In recent times you frequently hear people, including Christians, and even amongst Catholics talk about religious liberty and the radical and secular idea of the separation of church and state. What many people fail to realize is that religious liberty and the separation of church and state as in the modern liberal sense has never been taught by the Church, but actually condemned by many Popes. It is true that Vatican II mentions religious liberty to some extent, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however the traditional Catholic teaching has always put a strong emphasize on the Social Kingship of Christ in both our private as well as our public lives.
What the Church does not teach
It is best that we start by showing what the Church does not teach regarding Church and society. First and foremost the first of “the modern errors that we see in the modern secular sense is an embracing of false ideas of religious liberty and the radical separation of Church and State (as opposed to recognizing them as two distinct spheres, the secular being informed by but not controlled by the religious)”.1
Blessed Pope Pius IX stated in his Syllabus of Errors that it is erroneous to think that “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship”.2
The Catholic Church has also never supported the idea of a theocracy, that is, that both ecclesiastical and secular authority are vested in the same individuals, so that a priestly class also holds the reins of government. Rather, the Church has always taught that the Church and the State are separate powers and each has its own legitimate sphere of influence, although, as Pope Leo XIII noted, “their subjects are the same, and not infrequently they deal with the same objects, though in different ways”.3
Another misconception is that the Church has before advocated forced conversion and using the state for that means. This is completely untrue as this would undermine the Catholic belief of free will and thus “the right of being immune to coercion, or rather the fact that the Church does not impose the Catholic Faith on anyone, but requires the freedom of the act of faith, does not arise from a presumed natural right to religious freedom or a presumed natural right to believe in any religion whatever, but it is founded on the fact that the Catholic Religion, the only true one, must be embraced in complete freedom without any constraints”.4Thus the Church has never taught that she nor the state can be used to coerce religious belief.
Lastly the Church has never declared Monarchy to be a perfect form of government. St. Robert Bellarmine states that although a monarchy has superiority and a lot of benefits, it is only true when monarchial power is wielded by an ideal monarch.
Monarchy theoretically and in the abstract, monarchy in the hands of God who combines in Himself all the qualifications of an ideal ruler, is indeed a perfect system of government; in the hands of imperfect man, however, it is exposed to many defects and abuses. A government tempered, therefore, by all three basic forms (i.e., monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy), a mixed government, is, on account of the corruption of human nature more useful that simple monarchy.5
What the Church does teach
Many Catholics believe that because the Church does not believe in forced conversions and thus in using the state as a means of doing that, and that at the same time because the Church doesn’t support a theocracy, therefore that the solution is for the State to be completely separated from the Church and should therefore treat all religions equally. To believe that because the State is forbidden to coerce belief, that it must declare itself completely separated from the Church and to treat all religions equally runs contrary to the Church’s teaching.
The Church throughout its history has always taught contrary to this radical belief of religious liberty and the separation of Church and State as we understand them in a liberal context.
The Church therefore teaches that the Church and the State are two distinct spheres, where the secular is informed but not controlled by the religious. This is not too different than what Jesus said in Matthew when asked about paying taxes to Caesar. He stated that Faith and the Church are distinct but not fully separated from civil authority.
Render therefore to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s: and to God, the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:21)