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Separation of Roman Catholic Church and State more gradual than commonly assumed

04 May 2011


The introduction of the principle of separating Church and State caused changes to the position of religion and philosophy of life in Western society between the end of the eighteenth century and 1965. The Roman Catholic Church initially found it hard to come up with a suitable theological response to these new sociopolitical developments. But in practice, a lot was changing, albeit sometimes imperceptibly. The Second Vatican Council played a smaller part in these changes than is generally assumed. These are the findings of research carried out by Maurice van Stiphout, who will be awarded a PhD on this subject by the University of Groningen on 12 May 2011.


Van Stiphout’s study provides an overview of the complex and simultaneous processes associated with the introduction of the principle of separating Church and State within the context of gradual democratization. He also provides information about the lasting implications of this development on the religious communities involved and society as a whole.

‘Imperceptible’ changes

Theological reflection requires a stable context and a great deal of time. Despite the lack of both these criteria, worshippers and the heads of the Church managed to find a way of adapting to the new situation. However, both worshippers and non-worshippers remained ignorant of the changes as church propaganda largely failed to pick up on them. As a result, the structure of the Roman Catholic Church was assumed to be an unchanging stronghold of social conservatism, which did not adapt until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). According to van Stiphout, this image of the Roman Catholic Church now needs adjusting. ‘My research shows that the Second Vatican Council was no more than the final step in a gradual development of the Catholic vision on the relationship between Church and State.’

Scope of other religious convictions

The research also demonstrates that a number of elements and conclusions are of a structural nature rather than a product of their time. This means that they do not only apply to the Roman Catholic Church, but also to all other faiths and convictions. ‘The fact that churches and other philosophies of life exist side-by-side in the context of a society undergoing a gradual process of democratization has a significant impact on the doctrine of those churches: socio-legal developments have an effect on people’s religious and secular convictions,’ explains van Stiphout. ‘As a result, the process of contemplating the separation of Church and State never comes to an end. This is something that policymakers and researchers should take into account in their ongoing efforts to update the principle of separating Church and State, especially with the appearance of religious newcomers.’

No blueprint, but the same principles

First of all, van Stiphout does not think it possible that developments within a specific church in a specific historical context can be used to deduce a blueprint for another religion in another period, such as present-day Islam. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘it is possible to identify a number of lasting effects resulting from the permanent process whereby religious convictions and secular states co-exist within one society.’ This co-existence of different religions implies a mutual tolerance of ‘being different’. It is also important to understand that every religious or secular conviction (and the State too) is bound by its own theology/philosophy/laws, which cause differences in the community’s ability to respond to developments and the speed of its reactions. Furthermore, the separation of Church and State within a democratic context immediately sets in motion a process of diversification within the religions concerned. As a result, a global, non-organized religious community such as Islam will never be able to form a monolithic or uniform bloc, but will constantly seek ways of adapting to the social-legal context of a democratic society.

Curriculum vitae

Maurice van Stiphout (Helmond, 1968) studied law in Leiden and canon law and theology in Leuven. He also attained a Master’s degree in East-European Studies. He now works as a staff lawyer for the Interdiocesan Service for Catholic Religious Education in Brussels, and is a member of the Institute for Company Lawyers. His thesis, Scheiding van kerk en staat en de ontwikkeling van de kerk tot een zelfstandige geloofsgemeenschap. Studies over de rooms-katholieke kerk vanuit juridisch perspectief (1790-1965) [Separation of Church and State and the Church’s development into an independent community. Studies of the Roman Catholic Church from a legal perspective (1790-1965)], is being published by Boom Juridische Uitgevers, The Hague. Van Stiphout will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Law at the University of Groningen; his supervisor is Prof. F.T. Oldenhuis, Professor of Religion and Law.

For more information

Maurice van Stiphout, maurice.van.stiphout telenet.be

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.56 a.m.
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