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A Simple Guide to Faith, Culture and Public Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 28, 2009

Recently I’ve taken up the role of religion in the formation of culture, and in particular the ways in which our own personal faith is supposed to shape the larger culture around us (see, for example, two recent blog entries, The Split between the Gospel and Culture and The Beginning of a Catholic Culture). How religion and faith influence culture is, of course, a vast subject, and it will vary according to an immensely wide variety of circumstances. For today, then, let us narrow the field to how religion and faith ought to influence public life. And let us examine not so much the particular manifestations of that influence as the broad principles on which it ought to rest.

The Essentially Public Character of Religion

The first principle must be established with considerable force, because it is the opposite of what is commonly accepted in our contemporary Western culture. It is assumed nowadays that religion is a personal affair that must be kept private. But a moment’s reflection reveals this assumption to be not only false but self-evidently false. For the virtue of religion, taken in its most generic sense, consists precisely in the practice of those duties man owes to his Creator, duties which are owed no less in a man’s public capacity than in the privacy of his own heart and home. These duties always include piety, common worship, and moral behavior in every aspect of life—whether this behavior be the prescribed libations, sacrifices and oracles of some pagan religion or the highly developed moral norms characteristic of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

There can be no conceivable God to whom one could discharge his duty of religion through mere interior sentiment. Yet sentiment is exactly the status to which our modern culture tends to reduce religion through the bizarre stricture that we may believe whatever we wish as long as it does not affect anyone else. But just as such a mere interior sentiment will be utterly insufficient for the purpose of satisfying the obligations of our relationships with any other person—whether governor, employer, friend, spouse, or child—so too is it utterly insufficient, laughable and even insulting in our relationship with God. Instead, religion is a matter of enacting our deepest beliefs, in the company of our fellows, in order to satisfy our obligations to God and to ensure God’s blessings on all undertakings, whether we classify them as public or private.

An interesting historical anomaly may help make the point. During the period of the Protestant Revolt in sixteenth century Europe, there was a strange Christian sect (whose name I can no longer remember) that not only recognized the tendency Christians had to dissemble in the face of potential persecution by rival groups, but also pronounced dissembling a virtue and adopted it as a doctrinal cornerstone. The theory was that under no circumstances should one cast pearls before swine, "swine" being defined as anyone who did not yet hold this sect's peculiar views. Therefore, the faithful were to reveal their religious beliefs to absolutely nobody, including their own children. The result was a religion as purely private as one could make it. Needless to say, this sect died out in a single generation. Religion, for a wide variety of reasons, is essentially public.

Christianity and Public Life

The public character of religion applies to all religions (and therefore, necessarily, to all ideologies which oppose religion), but here I cannot explore the various ways in which the different religions of the world effect their public imprint. What concerns me instead is the public imprint of the one religion I believe to be true, Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism. For with respect to the unfortunate diversity of religions in the world, an important public question arises immediately. Once we grant that religion has an essentially public character, we must ask how the demands of conflicting religions are to be met in what we call our public life. By “public life” we mean a certain kind of public activity, more or less loosely defined, in which all those in a particular geographical region are bound in various ways to participate.

This classification of public life can be, and often is under militant secularism, pushed to an extreme. Thus, ordinarily, we would understand that a gathering of co-religionists in a church to offer worship, while certainly a public event, is not thereby part of what we call our “public life”, by which we mean essentially our civic life—such as the activities of a court of law, the operations of the local zoning commission, or elections of civil officials. Based on a false extension of civic life to include everything that is public, an ardent secularist may argue that the very existence of a Christian church or the very utterance of a Christian prayer imposes unfair public pressure and distress on an unbelieving citizen who chances to see the church or hear the prayer, and so both Christian prayer and Christian church buildings may be rightfully suppressed for the common good. Most people would recognize this as an extreme and foolish argument, but it does conceal within it a legitimate and often difficult question: To what degree ought the devotions and moral duties of a particular religion to be permitted to shape and inform public life?

To this question Christianity provides a particularly practical and sensitive answer, proposing a truth which rightly deserves to be elevated into a second key principle. Thus in discussing the great many things that are public in various ways, Christian social theory distinguishes between the activity of the Church, which has supernatural love as its end, and the activity of the State, whose end is natural justice. Now those things having primarily to do with charity or love are necessarily voluntary, for that which is not voluntary cannot be done out of love. For this reason, the particular aspects of Christianity which are known only through Revelation and which must be apprehended through faith and embraced through love are not to be forced upon anyone, and so can rightly be incorporated into the public order only insofar as they are the natural expression of those who participate in public life, and never as a requirement under pain of civil punishment. The degree to which any culture publicly expresses such things will vary, within the limits of this principle, according to all the attendant circumstances.

