The Meeting of Church and State (Fordham Commencement Address)

New York City | June 12, 1963

Unfortunately, there are still those who view the separation of Church and State as conducive to hostility, conflict, and suspicion. To all efforts at fruitful cooperation they return the answer, "They shall not pass." They live with fears as outdated as the rack and inquisition which helped produce them.

"U T UNUM SINI'," John XXIII said in his last days. "That we may all be one."

This phrase, better than any other, sums up his life and work. He was a "Pope of Reconciliation"-- reconciliation between East and West, Catholics and non-Catholics, the powerful and the weak, poor nations and wealthy ones. "All men," he wrote in Pacem in Terris, "are equal in their natural dignity." He recognized the presence of conflict, of deep differences of belief and desire; but he believed that in the long run the divine spark which unites men would prove stronger than the forces which divide.

It is amazing to me that this humble man, granted only a few years among us as Pope, the author of only a few encyclicals, the convener of only one half-finished council, the host to distinguished but relatively few visitors from differing nations and creeds, could have had such a profound impact on the thinking of the entire world. Through him the doors of the Church were opened onto the modern world, revealing, across those ancient casements, the prospects of a world in which the knowledge, the hopes, and the suspicions of modem man would be reconciled and elevated by the most enduring of our religious and spiritual beliefs. His Pontificate marks a turning point from which there can be no retreat.

Let me focus his principle of reconciliation on one of the most troublesome questions of our society: the relationship of Church and State. Here, too, historic dogmas must come to terms with the realities of today's life.

I speak to you not as a philosopher or theologian or even as a political scientist. For I am none of these. I am only a public servant. But my work has taken me to thirty countries. It has enabled me to send young Americans of every religious persuasion to almost fifty countries of mixed beliefs. I have seen firsthand how basic spiritual beliefs and deeds can shatter barriers of politics and creed.

Therein lies the genius of John XXIII. He recognized that mankind's greatest yearning is for an end to division and conflict. He reached out and touched our common heart. In his, among the great world leaders, he was the first modem man.

There was a time in the West when Christ's admonition to keep distinct our obligations to God and Caesar was neglected; when religion fought for control of the State, and the State for control of religion; when differences of belief were fought out on the battlefield. There was a time, too, when the poor and oppressed found that the Church was aligned with the rich and the powerful against them.

From this flowed the erection of legal barriers between Church and State and the rise of anticlericalism. We must remember that our own First Amendment has as its primary purpose, not only the protection of the State against religion, but the protection of religion against the State. Jefferson wrote: "I consider the Government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines or exercises…civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents." And one hundred twenty-five years later the Supreme Court has written: "If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion."

Today most of the old sources of conflict have disappeared from our society. The religious wars have ended; churches are secure from State domination; and the State has given up efforts to prescribe a belief which all men must follow on pain of punishment or disability. We no longer burn witches or exile nonbelievers. And under the great experiment of religious liberty both Church and State have flourished.

In fact, the settling of these ancient divisions is the touchstone of modern political life, the mark of the modem state. And no one understood better than Pope John that these old disputes had been drained of their content. He refused to make war on the past. Nations like the Soviet Union with their officially prescribed creeds are, indeed, living in the past. They have not yet caught up with the spirit of the age and, until they do, can lay little claim to being modern nations.

Unfortunately, there are still those who view the separation of Church and State as conducive to hostility, conflict, and suspicion. To all efforts at fruitful cooperation they return the answer, "They shall not pass." They live with fears as outdated as the rack and inquisition which helped produce them.

It was an outstanding Jew, Justice Felix Frankfurter, who helped give the answer. "Religion is outside the sphere of political government," he wrote, "but this does not mean that all matters on which religious organizations ... may pronounce are outside the sphere of Government. ... Much that is the concern of temporal authority affects the spiritual interests of men.

And it was my deputy, Bill Moyers, a Southern Baptist, trained as a minister of his church, who suggested that I reaffirm to you today his belief as well as mine that separation of Church and State does not mean the divorce of spiritual values from secular affairs.

