The relationship between Church and State is thorny. What form of allegiance do citizens owe to their religion? What do they owe to their country? When is it moral to resist state actions—and in what way?
Our ability to pose the questions is part of the heritage of the Christian faith—and not simply because of the word Church.
Every culture in history has had some kind of religion and some kind of government, so “church” and “state” have always existed. And they have always had a relationship, as religion binds people together and promotes the stability of society. The state thus needs to deal with it.
Except, even that way of framing the issue is modern. It presupposes church and state are two different things, and in many cultures they weren’t.
Through ancient eyes
If you lived in a particular culture, you were usually expected to hold to the state religion and worship whatever God or gods it upheld. Thus, in Athens, one of the charges leading to Socrates’s execution was the allegation he did not believe in “the gods of the state” (Plato, Apology).
But that could be the case even if church and state were distinct, and in many cultures they weren’t. The political leaders were the religious leaders.
In Egypt, Pharaoh was a god—the “living Horus” or human manifestation of the falcon-headed sky god. He was also high priest as well as political ruler. Pharaoh may have had two sets of duties—religious and governmental—but at the highest level, church and state were one.
The same was true in Rome. The priests (pontifices and flamines) were drawn from the political class, and the emperor was high priest (pontifex maximus). Some emperors were declared gods, either after their deaths (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Claudius) or worshiped in Rome during their lifetimes (Caligula, Nero).
Joined at the hip
A tight union between Church and State could support the stability of both, but it also made it difficult to change either. The two were joined at the hip and had a natural interest in supporting each other.
If a foreign traveler was willing to worship the local gods, well and good. He would not disrupt the social order. A state might even tolerate minority religions—especially among foreigners.
But if the minority religion started making converts, local religious officials would be alarmed. And if sizeable numbers began adopting a new faith, it would be perceived as a threat to the State. Thus, Christianity was persecuted as it expanded into new lands and began making converts.
Refusing to participate in the state’s prescribed religious rites was seen as an act of disloyalty and thus as treason. This is why such rites were used as a test in the trials of martyrs.
In some places, religious tests still are used. In the United Kingdom, under the Accession Declaration Act of 1910, the British monarch (and head of the Church of England) is required to profess the Protestant faith as a condition of office.
This isn’t the case in America. The U.S. Constitution provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust” (6:3), though this doesn’t mean you’ll be elected or confirmed if your religion is out of favor.
Despite the historically close association of church and state, Christians have seen a sharper distinction between the two than other cultures—a distinction rooted in the history of the Faith.
Different from the beginning
Abraham came from a pagan family that worshiped Mesopotamian gods (Josh. 24:2), but Yahweh spoke to him and called him out of his native land.
In the age of the patriarchs, God’s people were governed along family lines, with the head of the household (or later, tribe) exercising ruling authority. The patriarchs also functioned as priests, building altars to God and offering sacrifices (Gen. 12:7-8, 26:25, 33:20, etc.).
This changed when the tribe of Levi was assigned the Israelite priesthood. That separated it from the governing authorities, in stark contrast from other nations.
When the Israelites first came into the Promised Land, they were governed by Joshua, who belonged to the tribe of Ephraim and thus was not a priest. Afterward, each tribe was ruled by its elders, along patriarchal lines.
There also were a series of “judges” (Hebrew, shopetim), though this translation can be misleading, as their principal function wasn’t hearing legal cases. They led battles against the enemies who often oppressed Israel. The term might be translated “chieftain” or even “warlord.” These leaders could be drawn from any tribe.
The era of judges ended with Samuel. He happened to be a Levite and a priest, but this was unusual. When he was old, he appointed his sons judges, but they were corrupt and took bribes, leading the people to demand a king, like in other nations (1 Sam. 8:1-5).
Until then, Israel was a loosely governed tribal confederacy, with God regarded as its overall monarch. Thus when the demand for a king arose, “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them’” (1 Sam. 8:7).
The first king chosen was Saul, who was of the tribe of Benjamin. Later kings, such as David, came from the tribe of Judah. Because the religious and governing authorities were separate, the distinction between Church and State was in the consciousness of Israel, even if the institutions supported each other.
The line of kings ended with the Babylonian Exile, but when the people returned, the pattern remained the same. The priesthood stayed in Levite hands and individuals such as Zerubbabel of Judah were appointed political governors, though ultimate power lay with the Persians.
