Distorted ideas of the separation of Church and State

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Photo: Phil Hearne/Fairfax Media
Photo: Phil Hearne/Fairfax Media

One of the most frustrating and yet amusing things about election season is the reaction of media and those who respond to their stories to Church leaders having their say on political matters.

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference recently issued a statement on the election.

Titled A Vote for the Voiceless, the statement is an attempt at providing guidance to Catholics casting their votes in the upcoming election.
Cue the phony outrage.

Media ignored the overwhelming majority of the statement’s content, choosing instead to report it as the bishops issuing a warning about “marriage equality” (even though the bishops dedicated only 26 of 1158 words in the statement to the issue of the proposed redefinition of marriage).

What was left out of the coverage was the call for Catholics to speak out for, and cast our vote in consideration of, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous peoples, the survivors of sexual abuse, those who suffer family violence, the unborn and the elderly, those suffering mental illness and addiction, the enslaved and the poor beyond our shores.

Omitted also was the concern expressed for the natural environment, and other ways in which the family is under attack (including through economic policies which do not favour the family unit).

One of the most frequent comments I heard or read following the release of the statement was a broad appeal to “the separation of Church and State”, with many coupling it with a suggestion that the Church’s charity status be removed as retribution for the bishops’ audacity in asking their flock to consider the recipients of the Church’s charitable works when casting our vote.

I thought I’d use the column this week to get a few things clear about the so-called “separation between Church and State”.

To be clear, there is no real constitutional separation of Church and State and – to the extent it exists at all – is in place to protect the Church from the State, not the State from the Church. Section 116 of Australia’s Constitution says that the Commonwealth “shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”.

The only separation between the Church and State in Australia is in place to allow the free exercise of any religion (and none) and to make it clear that faith is not relevant to hold Commonwealth office.

Unfortunately, this has been distorted almost to the extent that the “separation of Church and State brigade” seek to disqualify any person of faith from holding public office, thereby imposing their own “religious test” in complete rejection of the Constitution.

The separation of Church and State has nothing at all to do with separating any idea about what is best for society which has its foundations in faith from our laws, nor does it have anything to do with silencing the voices of bishops and other religious leaders in the public square.

At a very basic level, the bishops are also citizens of this country and have the same right as any other citizen to voice their concerns about political matters. Indeed, another oft-misunderstood concept, the right to “freedom of speech”, exists only to an extent which allows citizens to communicate about political matters.

And on a larger scale, one of the ways the Church can best serve our country is by reminding Catholics that part of being a faithful Catholic is being a faithful citizen who participates in the “cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community… with a view to the common good” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 189.)

I think it is wonderful that our bishops are taking time in this election season to guide Catholics in the exercise of our vote, calling us to look beyond ourselves and to our neighbour as we make this decision.

Those who want a true separation of Church and State should also see this as a good thing.

The alternative – a rigorous separation between Church and State – would force people of faith to choose between serving God and serving the community, when in truth the two are not mutually exclusive. The alternative is the establishment of a theocracy, and we have seen in recent times people attempt to do this through horrendous acts of violence.

The community is not at all served by an inflexible and even ideological separation of Church and State. Rather, society is at its best when the Church and State support one another and work together for the common good.