Church and State – the ongoing debate

Much has been said on the role of the Church in society, on the role of the Church in public life, on the role of the Church in politics.  Some have stated that the Church must strictly look at and interfere in religious issues; while others have said that it is the Church’s role to participate in all aspects of society.  We are witnessing just another episode of the separation of Church and State debate which has been going on for some hundreds of years now.  How can we know which argument is right?
I tend to start my arguments from one position, one ground which both parties have in common.  I think both the Church and the State aim towards the well-being of individuals, and in turn of society at large.  It is important to keep this in mind, as it gives us a focus on the essential elements and goals of each part.  It is true that the Church is usually associated with the spiritual and religious aspects of human beings and the State with policies, legislations and society, but we cannot in reality just divide the human being into pieces; it just does not make sense.  One cannot divide between the personal, social or spiritual well-being of a person, as one aspect is reflected in the other.  My personal development affects my social relations, and my spiritual aspect reflects my personal growth.  We must speak of an integral person; if we don’t then that would mean that we have not yet understood what the human being is, and that is sadly quite a regression.

The Church is interested in the development of human beings as the children of God, as those created in the image of God; a development aimed at reaching the full potential as human beings.  Therefore it is the duty of the Church to instruct how man should live their lives in the best way to reach this potential, and to reach this potential a human being must have the necessary environment to grow personally, socially and spirituality.  That is why the Church teaches against oppression, in favour of freedom and the right to life, against poverty and war, and so on.  Yes these issues do enter the field of the State, and with these issues mentioned there is also the teaching on how society should be built, on the best way in which families are formed, on the best practices for child rearing in the interest of the child, and on the education children should receive.

The Church would be neglecting its duty if it does not speak about this, it would be doing a disservice to all Catholics as well as to all humanity, because the Church believes that all humans are created equally, and so are all called to the Truth.  Yes one can say that not everybody agrees with or believes what the Church says, but that does not mean that the Church should not speak. Some might question the existence of the Truth; well I just invite these to go deeper in the understanding of themselves.  The Church respects the stage in which individuals have arrived in their attaining of knowledge, and so she invites everyone to keep on searching, just as she is in a continuous search for a better understanding of reality.  Some speak of the Church imposing its views.  In these last few debates I have never seen the Church imposing anything, as it cannot impose anything; it just looks at living its role in this world, that of being a light to the Truth for all humanity towards their well-being.

Bernard Micallef is a Social Policy graduate from the University of Malta and is currently reading a Bachelor's Degree in Sacred Theology.

20 thoughts on “Church and State – the ongoing debate

  • Reply Ramon Casha 18th February 2014 at 2:01 pm

    The church has the same right to present its views as any other organisation in society, on any issue. Nobody is trying to deny it that right. Where, in my opinion, it sometimes crosses a line is when certain individuals try to impose their views on society. There have been a number of statements in recent days – some subtle, some rather blatant – to the effect that MPs who call themselves Catholics are required to vote as they’re told.

    Although the church may well wish for the best of society, their mindset is restricted by certain dogmatic positions which prevent them from doing (or saying) what is objectively good, and restricting themselves to what falls within the parameters of these dogma. We saw this in the divorce debate – the church says divorce is prohibited, so the church tried to convince people that it’s also objectively wrong. The same is happening now with same-sex unions. According to the church’s beliefs, homosexuality is wrong and so it comes up with all sorts of ways to try to undermine civil unions and civil adoptions, presenting this as some objective truth rather than a dogmatic position.

    So yes, the church has every right to voice its views, but parliament and government should take this for what it is: opinions from centuries gone by.

    • Reply Bernard Micallef 18th February 2014 at 7:51 pm

      The Church has the duty to state its dogma and teach people, being normal citizens or parliamentarians, about it. Since this dogma is a reflection of God’s Word and comes down through centuries of inspired Tradition, it is also objectively good and thus True. Even though the Church has to consider the changes happening in society, it cannot move away from teaching the objective good, and so these are not opinions of centuries gone by, but rather fixed truths. Certain values cannot just change because a number of people decide to ignore them, and so the Church has the duty to hold these values and teach them, and believers have the duty to listen to what the Church says.

