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Centre Article 155: Church Rules and the Separation of Church and State

Why Religions Need to be Free to Determine How Doctrine Applies to their Members


Two recent items, one within Canada, the other outside it, and both involving (at least in principle) the Catholic Church and politicians, give an interesting angle on the misuse of the phrase "separation of Church and State."

In the first instance, Archbishop Prendergast of Ottawa stated, in an informal interview with an Ottawa-based theology discussion group "Theology on Tap", that politicians who obstinately refuse to obey Church teaching in their work as politicians can be refused communion when they show up at Sunday Mass—they can be told, in other words, that they are out of communion with the Church. This statement has created a bit of a buzz from certain quarters. It should not have.

Some have criticized the Archbishop by saying that Catholic politicians should be able to say and do what they like while identifying themselves as "Catholics" because of some supposed tie-in with the idea of "the separation of Church and State." Implicit in this is that what a politician does as a politician ought to have no bearing on his or her religious life. This shows a misunderstanding of how those principles work.

The Archbishop is perfectly entitled to say what the rules of the Catholic Church are for all practicing Catholics as long as he abides by the teaching authority of his Church—set out in such documents as the Code of Canon Law. So any politician who says that he or she is a practicing Catholic and then, for example, supports abortion in his or her political work—which the Catholic Church rejects, can be told by the Bishop or priest that he or she should not take communion in the Church. This has to be correct.

The different jurisdiction between the Church and the State is perfectly evident where a person claiming to be a Catholic in effect masquerades as a Catholic by acting against the teachings of the Church and then in his or her private capacity still expects to gain the benefits of Church membership—one of which is the sacrament of communion. Well instructed Catholics know that when they are not living in accordance with Church teaching they should, themselves, abstain from receiving communion—which is, after all, a visible sign of unity. One frequently observes this form of restraint in action at any Catholic Mass.

Canada (and not just its Catholics) would have been a lot less confused about the scope of Roman Catholic dissent on the abortion issue, over the past many decades, if the Catholic Church had applied this principle more rigorously with the likes of Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, Paul Martin, Joe Clark and Mark MacQuigan (to name but a few). It is past time that the Catholic Church took more of a leadership role in talking with, instructing and, if necessary, disciplining some of its high profile members who seem utterly confused about Church teachings.

Archbishop Prendergast has given an interview explaining his position which is remarkable for its clarity. It may be heard here.

Similarly, another political pro-abortion supporter, this time in the United States, recently stated that he could join the oldest Order of chivalry in the world—the Catholic (and much imitated) Sovereign Military Order of Malta, while holding strongly pro-choice views. Someone in the American Order evidently had not done their homework very well when extending an invitation to the well-known person.

He went public using the Order of Malta as an example of his supposed Catholic credentials. Big mistake. Very quickly questions were raised and in no time at all The Order of Malta, based in Rome, basically said he could take a hike—but not wearing the Orders regalia. The application for membership was withdrawn. The American Federal Association ought to have known better and never invited him in the first place knowing his views. An article on this sorry and obviously over-confident individual may be read here.

That Catholic group (the Order of Malta) were just as within their rights to refuse the pro-abortion politician membership in the Order as the Bishop would be to refuse communion to "pro-abortion" politicians who claim to be Catholics in Canada. Neither of these examples raises the jurisdictional line between "Church" and "State" just because they involve politicians. The fact is that should some principle be raised to prohibit the Church or one of its Catholic organizations from determining what it is to be Catholic and what the ramifications are for practices within the Church, we would have a problem of one jurisdiction (the State) over-reaching into an area that is not its proper concern.

Politics has no business directing or instructing religions about their dogma. The Church on the other hand has every business in teaching its political adherents what they may support and advocate while still calling themselves Catholic. If adherents attempt to claim that they are speaking as faithful members of their religion when they are, in fact, working in contravention of its teaching, the religion is best placed to say whether that is true or not. Further, the Church, and all religions, are well entitled to give moral guidance and suggestions to the surrounding society in the interest of the "Common Good." A Catholic politician may reject the Church's teaching on a matter, but when he or she does so and still holds him or herself out as being a Catholic in full communion with the Church and speaking consistently with Church teaching, the Church has every right, and duty to say, "no you aren't."