Nick Clegg has called for the disestablishment of the Church of England, something that has long been Liberal Democrat policy, and in his remarks he has made this telling observation: “In the long run it would be better for the Church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the Church and the state were to stand on their own two separate feet.”
What seperation between Church and State means in practice is always difficult, and in some cases separation between Church and State has been used as an excuse to persecute the Church and deny religious freedom, but, with these caveats, I agree with what Mr Clegg has to say.
Moreover, Mr Clegg is right to focus on the way that a close Church State relationship harms the practice of religion.
The status of the Anglican Church in England (but not in Wales, where it has long been disestablished) is of little interest to Catholics in practical terms, but it is of considerable interest from the point of view of theory. In France, before 1789, the Church and State were closely tied to each other, and when the ancien regime fell, the Church fell with it. Indeed, it was his defence of the Church and the rights of the Church that may well have cost Louis XVI his throne and his life. The National Assembly, with its Civil Constitution of the Clergy, wished to bring the Church (and its property) under state control, and Louis XVI was right to oppose this, as a faithful Catholic. The Church must remain free, though in practice, in the nineteenth century, it rarely was: in almost all countries bishops were appointed by the state. The Emperor of Austria even claimed the right to veto a candidate at a Papal election. The veto was last used at a conclave as late as 1903, when the Austrians vetoed the election of Cardinal Rampolla.
What all this shows is that an alliance between the Church and the power of the state, while it may well confer a privileged position on the Church, which may have its uses, can also cause great harm to the Church. The close Church State alliance that existed in most countries in the first part of the 19th century was quite often followed by an anti-clerical backlash. Moreover, an alliance between Church and State can damage the Church’s credibility in its mission to evangelise. The Church, if it is to be counter-cultural, need to stand in contra-distinction to the State.
However, close alliances between Church and State are now things of the past in Catholic countries, by and large. But in countries that do not share in the Western and enlightened tradition, it is still the case that secular (in name only) governments frequently interfere in religious matters. The most obvious example of this is China, were the government has effectively made loyalty to the Pope a criminal offence. But there is also Turkey, and there is also Russia, and other eastern countries, where the state is by no means neutral in religious matters, much to the detriment of freedom of conscience.
Freedom of conscience, to be worthy of the name, must be across the board, a universal category, which applies to all. As Catholics we cannot argue for freedom of conscience for ourselves and not for others. As for State Churches, or Churches with specially privileged positions, this enables the state to manipulate and instrumentalise religion for its own purposes.
Catholics and other Christians in the west who support the agenda of President Putin ought to be aware that this agenda is not really a religious one at all, but rather one that uses religion as a useful cover for ends which are hardly religious, indeed profoundly anti-religious. Mr Putin’s regime is authoritarian, anti-democratic, opposed to all freedom of expression, aggressive to its neighbours, expansionist, and, let us not forget, not disposed to respect treaties that Russia itself has signed up to. It supports tyrannies beyond Russia, and has no compunction about shedding blood in Chechnya and elsewhere. Catholics who support Mr Putin (who do not of course live in Russia, where his regime’s popularity relies on a state-controlled media, and who have little idea what life in Russia is really like) are being used by the Russian dictator. Moreover, Putin’s anti-Westernism contains within it a profound anti-Catholicism, so Catholics who express admiration for Putin are in fact idolising an anti-Catholic, if they but knew it.
Mr Putin is very clever: he is manipulating believers. He should be judged by his acts. Remember Anna Politkovskaya. And remember Alexander Litvinenko. Do not be deceived. Putin might seem a far cry from Clegg, but the dangers to religion from too close a relationship to the state, of which Clegg speaks, are vividly illustrated by Putin today.
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