The relationship between
 church and state

Readings: AA 5.27-32; Ps. 30; Rev. 5.11-14; Jn. 21.1-19

Today's three scriptural readings allude to the relationship between church and state.

Jesus in today's gospel says to St. Peter, "When you are old, someone will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Follow me." The gospel comments, "He [Jesus] said this signifying what kind of death he [Peter] would glorify God." Peter died by crucifixion which took place at Rome around 64 AD at the hands of the Roman government.

Today's second reading comes from the Book of Revelation. The author employed symbolic language to shield a deeper meaning. It was written during the anti-Christian persecution decreed by Emperor Domitian. He killed Christians because they refused to worship him as a god.

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter declares to the Sanhedrin: "We must obey God rather than men." What a dramatic and heroic statement, yes? At the same time, we remember that Jesus in Matthew's gospel says: "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's; and unto God, what is God's."

How are we to deal with current issues which involve both church and state?

Every one of the world's eleven major religions has experienced and continues to experience tension between religion and the state. Currently, think of the Dalai Lama in China, the Hindustan party in India, the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, Christianity in Europe, the Catholic Church in the United States, and the Catholic Church in the military dictatorships or oligarchies in Latin America. Why does this tension exist? Every society has four major institutions: political, economic, social and cultural. The political institution seeks to maintain order and justice in society vis-B-vis the three other institutions. When the economic institution leads to perceived economic injustices, the political institution enters in to try to establish a system of greater justice. When the structures of family life are suffering, the political institution usually institutes structural changes in laws and tax breaks to support family life. Culturally, government has a responsibility to assist in the fairer distribution of educational and health care opportunities, and needs to be responsive to various philosophical or religious values. This rightful role of government naturally creates tensions with the three other institutions.

Similarly, religions experience tension with the other three institutions. One of the major roles of religion is to justify or not to justify the current practices of the political, economic and social institutions. When religion offers strong constructive criticism, and the institutions refuse to yield, these institutions risk losing their moral authority, and religious people's acceptance of these institutions. One of religion's roles is to be prophetic, which word comes from the Greek verb pro-phai-ne-o which means "to speak on behalf of God."

May I suggest some general observations and actions.

  1. Church and state need each other. History teaches that a society without religion as one of the country's dominant institutions is doomed to collapse. Note Communism in Eastern Europe up to 1989 and Western Europe in 2010. Similarly, history teaches that religion without the presence of a strong political institution attains excessive power and the country will lose its religious vitality. Note Spain and Mexico in the 1930s, and Ireland in 2010.
  2. Church and state need to respect and to cooperate with each other as much as possible to improve the larger society. In times of natural or man-made disasters, religiously inspired people render immeasurable benefit to society. Note New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Emmitsburg after the apartment fire this past April 3rd. At the same time, in order to implement religious values into social structures, religion needs the state. Note the abolition of slavery in 1863 and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
  3. Avoid extreme positions in religion or government. Extremism works against communication and cooperation. Separation of church and state is mutually beneficial, to a point. History rejects, however, a society in which either institution is ignored or absent. Find ways to work with people.
  4. Allow sufficient time to church and state to make their respective contributions to society. Family and religion dominate society for 300 years, but then lose their vitality. Why? Because structure eventually overwhelms spirit. In the ensuing vacuum of standards, politics and law enter in and create new standards. But politics and law dominate society for only a hundred years before people become weary of politics and law. Be patient. We seem to be half-way through the hundred year period dominated by law and politics. Religion and family will rebound by the next fifty years. Both religion and government have severe limitations. Appreciate the good in each, and work together for the greater good.

In conclusion, "We must obey God rather than men." Yes, but don't fall victim to individual interpretation of what God wills. The Protestant Reformation gives witness to that. At the end of his life, Martin Luther felt closer to the Catholic Church than to the Calvinist churches which broke from him using his own argument of individual interpretation. Be wary of excessive individualism.

When persecution comes, welcome it. The United States was founded on anti-Catholicism. Freedom of religion existed in only 3 colonies, namely, Pennsylvania, New York Maryland, and in them for only 8, 16 and 58 years respectively. Persecution, bloody or political, generally but not always, "is the seed of Christians." Stand up to anti-Catholicism and anti-Christianity, and act gently, generously, prudently, wisely. Trying to change people's hearts and minds will prove to be more effective in the long run than simply trying to change laws.

Church and state. We need each other, and we need to respect and cooperate with each other.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley