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State and Church

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The Church and the State are both perfect societies, that is to say, each essentially aiming at a common good commensurate with the need of mankind at large and ultimate in a generic kind of life, and each juridically competent to provide all the necessary and sufficient means thereto. The State is ethically demonstrated to be such, and the Church has a like demonstration from the theology of Christian Revelation. By reason of coexistence on the earth, community of subjects, and a need in common of some of the same means of activity, it is inevitable that they should have mutual relations in the juridical order. To declare these relations in brief from an ethical viewpoint, which is the scope of the present article, it will be necessary to state:

I. The basis of their respective rights;
II. The range of their respective jurisdictions;
III. Their mutual corporate relation;
IV. The union of Church and State;
V. Counter theories.

The basis of rights

All rights and duties on earth come ultimately from God through the Divine Law, either natural or positive. The character of our natural rights and duties is determined by the purpose to which the Creator shaped the nature of man, and natural knowledge of them is acquired by human reason from the aptitudes, tendencies, and needs of nature. Duties and rights descending from positive Divine Law are determined by some additional purpose of God, over and above the exigencies of human nature, and are to be learned only from Divine Revelation, either in its explicit declaration or its rational content. Man has one ultimate purpose of existence: eternal happiness in a future life. But man also has a twofold proximate purpose: to earn his title to eternal happiness, and to attain to a measure of temporal happiness consistent with the prior proximate purpose. The State is a natural institution, whose powers, therefore, come from the natural law and are determined by the character of the natural purpose of the State plus whatever limitation God has, because of qualifications in the last end of man, ordained in the Divine Positive Law. The Church is a positive institution of Christ the Son of God, whose powers, therefore, are derived from the Divine Positive Law and are determined by the nature of the purpose He has assigned to it, plus whatever further concession He has made to facilitate the accomplishment of that purpose. In any consideration of the mutual relations of Church and State the above propositions are fundamental.

The goal of the State is the temporal happiness of man, and its proximate purpose the preservation of external juridical order and the provision of a reasonable abundance of means of human development in the interests of its citizens and their posterity. Man himself however, as we have said, has a further goal of perfect happiness to be realized only after death, and consequently a proximate purpose to earn in this life his title to the same. In the pursuit of this latter purpose, speaking in the abstract, he had a natural right to constitute a social organization taking over the worship of God as a charge peculiarly its own. In the concrete however, i.e., as a matter of fact, God by positive law has vacated this natural right and established a universal society (the Church) for Divine worship and the securing of perfect happiness in the hereafter. God, furthermore, has appointed for man a destiny which cannot be attained by mere natural means, and consequently God has conceded to man additional means commensurate with this ultimate purpose, putting these means at the disposal of man through the ministration of the Church. Finally, He has determined the form of external public worship to be rendered, centering it about a sacrifice, the efficacy of which is from itself, being, as it is, a repetition of the Sacrifice of Calvary. The goal, then, of the Church is the perfect supernatural happiness of man; its proximate purpose, to safeguard the internal moral order of right and wrong; and its external manifestation, to care for Divine worship and minister to man the supernatural means of grace. The State, then, exists to help man to temporal happiness the Church, to eternal. Of these two purposes the latter is more ultimate, man's greater good, while the former is not necessary for the acquisition of the latter. The dominating proximate purpose of man must be to earn his title to eternal salvation: for that, if needs be, he must rationally sacrifice his temporal happiness. It is clear, therefore, that the purpose of the Church is higher in the order of Divine Providence and of righteous human endeavour than that of the State. Hence, in case of direct collision of the two, God's will and man's need require that the guardian of the lower purpose should yield. Likewise the argument for the extension of the powers of the higher society in a measure into the domain of the lower will not hold for such extension from the lower into the higher.

The range of jurisdiction

As there are many distinct States of equal natural right the subjects of each are restricted in number, and its government of them is practically confined within the limits of its own territory. Within this territory it has full power to govern them, defining their rights and in some cases restricting the exercise of these rights conferring purely civil rights and imposing civil duties, holding its citizens to a proper condition of public morality, owning property and qualifying private ownership of the same--all within the exigencies of the civic purpose of preserving external juridical order and Promoting the prosperity of the citizens, and over all bound by the enactment of the Divine Law, both natural and positive. In a word, the State controls its own subjects, in the pursuit of its own natural end, in all things where a higher right does not stop it. A higher right will be a right existent because of an ulterior or a more essential destiny of man than the purpose which civil society pursues for him. The Church has the right to preach the Gospel everywhere, willing or nilling any state authority, and so to secure the rights of its members among the subjects of any civil polity whatever. The Church has the right to govern her subjects wherever found, declaring for them moral right and wrong, restricting any such use of their rights as might jeopardize their eternal welfare, conferring purely ecclesiastical rights, acquiring and holding property herself, and empowering her subordinate associations to do the same--all within the limits of the requirements of her triple purpose, as laid down by the Divine Positive Law, of preserving the internal order of faith and morals and its external manifestation, of providing adequate means of sanctification for her members, and of caring for Divine worship, and over all bound by the eternal principles of integrity and justice declared in the natural and positive Law of God.

In all purely temporal subject-matter, so long as it remains such, the jurisdiction of the State over its own subjects stands not only supreme, but, as far as the Church is concerned, alone. Purely temporal matter is that which has a necessary relation of help or hindrance to man's temporal happiness, the ultimate end of civil society or the State, in such wise that it is at the same time indifferent in itself as a help or hindrance to man's eternal happiness. It is of two kinds: primarily it includes all human acts so related, and secondarily persons or external things as far as they are involved in such acts. In all purely spiritual subject-matter, so long as it remains such, the jurisdiction of the Church over her ecclesiastical subjects obtains to the complete exclusion of the State; nor is the Church therein juridically dependent in any way upon the State for the exercise of its legitimate powers. Purely spiritual subject-matter is primarily made up of human acts necessarily related as help or hindrance to man's eternal happiness, the last end of the Church, and at the same time indifferent in themselves as a help or hindrance to man's temporal happiness; secondarily it extends to all persons and external objects as involved in such acts. In all subject-matter not purely spiritual nor purely temporal, but at the same time both spiritual and temporal in character, both jurisdictions may enter, and so entering give occasion to collision, for which there must be a principle of solution. In case of direct contradiction, making it impossible for both jurisdictions to be exercised, the jurisdiction of the Church prevails, and that of the State is excluded. The reason of this is obvious: both authorities come from God in fulfillment of his purposes in the life of man: He cannot contradict Himself; He cannot authorize contradictory powers. His real will and concession of power is determined by the higher purpose of His Providence and man's need, which is the eternal happiness of man, the ultimate end of the Church. In view of this end God concedes to her the only authority that can exist in the case in point.

In a case where there is no direct contradiction but a possibility of both jurisdictions being exercised without hurt to the higher, though neither jurisdiction is voided, and they both might, absolutely speaking, be exercised without mutual consultation, practically there is a clear opening for some adjustment between the two, since both jurisdictions are interested in avoiding friction. Though concordats were not devised precisely for this purpose, they have in many cases been used for such adjustment (see CONCORDAT). Consistently with the superiority of essential purpose indicated above, the judicial decision as to when a question does or does not involve spiritual matter, either purely or in part, rests with the Church. It cannot lie with the State, whose jurisdiction, because of the inferiority of its ultimate end and proximate purpose, has not such judicial faculty in regard to the subject-matter of a jurisdiction which is as far above its own as the ultimate end and proximate purpose thereof is above that of the State. In analogous fashion every higher court is always judge of its own jurisdiction as against a lower.

