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Christians and the State: A Catholic Perspective

Christians and the State: A Catholic Perspective

Christians and the State: A Catholic Perspective for the 21st Century. John Duddington, Gracewing 2016.

This book functions as a Catholic response to the address made by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to parliament in Westminster in 2010. Duddington, editor of the journal Law and Justice, takes on Benedict’s challenge to politicians that “Religion… is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contribution to the national conversation” by charting the current relationship between religion and state in the UK and proposing some ways forward.

The focus is primarily legal and constitutional, with chapters looking specifically at areas of the law, equality and diversity legislation, religious freedom, and human rights (among others). Duddington is a lawyer by background and the book is impressively thorough in condensing a huge number of complex legal cases into clear and accessible examples within the wider debate. Key cases are examined in detail, including those that will be familiar to non–lawyers from press coverage at the time.

This is an extremely useful exercise in that it grounds difficult and often abstract concepts like the Christian vision of justice and conscience in concrete (and often familiar) legal cases. In this way, the relevance of debates over natural law and Aquinas are applied, and their appropriateness tested, in a practical sense – something which many books on this topic fail to do. At the same time, it is not so forensic as to fail to give a bigger picture view of the field, and in particular in charting the trajectory of the British legal scene from a situation that was very clearly grounded in Christian morality to the current situation, which is more consciously (and for Duddington not necessarily positively so) neutral towards all religions.

This use of legal analysis is strong, but the result is to sometimes leave the question of the relationship between Christians and the state looking rather lopsidedly legal in nature. For example, in the concluding chapter Duddington presents a three step programme for the future. The first is to campaign and lobby for the Christian voice to be heard in public debate and for their right to influence the political landscape. As an aim this is civil and political in nature. The other two steps, however, are explicitly legal. One is to argue for the need of religious groups to be permitted their own bespoke legal systems and the other is for a concordat between religions and the state which will settle their respective rights and duties towards one another.

Interesting as these proposals are, they do seem to load the issue of Christianity and the state very heavily towards legal debates, and away from a more social or civil society based approach to these issues that other authors on the same topic might have taken. The ability of Christianity to play a role in public life will always, of course, have legal connotations, but it is surely broader than that, with cultural and social questions playing a more major role than are perhaps afforded here.

There is recognition of that issue in the first chapter on the historical relationship between Christian and the State. This chapter is useful in setting the scene for what follows, but ends at the (European, rather than even the English) Reformation. Granted, this is not a history book, but as context for the relationship between Church and State this seems too early – since it fails to address the historical role of the nonconformist Protestant churches, and the later Catholic emancipation in changing the relationship between Church and State.

That gripe notwithstanding this book is undoubtedly useful in synthesising a number of immensely difficult debates into a concise and clear format. It contains a number of sharp observations on the way in which the landscape is changing and puts forward helpfully specific recommendations grounded in recent cases.

Ben Ryan is a Reseacher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan 

Image from Flickr, available under Public Domain

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 18 April 2017

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