Crossing the Atlantic Ocean yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI told reporters that the United States' secular government had allowed religious belief and expression to flourish.

"What I find fascinating about the United States," he said, "is that it began with a positive concept of the lay [i.e. secular] state." Early Americans "wanted to have a lay state, secular and open to all forms of religious expression,...precisely out of their love of religion and of its authenticity, which can only be lived freely."  

European countries, he said, could learn a great deal from the American model of church-state separation.

The pontiff's comments represent a significant shift in the Catholic hierarchy's attitude towards church-state relations. Prior to the reforms of Vatican II, official church policy included the infamous Syllabus of Errors (1862), which denounced the belief that "the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church."

Fortunately, most American Catholics have been an independent lot, and many have been strong supporters of church-state separation.

Bishop John England of South Carolina, for example, praised the U.S. Congress in 1826 for "see[ing] the plain distinction between spiritual authority and a right to interfere in the regulations of human governments or civil concerns." "You have in your Constitution wisely kept them distinct and separate," he said, and "[it] will be wisdom, and prudence, and safety to continue that separation."

Sen. John F. Kennedy was another ardent supporter of church-state separation. When running for the presidency, he professed belief in "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Benedict's comments this week, while welcome, are only a single step in the right direction. The church hierarchy and its allies in government are still aggressively pushing for our civil laws regulating abortion, marriage, end-of-life care and stem-cell research to reflect Catholic doctrine. They also support tax aid to religious institutions, especially parochial schools in financial trouble.

A recent Washington Post article examining what it called "a Catholic wind in the White House," for example, cites the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus' observation that "there is an awareness in the White House that the rich Catholic intellectual tradition is a resource for making the links between Christian faith, religiously grounded moral judgments and public policy."

President George W. Bush, our nation's most aggressively "faith-based" president, has done nothing to suggest that church-state separation remains a constitutional foundation of our republic. Instead, he sounded a lot like Pope Pius IX today when he told the Benedict that "we need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism and embrace a culture of justice and truth."

Maybe Benedict can give Bush a reminder that the United States is a secular state, not a theocracy.

But I don't want to overemphasize the pope's gesture toward religious freedom and pluralism. The Catholic Church is still the world's only religious body that claims status as a state. The Vatican even enjoys unique diplomatic relations with the United States government.

Americans United argued in a 1986 court case that it exceeded President Ronald Reagan's authority to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and that establishing such relations with the Vatican is an unconstitutional preference for – and entanglement with – the Catholic Church.

The National Coalition of American Nuns and an array of other religious groups agreed with us. Unfortunately, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, citing standing and separation-of-powers issues.

Thus, the pope comes to the United States not only as the head of a church, but also as a head of state.

News media coverage surrounding Pope Benedict's drop-by focuses heavily on the pomp and ceremony, the red shoes and the popemobile; the important church-state issues underlying the visit ought not be lost in the celebrity fog.