Friday, April 27, 2012

The Church, The State, and Care for the Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent speech at Georgetown University seems to have caused some of his Catholic brothers and sisters to take issue with Ryan’s budget proposal, viewing it as incompatible with Catholic teachings, especially in relation to care for the poor.

This brings up an interesting set of questions: Does the so-called “Separation of Church and State” doctrine prohibit such connections in the first place? Doesn’t that doctrine make the influences of any religious group unwelcome when it comes to the affairs of state? What is the church’s relationship to the state when it comes to topics like this?

First, as I understand it, the idea of separating church from the state was intended to prohibit the government from establishing a state religion. It was a clear reaction to the power of the Church of England, and the colonial framers of the US Constitution did not want to repeat what they considered to be an inappropriate alignment of power in Europe.

Second, to demand that any persons holding a place of governmental responsibility disallow their religious influences and values as they engage in the processes of policy-making is not reasonable. Whatever has formed a person—religious faith, past experiences, reason, education, and so on—will become part of the lens through which that person sees how things should work in the world. No one comes to the governmental table (or any table, for that matter) as a blank slate.

Having said this, I still have to wonder about the demands that religious groups—specifically Christians—can really make on the government. Certainly, in a culture based on individual rights, religious folks can makes all kinds of demands. But what is the place of Christian communities in the context of the nation?

That the church at large would call the state to act justly and fairly is a good thing. However, is it right that we would expect the state to act as though it is the church? Again, I’m all for the state being called to justice and fairness, but in the end isn’t it still appropriate that faithful communities of Jesus continue to enact the realities of the kingdom of God, regardless of the acts of the state?

In the CNN article about Rep. Ryan’s speech, a recent survey among American Catholics is cited that shows a decrease in concern for the poor. Could that be a result of the expectation that care for the poor is more a function of the state than it is a core expression of the church’s love for Jesus? If the state, even appropriately, enacts programs to care for the poor, does the church begin acquiesce its own identity in the world?

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