Catholic World Report
facebook twitter RSS
February 20, 2017
It is widely accepted that Vatican II rejected Catholic states as the normative ideal, and that this rejection was at the level of an unchanging doctrine. Here are arguments against both propositions.
( / Givaga)

Perhaps Benedict XVI’s greatest gift to the Church was his emphasis on what has come to be called the “hermeneutic of continuity.” This concept emerged in his Christmas 2005 address on Vatican II to the Roman curia. But if we pay attention to the letter of Benedict’s text, we see that the term “hermeneutic of continuity” never appears in it. The terms that he actually uses are “hermeneutic of reform” and the rather unwieldy but more precise “hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church.” Nevertheless, there is some justification for using “hermeneutic of continuity” as a synonym for these other terms since Benedict himself does that in a footnote to Sacramentum caritatis (2007) in a reference to the 2005 address. In the footnote the Holy Father speaks, in Latin, of the explicationis continuationis, which could be fairly rendered as “hermeneutic of continuity.”

The continuity that Benedict has in mind is, above all, continuity in Church doctrine. He doesn’t deny the possibility of “development” of doctrine. But because what the Church teaches it teaches as eternally true – obviously I’m referring to her unchanging doctrines, not her contextually relative policies – any authentic development must always be non-contradictory, for truth cannot be at odds with truth.

This essay will discuss continuity with respect to Vatican II’s teaching on the Church’s relationship to the state and, more particularly, how this pertains to the Catholic state. In the past year, two important members of the hierarchy expressed what could be construed as conflicting views on Vatican II’s teaching on these fronts. This conflict in the hierarchy reflects a more general conflict on the Church-state question. In what follows I’m going to first address that more general conflict and then come back to this apparent conflict in the hierarchy.

Of course, before we can discuss any of this, we need to get a sense of the pre-Vatican II magisterial teaching on the Church and the state.

Pre-Vatican II teaching on Church and state

In a 1953 speech delivered at the Lateran University in Rome on the occasion of a celebration of the fourteenth anniversary of Pius XII’s election as pope, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office (later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), summed up magisterial teaching on the Church and the state in three theses: 

(1) The state should publicly profess the Catholic faith. Pius XI, for example, clearly teaches this in Quas primas (1925): “If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”

(2) Legislation should be informed by Catholic moral teaching. As Pius XII puts it in a in 1945 letter to Cardinal Lavitrano, on the occasion of that year’s “social week” in Italy, the fundamental law of the state “should not oppose healthy religious and moral principles” – that is, it shouldn’t  reject the “cornerstone of Christianity,” as he puts it – but “take vigorous inspiration from it and, following it, proclaim and pursue lofty ends.”

(3) The state should defend the people’s unity in the Catholic faith. This is how Leo XIII explains it in Immortale Dei (1885): “All who rule, therefore, should hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety.” 

The three theses, taken together as a package, logically imply that a Catholic state is the normative ideal. But Ottaviani, again in line with magisterial teaching, understood that a Catholic state so construed is not always practically possible and, in such situations, not desirable. The three theses, then, are properly taken as conditionals. In other words, the proviso “when practically possible” is understood to be attached to each thesis. As Ottaviani sees things, one essential practical condition is that the population in question be almost entirely Catholic.

Let's also note two things that Ottaviani isn’t saying in these theses (and that the magisterium didn’t teach). With regard to the first thesis, he isn’t saying that there should be no distinction between the Church and the state. He takes each to be a complete society (societas perfecta) in its own sphere. We might put it this way: there is a distinction but there shouldn’t be a separation between the two (in the sense that the state would remain neutral vis-à-vis the Church or hostile to her). Or perhaps an even better way to put it is to say that the Church-state relationship is (or should be) a “unity-in-distinction.” Leo XIII, for instance, clearly suggests this in Immortale Dei when he likens their relationship to the soul-body unity in man.

With regard to the second and third theses, Ottaviani doesn’t foresee using the coercive power of the state to “force” anyone to become Catholic. On this point he signals his agreement with the legal provision of the Catholic state of Spain at the time, which directed that “no one shall be interfered with because of his religious beliefs or in the private practice of worship.” But this is likewise taught by, among other popes, Leo XIII. “The Church is wont to take earnest heed,” he writes in Immortale Dei, “that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will.”