Separation of Church and State meant one thing when government and religion were at cross purposes. It means something different when they have common purposes. Today they have such common purpose in "social progress." The great social questions -- war and peace, civil rights, education, the elimination of poverty at home and abroad-are all, at bottom, moral questions. They reflect spiritual values. They are the concern of religion and government; they are the concern of millions who perceive no difference, in this regard, between their beliefs and their social obligations.

This principle, the identity of private morality and public conscience, is as deeply rooted in our tradition and Constitution as the principle of legal separation. Washington, in his First Inaugural, said that the roots of national policy lay in private morality. De Tocqueville observed that American democracy was uniquely founded on morality. Lincoln proclaimed as a national faith that "right makes might."

Those who would read the Constitution as erecting a wall of hostility and distrust between Church and State neglect this aspect of our tradition. They are blind to the spiritual mainstream of American life. Legal separation is an important principle. Equally important is the need for cooperation and common effort in attacking social problems. For the State to deprive itself of the support of religious belief and organization is to enter the battle for social justice without our strongest weapon: the spiritual beliefs from which social action springs. And without the cooperation of Church and State, of belief and power, our efforts will be doomed to failure.

The Peace Corps is an example of the need for spiritual values in the work of government. And its work is, in the deepest sense, the work of reconciliation. It is a model of that fellowship aimed at construction of a united world community to which John XXIII devoted his Pontificate.

The first two Volunteers to be killed on the job were a Jew and a Protestant. They died in a Catholic country and the Bishop who consecrated their death called them "martyrs." El Tiempo, the principal newspaper of Bogota, editorialized:

They were the first to fulfill the Rite of Blood which united them [with Colombians] in an indissoluble tie. . . , Their bodies . . .have fallen with those of our fellow com1trymen. The sacrifice of blood is thus consummated. Two races were forged together in this dramatic accident. That this be not in vain, is the ardent hope of millions of human beings.

We have Peace Corps Volunteers of all faiths teaching in more than one hundred Catholic Mission schools abroad. We have Volunteers of all faiths teaching in more than one hundred Protestant Mission schools. We have Volunteers of all faiths teaching in Buddhist schools. And there has not been one instance of racial or religious clash, not one instance in which belief has interfered with the day's work. Strong moral purpose has enhanced, not hampered, the progress of the Peace Corps.

Yet at every step of the way we were met with the warnings of the timid. "Don't send Negroes to Africa," we were warned, "the Africans will think you are condescending." "You can't send Jews to Tunisia and Morocco." "You can't send Protestants to the Catholic country of Colombia." "You can't send Puerto Ricans to Latin America because 'they' look on Puerto Rico as an American colony." We refused to heed any of these warnings. And they all proved untrue-the folklore of "experts" who had never got to the level of the people.

The fact is that compassion and service can dissolve obstacles of race or belief anywhere in the world. People are hungry for contact, for fellowship, for the breaking down of barriers.

Hopefully, the Peace Corps is both a symbol and a fore runner of a genuine world-wide effort among people of different nations, different religions, and different races to establish an ecumenical community among men.

But the growth of understanding between Church and State, the infusion of spiritual values into secular affairs, the breaking down of barriers between nations and peoples, the modernity of Pope John, the success of the Peace Corps, do not represent final victories. They represent a challenge and an obligation.

In Mater et Magistra Pope John wrote that to meet the great social problems of the world ''It is necessary to arouse a sense of responsibility in individuals and especially among those more blessed with the world's goods." Every one of you who are graduating today are among those blessed with the world's goods. It is you that Pope John meant.

The senseless, terrible murder of integrationist leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, proves again the depth of our moral blindness on race relations. How many of us are giving time or money to the solution of this moral crisis of our national life? Much more must be done by every one of us.

John XXIII gave his life to the service of God and of all his fellow men, regardless of race, creed, or nationality. It was in that spirit-that all may be one: "Ut unum sint'' that he said, "To serve God is to rule."