Judea had only limited autonomy in this period, as various foreign powers sparred for control of the territory.
Around 167 B.C., the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes issued a decree compelling Jews to abandon their religion. This prompted a priest named Mattathias to begin a rebellion. It was ultimately carried through by his sons, especially Judah “the Hammer” Maccabee, which is why his family—the Hasmoneans—came to be called the Maccabees.
The Hasmoneans assumed the high priesthood and became the effective local rulers. In 104 B.C., one of them, Aristobulus I, assumed the title “king.” This was an unusual situation, not seen since the days of Samuel, when the political and religious leaders were the same.
Intrigues among the Hasmoneans led to their downfall. After political control passed to the Romans, the conniving Antipater the Idumean was given political control of Judea. He was Jewish by religion but an Edomite by nationality, and his son Herod the Great was appointed king by the Roman Senate.
When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his sons, but the one appointed to rule Judea—Archelaus—proved so bad he was replaced by a Roman governor, which is why Pontius Pilate was in charge during the ministry of Christ.
Through all this, the priesthood remained in Levite hands. There were dramatic changes in how God’s people were governed politically—by patriarchal elders, judges, kings, governors, and other officials—but the fact church and state were separate helped the religion continue.
“Render unto Caesar”
During Christ’s ministry, the Romans held ultimate authority, but they often used client rulers—such as Herod’s sons Antipas and Philip, who had the title “tetrarch” (ruler of a quarter)—while Judea itself was under the Roman governor.
There also was a Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, that had limited authority, principally for judging matters under Jewish law. The high priest sat on the Sanhedrin, as did many priests. They were joined by religious leaders such as the Pharisees as well as members of the secular Jewish aristocracy.
The complex relationship between religious and civil leaders is seen when the Jewish authorities determine to put Jesus to death. They had to get the consent of the Roman governor because they were forbidden to impose the death penalty (John 18:31).
The division between religious and political authorities, as well as the many forms the latter had taken, is part of the background to Jesus’ statement about paying taxes, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25).
His opponents, who tried to trap him into making either a seditious or impious statement, were amazed, and “marveling at his answer they were silent” (Luke 20:26).
This was a marvelous answer, one that would have been unthinkable in Egypt or Rome, where religious and political leaders were one and the same. In such nations, there could be no division between religious duties and civic ones, no separate spheres appropriate to Church and State.
But drawing on the complex history of Israel and the undeniable situation of Judea at the time, Jesus acknowledged the legitimacy of the two realms.
“Obey God rather than men”
This didn’t mean one sphere wouldn’t encroach on the other, so Christians have had to face dilemmas.
When the Sanhedrin arrested the apostles, the high priest informed them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in [Jesus’] name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28).
He may have been concerned that the apostles’ preaching would lead to a popular uprising against the council, or at least a wave of public disrespect eroding its authority.
“Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). They thus acknowledged that obligations to God take priority when in conflict with orders from a human authority (either religious or secular, as the Sanhedrin had both).
This principle doesn’t settle all questions about how apparent conflicts are to be resolved. Sometimes people think they have an absolute divine mandate when they don’t (cf. John 16:2). Or there may be ways to square two seemingly contrary things.
St. Thomas More would have been willing at the time to support the 1534 Act of Succession if it had been worded differently and only required him to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as queen and her children as in the line of succession for the English throne. These were matters of civil law he could accept, though he disapproved of Henry VIII’s marital situation. However, the requirement of repudiating the pope violated his obligations to God.
“No authority except from God”
The biblical authors recognized God is in control of history. He at least allows every event to occur, for with omnipotence he could always stop it.
They also saw God’s providence including plans for running human society, and we have a responsibility to cooperate with these plans. St. Paul says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).
This is striking, because most governing authorities were pagan, yet Paul sees them as instituted by God. It’s especially striking he wrote this to the Church in Rome, which was the seat of the empire. He expects readers to understand that even the pagan Roman Empire is, in some sense, instituted by God as a governing authority and owed obedience.
He underlines this: “Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (v. 2). And he explains the ruler “is God’s servant for your good” by punishing wrongdoers on God’s behalf (v. 3-5).