All the above is matter of principle, argued out as a question of objective right, and it supposes that the jurisdiction is to be applied through the respective subjects of the same. In point of fact the duty of submission in a citizen of a State to the higher jurisdiction of the Church does not exist where the citizen is not a subject of the Church, for over such the Church claims no governing power. It may also be by accident subjectively obscured in one who, though in point of right the Church's subject, in good faith fails, through an erroneous conscience, to recognize this fact, and, by consequence, the Church's right and his own duty. The subject of the State has been made fairly clear by human law and custom; but the frequent rebellion, continued through centuries, of great numbers of the Church's subjects has confused in the mind of the non-Catholic world the notion of who is by revealed law a subject of the Church. The juridical subject of the Church is every human being that has validly received the Sacrament of Baptism. This birth into the Church by baptism is analogous to the birth within the territory of a State of the off spring of one of its citizens. However, this newborn subject of the State can, under certain circumstances, renounce his allegiance to his native State and be accepted as the subject of another. Not so one born into the Church by baptism: for baptism is a sacrament leaving an indelible character upon the soul, which man cannot remove and so escape legitimate subjection. Yet, as in a State, a man may be a subject without full rights of citizenship; may even, while remaining a subject, lose those rights by his own act or that of his parents; so, analogously, not every subject of the Church is a member thereof, and once a member, he may lose the social rights of membership in the Church without ceasing to be its subject. For full membership in the Church, besides valid baptism, one must by union of faith and allegiance be in fellowship with her, and not be deprived of the rights of membership by ecclesiastical censure. Hence, those validly baptized Christians who live in schism or, whether by reason of apostasy or of initial education, profess a faith different from that of the Church, or are excommunicated therefrom, are not members of the Church, though as a matter of objective right and duty they are still her subjects. In practice the Church, while retaining her right over all subjects, does not--except in some few matters not of moment here--insist upon exercising her jurisdiction over any but her members, as it is clear that she cannot expect obedience from those Christians who, being in faith or government separated from her, see no right in her to command, and consequently recognize no duty to obey. Over those who are not baptized she claims no right to govern, though she has the indefeasible right to preach the Gospel among them and to endeavour to win them over to become members of Christ's Church and so citizens of her ecclesiastical polity.

Mutual corporate relation of Church and state

Every perfect society must acknowledge the rights of every other perfect society; must render to it all duties consequent upon such rights; must respect its autonomy; and may demand the recognition of its own rights and the fulfilment of obligations arising therefrom. Whether one may also command such recognition and fulfilment is another question: one does not involve the other; thus, for instance, the United States may demand its rights of England, but cannot command England to acknowledge them, as the United States has no authority over England or any other nation. Prescinding from this for the moment, the Church must respect the rights of the State to govern its subjects in all purely temporal matters, and, if the subjects of the State are likewise subjects of the Church, must hold the latter to the fulfilment of their civil duties as an obligation in conscience. On the other hand, in principle, as a matter of objective duty, the State is bound to recognize the juridical rights of the Church in all matters spiritual whether purely so or of mixed character, and its judicial right to determine the character of matters of jurisdiction, in regard, namely, to their spiritual quality. The State, furthermore, is bound to render due worship to God, as follows from the same argument from the natural law which proves man's obligation to external worship, namely, that man must acknowledge his dependence upon God and his subjection to Him in every capacity in which he is so dependent, and therefore not only in his private capacity as an individual but also in that public, corporate capacity whereby he and his fellow citizens constitute the State. Due worship, in the present economy, is that of the religion of Christ, entrusted to the care of the Church. The State must also protect the Church in the exercise of her functions, for the reason that the State is bound to protect all the rights of its citizens, and among these their religious rights, which as a matter of fact would be insecure and fruitless were not the Church protected. The State is even under obligation to promote the spiritual interests of the Church; for the State is bound to promote whatever by reaction naturally works for the moral development of its citizens and consequently for the internal peace of the community, and in the present condition of human nature that development is necessarily dependent upon the spiritual influence of the Church.

