Church and State: Can They Be Separate?

The Reverend Michael Coren

It was never really in doubt that Notre Dame University law professor Amy Coney Barrett was going to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. But the 48-year-old mother of seven chosen by Donald Trump to replace the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg divides America between those who see her as an angelic liberator from evil or a reactionary who will close almost every one of the doors for women and minorities that her predecessor fought to open. The reason is that Barrett is a conservative Roman Catholic, and a member of a Catholic charismatic group strongly opposed to contraception, abortion, and equal marriage.

Barrett herself is regarded as a fine jurist, but her previous decisions, while often only indirectly touching on these hot button issues, have always been conservative. Which leads critics to speculate whether she will judge as a Catholic or as a lawyer, for opponents to roar about separation of church and state, and supporters to complain of anti-Catholic prejudice. Her case isn’t helped by the fact that she failed to disclose that she’d given two talks to student anti-abortion groups and signed a “right to life” advertisement opposing Roe v. Wade.

We heard similar church and state arguments in Canada when Andrew Scheer was questioned regarding his Catholic beliefs, and Lesyln Lewis, a Pentecostal Christian and social conservative, who came third in the Tory leadership race, and is likely to so be a highly influential MP.

It’s a deeply complex issue but part of the problem is that many commentators assume that people of faith can leave their beliefs at the church or temple door. The truth is that for a committed believer religion informs everything said and done. From a personal point of view, I would find it impossible to expunge my Christianity from my politics; what I assume about the eternal is an integral part of my every waking moment, and I’m sure it’s the same for Canadian politicians and US judges.

The tragedy is that the genuinely central Christian issues—peace, social justice, care for the poor and marginalized —are seldom held up to public scrutiny but the themes that are rarely if ever actually mentioned in scripture—abortion, homosexuality, contraception—take on a monumental significance. In the case of Amy Coney Barrett, there will be a serious attempt by the pro-life community and its champions to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision or reduce its consequences. And here’s what is challenging but inescapable. For those opposed to abortion, the act involves unlawful killing, even murder, and it’s not “an” issue but “the” issue. Do we expect the judge to ignore such visceral beliefs when she enters the chamber of the Supreme Court, or for a MP to do the same when present in the House of Commons?

Catholic Prime Ministers such as Brian Mulroney and Justin Trudeau have certainly overseen progressive legislation concerning life and sexuality, but they were all on the more liberal wing of their church. That liberalism enabled them —just as it does Joe Biden—to embrace the notion that we not only can but must enforce the separation of church and state. As Paul Martin said when he introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, “My decisions were based on what do I believe is the right thing for the country.” That didn’t prevent many other Catholics, including clergy even a prominent bishop, loudly criticizing him. It’s far more severe in the US, and earlier this year Fr. James Altmann, a Catholic priest in Wisconsin, posted a video in which he said: “You can not be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period. There will be 60 million aborted babies standing at the gates of heaven barring your Democrat entrance.” That video has been viewed more than half-a-million times.

That conservatism is far more active now than perhaps ever before, especially so in the US but even in Canada, and I cannot pretend that as a cleric or a journalist I have the answers. Politicians should, ideally, state their views clearly and then trust the electorate to vote accordingly. Those in government have a duty to serve all of the people but at the same time their consciences are partly if not largely formed by their faith. As for Supreme Court justices in a nation founded on the religious neutrality of its governance, I see some of them struggling between a rock and a hard place, the rock being that of St. Peter.