Although there are always many prudential issues – matters of “policy” – that are involved in the Church’s dealings with particular states, her teaching on her relationship to the state in general isn’t simply a prudential issue. The preconciliar magisterium understood it also to be a matter of unchanging doctrine. Ottaviani sees the Catholic state as a normative ideal as such a doctrine. In this regard, it becomes a criterion by which the pros and cons of particular politico-ecclesiastical situations are evaluated. This is evident, for example, in Pius X’s comments in Vehementer nos (1906) on the Third Republic’s 1905 law separating the Church and the state in France. The pope begins by reminding the French bishops that the opinion that the Church and the state should be separated “is absolutely false, a most pernicious opinion” (profecto falsissima, maximeque perniciosa sententia est). He next lists several general reasons for this – among these is that the separation of the two institutions is a “great injustice” (magnam inuriam) to God, who, as the founder and preserver of human societies, deserves their public and social worship. He then goes on to apply these general considerations to the concrete situation in France.

Looking at the documents of Vatican II, it is hard to find anything that is incompatible with the preconciliar teaching on the Catholic state as I have presented it here with Ottaviani’s help. In fact, there are even grounds for believing that the Council positively upholds this teaching. Many people might find these claims surprising. However, I don’t think that this is because of anything that the Council itself actually teaches but because of certain narratives that have come to be accepted about its teaching.

Narratives of discontinuity

According to some commentators, John Courtney Murray, who was a peritus at the Council, had a decisive influence on its teaching on the relationship of the Church and the state. Other commentators think that Murray’s influence has been exaggerated and sometimes point to different influences – Jacques Maritain, a dear friend of Paul VI, is often invoked in this context. Whatever the truth may be, the Church-state question was one that Murray had intensely studied and written about in the two decades preceding Vatican II, he advised the American hierarchy on the matter at the Council, and he participated in preparing the fourth draft of Dignitatis humanae. So, Murray’s interpretation of the Council on the Church-state question is regarded by many people as authoritative.

How, then, does Murray interpret the Council on the Church’s relationship to the state? Murray contends that a unity of the Church and the state of the sort that I would argue is taught by the preconciliar magisterium (and summed up in the Ottaviani theses) is regarded by the Council as a situation that historical circumstances might permit but not one that should be taken as normative. As I understand it, the preconciliar magisterium would agree that the arrangement that it envisions might not be appropriate in every circumstance but it would maintain that the normativity of that arrangement should be acknowledged. It’s what we should strive for and, when practically possible, establish. Murray, on the other hand, appears to think that the Council’s teaching is that even when a Catholic state is practically possible, we could take it or leave it.

Murray is not the only one to tell this sort of story about the Council’s teaching on the Church-state question. Many others have told a similar story, and, arguably, these narratives of discontinuity have become the dominant ones.

Ladislas Orsy is another case in point. According to Orsy, on the Church-state question the Council, in fact, “corrects” a previous pontiff, namely, Pius IX. In his Syllabus Errorum, Pius IX condemns the following proposition as erroneous: “The Church should be separated from the state and the state from the Church.” Taking the Council to oppose this teaching, Orsy writes: “This is a delicate matter: an ecumenical council correcting a previous pope.” (Oddly, Orsy doesn’t mention that the Council – if he’s right about its position – would be “correcting” several other popes besides Pius IX.)

For sake of space, let me offer just one more example. This third example is Martin Rhonheimer. Rhonheimer is of particular interest because of his attempt to enlist Benedict XVI in support of his argument. There are several points in Rhonheimer’s argument that deserve attention but I’ll limit myself to what he says about Pope Benedict.

Rhonheimer alleges that in his 2005 Christmas address to the curia (mentioned at the beginning of this essay) Benedict rejects a state religion – and the idea of a Catholic state along with it – and sees this as the teaching of Vatican II, a teaching that supposedly reconnects the Council with the early Church after a period of rupture on this point. 

In my judgment, the closest that Benedict comes to the move that Rhonheimer suggests is when in his address he tells his audience that although the early Church prayed for emperors, “she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the state,” adding that “[t]he martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the free profession of faith – a profession that no state can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.” 

