US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Church-state on the other side of the Atlantic: Time for a divorce?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Church of England's Crown Nomination Commission's selection of Justin Welby as the next Archbishop of Canterbury brought to mind again what I think is the problem with the churches of Europe--to put it simply, they are still more or less arms of the state. Some act of government, whether of Parliament or the queen, will confirm Welby's nomination, after which he will be "enthroned"--another unfortunate reflection of the Church of England's relationship to the monarchy. Granted, the Crown Nomination Commission is a much more democratic form of selection than, say, the College of Cardinals, but nevertheless the church remains dependent on the state.

Roman Catholics shouldn't start patting themselves on the back here: The Roman Catholic churches in much of Europe are basically also state-funded institutions. The German bishops, for example, have said that any German who stops paying the church tax--which the government collects and distributes--will no longer be eligible for the sacraments. In other words the German bishops are insisting that Catholics tithe through the state to be considered eligible for the sacraments of the church. Sounds awfully close to the buying and selling of holy things to my ear.

Nor should we Americans, with our alleged "separation" of church and state, get too comfortable. A huge chunk of our charitable works are in effect state-funded. Arguments over whether Catholic Charities, for example, can deny adoption services to same-sex couples, for example, are actually fights about the requirements of the government funder--Catholic Charities is, after all, in many cases a contractor that takes state money to provide social services. When you add up all the government subsidied granted churches--especially tax exemption--it looks like a pretty cozy deal.

All of this is bad for the gospel in my mind. As David Lysik argued in a Sounding Board in the December 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic, the one who pays the piper calls the tune. Divesting ourselves of the privileges of so-called Constantinian Christianity would be a hard step, but it would leave us free to be the creative community of faith the world needs. That doesn't mean we withdraw from the needs of the world around us, only that we become free to engage its needs with our own money and following the Spirit's call.

It's a great thing that Christians, among others, have convinced governments that care of the poor and vulnerable must be a shared responsibility. For those Christians who work in such agencies, whether Catholic Charities or the local DCFS, their work is truly a ministry. When we organize ourselves as churches, on the other hand, we need to be on the frontiers, certainly not dependent on the state for our survival. What we need now is courage to get out of Caesar's bed.