Over the years, perhaps no question has so exercised American Catholics as the relationship between Church and State. The question has been forced upon Catholics not only by non-Catholic s dubious about the compatibility of Catholic principles and a genuinely pluralistic society; it has also been forced upon them by those gradual developments in Catholic theology which, today, place considerable emphasis on the profound importance of the individual’s free conscience, his personal integrity and his personal relationship to God. For this latter reason particularly, the question of the relationship between Church and State today is usually seen in the far broader context of the problem of human freedom and religious liberty.
Yet it is perfectly clear that considerable confusion exists within the minds of many Catholics, not even to mention non-Catholics, about the Church’s teaching in the area of religious liberty. The reason for the existence of this confusion is no t hard to find. For a number of decades Catholic theologians have been sharply divided on these matters, papal statements have usually been ambiguous, and Catholic practice from country to country has been so varied as to make meaningful generalizations exceedingly difficult. In one sense, to be sure, confusion is not necessarily unhealthy. The fact that it is impossible to find a decisive contemporary papal pronouncement on religious liberty has served to stimulate rather than to hinder creative theological thinking. But in another sense, this uncertainty has often placed the Church in what may be an unnecessarily suspect position.
With this background in mind, the recent official reports that the Second Vatican Council is likely to consider the problem of religious liberty are very heartening. The rise of pluralistic nations, the ecumenical movement and the developments in Catholic theology make the problem a central one in the Church today.
From the August 24, 1962 issue of Commonweal. Used by permission.