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Engaging with the State for the Common Good: Some Reflections on the Role of the Church

  • Peter Smith (a1)

The Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church establishes the right of the Church to proclaim the Gospel and expound it, and to proclaim moral principles especially when this is required by fundamental rights or ‘for the salvation of souls’ (Canon 747). While this was taken for granted for centuries, society and culture have undergone rapid and extensive changes, especially over the last forty years. From what was once a Christian society and culture, we have moved to a multicultural and secular society, and have seen the rise of ‘ideological secularism’. The place of religion and religious values in the public forum is being questioned, and an aggressive secularism seeks to reduce religion and its practice to the private sphere. However, a healthy secularity should recognise both the autonomy of the state from control by the Church and also the right of the Church to proclaim its teaching and comment on social issues for the common good of humanity. This right is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. From the Church's point of view, this right was recognised for all religions in the Second Vatican Council's ‘Declaration on Religious Liberty’. We must defend that right because the Church exists not for its own sake but for the sake of humanity.

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1 Codex Iures Canonici (CIC), Canon 747. [The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, (1983) (Code of Canon Law)].

2 Matthew 22:15–22.

3 R Cantalamessa, ‘Gospel commentary for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time’, available at < = English>, accessed 25 February 2009.

4 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: gaudium et spes (Vatican City, 1965), para 76.

5 Ibid, para 74.

6 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, The Common Good and the Catholic Church's Teaching (1996), para 48.

7 Benedict XVI, ‘Promoting “healthy secularity”, not secularism’, speech to the 56th National Study Congress, organised by the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists, given on 9 December 2006, available at <>, accessed 23 January 2009.

8 Sampson, A, Who Runs This Place? The anatomy of Britain in the 21st century (London, 2004), pp 12.

9 Walsh, M, ‘Religious freedom: the limits of progress’ in Ivereigh, A (ed), Unfinished Journey: the Church 40 years after Vatican II: essays for John Wilkins (London, 2003), pp 134135.

10 Ibid, p 134.

11 Ibid, p 145.

12 Declaration On Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae: on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious (Vatican City, 1965), paras 2, 4.

13 Paul, John II, Evangelium Vitae (Vatican City, 1995), para 70.

14 Paul, John II, Veritas Splendor (Vatican City, 1993), para 101, emphasis in original; quotation is from Paul, John II's encyclical letter Centesimus Annus (Vatican City, 1991), para 46.

15 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life (Vatican City, 2003), para 2.

16 Paul, John II, Christifideles Laici: on the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world (Vatican City, 1988), para 42.

17 Paul, VI, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: Apostolicam Actuositatem (Vatican City, 1965), para 4.

18 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, The Common Good, para 36.

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Ecclesiastical Law Journal
  • ISSN: 0956-618X
  • EISSN: 1751-8539
  • URL: /core/journals/ecclesiastical-law-journal
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