There being, then, an obligation upon the State as such, arising out of the Natural and the Divine Positive Law, to render public Divine worship in accordance with the guidance of the Church, in whose charge Christ has placed the worship due in the present order of things, an obligation also to protect the Church and to promote her interests, the Church clearly has a perfect right to demand the fulfilment of these duties, since their neglect would infringe her right to the benefit proceeding from the fulfilment. To have the further right to command the State in their regard implies that the Church has a right to impose the obligations of her authority in their regard, to exact them authoritatively from the State. Now in purely temporal matters, while they remain such, the Church cannot command the State any more than she can command the subjects of the State, even though these are at the same time her own subjects. But in spiritual and mixed matters calling for corporate action of the State, the question depends upon whether the physical persons who make up the moral personality of the State are themselves subjects of the Church. In case they are, then the Church has in consequence jurisdiction therein over the State. The reason is that owing to the supremacy in man's life purposes of his eternal happiness, man in all his capacities, even of a civil nature, must direct his activities so that they shall not hinder this end, and where action even in his official or civil capacity is necessary for this ultimate purpose he is bound to place the action: moreover, in all these activities so bearing on this end, since they are thereby spiritual matter, every subject of the Church is under the jurisdiction of the Church. If, then, the physical persons constituting the moral person of the State are the subjects of the Church, they are still, in this joint capacity, subject to her in like matters, namely, in the fulfilment of all civil duties of the State towards religion and the Church. The Church, because of the uselessness of her insistence, or because of greater evils to be so avoided, may waive the exercise of this jurisdiction; but in principle it is hers.

In practice we distinguish, from a religious point of view, four kinds of civil authority.

Again, the State as such does not in such matters directly act for the supernatural purpose of the Church (the eternal happiness of its subjects), but for its own temporal purpose inasmuch as such action will make for their temporal happiness; and so it acts for the Church by indirection.

There is no parallel argument to give the State indirectly jurisdiction over the Church in matters purely temporal, and therefore of the State's sole competency. The Church is universal and cannot be a member or subject of any particular State. Even were there but one universal State in the world, the Church would not be a member thereof, for its members are not citizens of the State to the extent that in every capacity they must submit their activities for the purpose of the State, particularly not the activities concerned directly with the higher purpose of eternal life. Moreover, the Church is not constituted merely by the exercise of the natural rights of the men who are citizens of the State, but by the supernatural endowment of the Divine Positive Law. Finally, the Church in its corporate capacity is not bound to seek the temporal happiness of her members as a means to their eternal welfare, while the State as such is bound to Divine worship and to the protection and promotion of the Church in the interests of religion, because this is a necessary element involved in the perfect temporal happiness of the Catholic citizen. The State, therefore, has not, either in temporal or in spiritual things, any authority over the Church as such, however much it may have in things purely temporal over the members of the Church, who are subjects of the State. The State can, as was said above, demand its rights of the Church: it cannot command them.

Union of Church and state

There is some confusion in the public mind about the meaning of the union of Church and State. The essential idea of such union is a condition of affairs where a State recognizes its natural and supernatural relation to the Church, professes the Faith, and practises the worship of the Church, protects it, enacts no laws to its hurt, while, in case of necessity and at its instance taking all just and requisite civil measures to forward the Divinely appointed purpose of the Church--in so far as all these make for the State's own essential purpose, the temporal happiness of its citizens. That this is in principle the normal and ethically proper condition for a truly Catholic State should be evident from the religious obligations of the Catholic State as above declared. That in practice it has in the past sometimes worked evil to both Church and State, is an accidental effect consequent upon the frailty and passion of the human instruments then ruling in Church, or in State, or in both. As a partial attempt at security against such evil consequences, the Church has for centuries established concordats with Catholic States; but even these have not always saved the situation. For concordats, like all other agreements, however firm in principle, are in practice only as strong as the conscientiousness of those whose duty it is to observe them. The conscienceless can destroy them at pleasure. Between the Church and a non-Christian or a Christian, but non-Catholic, State a condition of separation, as meaning a condition of indifference of the State towards the Church, is to be expected, as the foundation of the specific obligations involved in union are wanting. Such a separation for a Catholic State would be criminal, as ignoring the sacred obligations of the State.

