The Department of Health and Human Services’ demand that all employers, including religious institutions, provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs has sparked a loud and sometimes nasty public debate about the limits (if any) of the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.  

Saint Augustine
St. Augustine wrote about church and state relations. Crosiers photo

Sadly, in our day, government intrusion is not unusual. Recently, Irish legislators tried to put forward a bill that would require Catholic priests to reveal anything they heard in confession regarding the abuse of a minor. In Canada, a Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor who spoke in defense of traditional marriage were called before their provinces’ Human Rights Commission to answer charges of hate speech. In England, an equality act has been written in such a way that some lawyers fear all religious denominations will be compelled to perform same-sex marriages or face fines or perhaps even prison sentences. And then there is China, where all religions are regulated by the state. Chinese Catholics who acknowledge the spiritual authority of the pope are regarded as renegades and are subjected to harassment and, in some cases, prison. 

The idea that there are two worldviews, church and state, each with its own purposes or goals, was advanced by St. Augustine (354-430) in “City of God.” According to Augustine, citizens with a purely secular outlook are concerned solely with this world; Christians, who look forward to eternal happiness in the next world, are not scornful of the good things human society can provide, but they try not to become too attached to them.  

In a perfect society, these two worldviews can exist in harmony. Of course, this is a fallen world, and so there is no perfect society. Consequently, over the centuries tensions have arisen between members of the church and representatives of the state. 

Emperor or pope?

A recurring headache for popes throughout the Middle Ages was the power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor. In the ninth century, Charlemagne, the ruler of most of Western Europe, had been a stalwart champion of the Church. Pope Leo III had an inspiration: He would revive the Roman Empire, but as a Christian empire under a Christian emperor. On Christmas Day 800, Leo crowned Charlemagne. The fact that Charlemagne had been created emperor and crowned by the pope implied that the emperor received his temporal authority from the Church. Many successors of Charlemagne challenged that idea, asserting that they had supreme authority in Christendom, and that their authority even extended into Church matters, including appointing bishops and abbots. 

In 1075, there was a new pope in Rome, Gregory VII (reigned 1073-1085). That year he called a synod and banned all laymen — emperor, king, or lord — from naming bishops and abbots. Henry IV, king of Germany (and soon to be emperor) defied the pope, so Gregory excommunicated him. Fearing that his enemies would unite to depose him, Henry hurried to Canossa, where Gregory was visiting Matilda, countess of Tuscany, and St. Hugh of Cluny. When Henry showed up at the castle door, dressed in sackcloth and shivering in the winter cold, Gregory relented and absolved the king. 

Back in Germany, Henry was anything but grateful. He set up an anti-pope, assembled an army and marched on Rome. Pope Gregory took refuge in the Castle Sant’Angelo until an army of Normans, loyal to the pope, drove Henry out of Rome. Nonetheless, the city was not safe for Pope Gregory, so he moved south to Salerno, which was safely inside Norman territory. He died in exile, but the principle he established, that powers which belonged to the Church could not be usurped by laymen, would be defended by all his successors. 

Sole dissenting vote

By the standards of his time, Henry VIII of England was a devout Catholic. He attended Mass several times a day, often went on pilgrimage and gave generously to Church institutions. When Martin Luther declared that baptism and the Eucharist were the only sacraments, Henry sat down and wrote a book titled, “A Defense of the Seven Sacraments.” Pope Leo X was so pleased he gave the king a new title, “Defender of the Faith.” 

Henry had never been faithful to his queen, Catherine of Aragon, but that was typical of monarchs and noblemen. The dalliances became more serious when it became clear that Catherine’s years of childbearing were at an end, and she and the king had no son. Catherine had given birth to several baby boys, all of whom were either stillborn or died within a few days or weeks after birth. Only one child was alive and healthy, a daughter, Mary. 

In Henry’s eyes, Mary was not good enough. He was convinced that only a king could rule England, and he was determined to have a son. In 1526 he began to pursue a 25-year-old maid of honor in the queen’s household, Anne Boleyn. She rebuffed the king’s advances, refusing to become his mistress, insisting that he must make her his queen. Henry applied to Pope Clement VII for an annulment, but the pope found no grounds for dissolving the marriage between Henry and Catherine. 

From that day Henry felt nothing but animosity toward the Catholic Church. In 1531, he expelled Queen Catherine from court and gave her apartments to Anne. In 1533 the new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry’s marriage null, then he married the king to Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement responded by excommunicating Henry and Cranmer. Henry countered by declaring himself “Supreme Head of the Church in England,” uniting in himself absolute spiritual and temporal authority. Henceforth none of the pope’s decrees on doctrine or discipline would have any effect in England. Church cases could only be heard in the king’s courts, it was illegal to appeal to Rome. Even the brief prayer for the pope offered during the Canon of the Mass was scratched out of the missals. 

Henry demanded that all bishops renounce their allegiance to the pope and swear obedience to him. Only one English bishop refused, John Fisher, bishop of Rochester. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason; a little more than a year later, Bishop Fisher was taken from his cell to Tower Hill, where he was beheaded. In 1935, St. John Fisher was canonized along with another famous martyr of the era, St. Thomas More. They share a feast day of June 22. 

The loophole

Throughout the 18th century, anti-clericalism spread across Europe. Typically governments targeted contemplative orders such as the Carthusian monks and Carmelite nuns, who would be declared “useless” to society and driven out of the country. Priests, laybrothers and sisters who taught school, nursed the sick, operated orphanages, or performed some other good work were usually allowed to stay.  

In 19th-century Italy, anti-clericalism became particularly intense. In the 1850s, there was movement to banish all religious orders. It was at this unhappy moment that St. John Bosco began organizing the Salesians to run his campus of academy, trade schools, workshops and minor seminary. 

For years Don Bosco (in Italy, “Don” is the title used when addressing a priest) had been sheltering orphaned and abandoned boys, giving them a home, educating them and teaching them a trade so they would be productive members of society. With the Italian government prepared to expel all religious orders, the future of the Salesians and the boys they cared for looked bleak. Then help came from an unexpected quarter. Urbano Rattazzi hated priests, but he liked and admired Don Bosco. Although Rattazzi was leading the movement that would put an end to all religious orders in Italy, he showed Don Bosco how to present the Salesians as a secular, philanthropic organization. The ruse worked, and kept the Salesians and their schools open until the Italian government reversed itself and recognized the rights of the Church once again. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Patron Saints(OSV, $14.95).