      • Reply Ramon Casha 22nd February 2014 at 10:38 am

        The dogma of the church is based on centuries of men’s interpretations of men’s words, which some believe to be the words (literal or not) of an old middle-eastern deity, and are neither objectively good nor true. The church too changes over time, but it does so slowly – far too slowly.

        The world has long since learned that the statements of fact made by the church are often untrue, the church’s case against Galileo Galilei is only the most famous – there were many others. Now the world is realising that even in matters of morality, the views of the church tend to be more flawed than the average subjective opinion – mainly due to its insinstence on hanging on to long-expired superstitions and beliefs.

        • Reply Bernard Micallef 26th February 2014 at 1:42 am

          Well we do have different views. Church dogma is not simply based on men’s words but is based on the writings and teachings which are fruit of their relationship with God. This is a growing relationship and so the church is on a journey based on an objective truth. Certain Church’s teachings were ahead of their time. Yes there were certain aspects in the church which were based on superstition, but the church has grown out of these, I do not know what superstitions you are referring to. I think that the church’s morality has a direction, which is the development of human beings. As for the world, it just takes an individualistic and relativist view towards whatever one feels s/he ought to do.

          • Ramon Casha 26th February 2014 at 1:52 pm

            Church dogma is based on men’s words which they attribute to a relationship with a deity. This is a common trait with most religions – attributing something to a deity to give it more authority (think “papal infallibility”).

            Some of the church’s teachings were indeed ahead of their time, but time does not stand still. Perhaps you can see this more easily if you look at another religion. Take Islam. When they decided that women had the right to inherit half as much as their brothers it was an improvement on nothing at all, but as time went on and humanity accepted that equal rights between the sexes is morally better, Islam was stuck with the inflexible rule that women had to be given half as much as men, the testimony of two women equivalent to one man, and so on. The Catholic church took a very inflexible position on contraception in the past, and that position is now anachronistic and harmful to the church’s image as a moral leader, but the church is pretty much stuck with it for the foreseeable future. Same with its positions on homosexuality, divorce and so on.

            The problem is not objective vs relative morality, but absolute vs objective vs relative. The church’s position is absolutist: “God (or the church) said so, therefore it’s wrong”. Relativism maintains “I said so, therefore it’s wrong”. Somewhere in between there’s an objective morality we can determine.

  • Reply ken 22nd February 2014 at 12:29 pm

    I strongly disagree; that is the theory, not the practice; it is Society which is needed to control the Church, as it oversteps its bounds again and again.

    By its history and its behaviour, is obviously far more interested in maintaining its power over individuals, specifically for its own narrow interests.
    Best example: its protection of abusive priests instead of children, which is why the UN is insisting that those priests be turned over to State police rather than being disciplined by the Vatican – one cannot trust the Church to be anything but self-interested.
    Other examples: Refusing all scientific proofs (Galileo are you listening?) that sexual orientation is basically genetic (one might even dare to say “God-given!”) – it continues to insist that being gay is a choice, a disordered and immoral behaviour. It is not. Gay teenagers are 30% more likely to attempt suicide because of societal attitudes fomented by Church teachings. And yet “homosexuality exists in hundreds of species, whereas homophobia only exists in one!” How does Church obfuscation help gays “reach their full potential”?

    Need I mention the Church’s hypocritical position on divorce, which created so much misery for the people of Malta until finally the law was put into secular hands, and abrogated?
    Or the use of Church funds for a Bishops’ creature comforts (a $20,000 bathtub!) instead of helping the poor?
    This is not a body which I want instructing anyone in how we should live our lives.

    • Reply Bernard Micallef 26th February 2014 at 11:47 pm

      I do not know which bounds it is overstepping now, as the Church’s mission is to live God’s message in the world. Now that might sound as ‘out of this world’ for some, so the Church continues to find ways to be applicable to society without moving away from this message, as it was created to exist in society. Yes, there has been instances where certain individuals in the Church were wrong, as humans, but that doesn’t mean that the Church or its principles are wrong. There were instances where the Church did not act in the best way, but recent history is showing us how the Church is ready to work on its mistakes. The Church does not state that being gay is a choice, nor that it is wrong. The Church speaks against homosexual acts as this goes away from the meaning of sexual activity which is love, life and unity.

      I think it would be offensive if we say that a person can only reach his or her full potential through sexual activity. The Church is for people understanding who they are and being comfortable with themselves.

      As for the divorce issue, only time will tell if this was a good choice or not.

      • Reply Ramon Casha 27th February 2014 at 6:06 am

        “The Church speaks against homosexual acts as this goes away from the meaning of sexual activity which is love, life and unity.”

        Homosexual acts only differ in that they cannot produce life – in this regard, they are the equivalent of sex between an infertile couple. The church’s position against homosexuals and homosexuality is, like its positions on contraception, female priests, etc, an anachronism rooted in ancient prejudices. These prejudices come out clearly in your own assertion that sex between two men, or two women, cannot be based on love or unity.

        As for the divorce issue, keep in mind that in some states and cultures, divorce has been a non-issue for millennia and it has not caused any problems. Broken marriages yes, but those of course occur whether or not divorce is legal.

  • Reply Bernard Micallef 3rd March 2014 at 6:13 pm

    Yes Ramon I think that we can try look for an objective morality, the problem with that is that we all start from different positions. Our views are based on many beliefs or thoughts. Let us take contraception (this can also be applied to the other mentioned issues). The Church has, through a number of years of thought, study, and in its case prayer too, come to a conclusion that the purpose of sex is of love, life, and unity, as I stated in my previous answer. This is something it truly believes in, and it is not simply something which a couple of guys decided to believe in. The Church does review its position in certain cases, as referred to by Benedict XVI I believe two years ago. This is a belief which does not simply come from men’s words but rather is based on a long Tradition which is not simply attributed to a diety. Obviously this goes down to one believing in a God or not, but as a believer I know what I experience. Having said this, I think an objective morality would be something hard to find.

    • Reply Ramon Casha 3rd March 2014 at 8:31 pm

      The fact that the various Christian churches come to such different conclusion should make it clear that these things come from humans – whether it’s about divorce or contraceptives or same-sex marriage, different churches, all Christian, have come to opposite conclusions. One would expect that if a deity were really the source, they’d all agree. A more clear example however is the Catholic church’s darker chapters of history. I’m sure the people then also thought and prayed etc, but came to some pretty nasty consclusions.

      They come to different conclusions because humans are different and humans are the sources of these concepts. One can find objective morality through a number of thought experiments, tackling matters with an open mind, considering arguments and counter-arguments, and keeping oneself open to the possibility that one was wrong. An objective morality is something one can work towards, but an absolute morality is set in stone, leaving no room for improvement or correction.

  • Reply Bernard Micallef 8th March 2014 at 1:06 am

    This process which you have mentioned is something that the Church has gone through throughout centuries, and in certain cases is still going on today, as faith entails a continuous search. But in certain cases the Church has come to certain definitions. All this is seen in light of Christ’s teachings and the teachings of saints throughout the years.

    To reach to an objective morality one must start from the same position, towards an end. If we are discussing the value of human beings, we must start from what it means to be humans looking how a human being can be fulfilled. There are certain things one must agree on from the start. On the other hand we must be ready to discuss, but if different positions are taken, an objective morality would be hard to reach.

    Humans have along the years come to some nasty decisions, but that does not erase the experience of many Catholics, common experiences which connect them to God.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 8th March 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Humans have come to some bad decisions, and history shows us that believing in a god does nothing to prevent that from happening. In fact it can make things worse, since if someone believes God demands a course of action, that belief can override any reasoning or conscience that says otherwise.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 8th March 2014 at 4:00 pm

      It is not the belief in God that makes people take bad decisions, but their choice of what to make of that; this however can apply to any set of believes or principles, ideology or creed, whether based on belief in a God or not.

      • Reply Ramon Casha 9th March 2014 at 1:46 pm

        It can indeed be the belief in God – specifically, the belief that God wants you to do specific things. If you go through the Old Testament in particular, it says that God demands that people be put to death for all kinds of small misdeeds – anything from picking up sticks on a sabbath, or a teenager being rude to his parents, to simply being born in the wrong tribe. So, you get the Bible saying that gay people should be put to death, you get an American firebrand preacher going to Uganda to stir people up against gay people and before long you start getting gay people being burned alive by Christians who believe that this is what God wants them to do – in fact it was only massive international condemnation that prevented the country from enacting the death penalty into law – and it was Christian churches who were demanding that this should be done.

        People can come to wrong decisions based on various ideologies, but people can usually reason their way around those. If you believe that it is God himself who ordered you to do something, that’s not subject to argument.

