Church and State – an uneasy relationship

Sir, – Ivana Bacik ("Church has overshadowed Irish society for far too long", Opinion & Analysis, September 11th) characterises as "deeply problematic" the recent claim of the archbishop of Armagh that the political actions of Catholic politicians should be guided by their Catholic beliefs. It is, however, hard to see just what is quite so problematic about exhorting people not to act contrary to what they believe to be true. If someone holds some proposition about the requirements of justice to be true on theological grounds (which grounds Prof Bacik is of course free to attack) and fails to act as though it were true, this failure is just as discreditable as it would be if their grounds for believing the proposition were derived solely from non-religious philosophical premises.

In this regard, it is perhaps worth observing that many, if not most, of the teachings of the Catholic Church on ethical and political matters (including, it is important to note, those specifically referred to by the archbishop) can be and have been argued for from purely philosophical premises as well as from theological ones.

But for many religious believers, the relative certainty of theological first principles vis-a-vis their philosophical counterparts enables them to approach ethical and political affairs with greater assurance and conviction.

I think even one such as Prof Bacik would agree that the influence of this conviction has not always been entirely malign – many of those, for instance, who in times past pressed for the abolition of such unjust practices as legalised slavery and duelling drew inspiration from their Christian beliefs.


If, unlikely as it may seem, such practices were to threaten to rear their ugly heads again in the modern age, would Prof Bacik still be so keen to insist on her principle of separation?– Yours, etc,



Dublin 8.

Sir, – Ivana Bacik rightly cites John F Kennedy’s 1960 campaign speech as an important marker with respect to church-state relations.

Kennedy’s point had earlier been advanced to a special session of the United States House of Representatives by a Catholic cleric who was born and raised in Cork city and in 1820 became the first bishop of Charleston, South Carolina.

Early in his speech, John England, who had been invited to address Congress, asks: “If this (church), which you profess yourselves bound to obey, should command you to overturn our government, and tell you that it is the will of God to have it new modeled, will you be bound to obey it?”

He addresses his own question: “Our answer to this is extremely simple and very plain; it is, that we would not be bound to obey it, that we recognize no such authority. I would not allow to the Pope, or to any bishop of our Church, outside this Union, the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant ballot-box.”

There’s an important subtlety to England’s answer, though. The bishops who are not “outside this union” remain citizens of “this union”, and are thereby entitled, as citizens, to the same rights of free expression as their fellow citizens. But this is a civic right, not a religious dogma.

Bishop John England’s views on the separation of church and state failed to take hold as any kind of dominant characteristic of Catholicism in America. But his argument would seem to be relevant today, in both America as well as his native Ireland.

My book From Blackmoor Lane to Capitol Hill: An Irish Capuchin’s Intellectual Influence on Bishop John England of Charleston will be published this autumn. – Yours, etc,


Adjunct Professor

of Religious Studies,


of South Carolina,