One of the most disturbing things about the radical Islamic movement is the insistence on imposing Sharia (religious) Law under a new Caliphate, in which the head of state is also head of the religion, and government enforces purely religious doctrines and practices. This violates the traditional separation of Church, State, and Family that characterizes political theory based on the laws and customs of the ancient Roman Res Publica — the Republic.
In the Roman Republic and, to a great extent, the pagan Empire, civil society (the State), religious society (the Church, or Temple), and domestic society (the Family) were kept strictly separate. The Pater Familias was not only the head of the family as we would understand it today, but a judge of the domestic laws from whom there was no appeal from domestic offenses, and the high priest of the family religion, that dealing with the household gods.
An iconic image in Roman mythology (meaning the concept of what it means to be a Roman, the national mythos) is in Virgil’s Æneid in which, in an extraordinary act of pietas the Trojan hero Æneas carries his aged father (who is carrying the household gods) on his back from the burning city. The Family was sacred and separate from the State.
Nor was this merely mythical. At a dinner party, to stop what he considered a hideously unjust punishment of a slave who had committed a minor offense, the Emperor Augustus instantly committed the same offense. Augustus could not, even as First Citizen and Consul, legally order his host not to punish the slave, but he could demonstrate that the fellow would be out of Augustus’s personal favor if the slave owner punished the slave as he had every right under his absolute authority in domestic society to do.
Even the Divine Julius (Gaius Julius Cæsar) had to become Pontifex Maximus (High Priest of all the Roman sects) because as mere head of state he could not offer sacrifice for the State to the gods — religious and civic duties had to be kept strictly separate. Also, certain diplomatic duties had to be carried out by a class of priests because civil officials could not deal with the gods of another nation or people, and treaties required oaths before a god or gods.
Things got much more reasonable and somewhat simpler when the Empire became Christian, although this also meant that the government would always be tempted to take over the Church for political purposes, while the Church would always be tempted to take over the State for religious purposes. “Cæsaro-papism” was and remains a serious problem down to the present day. Established churches are a little out of fashion now, but the “wall of separation” has been used in efforts to dictate religious practice and even doctrine in many cases.
It becomes understandable why many Christians are suspicious of “separation of Church and State,” even though it is at the heart of western political philosophy. It never meant that government would be hostile to organized religion, or that religion was to be prevented from offering guidance to the civil power. Both Magna Charta and the U.S. Constitution take for granted that organized religion has a role to play in the social order, but that government must not dictate religious doctrines or practices, any more than organized religion can have its purely religious doctrines or practices enforced by government.
How, then, are we to understand Pope Pius IX’s condemnation of separation of Church and State? Fortunately, this is a very easy issue to deal with when we remember that even Catholics believe that the pope teaches infallibly only when it comes to the principles. He does not, and cannot speak infallibly when it comes to applications of principles. For example, when the pope says, “An unjust war is wrong,” he is speaking infallibly as a matter of principle. When the pope says, “This appears to be an unjust war,” he is not speaking infallibly, but is, instead, giving his considered, prudential judgment.
Thus, when Pius IX condemned “separation of Church and State,” he was condemning an unjust misapplication of a principle, not the proper application of something that the Catholic Church has always supported and, in many cases, relied on to protect its interests.
When Pius IX was writing, “separation of Church and State” was taken to mean that there were to be no areas of common concern between Church and State, and that organized religion was to be shoved off in a corner someplace, completely a private matter. Civil law could dictate religious practices since the corporate body of a religion has existence in civil society, but no religious beliefs or practices were to be recognized or protected in any way. This was a residual of the anti-Christian orientation of the French Revolution, still within living memory of many when Pius IX wrote.
Within the American system, “separation of Church and State” used to mean something different, at least until modernism made its inroads. Pope Leo XIII, in fact, viewed the U.S. model of Church-State relations as approaching the ideal in a country in which Catholicism is not the predominant religion, cf. his careful separation of “good” Americanism from “bad” Americanism in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae.
That is, organized religious bodies are recognized in civil society, but the purely religious teachings were to be of no concern to the State unless they violated fundamental human rights or posed a serious threat to the common good, e.g., Mormon polygamy. The State, for its part, was supposed to recognize freedom of conscience, and not coerce anyone to act contrary to religious beliefs, e.g., religious pacifists are excused from military service, religious schools are allowed as long as minimal educational requirements are met, and so on. The State was not to dictate or define religious beliefs or practices, but also could not enact purely religious beliefs or practices to have the force of law.
This is one reason why the modernist shift in the basis of the natural law from reason to faith has been such a disaster for religion in the U.S. By claiming a faith-based mandate for something, e.g., the right to life, religious people ipso facto violate others’ freedom of conscience. At the same time, by insisting that the State has the duty to care for individual goods, normally a religious duty when the family falls short in its efforts or abilities, the State can justify taking over religion on the grounds that such things as funding contraception under healthcare or even redefining marriage and family are not religious in nature.
Much of this confusion over the proper roles of Church and State these days can be traced to the changes that Msgr. John A. Ryan, a.k.a., “Monsignor New Deal” and “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” introduced into the system via his editing of the dictionary with respect to the natural law, especially the natural rights of life and liberty, and the distortion of the concept of distributive justice.