Hijacking An Intellectual Pedigree

Quoth Pope Benedict XVI:

“The Catholic Church is eager to share the richness of the Gospel’s social message, for it enlivens hearts with a hope for the fulfillment of justice and a love that makes all men and women truly brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. … She carries out this mission fully aware of the respective autonomy and competence of Church and State. Indeed, we may say that the distinction between religion and politics is a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions.

“The Church is equally convinced that State and religion are called to support each other as they together serve the personal and social well-being of all. This harmonious cooperation between Church and State requires ecclesial and civic leaders to carry out their public duties with undaunted concern for the common good.”

His Holiness the Pope is an intelligent, educated man. He is surely aware of history, particularly Roman and Medieval European history, in which the Church (there was only one Church in Europe at the time) was hardly distinct from the affairs of state. He has also made renewal of Catholic Christianity in the western world his particular mission, seeing a revival of faith as a necessary response to what he calls the “nihilism” that has poisoned the thought of the West and in particular Europe. So that’s where he’s coming from.

Now, at the same time, I think we can fairly trace the roots of the concept of separating church and state to Europeans, and the thinkers who created and advanced this concept were Christians. The modern understanding of the idea probably traces its roots back to Martin Luther, who advanced what he called the “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.” Some of the Enlightenment thinkers who developed the idea were Catholics and most were Protestants, but people like Rousseau, Locke, Montesquieu, Paine, Penn, and Williams were certainly Christians. Voltaire was an atheist, and he did his part to advance the concept, too. Later, in the post-Revolutionary United States, James Madison was a deeply devout Christian, but also deeply dedicated to the idea of keeping religion and government separate, and Thomas Jefferson, at best a cipher as to his personal beliefs, is the one who coined the phrase “wall of separation of church and state” and described it as a good thing and the right policy to pursue.

So while some Catholics participated in developing and popularizing the idea, it really seems to me that its origins lie in Protestantism rather than Catholicism, and looking at the sorts of people who really pushed for it, they are in this context better-understood as political philosophers. Some of them — William Penn and Roger Williams in particular — were themselves both clergymen and political leaders who founded English colonies in America based on the creation of secular governments and fostering religious tolerance.

All of which is to say, it seems to me that historically the Roman Catholic Church has been remarkably cool towards the idea of separation of church and state, having so lengthy a pedigree of co-opting the state (beginning with the reign of Emperor Theodosius I) and itself at times having been a state governed directly by the Pope (the Papal States existed as a sovereign nation until subsumed into a unified Italy in 1870). Protestants have a better claim to the idea than do Catholics; they can trace it to Martin Luther and most of the people who pushed for the idea were Protestants.

But it’s better to say, except in the case of Luther himself, that they happened to be Protestants. Their Protestant religious beliefs did not motivate and may not even have informed their embrace of this concept very much. Puritan Massachusetts and Calvinist Geneva are examples of how some Protestant leaders were perfectly comfortable with the concept of theocratic government, as long as it was Protestant ministers and not Papal delegates who were called upon to apply the word of God to the challenges of civil government. (I submit for your consideration that in practice, except for the style of dress and the shape of the holy icon, those two societies had more in common with the Taliban and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia than they do with what we would tend to identify as “free” nations.) So I do not think it can be said that Protestantism, any more than Catholicism, lends itself to cleave to the concept of separation of church and state.

Credit for the modern concept of separation of church and state should not be given to Christianity but rather to the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment had its roots in the Renaissance and the Reformation, these were the seeds and the soil in which the Enlightenment later bloomed and came to full flower. It was a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century phenomenon and Christian authorities, Catholic authorities in particular, were never all that enthusiastic about it.

So for the Pope to suggest that separation of church and state is a gift of Christianity to the world is more than a little bit dishonest. It is a gift of the Enlightenment — a direct product of shedding superstition and mythology from one’s mind and instead adopting a rational, naturalistic way of looking at the world.

It is no more accurate to claim that separation of church and state is a Christian invention than it is to say that the modern steam engine is a Christian invention — James Watt may have been a Christian, but his religion had little to do with his engineering innovation.

Pope Benedict XVI has attempted to hijack one of the best things about modern society and to claim it for his own institution, and I am here to do my part to thwart that theft.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.