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'Neutrality and pluralism are not particularly good reasons for taking God out of our Constitution'

There are certainly very strong philosophical reasons for accepting at least the existence of God, writes Dr Thomas Finegan.

Dr Thomas Finegan Lecturer in Theology

IN ITS CENTRAL sense, the idea of the separation of Church and State is straightforward. The Church can’t make laws for the State, and the State can’t dictate the content of the religious-inspired beliefs and practices of the Church.

Many people assume that the separation doctrine arose quite recently in history and outside of Christianity. It didn’t, its roots are in Christian theology. Among the landmarks in the doctrine’s development are the writings of St Augustine (354-450) and Pope Gelasius I (492-496), as well as the events of the 11th and 12th centuries now known as the Investiture Controversy (where European secular rulers attempted to impose their choice of Bishops on the Church).

Many people also assume that the need to appeal to the separation doctrine has most often arisen in order to protect the State from theocracy. Again, this is untrue. In European history up to and including World War II the need to invoke the doctrine has most often arisen in order to protect religious bodies from overreach by secular authority.

Unjust secularist incursions into religious freedom

Examples of unjust secularist incursions into religious freedom during this period include the dissolution of Church bodies and the appropriation of their property and assets, the prohibition of public religious expression, the disbandment of religious organisations with a social mandate, and the prohibition of religious bodies’ involvement in education.

Education is a continuing battleground for religious freedom. In the 19th century Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturtkampf laws in Prussia and Jules Ferry’s laws in the French Third Republic were directed against Church involvement in education. Public funding of such schools was stopped, religious schools were effectively seized by the State, and religious instruction within the classroom was prohibited.

These laws were widely seen as anti-Catholic. Similar secularist initiatives took place in the early 20th century through the laws of Émile Combes in France and, later, through socialism in 1930s Spain. National socialists in Germany and communists in the Soviet Union likewise succeeded in ridding religion and religious influence from education.

And yet today in many secular States where Church and State are separate the State not only permits religious education but actively funds it. The UK, the Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Italy and Germany are just a few examples. The important point here is that while these States are secular they are not secularist as regards education. This distinguishes them from the secularist States that dominated European politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Secularism is anti-religion

Secularism is anti-religion in the sense that it wants to prohibit all religious involvement in, and contribution to, the public life of the State. So a secularist State will reject the public funding of religious charities and religious-run counselling services, even when these charities and counselling services make a genuine contribution to the lives of individuals and to the common good. A secularist State will reject the idea that a civil marriage can be performed in a Church, meaning that those who sacramentally marry in a Church will need to civilly marry elsewhere.

A secularist State will strongly object to a political leader making any mention of prayer or God as part of a public address, even at Christmas. In fact, a truly secularist State will be uncomfortable with the idea of holding public holidays on religious feast days such as Easter or Christmas. And it will also object to religious symbolism being present in publicly funded institutions, such as an image of the Bible in the crest of a public university.

Needless to say, secularism objects to the fact that our Constitution’s preamble refers positively to “the Most Holy Trinity” and to “our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ”. But this preamble was adopted democratically and can be amended democratically. No religious body has the legal authority to protect the preamble from amendment. Hence these references to God in the Constitution’s preamble don’t of themselves undermine the separation of Church and State.

Neutrality and pluralism don’t seem like particularly good reasons for omitting constitutional reference to God

Of course, this alone doesn’t mean that these constitutional references to God are justified. One could argue, for instance, that they aren’t neutral and don’t reflect the beliefs of all citizens. And yet a decision to omit reference to God in a constitution is not a neutral decision either. Further, neither this decision nor many parts of a constitution will meet with unanimous support from all citizens. So neutrality and pluralism don’t seem like particularly good reasons for omitting constitutional reference to God.

But is there a positive reason to retain mention of God in the Constitution? While reason alone cannot verify the truth of Christ being God, there are certainly very strong philosophical reasons for accepting at least the existence of God. So the preamble is in harmony with reason.

More importantly, reference to God points to an important truth relevant for political decision making: we are not mere accidental clumps of matter devoid of intrinsic dignity, but possess a spiritual dimension woven into our very nature. On this view it makes sense for the Irish Constitution to appeal to the idea of human dignity (the first constitution in the world to do so) and enumerate human rights rooted in the reality of our dignity.

On the other hand, as many atheist philosophers acknowledge, atheistic materialism struggles badly to make sense of the idea that we possess intrinsic dignity and innate human rights. Non-Christian thinkers from Jürgen Habermas to Peter Singer recognise that the justification of human rights and human dignity is essentially indebted to the idea of God.

So our preamble speaks an important truth. Far from undermining the separation of Church and State, it witnesses to a vital moral and spiritual foundation for our intrinsic worth, and therefore for the very basis of a just society.

Little wonder that the German Constitution of 1949 saw fit to invoke God, human dignity, and human rights. Ireland and Germany are hardly alone in this regard. Canada, Switzerland, South Africa, Greece, Australia, and a number of countries that emerged from the collapse of communism have constitutions that do likewise. These are all examples of secular, rather than secularist, constitutions.

Dr Thomas Finegan is a lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College.

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Dr Thomas Finegan  / Lecturer in Theology

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