If we’re looking for a straightforward rejection of a Catholic state by the pope, these remarks don’t give us the smoking gun. I’ll explain why shortly. Admittedly, there are other texts in which Ratzinger expresses a personal opinion that appears consistent with Rhonheimer’s argument. But those personal opinions are just that, personal opinions, not papal statements whose authoritative weight we would need to assay.

Narratives of continuity

I’d like now to explore reasons for adopting a different approach to Vatican II’s teaching on the Church and the state. These reasons are at the same time reasons for rejecting narratives of discontinuity.

The very first thing to note is that at the end of the first section of Dignitatis humanae, the Council’s declaration on religious freedom, we are told that the Council “leaves untouched (integram relinquit) the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” Apparently, Paul VI personally insisted, at the last minute, that this statement be inserted in the document. This papal intervention seemingly had the purpose of making sure that people didn’t get the wrong impression about how the Council understands its relation to the Church’s previous teaching. 

It is important to note that this statement is intended to implicate not only private citizens but the governing authority of a society. Cardinal Avery Dulles relates that that clarification was made to the Council fathers by Émile-Joseph De Smedt, the bishop of Bruges and the spokesman for the committee in charge of drafting Dignitatis humanae: “[Bishop De Smedt] explained that the text, as revised, did not overlook or deny but clearly recalled Leo XIII’s teaching on the duties of the public authority [potestatis publicae] toward the true religion.”

Paul VI’s addition and De Smedt’s comment on it would appear to manifest the Council’s desire to maintain continuity with previous magisterial teaching on the Catholic state and, thus, can be taken to suggest that the Council upholds preconciliar teaching. At the very least they could justify a presumption in favor of the narrative of continuity, putting the burden of proof upon people who wish to tell a different story.

And people have, indeed, told a different story (as we’ve already seen), pointing to other statements here and there in the Council documents that they believe vindicate their interpretation. And yet, as I have already noted, it is hard to find anything that evidently contradicts previous magisterial teaching.

Consider, for example, Gaudium et spes. According to this document, “[t]he Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system” and that “the Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other.” You certainly could take assertions like this to be proposing a separation of the Church and the state (as the Church historian Norman Tanner, for example, does), but there is no logical necessity that they be read in that way. Unless these texts are forced beyond their letter, the most we can say is they claim that the Church and the state have distinct identities that need to be recognized and respected. As shown, the preconciliar magisterium agrees with that. 

But, for the preconciliar magisterium, this distinction between the Church and the state doesn’t entail their separation. On this point, we need only to recall the unity-in-distinction understanding of the Church-state relationship exemplified in Leo XIII’s soul-body analogy.

Still, what of Dignitatis humanae’s teaching about religious freedom? Doesn’t it tell us that the right to religious freedom “continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it”? Wouldn’t a Catholic state like the preconciliar magisterium envisions necessarily place limits on the freedom of non-Catholic religions? First, remember that the preconciliar magisterium is against forcing anyone to become Catholic. Second, Dignitatis humanae doesn’t at all support an absolute right to religious freedom. The right to religious freedom it teaches is always a circumscribed freedom, one “within due limits” (intra debitos limites). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, these “due limits” of which Dignitatis humanae speaks “must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order.”

As noted, Martin Rhonheimer claims, in appealing to the 2005 Christmas address, that Benedict XVI interprets Vatican II as rejecting a state religion. I presented the remarks of Benedict that Rhonheimer seems to have in mind. Being able to enlist the support of a pope would undoubtedly bolster Rhonheimer’s case (although it’s questionable whether it would seal it). So, has he got Benedict right?

As far as I can tell, Benedict is speaking primarily about freedom from being coerced against your will to worship some divinity or divinities that you don’t believe in. That was the situation faced by the early Christians he mentions. They refused to worship the Roman emperor. This is what led, for instance, to the martyrdom of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, in the second century. What got Polycarp and other Christians into trouble then wasn’t that they said the Roman state shouldn’t have an official religion. They were in trouble for refusing to worship a god in which they didn’t believe – in this case, the emperor. In other words, they weren’t rejecting established religion per se. They were only rejecting a particular state religion, one that took the emperor to be divine. It’s highly unlikely that Benedict is unaware of this. I can only conclude, then, that the 2005 Christmas address doesn’t give Rhonheimer what he’s looking for.

