Separation of Church and State

(Homily for Ascension of the Lord - Year C)

Bottom line: Separation of Church and state means that we honor civil authorities, but that final authority belongs to the One seated at the Father's right hand.

In recent weeks a television pundit has been criticizing church leaders for speaking on various social issues. He accuses them of being "hell-bent on ignoring the separation of church and state." Whether the pundit has a correct understanding of the U.S. Constitution, I will let others decide.* The part that most interested me was his use of Scripture. He found a Bible verse that he believes should bring the discussion to a close. It is from Romans 13:

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves."

This is an interesting verse to consider in light of today's feast: The Ascension of Jesus. The reading from Ephesians describes how the Father placed Jesus "at his right hand in heaven, far above every principality, authority, power and dominion..." Clearly the state does not have ultimate authority. It receives its authority from God - but final authority belongs to Jesus. A couple of conclusions follow.

First, as we honor Christ, Christians must honor all legitimate authority. St. Paul was writing to people who resided at the heart of a powerful empire. They saw first hand the arrogance and venality of Roman rulers. Nevertheless, he tells the Roman Christians to respect and obey those who govern. In addition, St. Paul knew that a Roman official had carried out the most unjust act in human history: the gruesome execution of the one completely innocent man. Still, St. Paul instructs us to not rebel against those in authority.

After acknowledging our duty to legitimate authority, we must immediately add something else: human authority for us can never have the last word. That belongs to Jesus. He is the one who has taken his place at the Father's right hand. When the authorities in Jerusalem attempted to silence the apostles, Peter replied, "We must obey God rather than men."

One of the Mexican martyrs illustrates this principle. Saint Mateo Correa Magallanes was a parish priest in Mexico during the time of persecution. The local authority, General Eulogio Ortiz had him brought in. He told Fr. Mateo that he was going to execute a group of rebels, but first wanted the priest to hear their confessions. When the prisoners finished their confessions, the general said, "Now I want you to tell me what those bandits told you in their confessions."

Fr. Mateo replied, "I will never do that." Furious, the general said that he would have priest shot. Fr. Mateo responded, "You can do that, but you must know, General, that a priest must guard the secret of the confession. I am ready to die." So it was. On February 6, 1927, with his own 45 revolver, General Ortiz executed Saint Mateo Correa.

The case of Saint Mateo Correa is extreme. It does, however, illustrate a basic principle. Yes, as Christians, we must obey legitimate authority - unless it goes against the law of God. While we always show respect for civil officials (even for corrupt ones), we do not give them first place. That belongs to the One who sits at the right hand of the Father above every power and authority. We pray for those who govern us - even if we did not vote for them - and we honor them. But we save the greatest honor and joy for the Lord. Along with the psalmist we say: He mounts his throne to shouts of joy, a blare of trumpets for the Lord.


*Personally I believe he has things upside down: that our founders aimed not at restricting religious leaders' right to free expression, but at avoiding undue government interference with religious practice. The founders prohibited the federal government from establishing a state religion. I don't hear any religious leader in the U.S. calling for the kind of union of church and state which exists even today in England - or the favored status that the Catholic Church has in some countries. And no one that I know envisions a Christian version of what prevails in some Islamic nations.

Spanish Version

From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):

2011: The Personal Center
2010: Disappear vs. Leave
2009: What Good-Bye Means
2008: Ascension Quotes
2007: Separation of Church and State
2006: Whoever Believes and is Baptized
2005: There the Action Lies
2004: Forgiveness - In His Name
2003: What Does "He Ascended" Mean?
2002: Finding the Way Home (Ascension & Mother's Day)
2001: Submission to Jesus
2000: Beyond the Secular Paradigm
1999: A Wake Up Call
1998: Jesus' Rule Vs. Cafeteria Catholicism

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

C.S. Lewis' explanation of the Ascension

Bulletin: Principal Search, Expelled, First Communions

Announcements (Fr. Joseph Marquart, Holy Family Class of 1945)

Preaching Schedule (updated)

Two-Bit Collections (updated)

my bulletin column

SMV Bulletin

Parish Picture Album

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