Seperation of Church and State an article by The Most Reverend William J. Levada, Archbishop of San Francisco


The last 50 years have witnessed many instances of increasing hostility to religion in the public square, both on the part of government institutions and the forum of public opinion. The "separation" of Church and State is the most common slogan by which a fundamental misconception about the relation of religion and society, especially government, is advanced. The issue is not so much one of private morality or virtue: as long as it is kept private, religion and virtue may be practiced unimpeded. But when religion, or often even virtue based upon a common human morality are brought into public discourse, they are attacked as somehow violating the wall of "separation" between Church and State.

On this account, arguments against abortion, pornography, capital punishment, and homosexual marriage are at times rejected. What is more, many people protest that "value judgements" injected into public debate carry religious basis, and hence should be inadmissible in American political and democratic discourse. This represents a fundamental division in our society, when most religious people would hold that religion and morality are not an alien intrusion in public life, but the source and foundation of our pursuit of the common good. Some examples may be helpful.

Many Southerners, too many Catholics among them, not only disagreed with, but attacked Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans as breaching the separation between Church and State when he condemned racial segregation as a sin in 1956. His pastoral letter to his Archdiocese was read in all of its 120 churches, at a time when the Montgomery bus boycott was just two months old. It was a time of great tension, which called for the application of Gospel values, of evangelization of American culture, when many were seeking strategies to avoid the Supreme Court's Little Rock school decision declaring segregated educational facilities unconstitutional.

Moreover, when the U.S. Bishops’ Conference issued "The Challenge of Peace", a pastoral letter on war and peace, at the height of the cold war in 1983, some commentators raised the specter of Church-State relations in an attempt to impose a silence on Church leadership on questions relating to affairs of State. Closer to home, last year the San Francisco Board of Supervisors quietly adopted a new law requiring any business or agency "doing business with the city" to extend to "domestic partners" the same benefits which they may provide to married persons. This city ordinance was explicitly promoted as "pioneering" legislation in the broader campaign by gay political activists to gain recognition for "same-sex" marriages.

The position of the Archdiocese was that such a law created a problem of conscience for agencies of the Catholic Church, such as Catholic Charities, because it was counter to Church teaching and required that we change our Church's internal policies to recognize the status of domestic partners as equivalent to marriage. This, I argued, amounted to government coercion of a church to compromise its own beliefs about the sacredness of marriage, and seemed to violate the First Amendment protection guaranteed to religion by our Constitution. I also pointed out that a substantial portion of the contract funds involved city pass-through of Federal and State funds, which carried no such restrictions.

The position of the Archdiocese was subjected to a barrage of criticism. We were told that if we were going to accept "city" monies for the work of Catholic Charities, we should "play by the city's rules". We were lectured that our charitable agencies were prevented by "the wall of separation between Church and State" from appealing to religious principles when public monies were involved. We were given moral instruction about the "discrimination" involved in preventing homosexuals from accessing spousal-equivalent benefits.

We challenged the charge of discrimination--rejecting the notion that it discriminates against homosexual, or unmarried heterosexual, domestic partners if they do not receive the same benefits society has provided to married employees to help maintain their families. I argued that if it was a matter of benefits, why should not blood relatives, or an elderly person or child who lives in the same household enjoy these same benefits. Under the city's ordinance, blood relatives were excluded from the sort of benefits extended to domestic partners.

In the end, it became clear that the argument by city officials about discrimination would not stand up to public scrutiny. As a result of our stand, the Mayor and Supervisors agreed to codify regulations which in effect broaden the category of those eligible for benefits , refocusing the targeted population for expanded benefits to allow a person to designate any legally domiciled resident as a beneficiary.

Ours was not a perfect solution, but it was one that achieved a notable success by shifting the debate away from domestic partnerships as equivalent to marriage to a question of benefits. What was intended by proponents of the legislation as a requirement that all employers accept an equality of status between domestic partnerships and marriage has now become a situation where employers can expand health-care benefits, while not being forced to recognize marriage and domestic partnerships as equivalent.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco leverages its own funds for a wide range of social service programs with monies that are provided under city contract. Catholic Charities, now in its 90th year, is an organization that is dedicated to serving the needy in our community. It has a right and a responsibility to access public funds made available to service providers. In doing its work, the Church and her agencies should not be subjected to the would-be bullies of the public square, who come armed with both an agenda and antagonism. Often their demand is for the Church to deny herself and to take on unacceptable values. This pressure must be resisted, because it amounts to a dangerous marginalization of religion from the public square, to the detriment of the American democratic "experiment".

I was a signatory to a recent Ecumenical Statement issued on 4 July, 1997, entitled "We Hold these Truths--A Statement of Christian Conscience and Citizenship", published in the October issue of First Things. In the statement, the signatories concluded by saying, "We are agreed that we must seek together an America that respects the sanctity of human life, enables the poor to be full participants in our society, strives to overcome racism, and is committed to rebuilding the family. '... We agreed that ... we can and must bring law and public policy into greater harmony with the 'laws of nature and of nature's God".

These are truths, which, with the Founders of the American experiment in democracy, we hold to be self-evident. It is clear that America represents a divided house about these "self-evident" truths. As American Catholics, we do no service to the Church or nation to remain silent.

You or I may not think of ourselves as the ideal spokesperson on issues of such moment. But time has shown that the Catholic tradition has no quarrel with the American experiment. And time will show, I am fully convinced, that American democracy has no quarrel with Catholic political and social theory.

The distinguished American theologian, Father John Courtney Murray, made a convincing case that the opinion so often bandied about that 'religion is a purely private matter' is not in accord with the political tradition of the United States from its earliest days. The ethical and political principles of American democracy stem from the natural law, rooted in Greco-Roman philosophy and law, and espoused by the common tradition: 'the laws of nature and of nature's God'.

Such wisdom runs counter to much of the pragmatism and relativism of contemporary American society, with its exaggerated focus on individual freedoms. Here lie the deepest roots of the current American 'culture wars'. We can surely agree with Murray's response to the critics of his political philosophy:

"Usually, the outcry is raised: but this is Orthodoxy! Thus the great word of anathema is hurled. The limits of tolerance have been reached. We will tolerate all kinds of ideas, however pernicious: but we will not tolerate the idea of an Orthodoxy. That is, we refuse to say, as a people: there are truths, and we hold them, and these are the truths".

The Most Reverend William J. Levada is Archbishop of San Francisco. This article is condensed from "Democracy must enshrine human dignity," l’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, Page 10, 12/19 August 1998.

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