Prominent retailers of the narrative of continuity approach to Vatican II’s teaching on the Church-state question include Avery Dulles (who I have already cited), Brian Harrison, John Lamont, and Thomas Pink. While they are not in agreement about all the details, they do share a common general orientation.

An interview with the archbishop

Last July, Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the papal Ecclesia Dei Commission, gave an interview to the German newspaper Die Zeit. The main topic of the interview was the Vatican’s negotiations with the Society of Saint Pius X. In the course of the interview, Pozzo had the opportunity to comment on the pastoral and doctrinal aspects of various Vatican II documents.

Pozzo explains that there are some teachings of the Council that Catholics must accept with a firm interior assent. As illustrations he offers Lumen gentium’s teachings on “the sacramentality of the episcopal office as the fullness of Holy Orders” and “the teaching on the primacy of the pope and of the college of bishops together with [him].” By contrast, Pozzo tells Die Zeit that Dignitatis humanae’s treatment of religious freedom “does not present doctrines of faith or definitive statements but rather instruction and guidance for pastoral praxis.” (The same is the case, he says, for Nostra aetate and Unitatis redintegratio.)

Theologians will surely want to discuss this claim further since one could get the impression that Pozzo sees Dignitatis humanae as being entirely concerned with prudential matters rather than matters of unchanging doctrine. Yet there are evidently passages in Dignitatis humanae that present the latter. Surely the statement discussed a moment ago about our moral duties toward the true religion and toward the Church is such an example. Consider also a statement from the second section of the document: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” It’s hard not to read this as the expression of an unchanging doctrine.

So, why does the archbishop appear to suggest that Dignitatis humanae deals only with prudential matters? Let’s remember that he is speaking in the context of an interview about the Vatican’s negotiations with the SSPX, negotiations that aim at regularizing the group’s relations with the Church. Pozzo is aware of the SSPX’s longstanding concern that Vatican II documents such as Dignitatis humanae break with the Church’s preconciliar teaching. In fact, he alludes to that right before he makes the comments I have been looking at. My guess, then, is that he is trying to argue that Dignitatis humanae doesn’t introduce novelties at a doctrinal level but only, if at all, at a “policy” level. If that is so, then it has to be conceded that there is some imprecision in the archbishop’s statements. But I think this is excusable: Vatican II and its interpretation are complex phenomena, and you can’t expect anyone to be as nuanced and precise as he would want to be about them in a brief interview.

If I have interpreted Pozzo correctly, then his assessment of Dignitatis humanae would appear to favor the narrative of continuity.

An interview with the pope

Pozzo wasn’t the only official of the Holy See to have made noteworthy comments recently on the Church-state question. Pope Francis has also weighed in.

On December 7 the Vatican press office published an interview that the Holy Father gave to the Belgian Catholic newspaper Tertio on the occasion of the conclusion of the Jubilee of Mercy. Formulating his first question, the interviewer relates to the pope that in Belgian politics there is currently a desire to “separate religion from public life.” In light of this, he asks the pope: “How can we be both a missionary Church, going out to society, and live in this tension created by public opinion?”

Francis’s initial response is to point out that pushing religion out of public life into a “subculture” is a legacy of the Enlightenment and is “antiquated.” But he then goes on to add that we must distinguish between “secularism” (laicismo) and “secularity” (laicidad), noting that there can be a “healthy secularity” (sana laicidad). Prior to Francis, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Paul VI had all used the expression “healthy secularity” and typically in the context of Church-state relations. But it appears Pius XII was the first pontiff to employ the term. In a 1958 audience with  a group of Italians from the Marche living in Rome, he explains that “the legitimate healthy secularity of the state” (la legittima sana laicità dello Stato) is “one of the principles of Catholic doctrine.” But what does that mean? This: keeping the Church and the state “distinct but also – always in line with the right principles – united.” Pius asserts, moreover, that the “constant effort” to maintain such a relationship is “a part of the tradition of the Church.” All of this is obviously in perfect accord with what we have seen of the Church’s preconciliar teaching. 

