Should There Be Separation of Church and State?

by Fr. Justin Huang
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Amos 8:4-7

1 Timothy 2:1-8

Luke 16:1-13

On December 1, 1955, a 42-year old black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat when asked by the bus driver to do so, in order that white passengers could sit down. Because of racism, black people had to sit at the back of the bus. The driver said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three other black people gave up their seats, but not Rosa. He asked, “Why don’t you stand up?” She responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” “Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.” “You may do that.” She was arrested, and found guilty four days later.

That same day, the Women’s Political Council organized a boycott, asking all black people not to ride the city’s buses in order to cripple their finances. The boycott started with distributing 35,000 leaflets, involved 40,000 people walking to work or paying more for taxis, and lasted 381 days until the U.S. Supreme Court ended bus segregation laws.

Here’s the lesson for us: Rosa and her allies weren’t naïve. They faced the brutal reality that there were grave evils in her society, and had the courage to face them. They didn’t just hope for a more just world, but did something about it. They didn’t just pray for a better world, but were involved in the civil rights movement.

There’s a great abyss between these virtues and the way we live as Catholics and Canadians. Canada has many blessings, but we generally ignore the fact that there are grave evils in our society. I also believe there’s a lack of courage in our community: There are no great signs that we do things that are uncomfortable; we’re not that involved politically. Perhaps the greatest test of our character is: Do we wish we had the courage and shrewdness of someone like Rosa Parks?

Two weeks ago, we supported the idea of being a more welcoming church that raised the expectations to meet Christ’s, and today, He’s calling us beautifully to be shrewd, prudent, and resourceful by giving one of His most difficult parables to interpret.

There’s a rich man who had a manager in charge of his property, but was squandering the proceeds. When he receives notice that he’s going to be dismissed, he recognizes that he’s too physically weak to work and too proud to beg. So he devises a scheme to take care of himself: He goes to the men who owe his master money and cheats his master once again. He tells the men to change how much they owe the master so that they’ll take care of him once he’s dismissed.

Then Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly” (Lk 16:8). The master actually admires that the dishonest manager took care of himself. He’s very intelligent and resourceful: He wants a good life and acts to get it.

Jesus Himself adds: “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Lk 16:8). St. Augustine says that Jesus doesn’t condone the cheating of the servant but his foresight; “When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity, Christians who make no such provision blush’” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, 255). In other words, we’re naïve: We’re shocked that Jesus would praise a bad man, not for being bad or cheating, but for his good quality of being ingenious.

Here are some examples of Christians’ being naïve, and I hope this doesn’t overwhelm you, but Jesus is exposing our weaknesses, and this is how we can grow: 1) We think we can have a peaceful life in Canada and not engage politically. Politics is not the most important thing, but does have great influence in shaping culture and morality. If we’re serious about loving our neighbour, we must be involved politically (more on that later). 2) We ignore that there’s a culture war going on. The advocates of the LGBTQ community, and the pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia movements are smart: They strategized for decades to change the culture because it’s a battle for them, while we Christians sit in church. 3) We think this won’t affect our children. In my classroom visits this past week, I noticed, as happens every year, that a number of our students in the upper grades show signs of doubting Jesus. I notice they seem to follow what the media and our culture teach, more than Jesus. E.g. some of you think the Catholic Church is against gay people, but I don’t know anyone in this church who is. We may disagree with some of their behaviour, but that’s not being against them. It’s like my gay friend who cares about me as a friend, but disagrees with my beliefs. 4) We think we always have to be nice. But Rosa Parks and the people in the civil rights movement didn’t overcome racism by being nice; they overcame it with courage, determination, suffering, prayer, and political action.

A Christian leader once gave an address on the state of the Church and the wider culture saying that everything was just fine. Someone wrote back anonymously, “Are you on crack? Because, if you are, that would explain a lot. If you’re not, perhaps you should be.”

Let’s look again at Jesus’ words: “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” St. Augustine ends his commentary with a question: The manager acted with resolve to ensure he received an earthly life; what are we going to do to ensure eternal life? We should bring the same intensity to bear that the manager did.

Prime Minister Trudeau works harder at advancing his agenda than we do in holiness. President Trump is more eager to win the 2020 presidential election than we are to go to heaven. He also works harder on his hair than we do on our souls.

“Many preachers over the centuries have also interpreted this parable to mean that the Church should learn best practices from secular models so as to be more effective in” her mission (Daniel Mueggenborg, Come Follow Me, Year C, 223). The Church isn’t a business, but we can learn great things from the business world.

We must always uphold our dogma and celebrate our rich tradition in music and art. But we also need to rethink the way we do leadership, evangelization, and communication. St. Basil, in the fourth century, insisted that Christian students read non-Christian authors because we can learn from them. Church leadership right now is very poor, so we’re borrowing ideas like vision, goals, measurements, etc. from the secular world. The interesting thing is that the saints actually practiced these principles, just in different language.

Jesus says in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The disciples are going to face hostility and will be vulnerable, but they’re not to be passive; they’re to be cunning, “anticipating threats and finding ways to survive,” but also pure of heart (Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri, Matthew, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 145); we can never sin no matter what. Jesus, at the end of today’s parable, talks about faithfulness and trustworthiness (Lk 16:10-12).

Jesus was shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove. How did He win people’s hearts and minds? Not right away with His hard teachings. He knew human nature (Cf. Jn 2:24-25) and knew He had to win them over, demonstrating His love with miracles and healings—that’s wise. When the Pharisees tried to entrap him about whether disciples should honour God or the emperor, He said, “‘Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it? They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:24-25). This is the famous passage on how we Christians are to be involved in politics.

Since we have a federal election in one month’s time, and keeping in mind that Jesus commands us to be prudent and resourceful, we’re asking Him, “Lord, how do you want us to love our nation?” Let’s do it in question-and-answer format.

Should Catholics be involved in politics? Yes. How? By speaking the truth and defending the good of the human person.

Do Catholics have to vote? Yes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it’s a moral obligation for Catholics to pay taxes, exercise the right to vote, and defend one’s country (2240). So, without a just reason not to, it would be a sin for us not to vote.

Why? Because voting is a tremendous privilege. People have fought and died to give it to us, so we must use it.

Voting is on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, and advanced voting is Oct. 11-14, 2019, and we can even do it by mail, so there shouldn’t be any excuses.

Are some issues more important than others? Yes. We mentioned last year that the foundational right is the right to life, because no other right is useful if we’re dead. The other basic issue is sexuality, marriage, and family, because this issue affects everything else, and family is “the original cell of social life” (CCC 2207). The best way we can help our country is by knowing what our candidates support, so we have to do research and ask each other what we know about candidates.

Do Catholics believe in separation of church and state? Yes and no. Yes, because no one, including me, wants Pope Francis to become the Prime Minister of Canada. Clerics, which includes bishops, priests, and deacons, are forbidden from running for public office (Cf. CIC 285). We don’t want the Church and the state to be mixed together, not only because we don’t want non-Catholics’ having to follow Catholic rules (e.g. non-Catholics have no moral obligation to participate in Sunday Mass), but also because it’ll hurt the Church. Historically, whenever the Church has become intermingled with the state, she loses her moral authority and gets corrupted. But it’s praiseworthy if lay Catholics run for public office, so that they can better the country (Gaudium et spes, 75).

However, if separation of church and state means that religious people aren’t allowed to get involved, then we don’t subscribe to that. Right now, on moral issues, religious people, like Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, get pushed around in the public square when we stand up for preborn babies. People say, “Don’t force your religion on me.” But, here’s the thing, we don’t believe abortion is wrong because it’s a religious issue. It’s a natural law issue. It’s not wrong because the Church teaches it’s wrong. The Church teaches it’s wrong because it kills a person. We’re not pro-life because we’re Catholic. We’re pro-life because it’s reasonable, and is supported by science and philosophy.

Should Catholics be involved in political activism? If it’s moral and for the good of society, yes! We’re not going to help people only by praying for them. St. Paul today urges us that “supplications, prayers, intercessions… be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:1-2). Prayer changes hearts and the world, but Jesus wasn’t naïve. He also acted.

When I was 18, I met someone who would become a good friend, Stephanie Gray. She was giving a talk on abortion and said she would show videos of aborted babies, and gave the audience a chance to leave. I chose to leave, perhaps because I was squeamish. But, I learned soon after, that just telling people that abortion kills a child was not enough to motivate them actually to do something about it. Nevertheless, when we actually see the body parts of a baby in pieces, then we realize that we can’t sit on the sidelines, but have to do something about it.

Showing graphic abortion photos makes people uncomfortable not because the photos are wrong, but because what’s photographed is wrong. That’s when we see what pro-choice really means. This is very prudent communication. Because we’re talking about life and death, in the future, not now, I think we’ll have to show pictures of abortion here at church. Don’t worry. We’ll give fair warning so that no one’s overwhelmed.

One last thing about Rosa Parks. When she was being harassed by that racist bus driver to give up her seat, she said later, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.” Four months before, a 14-year old black person named Emmett Till was brutally murdered by two white men because he apparently flirted with a white woman. They abducted him, beat him so badly that his face was completely unrecognizable, shot him, and then threw him in the river. During his funeral, his mother insisted on an open casket so that the world could see the horrors of racism. It’s one thing to say racism is bad, but once we see that this poor boy’s face was so swollen and deformed that it’s just a big blob, we say, “I must do something about it.”

Rosa Parks thought about Emmett, and decided not to give up her seat, then got arrested unfairly, then joined in the bus boycott, then lost her job at a department store, then her husband lost his job because he spoke about the incident; then she traveled giving talks, constantly receiving death threats, and donating most of her money to ending racism.

We can learn from her virtues. More importantly, we must learn from Jesus, Who was shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove.