s call for “positive secularism” during Benedict XVI’s visit to France last month. Cardinal Ruini saw a change brewing in post-Enlightenment French secularism in Sarkozy’s words, “France would be crazy to deprive itself of the contributions of its living patrimony including especially the Christian religion.»

He proposed Italy as potential model for Europe, where Catholics as well as non-Christians, concerned about social conscience, participate actively in government life. Quoting St. Paul, the cardinal envisioned brothers and sisters who are called to freedom bearing witness to a sense of duty and a moral standard in public life.

The two speakers reached a perfect harmony as they emphasized that in our age these two rival models are competing for dominance, as the United States increasingly embraces negative secularism while the French are tentatively opening toward a positive model.

The last notes lingering in the air proposed religion and liberty not as alternatives but as synergies, as the crowd burst into applause.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at

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