What does a healthy secularity mean for Francis? He tells Tertio that “Vatican II speaks to us about the autonomy of things, of processes, and of institutions.” And he continues: “There is a healthy secularity, for example, the secularity of the state.” “In general,” he observes, “a secular state is a good thing.” Thus far there is nothing contrary to the judgments of Pius XII that we have just seen. But this harmony doesn’t last. Francis is quick to inform his interviewer that a secular state “is better than a confessional state, because confessional states always finish badly.”

How do we square this last claim with Pius XII’s remarks or with the Church’s preconciliar teaching on the Catholic state? How do we square it with Dignitatis humanae’s apparent reaffirmation – insisted upon by Paul VI – of that teaching? I’m not sure. It’s conceivable that Francis intends not to make a general claim but a claim about actual historical cases. If so, however, it would be a rather sweeping claim and, thus, difficult to verify empirically (as we would have to do if we’re talking about historical cases). Then there is the fact that Vatican City itself, of which he is the sovereign, is a confessional state!

Let’s turn now to Francis’s analysis of “secularism,” which, he says must be distinguished from “secularity.” “Secularism,” he explains, “closes the doors to transcendence, to the twofold transcendence: transcendence toward others and, above all, transcendence toward God; or toward what is beyond.” If we take this together with Francis’s previous remarks, we might suppose that he has in mind, among other things, state persecution of religion (whether subtle or overt). But as he continues, it becomes rather unclear what he’s talking about. He notes that “openness to transcendence is a part of the human essence” and that “a culture or a political system that doesn’t respect the human person’s openness to transcendence thereby ‘trims,’ cuts the human person.” So far, so good. However, he clarifies that in talking about the human person’s openness to transcendence he’s “not talking about religion.” At this point I confess that, quite frankly, I’m lost. Francis began by talking about a twofold transcendence of the human person – negated by secularism – that included a transcendence toward God. He ends by saying that he’s not talking about religion.

As with Pozzo, Francis is trying to deal with some complex issues in the space of a brief interview. He says very little explicitly in the interview about Vatican II’s teaching on the Church and the state. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that he’s not a fan of Catholic states insofar as he tells us that secular states are better than confessional ones. It’s also reasonable to assume that he’s connecting this with what he says about Vatican II’s emphasis on autonomy. While he alerts us to the threat secularism poses to the human person’s openness to transcendence, I’m uncertain whether he sees this as a threat to religion and so to the Church. 

All in all, Francis does “feel” like a proponent of the narrative of discontinuity. He definitely doesn’t give us reasons to think that he’s not. In any event, we should ask whether the Holy Father’s statements to Tertio have any magisterial force. Papal interviews are tricky things in that respect. Toward the end of his response to the interviewer on the Church-state question, he says: “This is more or less what I think” (Esto es más o menos lo que pienso yo). The casual tone and the use of the first person suggest to me that we’re dealing here with a private opinion rather than a conscious exercise of his formal teaching office.

Who’s right?

With what I’ve written in this essay I hope to provoke friendly and constructive debate over how we are to interpret Vatican II’s relationship to preconciliar magisterial teaching on the question of the Catholic state. This debate could be fruitful, provided that the participants, whatever their initial starting points, are prepared to think according to the mens Ecclesiae

Where might the debate go from here? My guess is that the advocates of the narrative of discontinuity would deny that label for their position. So, one direction for the debate to go is for them to show that theirs is not a narrative of discontinuity. Here are two ways of doing that:

(1) If they hold that Vatican II rejects Catholic states as the normative ideal, and that this rejection is at the level of an unchanging doctrine, they could show that the preconciliar teaching to which I have referred is merely a matter of changeable policy.

(2) If, again, they hold that Vatican II rejects Catholic states as the normative ideal, and that this rejection is at the level of an unchanging doctrine, they could show that even though the preconciliar teaching is at the same level, I have misunderstood it since it too rejects Catholic states as the normative ideal. 

Personally, I don’t think that either route would be easy. But these are only two routes that they could take. There are other possibilities. Although I haven’t said it outright, you may have had strong suspicions that I support what I have labeled the “narrative of continuity.” If that’s what you suspected, I can confirm your suspicions.

About the Author
author image
Joseph G. Trabbic 

Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

View all Comments

Catholic World Report