Religion and Politics, Church and State

/Religion and Politics, Church and State

Religion and Politics, Church and State

The Church is often accused of “interfering in politics” when she speaks on issues that affect society. What should the relationship between religion and politics be? This article explores the distinct but complementary relationship between Church and State.

Right from the outset, we must be clear that there is a distinction between the Church and the State.  This is rooted in the Gospel, in Jesus’ guiding principle, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”  (Mt 22:21) The temporal and spiritual spheres are interrelated, yet distinct.  The State must respect the freedom and practice of religion, whilst religion must respect the jurisdiction of the State.

The Church is no way opposed to the State: Her role is to help the State to govern with justice and compassion in truth and love.  Pope Benedict wrote, “Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 28) A good government rules justly and fairly.  But what is justice? This is where interpretations can differ.  How does a society determine whether a law is moral or ethical? The fact that everyone believes in truth and justice suggests that truth can be discerned and that morality exists.  But how, and on what basis, do we determine if something is ethical? Should morality, (ie., truth) be decided by popular opinion, or by principles based on natural law and reason?

“…when speaking of human rights, we may not realise that many of its principles originate from a Christian understanding of the human person.”

The truth is that all views are determined by certain worldviews, be they atheist, humanist or religious.  No one judges things independently of his own background.  For example, when speaking of human rights, we may not realise that many of its principles originate from a Christian understanding of the human person.  Why do we speak only of human rights, not animal rights? Why is it morally acceptable to kill animals but not people? Why is suicide a crime when a person is taking his or her own life, not another’s? Is it not because the law presupposes that human beings – and not animals – are unique and sacred, having been created in the image and likeness of God?  

Similarly, why is polygamy illegal in most countries today, despite many societies having permitted it in the past?  Is it not for stability in relationships, which protects the family unit and its children? But is it not also based on the Christian understanding of marriage as a life-long union between two adults of the opposite sex?   

No moral viewpoint is completely neutral, objective, “scientific” or “secular”. Everyone’s views are conditioned by his personal, cultural and philosophical beliefs.  Our world view, which includes religious views, determines how we look at life, humanity and our social values.  

Laws cannot be just unless they are based on truth, morality and ethics. But today, most governments no longer claim to speak for their society’s morality.  In fact, they are most uncomfortable making decisions that have a moral element. They claim that the laws they pass are simply intended to reflect the norms and values of their society, without reference to religious grounds. However, we should be aware that the state, intentionally or not, inevitably influences the development of moral norms through the law that it chooses to enact or enforce.

Indeed, “[t]his is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State.  Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”  (Ibid.) The Church has a right and duty to contribute to society in the area of morality. She proposes – never imposes – her views based on natural law and reason, to form consciences in political life.

This is why she speaks up about the living and working conditions of our foreign workers in Singapore.  She contributes her views to the government on bio-ethical issues such as embryonic stem cell research, and on moral issues such as death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, same-sex unions and the adoption of children by same sex couples, as well as sex education in schools.

Over 80% of Singapore citizens profess some form of religious belief. Hence, it is in the government’s interest to consult religious bodies so that its policies will be for the good of all.

Singapore is not a secular state but a multi-religious state with a secular government.  The government is neutral and impartial in its dealings with all religious groups, as well as with those of no religion.    It does not mean that the government is anti-religion, or that religious considerations must be excluded from its decision-making processes. Over 80% of Singapore citizens profess some form of religious belief. Hence, it is in the government’s interest to consult religious bodies so that its policies will be for the good of all.

Our government promotes harmony among religious groups so that their followers can co-exist in mutual respect for the good of the nation.  It established the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony and supports the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) to promote harmony between all peoples.  Beyond the religious sphere, the government has formed Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) so that Singaporeans with no religion are also included in Singapore’s ongoing dialogue to foster trust and peaceful co-existence.

When the Church offers her views to help the State build a just social and civil order, she is neither “imposing her beliefs” on the State nor “interfering in politics”.   Pope Benedict in a 2006 audience with members of the European People’s Party, said, “It must not be forgotten that, when Churches….intervene in public debate, expressing reservations or recalling various principles, this does not constitute a form of intolerance or an interference, since such interventions are aimed solely at enlightening consciences, enabling them to act freely and responsibly, according to the true demands of justice, even when this should conflict with situations of power and personal interest.”

The Church is not, and will not become, a political entity or party which seeks to gain temporal power and prescribe a programme for the development of society. Indeed, “the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State.” (Deus Caritas Est, 28) It is through her appeals to reason and natural law that the Church hopes to foster justice and the common good.

The common good, or the “good of all”, is the “sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment as human persons more fully and more easily.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 164) However, the common good is not the sum total of every individual’s needs at any one point in time.  What is good for each person needs to be considered in relation to what is good for society and the nation, as a whole; and not just for this day and age, but for the future too. Clearly while there is a distinction between politics and religion, there will inevitably be areas of overlap since both are concerned with the well-being of the people.  

“As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable.

Among these the following emerge clearly today:

  • Protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

  • Recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defense from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;

  • The protection of the right of parents to educate their children

These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity. The Church’s action in promoting them is therefore not confessional in character, but is addressed to all people, prescinding from any religious affiliation they may have. On the contrary, such action is all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, because this constitutes an offense against the truth of the human person, a grave wound inflicted onto justice itself.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Members of the European People’s Party, 2006)

The Church, in articulating her views, serves all members of society by shedding light on the foundation of morality and ethics.  When rights are claimed in an individualistic way, without reference to truth, solidarity and responsibility, they are not truly just.   The separation of Church and State does not mean keeping faith wholly apart from social issues that touch on morality and ethics. Real democracy requires us to be receptive to all ideas.  To stop religion from contributing to the good of society is to destroy true democracy because democracy means dialogue between all religions and cultures.

Furthermore, there is a real risk that attempts to divorce reason from faith would herald the end of a genuine dialogue between cultures and religions.  Pope Benedict in his 2006 address at the University of Regensburg, said that “In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

In the final analysis, every citizen subscribes to some form of belief system, be it religious or philosophical. Even secularists operate from certain assumptions about the world and the human person. No system of morality or ethics is free of pre-suppositions about the nature of human dignity, truth and freedom.  Although the Catholic Church does not get involved in partisan politics, the Church and her individual members – as concerned citizens of the body politic – must speak up on political issues that impact their lives and the common good.  

The Church, therefore, encourages Catholics as responsible citizens not to be indifferent to politics.  Pope Francis once said, “None of us can say, ‘I have nothing to do with this, they govern.’ … No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability.   Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something! A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern.” (Homily, St Martha’s House, Sep 16, 2013)  

We betray our vocation as Catholics and Singaporeans when we keep silent on vital issues which affect the moral well-being of our nation.

A good Catholic is a participative and conscientious citizen.  We betray our vocation as Catholics and Singaporeans when we keep silent on vital issues which affect the moral well-being of our nation.  As Catholics, each of us must articulate his or her vision for Singapore, guided by a well-formed conscience and the moral compass laid out in the Scriptures.

In solidarity with Catholics and all people of goodwill, we must work courageously for the common good in Singapore and the world, and “be at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person” (Gaudium et Spes, 76). We do not act based on the changeable whims of current public opinion, but on values recognized, and promoted as elements of an objective moral law. (Compendium, 397) We need to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God (Mic 6:8): standing up for the Truth, and always in Charity.


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be used or  published without explicit permission.


2018-10-14T19:46:40+00:00