The relationship between the State and the Church has always been a vexed one. Splendid though it would be if both sides could agree on what is God’s and what is Caesar’s and stick to their respective sphere, this side of the Second Coming it is not going to happen. Where the Eastern Orthodox Church lived side by side with the Emperor for centuries and became part of a theocratic polity, this was not the experience of the Roman Catholic Church – the reason why is in the name ‘Roman’. By the time the Church was tolerated, and even more by the time it became the approved religion of the Empire, power had moved from Rome to Constantinople. As the Council of Chalcedon showed, Rome was wary of attempts by the new Imperial Capital to muscle in on its position of primus inter pares, and with the decline and fall of the Empire in the West, the Pope found himself often confronted with rulers who were sometimes hostile, sometimes heretics – and occasionally both; sometimes, as in the case of Leo the Great, with an enemy of the calibre of Attila the Hun. During what we call the Middle Ages, the Popes found themselves involved with disputes with the rulers of the Plantagenet Empire, the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. This experience bred a healthy distrust of the power of the State, as well as the desire that the Pope should have his own State so he would never be entirely at the mercy of other rulers. That, of course, dragged the Popes into wars between States, but was still a better option than being the hostage of a single powerful ruler, even if, at times, that happened – and, as with Henry VIII’s expected annulment – could have serious consequences.
In modern times, the Papacy continued to struggle, not least with powerful nation States who expected all within their orbit to come under State control. The locus classicus of the modern Catholic experience was in Bismarck’s Germany, where the powerful Chancellor launched what became known as the kulturkampf in an effort to force the Church to bow to his will. He did not succeed, any more than did Hitler, and the Church in the West never, thank God, encountered an opponent as bloody and barbarous as Stalin, and so, however badly it was treated, as for example during the early stages of the French Revolution, the worst treatment it ever received was at the hands of Henry VIII’s commissioners.
This healthy distrust of the State shaped the Catholic view on the nature of the relationship between Church and State. The former preferred the latter to have a series of checks and balances, with mediating institutions existing within a society which could act as buffers between it and the State; such things prevented tyranny and gave the Church spaces in which it could operate. Where, as was the case in southern Europe for a long time, the monarch was a Catholic, it gave the Church a special place, but that was cemented as much by the role it played in education and welfare as much as it was by influence at Court. As secularisation took effect, and as parties hostile to the Church cut into its traditional roles, difficulties once more came to the fore. But the EU, with its system of checks and balances suited the Church – not surprisingly really since its founders were Catholics.
More recent developments, such as the refusal to acknowledge its Christian roots in the abortive constitution prepared a decade ago, and its attitude towards abortion and euthanasia, certainly caused some anxiety for the Church, bit both Pope Benedict and francis have emphasised the role Christians can play as the ‘leaven’ in the loaf. The British have opened out of this, but they are, at least in England and Wales (the two parts of the UK where ‘leave’ won) used to a State Church.
The USA, of course, has had a different model and experience, but there too, the balance of powers within the Constitutional settlement has provided the Church with the room it needs and freedom from an overbearing State.
In the final analysis, whatever theorists who fantasise about a Catholic State, might think, a system in which the Church is free to operate without the tyrannical State at its back, is as good as it gets this side of Heaven.