The separation of church and state is a relatively new development. When Emperor Constantine gave freedom of religion to the Roman Empire in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, the Church was able to come out of hiding and into the public.
Constantine gave many government buildings over to the Church for its use. In fact, Christianity became the state religion of the Empire. It was hard to distinguish the role of government from that of the Church.
As time went on, the relationship between church and state intensified. For many years there was only one religion, the Catholic Church. Everyone in Europe was Catholic. The height of earthly power in the Church came under Pope Innocent III. All rulers and noblemen were subjected to the pope and looked to him for guidance.
In addition, the pope was also a leader of a country, the Papal States. He looked to strong Catholic rulers to help him from time to time — when the Papal States were being invaded, for example. With their aid came conditions. One of the conditions was that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire would be in attendance at papal elections. Rulers also had a say in who could be bishops of dioceses in their realm. The division of church and state was so slight that the emperor had the right to approve who could enter a religious community or order.
This interference was at its peak when the king of France kidnapped the papacy and brought it to Avignon, France. For over 70 years — from 1309 to 1378 — the center of Church government was not Rome but the back pocket of the king in Avignon. He regulated papal elections, which undermined the central authority and power of the Church.
After American independence and the establishment of a new Catholic diocese, the Holy See conferred with President George Washington on his choice for the new bishop. The American government, which is built on the principles of the separation of church and state, said bishop selection was none of its business.
For the first time in centuries the Church did not need government approval on its choice of bishop. Over the years this would become the norm. Only in Communist countries would government still interfere in Church policy.
FATHER JOHN TRIGILIO JR is an author, theologian and president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. This article is reprinted with permission from “The Catholicism Answer Book: The 300 Most Frequently Asked Questions,” which he authored with Fr. Kenneth D. Brighenti.
The Church, because of her commission and competence, is not to be confused in any way with the political community. She is both the sign and the safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. The Church respects and encourages the political freedom and responsibility of the citizen.
It is a part of the Church’s mission to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it. The means, the only means, she may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all men according to the diversity of times and circumstances.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2245-2246