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Church and State – ‘independent, autonomous’

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When the Church realised in 1980 that this country would at long last become  a sovereign State ruled by a  legitimate government the leaders of the Church reflected on the future relationship between Church and State.

Oskar Wermter

On the eve of Independence, April 17 1980, they published a statement which said, “While the State and the Church are independent and autonomous in their own spheres, both are at the service of man [the human person]. . . . The Church is not identified with any political community, nor is she bound to any political system.

Rather, her function is to be the moral conscience of the nation, the sign and safeguard of the supreme value of the human person.” No doubt most Christians, regardless of denomination, could identify with these words of the Catholic bishops.

Only large parts of our “political class” seem to be unaware of these principal insights or in disagreement with them.

Again and again party-political zealots disregard the separation of Church and State, their different spheres, roles  and responsibilities. In their rapacious hunger for power they want to swallow up religion so as to have total control about all aspects of life.

Worshipping their leader as demi-god they want to make him a priest-king, unassailable, beyond criticism, in possession of the country and its people, rather than a servant of the people.

That is hardly a new idea. Most ancient societies gave their leaders this double role.

They never knew that for the good of the people power must be limited, and to give a mortal individual every possible kind of power, secular and spiritual, leads to doom.

In the ancient countries of Babylon, Mesopotamia, Assyria as well as Egypt priest-kings ruled. Rome, though first a republic ruled by a senate, deteriorated into a tyranny ruled by an emperor whom all citizens had to worship as a divine being.

Needless to say, the empire was corrupted and decayed until it collapsed under the onslaught of new and more vigorous nations. Total power corrupts totally. We have been warned by history.

It is not only the leaders of the State who are tempted by secular, economic and political power. Even the so-called “men of God” (but what  god?) are being tempted by getting for themselves a cut of State power.

In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) we meet them as “court prophets”, praise singers of the kind who always told  the king  what he liked to hear even if it was gross lies and led to the destruction of the capital and the enslavement of its citizens.

The genuine prophets who told God’s truth and warned the leaders  against lies and self-deception,  were persecuted and ended up in misery and death. The last one, John the Baptist, was beheaded at the whim of an immoral, power-hungry woman. He had confronted her with her misdeeds.

Today we hear of pastors who like to call themselves “prophets”, singing the praises of the “political class” and prostituting themselves collectively to the “powers that be”.

They hope to get a share in the power and glory of the Big Men and Women of the day. Elisha had no time for such  false “colleagues” of his and dispatched them unceremoniously (1 Kings 18 — one genuine prophet against 400 fake ones!).

Truly prophetic people live simple lives, are found among ordinary poor people and not in the king’s palaces. They do not mince their words. They do not flatter the high and mighty.  They do not seek favours.

Does that mean that Church and State must necessarily be enemies? No. The statement of 17 April 1080 said, “The more  [Church and State] co-operate the more effectively will they serve the good of all citizens.” Such cooperation rests on mutual respect between Church and State. This is lacking at present. The leaders play with religion as another toy in the power game.

“Citizens should not make excessive demands on the government for benefits, thereby lessening their own personal and social responsibility” (Statement by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, April 17 1980).

In 1980 that was a truly prophetic word.

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