  • Reply Bernard Micallef 10th March 2014 at 11:41 pm

    Our belief is based on scripture and Tradition, that is the written Word of God, and the teachings which came after that. In order to take good decisions, and in order to live a right Christian life, one has to look at both things, which thus includes also the use of reason, because teachings are based on the journey of reason and prayer. The Bible was written in a different context, and so an ongoing search must be made, and so the person doing as you said is just interpreting being Christian in the wrong way.

    You can say that people actually do that because of religion, and you are right, but that does not make the Christian life wrong simply because some people interpret it, or worse use it, in the wrong way. Certain ‘Christian’ people might exist, but they cannot really be called Christians. So yes God has reveled himself in order to show us who he is and what he wishes us to do, but it is for us to use this together with our reason to reach to what we need to do (many arguments through centuries show this), and that is why the Christian life is an ongoing search and growth.

    • Reply Ramon Casha 11th March 2014 at 8:58 am

      If you are using your reason to determine which parts of the Bible one should follow, and which parts one should discard, then you are not basing your life on the Bible or its teachings but on your own reason – and you are merely using the Bible to provide verses to support this. That’s fair enough but you should recognise what you are doing – and that you can do the same without the Bible.

      Saying that those who interpret the Bible otherwise are “not real Christians” is called the No True Scotsman fallacy.

      God has never revealed himself to anyone. All you have is a book containing a story saying that he did. No more convincing than the Hindu books that tell of the deeds of Brahma, or the Greek mythologies about Hercules’ labours.

  • Reply Bernard Micallef 12th March 2014 at 6:23 pm

    It is through reason and prayer that scripture is interpreted; that is reason through the light of God, and not reason alone. Being Christian means that one follows the teachings of Christ. Christ came to renew the Law, to fulfill it, therefore seeing the Law found in the Old Testament in a new way. He founded the Church to continue to enlighten people on his teachings through the centuries, and so every Christian must continue to follow this example.

    The example you represented is not about interpretation only, but goes against the concept of love, a message which is central in Christ’s teachings.

    Yes there is a big book about God’s revelation and two thousand years of experience of the Church. It is not a story of something beyond, but a story of Jesus who lived.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 12th March 2014 at 7:51 pm

    It is through reason alone that scripture is interpreted, with different groups allowing different amounts of leeway and typically making their interpretations as important as the scripture itself. Prayer, like meditation, can help place one in a particular mindset or state of relaxation, but ultimately it’s still reason that interprets it. The different interpretations (and poliltics) is what gives rise to the many Christian denominations. Different groups find it convenient to “follow Christ” in different ways.

    Technically, all Christians should follow every single one of the rules in the Bible between Genesis and Malachi. That’s what Jesus instructed anyway – he said that every little bit of those laws still counts, and will continue to count until heaven and earth disappear, and that nobody may break them or teach any to break them. Of course I’m glad this rule gets ignored – too many beheadings and stonings for my taste.

    Jesus founded no church – that was founded by St.Paul using Jesus as a mascot.

  • Reply Bernard Micallef 21st March 2014 at 5:22 pm

    “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church…” (Mt 16, 18a) The Church was founded by Jesus, St.Paul was the person Jesus chose to aid spread it.

    Yes every bit of the law must be followed, but again as Jesus came to renew the law in a new light, so also us must see this law in a new light, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, enlightening man through reason and prayer. Prayer is not only relaxation, it is a communication with God. Through prayer one is enlightened.

    Yes there has been a lot of politics and interpretations in history, but what pushes these is not that which interests the individual, in an egoistic way, but a search for what God really wants, which we believe is the truth.

    • Reply Ramon Casha 21st March 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Jesus spoke of no church – not as we understand the word. The knesset meant the council of the Nazarenes, who were and remained Jews. That
      was one of many things given a new meaning. Not only that but there is no evidence that Peter ever went to Rome, or established tbe succession of popes, etc.

      Where the law is concerned, Jesus was more than clear – no new lights, no new interpretation, no renewals. He expected his followers to obey the law to the letter, as found in the Laws and Prophets. Paul of course had a differenti plan and had no intention of making the followers of his new religion follow that strict and complex code.

      Prayer is relaxation. It is not communication any more than speaking to yourself is.

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