The willingness of US bishops to make themselves publicly unpopular is commendable and enviable

David Cameron famously said that there is such a thing as society, it just isn’t the same thing as the state. While this statement might seem obvious to the point of banality, the centre of gravity in modern liberal-democratic debate suggests that few, including the Prime Minister, actually believe it. Many of the things we would traditionally, and properly, term as social institutions or conventions are now widely accepted as within the provenance of the state to regulate, including: the nature of marriage, sexual mores generally, the care of one’s family, including children and the elderly, and now, increasingly, even the limits and consequences of being rude. If society isn’t the same thing as the state in the West, there is less and less of either which doesn’t overlap.

The Church, on the other hand, is, and has always identified herself as, a society. Indeed, the Church is a perfect society – in the sense of being complete unto herself, rather than flawless – and it has never been easy asserting this level of social autonomy in the face of state encroachment. After all, it was in defence of the Church’s self-proclaimed right to organise and maintain herself as a society which led to the martyrdom of Thomas of Canterbury, while defending the principle that social institutions were not state property led to the death of Thomas More.

Yet, for all these great examples from our own history, the separation of church and state, while accepted as a basic principle of good governance and a sine qua non of a free society, is usually invoked as a shorthand justification for excluding anyone speaking from a religious perspective from wider public debate. This is a distinctly modern inversion of the idea, since, as it is coined most famously in the American Constitution, the concept specifically treats the non-establishment of a national church to prevent the exclusion of religions, or religious persons, from playing full and equal roles in public life. The intention was that the voices of religious and civil leadership should be kept distinct, not barred from speaking to the same subjects. While the Founding Fathers were, in the main, an agnostic and Masonic crew, it cannot be disputed that the purpose of the separation of church and state was to protect religion, and religious people, from the government, and not the other way around.

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One of the criticisms levelled against Pope Francis is that he crosses this invented Chinese wall between sacred and the secular affairs when he speaks to subjects supposedly outside the realm of the Church’s competence; this has been particularly said of his interventions on the environment and global economics, especially as they impact the poor. While there are those, strangely even within the Church, who would like to see the Pope confined to speaking on matters exclusively pertaining to the faith, the Church insists on the right to speak across a much wider remit: canon 747 §2 asserts that “The Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in, so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls.” This right can, and should, be freely exercised by the Pope, but it is not reserved to him alone. While no one expects, or wants, the bishops of this, or any other country, to become overtly political, many of them could do with a reminder that the Church has an enormously important role to play in wider society.

The bishops of the United States are often sneeringly dismissed as “culture warriors”, obsessed with a narrow band of social issues. In fact, they have established for themselves a very strong role by speaking out for the two most basic human rights: freedom of belief and freedom of speech. That they have also consistently taken public and unpopular positions on other societal issues, positions in which they defend the teaching of the Church and go against either or both the agenda of the government of the day and the consensus of secular society, is important, not only because of those issues themselves, but because it represents a vital exercise of the right of the Church to speak publicly.

The willingness of the American bishops to, as a body, make themselves publicly unpopular is both commendable and enviable. With the bishops of England and Wales, one rarely sees them step too far beyond a pallid critique of welfare cuts or a sentimental defence of immigrants. When speaking up for the right to hold unpopular views, Catholic leaders in the UK are usually more vocal on behalf of the beliefs of others, most notably Muslims, then they are on behalf of Catholics. There is nothing wrong with any of these positions, indeed there may even be much right, but one cannot but be underwhelmed by the palpable caution which characterises the Church leadership in this country, often coming across as little more robust than Father Ted holding his sign emblazoned “Careful Now”.

When we consider the increasingly radical nature of the wider social debate, not just in this country but across the West, with the immediate threat of ideological terrorism, the return of the political hard left, and the rise of the safe-space student, there is an urgent need for a full and confident articulation of the whole of the Church’s social teaching. From Rerum novarum, through Vatican Council II, to the last three popes in succession, the Church has possession of an enviable arsenal of intellectual firepower to deploy, and Pope Francis has set an example of unflinching boldness when it comes to speaking out, not just to matters of faith and morals, but on fundamental issues of basic human rights and the social order. There is no question about how much more the Church could be bringing to the wider societal conversation in this country, nor about its right, even duty, to do so. Moreover, simply by becoming a more strident, coherent, voice, the Church would help establish itself more firmly as a corporate presence in society, which may not be the same thing as the state but which, at the moment, isn’t seeing a lot of competition for its soul.

In 2016 the bishops of this country could find their collective voice and, if they are willing to embrace the unpopularity which will inevitably come from speaking hard truths with sincere compassion, find that the Church has much more it can offer in the current cultural debate.

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