Catholic justice defends separation of church and state

By Michelle Bauman

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Justice Scalia speaks at the Catholic Information Center on Oct. 10, 2012. Credit: Michelle Bauman.

U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia said Catholics should not place all of their hope in government, as the state is limited to earthly goods while the church is concerned with eternal life.

“The confusion of the two hurts both,” he said.

He explained that “in the last analysis, the most important objectives of human existence – goodness, virtue, godliness, salvation – are not achieved through the state, and those who seek them there are doomed to disappointment.”

Scalia, a Catholic who is the longest-serving justice currently sitting on the Supreme Court, spoke on the relationship between church and state in an Oct. 10 talk at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

He argued that the separation of church and state, properly understood, is a healthy arrangement that is supported by both American and Catholic tradition.

The separation of church and state is a “fundamental” part of American history, reflected in the nation’s founding documents, he said.

This does not mean that “the political views of men and women must remain unaffected and uninformed by their religious beliefs,” he explained, because that “would be quite impossible to achieve, and it assuredly is not part of our political tradition.”

He noted that the Declaration of Independence references “Nature’s God” and “divine Providence” and observed that numerous political movements ranging from abolition to prohibition have been tied to religious beliefs.

Governments should accommodate religious practice whenever possible and can even favor religion over non-religion through means such as paid chaplains in Congress and tax exemptions for houses of worship, he added. 

Still, the Supreme Court justice observed, there is a definite distinction between church and state seen in the American founding and as part of “an authentically Christian tradition as well.”

“It seems to me that our faith’s message on the subject is essentially the same as that of the Constitution: church and state are separate,” he explained.

Theological reasoning indicates that state coercion in matters of faith is wrong because it violates free will, which is precisely the aspect in which we are made in the image of God, he observed.

Furthermore, he said, the Gospels “display a vision of the separate sphere of operation of church and state that is quite similar to what the Founding Fathers produced.”

He pointed to Christ’s response when asked about paying taxes: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

“The business of the state, he was saying, is not God’s business,” Scalia said.

This notion is further supported in Gospels, he added, when Christ rejects the crowd’s attempt to make him king and when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.

This shows us that “the state is not the Christian’s source of power, nor his means of salvation,” the Supreme Court justice said.

Rather, the church and the state have “fundamentally different” areas of focus, he explained. The government’s main function is “assuring a safe, just and prosperous society,” while the church is not concerned primarily with temporal things, but with eternal ones.
While Christians can certainly be concerned with the affairs of government, he said, a “preoccupation with government” as the objective or principal manifestation of Christianity distorts the Gospel message and “misses the point” of the faith.
In addition, Scalia observed that “the Christian bears a moral obligation towards the just state.”

Citing Christ’s instruction to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, as well as St. Paul’s statement to the Romans, “Let everyone be subject to the higher authorities, for there exists no authority except from God,” he explained that for Christians, “lawful civil authority must be obeyed.”

This is a hard teaching for Americans to accept today, he acknowledged, because there is a common perception of government as a necessary evil, and even Christians tend to think in terms of what laws can be easily avoided rather than debts owed to civil society. 

However, Catholic teaching calls us to recognize legitimate authority, he said, and unless they violate moral precepts, civil laws have “a moral claim to our obedience.”

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