It’s 50 years since Pope John XXIII announced his plans for the Second Vatican Council. One of the hallmarks of that council was that the Catholic Church came to accept religious liberty as an ideal–it saw that it had to, if it was going to protect its own members liberties in secular and communist societies. But it never did accept separation of church and state–as defined and celebrated in the American experience. That was reiterated in a talk last fall by Cardinal F. James Stafford.
Dignitatis Humanae makes this distinction very clear:
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.
The Catholic church says the state can’t coerce it or the believer–but it has a right and a duty to teach the state and to work towards the establishment of the Social Reign of Christ the King (the theme of Pope Pius XI’s 1925 encyclical Quas primas).
But how to do that? There is a clear division within the Catholic Church. On the one hand is the position taken by Opus Dei (supported by Vatican 2 documents) that it’s the obligation of the laity to sanctify the temporal sphere by their ordinary work. Priests and bishops must form their consciences, but they are the legislators, the judges, the businessmen, the housewives, the nurses, the doctors, etc. The laity, doing their jobs faithfully and well, and guided by their own conscience, are the salt and light that will influence the world for the better.
The other position is that taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a host of state and regional bishops’ conferences. This is a clericalist vision, which sees the role of influencing the state as belonging to the church per se. In this vision, the bishops become experts on every detail of social policy, and spell out in great detail what they expect “the lay faithful” to do, and spend great sums in lobbying to get their way. Check out the “Social Justice Issues” in the menu column of the USCCB webpage. The range of issues upon which the USCCB has official positions is breath-taking: