One of Catholics’ major blind spots down through the ages–and this includes the unfortunate attitudes and behaviors of some popes–is to be opposed to freedom of religion.

When Constantine legalized Christianity it wasn’t long before there developed an interdependence between Church and State. This article explains the relationship and how it developed. From Pope Leo onward it became well nigh impossible for Catholics to disentangle themselves from involvement with the state. This is understandable since, from antiquity, there has been some form of divine right of kings enshrined in the culture.

The emperors and the kings of pagan cultures were most often considered to be divine or semi-divine beings. This carried over into the Christian Roman empire and beyond into the Middle Ages and the idea of the divine right of kings–the Pope crowning the Holy Roman Emperor and then after the Reformation the continued idea that the religion of a particular people would be the chosen religion of their monarch. Even the leaders of the French Revolution couldn’t get away from the idea. They felt obliged to create their own rationalistic and pagan form of religion to replace Catholicism.

Jesus, however, in the gospel for this weekend, is radical in his assessment of the relationship between religion and the state. His famous witticism when challenged, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” can actually be seen as the first statement that establishes the principle of separation of church and state.

If he were asked to expound on it, I think Jesus would say that the state will always be concerned with the kingdom of this world. His kingdom is not of this world. When he stand before the representative of that worldly kingdom–Herod and Pilate–he says exactly that. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

However the Scriptures do not teach a sort of dualism in which Christians must withdraw from the world. Jesus tells soldiers to be good soldiers and do their duty. St Paul says we should pray for those who rule over us and be good citizens. Furthermore, Catholic teaching says that rulers have an obligation to rule justly and in accordance with God’s laws.

However, while we may be good citizens of this country we should also remember that we are citizens of another country, members of a city whose builder and maker is God. Also, the fact that rulers should rule according to just laws does not demand theocracy or the integration of church and state.

Augustine gave this a full treatment in his City of God. The Christian understanding it that human history is the stage for a great cosmic struggle between God and Satan for this world. While God does not appoint particular rulers, he does choose to use them as his instruments of salvation. We are not to put “our trust in princes” but to look beyond the struggles for power in this world and our relationship to the state is one in which we hope for the best but expect the worst.

Separation of church and state is therefore a necessary part of freedom of religion. The doctrine of freedom of religion is simply that there is no formal, official state religion and that the state cannot coerce a private citizen in the area of religion. In can be summed up that “the state has no religion so that the people can follow any religion.” Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” is therefore one of the most radical statements he ever could have made.

The danger in freedom of religion is not that people might follow a false religion. That has always been a danger, and even when Christianity was not only the official religion, but was the enforced religion, one could not force belief or faith on anyone. They might be forced to behave as Christians but they could not be forced to believe as Christians.

No, the real danger of freedom of religion is that it becomes the freedom from religion and that rulers will rule with no regard to the laws of God and that eventually the state–while professing to have no religion–will eventually lapse into atheism, and if that should become an ideology (even unconsciously–or especially unconsciously) then that ideology will inevitably be enforced and Christians (and those of other faiths) will eventually be persecuted.

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