Political Life and the Church

Why the Dignitatis Humanae strategy for dealing with church-state relations has lost whatever effectiveness it once had.

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in this Sept. 24, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The relation between the Church and political life depends on her position in society generally.

In the best situation, Catholicism would be generally recognized as a guide to action and belief, and that situation would be accepted by government. The Church could then play a role rather like the one human rights experts play today, pointing out the requirements of accepted principles and promoting their fuller acceptance and application. In most ways she would lack direct power, but in some cases her courts, like human rights tribunals today, might be able to render doctrinal judgments with secular effect.

Before the Sixties, the Church presented that as the normal situation. Government and other institutions were expected to profess and favor Catholicism unless circumstances made that impossible or imprudent. The Second Vatican Council didn’t change that position substantially, noting in Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration on religious liberty, that the new emphasis on liberty “[left] untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

Even so, the Council changed how the Church spoke of such things. The growing difficulty of putting the traditional doctrine into practice made the change seem necessary. Not everyone has to be Catholic for a society to be Catholic, any more than everyone has to believe in monarchy, socialism, transgenderism, sexual complementarity, free market economics, or contemporary human rights theory for a society to accept one or several of those principles as authoritative. Even so, the principles have to be widely enough accepted among influential people, and consistent enough with the things they support, to be usable as public ideals.

As more and more well-placed people gave up the Catholic outlook for a more secular and technocratic one, and large institutions inspired by the latter absorbed more and more social functions, Catholicism could no longer satisfy that requirement. Since the confessional state seemed increasingly impractical, the issue before the Council was not how the Church should guide the state but how she and her members could defend their freedom to practice and present the Faith in a world that was becoming increasingly non-Catholic.

The Council fathers dealt with the problem by accepting the secular rather than Catholic state as normal and treating the Catholic state as an exception found under “peculiar circumstances.” They said, however, that human dignity requires freedom to pursue the highest things, so the state should let people practice and express their religious faith.

That freedom would not, however, be absolute. Instead, it would be subject to “due limits” and the requirements of “public order,” determined not “in a positivist or naturalist manner” but in accordance with the “common good” and “objective moral order” (CCC 2019). Since the common good and objective moral order require social acceptance of Christ’s kingship—that’s the traditional doctrine the Council left untouched—it’s evident that little had ultimately changed.

Dignitatis Humanae did say that public force should not be used against rejection of the Catholic faith simply as such, and that was evidently a clarification of doctrine from the days of the Inquisition. In principle, however, the state could still recognize Catholicism as the true religion and suppress conduct such as defamation of the Faith that undermines Catholicism and thereby the common good.

None of this has much practical relevance today, since the state has come to reject not only Catholicism but the conception of religious freedom found in Dignitatis Humanae. That conception was based on the special importance of religion, but the hope that secular authorities would accept that importance has not been realized. Instead, they tie their conception of human dignity to the radical individual autonomy epitomized by the Supreme Court’s declaration of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It is not the right to pursue spiritual reality but the right to define it that is now considered central to dignity.

Elite support for religious freedom as a special concern, with its implication that spiritual striving may have an objective goal, has therefore evaporated. Instead, government feels duty-bound to suppress conduct that undermines the equal right to define what things are and mean. Such conduct includes failure to treat same-sex “marriage” as marriage, a man who says he is a woman as a woman, or abortion as a legitimate choice for people who want one.

These failures are considered oppressive, and to permit them, it is thought, would outrage just public order. That’s why, for example, Catholic adoption agencies are now required to place children with same-sex couples. If their religion tells them that’s wrong, too bad for their religion. The couple’s right of self-definition comes first.

The Dignitatis Humanae strategy for dealing with church-state relations has therefore lost whatever effectiveness it once had. The proscription on the use of force simply to penalize belief remains valid, and that’s important for the Catholic theory of the state. But from a practical standpoint the Church isn’t going to maintain her freedom by arguing the rights of conscience and the supreme importance of religion or by appealing to a libertarian view of state regulation of expressive conduct. Very few influential people accept either principle, so these abstractions will get us nowhere.

Instead, she should argue the substantive rationality and indeed correctness of her views. We can only offer what we have, so we should do what Catholics at their best have always done: understand our beliefs, live by them, present them clearly to others, and argue for their truth. It’s helpful to point out common ground, for example by presenting natural law arguments to those susceptible to them, but there is no taqiya in Christianity. Trying to avoid difficulties by assimilating Catholic positions to secular ones is more likely to undermine our own faith than improve our relations with others.

So where our view of something—rights, liberty, justice, human nature, human dignity, the public good, the proper goal of government—differs from the one now dominant, and the issue comes up, we should make the differences clear. In particular, if someone asks about the ideal relationship between religion and politics we should speak once again of the Catholic confessional state. Ideal solutions are most often impractical, and there’s no reason to emphasize them, but it seems best to recognize them as correct in principle.

Such a way of speaking would at least be comprehensible. Progressives think the state should adopt progressive views and act in a way that favors them. They consider that an obvious part of fostering the common good. Why wouldn’t Catholics, who also have an inclusive view of the common good and the role of the state in fostering it, take a similar view? If we claim we don’t, in spite of the historical record, the logic of the situation, and the very language of Dignitatis Humanae regarding traditional Catholic doctrine, why would anyone believe us?

The way to make religious freedom seem rational is to present substantive arguments for religion and its importance. And the way for the Church to get stubbornly secular-minded officials to take it seriously is to demonstrate by her words and deeds the strength of her attachment to the Faith, and so the likely costs of repression.

If we are clear, principled, and resolute we can therefore make a distinct contribution to public life even today. Even if we don’t persuade many people to our view, we will raise issues, broaden public discussion that has become extraordinarily narrow, get some people thinking, and deal directly with the view that the basis for demanding religious freedom must be either self-centered religiosity or a libertarianism that ignores obvious realities. We will instead be arguing for our freedom as a serious principle based on serious grounds.

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About James Kalb 147 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).


  1. We have it on best authority that the state and the Church have their own separate spheres. If the Church speaks strongly on the morality of certain issues directly related in what we all must do to to seek eternal reward, the secular governments will have to consider this in their work. If religious organizations jump on every politically attractive issue that comes along, their legitimate moral authority will be greatly diminished.

  2. The author’s point here is an important one.

    Until and unless the Church engages with the culture on the practical effects of heedless amorality — living life with one’s own desires overriding any ethical considerations — she will be viewed more and more as a relic of a more primitive time, an irrelevancy.

    The sad thing is, the culture’s assumptions are rife with inconsistencies, injustices and out-and-out lunacy, as the celebrated humanist, Jordan Peterson, has demonstrated since his burst onto the cultural scene just months ago. It wouldn’t seem to take much insight or cogitation to demolish its prime tenets.

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