St. Peter says the same: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
This is striking because the emperor at the time was Nero. Though he hadn’t yet begun persecuting Christians, he had shown himself a dangerous, vain, unstable ruler who killed his mother and had delusions of godhood.
Nero also came to office because of a murderous power play. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, married the emperor Claudius, got him to adopt Nero, and then poisoned him so Nero could replace him. Next, Claudius’s biological son—Britannicus—was poisoned to eliminate him as a rival.
Despite all this, Peter and Paul saw Nero as an instrument of God owed respect and obedience—so long as it didn’t require disobedience to God.
No doubt, they weren’t expressing their full views of the emperor in these passages, which are meant to encourage Christians to be peaceable toward the State—something that would protect Christians and further the cause of evangelization. But Peter and Paul wouldn’t have taught obedience toward rulers if they didn’t believe in it.
Diversity of regimes
Historically, Christian thinkers have been open to monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies—as well as combinations of them (Aquinas, ST I-II:105:1).
“If authority belongs to the order established by God, the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens. The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them” (CCC 1901).
But what if you’re dealing with a bad regime?
The New Testament doesn’t go into when it is legitimate to change a regime. Christians were a tiny minority and had no need to deal with such questions.
However, the Romans had to face them—repeatedly. Rome had been governed by kings, but they grew sick of them. The last, Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Proud”) was dethroned by a popular uprising around 509 B.C., after which Rome was a republic.
This lasted until the first century B.C., when a series of civil wars occurred. Among the key players were two groups of three men, known as the First Triumvirate (which included Julius Caesar) and the Second Triumvirate (which included Augustus). The triumvirates proved unstable, and when the dust settled, Augustus was declared Rome’s first emperor.
He had a reputation as a good (if ruthless) ruler, but not all his successors did. The mad emperor Caligula (r. A.D. 37-41) was so awful his own guards killed him. Nero (r. A.D. 54-68) proved so bad the Senate declared him a public enemy, and he was forced to commit suicide. That touched off the disastrous “Year of Four Emperors” (A.D. 69), which was wracked by civil wars as emperors rapidly succeeded each other.
Jews and Christians lived through these events, but they held no political power and did not have to weigh in on the legitimacy of these actions.
That would change when the empire became Christian. Once responsible for public welfare, they had to face what to do about problematic regimes.
The principle that the authorities are owed obedience, however they got into power, meant that in most situations one needed to tolerate a difficult situation. If a ruler issued orders directly contrary to Christian teaching, they could be ignored, but otherwise one needed to obey.
But what if one was confronted with a regime doing grave harm—with a tyrant such as Caligula or Nero?
Historically, the only reliable way to remove a tyrant was to kill him, lest he try to get his throne back and cause more bloodshed. This raised the issue of tyrannicide, or when it’s okay to kill a tyrant.
Given that the authorities govern on God’s behalf, and the need for social stability, Christian thinkers were reluctant to endorse tyrannicide. They could appeal to the fact that, even when Saul was trying to kill David, he refused to raise his hand against “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:9-11).
But many were prepared to endorse killing a particular kind of tyrant: a tyrant by usurpation, or one who seized power when he didn’t have a legitimate claim to it.
They could appeal to the Jewish queen Athaliah, who seized the throne for six years after attempting to kill the entire royal family. There was one survivor, who was anointed as the legitimate king, upon which Athaliah was killed (2 Kings 11:1-20).
Aquinas held: “He who kills a tyrant [by usurpation] to free his country is praised and rewarded” (2 Sentences 44:2:2).
But there was another kind of tyrant: a tyrant by oppression, one who gravely misused his authority. Catholic authors debated under what conditions such an individual could be killed, but in general there was a negative attitude toward this possibility.
The state of the question
The Catechism doesn’t deal with tyrannicide, but it lays out principles for dealing with problematic regimes.
Christians should be subject to those in authority, but they have “the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms” for the good of the community (CCC 2238). They also need to lead an active political life (CCC 2239-40). When civil authorities issue immoral commands, Christians are to refuse to obey them (CCC 2242).
But armed resistance is not authorized unless: “(1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; (2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; (3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; (4) there is well-founded hope of success; and (5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution” (CCC 2243).
The Catechism thus envisions progressively greater interventions to address problems, from criticism to protest to armed resistance—
the latter being permitted only in the gravest cases and under specific conditions.