For a State once Catholic and in union with the Church to declare a separation on the ground that it has ceased to be Catholic is an action which as a matter of objective right has no standing; for in objective truth the duty of the people would be to regain their lost faith, if they had really lost it, or to live up to it if in reality it were not lost. But on the supposition that the essential constituency of a State has been transformed from Catholics to those who, not by hypocritical pretence, but in the fulness of good faith, are not Catholics--a condition easier of supposition than of realization--the State through such mistaken conscience might seek for separation without subjective fault, provided the separation were effected without the summary dissolution of existing contracts, without the violation of vested rights of the Church or its members. It may be noted in passing that in the recent instances of separation in France and Portugal, i.e., the breaking up of an existing condition of union between Church and State, the separation has been effected where the bulk of the people is still Catholic, has been conducted in violation of rights and contracts both natural and positive, and has resulted, as it was aimed to do, in an attempt at complete subsection of the Church and of all civil subjects in the matters of religion to the tyranny of administrations which scoff at all religion. That in States whose personality is constitutionally made up of every complexion of religious faith, much of it in its diversity sincere, there should be a governmental abstention from any specific denominational worship or profession of belief, and a general protection and encouragement of the individual in the practice of religion according to his own religious principles within the limits of the Natural Law, or of a general acceptance of Christianity, seems a practical necessity of evil times, when unity of faith is so widely lacking, and a modus vivendi which, if sincerely carried out, seems to work as little harm to objective right as can be expected in a condition of consciences sincerely differing in the matter of right established by the Divine Positive Law.

Counter theories

The theories opposed to the Catholic position on the true relations between the Church and State are threefold, differing in latitude of negation of ecclesiastical right.

Absolute Liberalism

Absolute Liberalism is the most extreme. Having its source in the principles of the French Revolution and beginning with those who denied the existence of God, it naturally takes the position that the State prescinds from God: the State, it says, is atheistic. Undertaking, with the elimination of revelation and the Divine Positive Law, to get back to purely natural principles, it accepted from Rousseau and the Utilitarians the principle that all right comes from the State, all authority from the consentient wills of the people of the State. The position logically followed that the Church has no rights--not even the right to existence--save such as are conceded to it by the civil power. Hence it is not a perfect society, but a creature of the State, upon which it depends in all things, and upon which it must be directly subordinate, if it is to be allowed to exist at all. (See LIBERALISM.)

Qualified Liberalism

Qualified Liberalism, as formulated by Cavour and Minghetti in Italy at the close of the first half of the nineteenth century, does not go so far. While claiming to admit that the Church is more or less a perfect society with foundations in the Divine Positive Law of Christian Revelation, it contends that the Church and State are disparate in such fashion as to prosecute their respective ends independently in behalf of the individual, having no subordination whatever one to the other. Consequently, in all public affairs the State must prescind from every religious society, and deal with such either as private associations existing within the State or as foreign corporations to be treated with accordingly. The axiom of this newer Liberalism is "A free Church in a free State", which in point of fact means an emasculated Church with no more freedom than the shifting politics, internal and external, of a State chose to give, which in the event, as was to be foreseen, amounted to servitude. (See ITALY: Political and Civil Government: Church and State.)


The Theory of the Regalists conceded to the Church a certain amount of social right from its Divine Founder, but conditioned the exercise of all social powers upon the consent of the civil government. This theory, originating with Gallicanism, practically denied the Church to be a perfect society inasmuch as it made its jurisdiction depend for its valid exercise upon the civil power. The theory gradually extended its contentions so far as to make the Church indirectly subordinate to the State, attributing to the State the authority to forbid the Church any juridical act that might work to the detriment of the State and to command the Church in case of necessity to put forth her full powers to promote the interests of the State.

About this page

APA citation. Macksey, C. (1912). State and Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Macksey, Charles. "State and Church." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil and Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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