Viewing the Church-State Relationship

Bryan Vinson, Jr.

This journal has not been designed to serve as a political medium. Sometimes, however, political issues involve deeper and far more important religious and moral issues. When this is true I feel that Christians should hasten to the front of the battle, armed with truth and free from bitterness. Certainly the time has come for us to take up the "sword of the spirit."

The likelihood of one of our two great political parties running a Catholic candidate for president this year has greatly increased in recent weeks. This is the first time since 1928 that a Catholic has made a serious bid to become the president of our nation. Many felt that such a threat would never re-occur after the defeat of Alfred E. Smith in 1928. But it has, and the opposition to such seems to have greatly diminished in the more than thirty years that have passed. Surprising too is the great number of members of the Lord's body who remain indifferent toward the threat, or who have joined the unlearned mob to cry "bigot."

The question about the relationship between Church and State should be of interest to every Christian and to every American citizen. It is the view of a Roman Catholic candidate toward this relationship that we are herewith concerned. Some of those mentioned as possible candidates have already spoken out on this subject. Certainly any Catholic candidate will be placed in a position where he will have to speak about this before the voters go to the polls next November. To help understand this complex problem we will present three possible views regarding the relationship between Church and State.

1. State Over Church

Most Americans reject this idea, but it has, and yet continues, to be true of many political systems. The early apostate church fell into this arrangement with the conversion of Constantine in 312 A.D. Nazi Germany yet serves as a recent example of the State exercising its power over religion. Communism is based upon this concept. Certainly it was never the intention of our Lord for the church which he purchased with His blood to become, as such, a political power, or to in any way dictate the affairs of civil government. The distinction was drawn quite clearly when he said, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matt. 22:21).

2. Church Over State

While this arrangement has never been officially true of our nation, it has played a part in the history of other nations. Henry IV kneeling in the snow at Canossa in 1077 is a vivid illustration of this point of view, and is considered by many as the time when the Roman Catholic Church possessed its greatest amount of power over civil government. But while the actual power of the Catholic church has declined, the claim to that power has not been relinquished. Even in 1570 Pope Pius V attempted to uncrown Queen Elizabeth I by ordering her subjects to reject allegiance to her. An even more recent occurrence was the Papal order to the people of Silicy not to support the Christian Social Union Party under threat of excommunication. American Catholics refuse to believe that this would ever happen in America, but we must remember that the Roman church claims to be "universal" in doctrine and authority. And it should also he remembered that in every country where the Catholic church is large enough, it has exerted itself in this particular channel.

God and Conscience Over Both

Religion and government are both under God. Neither can escape the right of the individual to criticize. Neither can rightfully expect the individual to yield in spite of his personal convictions about the will of God. Peter, the Apostle of Christ, clarified this problem in first century: "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29) Here it is shown that civil government is not supreme. Religious groups also, because of their human content, can not serve as the end. What a pitiful government it would have been had it been under the corrupted church at Corinth in the first century. Our nation's constitution has given priority to this view by inclusion of the Bill of Rights. No religious group or government should ever become more powerful than a person's relationship to God.

The "Official View"

There are two views regarding Church and State currently propagated by Catholics. One is the official view, so designated because it springs from the Papacy. The other is the "American Interpretation," so designated because it is most commonly given by American Catholics.

In 1075 Pope Gregory VII declared the See of Rome could "bind and loose in heaven so also they could take away and grant kingdoms, principalities and all other possessions of man, according to man's merit." (Blanshard, Communism, Democracy and Catholic Power, P. 46)

The Syllabus of Errors, set forth by Pius IX in 1864, gave the following as notions which were erroneous:

"The Church has not the power of using force, nor has she any temporal power, direct or indirect...

"In the case of conflicting laws enacted by the two powers, the civil law prevails. . .

"Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true...

"The Church ought to be separated from the State and the State from the Church. . ."

Remember, these concepts were officially pronounced as errors by an "infallible" Pope!

The "American Interpretation"

In all fairness I think it should be said that many American Catholics do not consciously embrace these views. Sen. Kennedy's remarks concerning separation of Church and State would be, assuming his sincerity, an example. But again we remind you that the Catholic church claims to be "universal" in doctrine and authority, and if there is a conflict (and there is!) between what American Catholics say and what official Papal announcements reveal, -- the American interpretation must be removed, or the doctrine of papal infallibility rejected forever.

These matters should he given careful consideration by every American citizen.

(Editor's Note: For further study on this current problem I suggest that you read a new book by James Pike entitled A Roman Catholic In the White House, published this year by Doubleday & Company.)

Truth Magazine IV:10; pp. 219-220
July 1960