Question 207:

What is the Vatican’s opinion on laicism (secularism)?



Laicism describes the political concept (esp. in France), which demands freedom from religious links in public life and the separation of Church and state. Secularism, on the other hand, is the transfer of church property into secular hands, as has happened in a systematic way, for example, under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). The same term also has a second meaning, i.e. the secularisation of life. In German, the term secularism is now often used in the English sense of the word, meaning indifference to, rejection of or exclusion of religion and religious considerations. It therefore follows that in languages shaped by Islam (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Indonesian) the term secularism is translated with words meaning ‘without religion’ or even ‘godlessness’.

Basing our answer on the word laicism we will show what the Catholic Church teaches about the relationship between Church and state. IN the text introducing the Thme: “Religion and the World” (III, 2) the basics of this question have already been answered. Here, we will also add from chapter 8 of the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”:



421 The Second Vatican Council committed the Catholic Church to the promotion of religious freedom. The Declaration Dignitatis Humanae explains in its subtitle that it intends to proclaim the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in religious matters. In order that this freedom, willed by God and inscribed in human nature, may be exercised, no obstacle should be placed in its way, since the truth cannot be imposed except by virtue of its own truth. (II. Vatican Council, explanation. Dignitatis humanae 1) The dignity of the person and the very nature of the quest for God require that all men and women should be free from every constraint in the area of religion. (cf. CCC, 2106). Society and the State must not force a person to act against his conscience or prevent him from acting in conformity with it. (cf. DH, 3 and CCC 2108) Religious freedom is not a moral licence to adhere to error, nor as an implicit right to error.(cf. CCC, 2108)

423 Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups. (II.Vatic. Council, DH, 6, CCC, 2107) The vision of the relations between States and religious organizations promoted by the Second Vatican Council corresponds to the requirements of a State ruled by law and to the norms of international law. The Church is well aware that this vision is not shared by all; the right to religious freedom, unfortunately, is being violated by many States, even to the point that imparting catechesis, having it imparted, and receiving it becomes punishable offences.


a) Autonomy and independence

424 Although the Church and the political community both manifest themselves in visible organizational structures, they are by nature different because of their configuration and because of the ends they pursue. The Second Vatican Council solemnly reaffirmed that, in their proper spheres, the political community and the Church are mutually independent and self-governing. The Church is organized in ways that are suitable to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, while the different political communities give rise to relationships and institutions that are at the service of everything that is part of the temporal common good. The autonomy and independence of these two realities is particularly evident with regards to their ends.

The duty to respect religious freedom requires that the political community guarantee the Church the space needed to carry out her mission. For her part, the Church has no particular area of competence concerning the structures of the political community: The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution, (John Paul II, Encyclica Centesiumus Annus, 4) nor does it belong to her to enter into questions of the merit of political programmes, except as concerns their religious or moral implications.

b) Cooperation

425 The mutual autonomy of the Church and the political community does not entail a separation that excludes cooperation. Both of them, although by different titles, serve the personal and social vocation of the same human beings. The Church and the political community, in fact, express themselves in organized structures that are not ends in themselves but are intended for the service of man, to help him to exercise his rights fully, those inherent in his reality as a citizen and a Christian, and to fulfil correctly his corresponding duties. The Church and the political community can more effectively render this service for the good of all if each works better for wholesome mutual cooperation in a way suitable to the circumstances of time and place. (Gaudium et spes 76).

426 The Church has the right to the legal recognition of her proper identity. Precisely because her mission embraces all of human reality, the Church, sensing that she is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history,[870] claims the freedom to express her moral judgment on this reality, whenever it may be required to defend the fundamental rights of the person or for the salvation of souls. (cf. CIC, can.747, § 2).

The Church therefore seeks: freedom of expression, teaching and evangelization; freedom of public worship; freedom of organization and of her own internal government; freedom of selecting, educating, naming and transferring her ministers; freedom for constructing religious buildings; freedom to acquire and possess sufficient goods for her activity; and freedom to form associations not only for religious purposes but also for educational, cultural, health care and charitable purposes.

427 In order to prevent or attenuate possible conflicts between the Church and the political community, the juridical experience of the Church and the State have variously defined stable forms of contact and suitable instruments for guaranteeing harmonious relations. This experience is an essential reference point for all cases in which the State has the presumption to invade the Church's area of action, impairing the freedom of her activity to the point of openly persecuting her or, vice versa, for cases in which church organizations do not act properly with respect to the State. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Roman Church: Libreria Editrice Vaticana/Freiburg: Herder, 2004). See:

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