Separation of Church and State

Frank Pavone
Reproduced with Permission

Prominent pro-abortion politicians have recently been heard repeating the message, "I don't tell Church leaders what to do, and Church leaders shouldn't tell public officials what to do." This is their considered summary of the "separation of Church and state."

Yet it seems that public officials have indeed told Church leaders what to do as the problems related to child sexual abuse by clergy have been addressed in the last couple of years. And in the course of addressing this problem, public officials are carrying out their duty. After all, they have to protect children, no matter who the abusers are.

The public officials addressing this problem are not telling the Church what to believe, what sacraments to administer, or what prayers and readings belong in the Sunday Mass. All these things and more are left to the proper Church authorities to administer, in a legitimate autonomy and "division of labor."

Yet obviously if Church leaders fail in the protection of innocent life, the state has the right and duty to step in. The state cannot pretend that it is free to ignore these abuses because of "separation of Church and state." Human suffering cannot be buried in abstractions.

The shoe also fits the other foot. While the Church does not make rules for mail delivery, or the delineation of county lines, or the administration of the army, the Church nevertheless does have some business telling the state a thing or two. This is especially true when the state is failing in its duty toward innocent children -- or anyone else -- in the matter of their fundamental human rights. Again, human suffering cannot be buried in abstractions about "separation of Church and state". Both Church and state have the duty to defend human beings, and unless they uphold each other in that common task, neither can properly fulfill it.

People should always have freedom of belief. The truth that the Church proclaims has its own power to attract people to embrace it. Belief is not something to be imposed by law. Yet law must limit what the believer can do. What should we say about someone who kills you because he "doesn't believe" your life is valuable? It is not his belief that violated the law, but rather his action against you. Wouldn't public officials have to take a stand against that action, even while upholding the criminal's freedom of belief?

The killing of the unborn by abortion, because some don't believe that life is as valuable as yours or mine, is the most obvious battleground on this point.

A public official recently said that this is not "the Catholic Republic of America." I heartily agree. This is America, proud of its freedom of religion, and equally proud of its protection of human rights. The two can go together, as long as we realize that "separation of Church and state" can never mean that either one looks the other way when human rights are being violated.