Catholic: on state/church relations
By Liesel Giesbrecht
The Catholic approach to the church and state can be boiled down to the understanding that there are two basic realms of authority on Earth: the temporal (bound by time, earthly) and the spiritual.
The Church has spiritual authority, which has been granted to it by Christ himself when he made Peter the rock of the Church in Matthew 16. The Church speaks Truth to a fallen world, and proclaims the existence of moral absolutes.
The State has temporal authority, as Paul outlines in Romans 13. It wields the powers related to governance: “They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Politics and religion are not distinct categories. Issues like poverty and euthanasia involve both political and religious matters because they are issues of morality.
When the Church and State interact, the State is bound by the moral norms that Catholics believe are set by Natural Law. Thus, the Church, as the proclaimer of these Truths, can speak to the morality of the State. The State, on the other hand, has a responsibility to its people and God to act morally. It cannot claim spiritual authority in and of itself.
The Church can and does speak to political matters throughout the world. In recent memory, Pope Francis spoke out regarding environmental stewardship. During the Cold War, Pope John Paul II issued strong condemnations of the Soviet Union. Throughout WWII, Catholic priests resisted Nazi policies regarding the Jews, and actively worked to preserve their lives. Catholics are called to prayerfully engage politically in their society; there’s no opt-out clause for members of the Church.
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