But justice has to do with all those things about right conduct and proper human relations which we can know from the natural law (which Christianity also embraces and illuminates) . Thus the work of justice is a work deriving from human nature itself. This work is the province of civil government or the State, and so adherence to rules and laws growing out of this work of justice may be properly enjoined upon all, even under threat of civil punishment. For this reason, a properly ordered public life will be governed neither by antagonism toward the voluntary expression of religious beliefs (such that voluntary public religious practices must be suppressed) nor by adherence to a specific set of religious rules, requirements and ceremonials (such that all citizens must attend Mass or that a profession of faith will be required to hold public office or that the failure to contribute to the Church will be prosecuted as a crime). Rather, a properly ordered public life will always be governed primarily by rules derived from the disposition of reason to secure justice. This disposition is not in essence Catholic or Christian, though it is compatible with the Christian Faith and even demanded by it. It is instead natural, accessible to all, and so demanded of all.

The Culture Wars

It has been one of the goals of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI to clearly enunciate a proper understanding of the relationship between reason and faith, a relationship which the Pope regards as vital for true dialogue, mutual respect and even friendship among peoples with widely varying religions and cultures. The challenge the Pope offered to Islam in his famous and controversial Regensburg address in 2006 was centered on this very point: Can Islam show itself to be compatible with reason and so open up within itself a proper understanding of public space characterized by the disposition of reason to seek justice?

Christians in non-Islamic countries, however, may well have a different preoccupation. They may agree that what I have outlined here is true in theory but wonder how it can be lived in practice; for in fact our current culture wars are fought over the most pressing life issues, issues which can be correctly resolved by recourse to the natural law, yet issues which remain battlegrounds because the natural law is summarily rejected by the culture of death. In the same Regensburg address, which indicted the West far more forcefully than it challenged the Islamic world, Pope Benedict observed that our contemporary false restriction of the idea of reason to empirical operations has not only made fruitful dialogue with other cultures difficult but rendered it impossible for reason to analyze the principles which govern nature, hence impossible for reason to pursue justice.

There is a darkening of the intellect through sin or, to put it more generally, through our failure to control our passions, which then obscure our intellectual vision. It is precisely here that modern culture runs afoul of justice, and here that Christians feel compelled to teach modern culture the natural law, which they then find rejected contemptuously as an imposition of private religious belief. It is true, of course, that Revelation does illuminate and reinforce our perception of the natural law. After all, both come from the same source (it is important to understand how this is so; see Revelation Sheds Light on Natural Law). But the natural law is nonetheless accessible to reason alone, and Christians may not desist from both expressing its tenets and demanding its observance in the face of a culture which tries repeatedly to privatize the natural law, reducing it—like religion—to an irrelevant sentiment.

On the contrary, naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: “Though you may drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will always come back.” Thus did Horace, writing shortly before the birth of Christ, express the self-evident truth that all of nature possesses an innate character that is ineradicable. The obligation of the Christian to insist on the application of the natural law to public life is the third and final principle, and the one that moves this discussion from theory to practice.

The Richness of Culture

Such a brief discussion of how religion ought to shape public life in a healthy culture can only scratch the surface, setting forth a few principles under which a tremendous variety of specific laws, customs, priorities and attitudes can flourish, depending on the whole multitude of divergent circumstances characteristic of various peoples. It is these specific customs and laws, priorities and attitudes which will in fact constitute the detailed civic culture of a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Moreover, civic culture is itself only one component of a far broader public culture in which religion will play a larger role through its mission of love and through the devotion engendered by love.

Indeed, as there is no such thing as private religion, there is also no such thing as private culture. Man, impelled by his social nature and enjoined by God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28), generates culture in everything he says and does, from his home even to the halls of government. There is both richness and wisdom in human culture, which demands both respectful conservation and continual correction through Revelation and reason, truth and grace. The principles outlined here will not in themselves generate the richness and beauty of a complete and fruitful culture, but as far as the basic cultural framework of our public life, let us hold all three principles as essential to the common good. First, religion is essentially public in character. Second, the proper province of the State is natural justice, in which realm alone it may properly exercise coercive power. Third, Christians must never cease to insist on a public life which fully respects the natural law.

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