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Beneath a religion teacher’s dismissal, the madness of the modern world

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 16, 2014

My interest was caught by the recent case in which the European Court of Human Rights upheld a Spanish bishop’s decision to dismiss an ex-priest from his position as a teacher of Catholic religion at a public school. The bishop’s decision was a sound one, so the Court’s decision is a victory of a sort for Catholics. But what a victory!

I freely admit that there is no way to make the lines of authority between Church and State completely clear and obvious. Even apart from abuses on either side, both entities rightly possess a moral jurisdiction. The Church has the authority to teach the principles of morality and enforce certain requirements for membership in and specific missions within the Church. The State (that is, civil government) has the authority to make prudent laws in accordance with a proper reading of the natural law, to secure, protect and promote the common good.

Historically speaking, however, relationships between Church and State too often twist themselves into political pretzels. Within Europe these relationships vary from country to country. One major twisting force arises from the fact that the State has long since become the primary educator of children—a development which is, on the whole, a significant disadvantage to the common good. It grants far too much control of the minds and values of citizens to government.

In any case, various accommodations were reached as the State took over this function. In Spain, for example, religion can be taught in the public schools in accordance with the desires of parents. Those who teach such classes do so not only under the authority of the State but at the discretion of the religious communities their teaching represents. Hence, when a Spanish bishop realized that an ex-priest who was teaching Catholicism in the public schools was part of a movement to dissent from Catholic teaching, the bishop dismissed him from his teaching position.

Inevitably, the ex-priest appealed to the courts, claiming the firing violated his right to personal autonomy. This is a common enough principle of modern relativism, which modern States tend to support when it suits some fashionable purpose (gay marriage, for example). Therefore, it could well have had traction in this case. By a vote of nine to eight, however, the assembled justices upheld the bishop, deeming his action proper under Spanish law, which they did not see fit to challenge.

A Messy Business

This is a messy business from first to last, and it can come as no surprise that the vote was so close. The victory is a good thing, but it is a victory within a highly dubious arrangement: (1) State control of education (2) with exceptions only by way of specific concessions to the Church, (3) featuring the laws of Spain (4) within the larger structure and constitution of the European Union, (5) presided over by an international panel of judges who all come from different legal and moral backgrounds.

The oddity of the arrangement was made clear by Russia’s appointee to the European Court of Human Rights, Judge Dmitry Dedov, who dissented because “the celibacy rule contradicts the idea of fundamental human rights and freedoms.” Well, it certainly would contradict that idea if it were imposed by the State on all citizens, but as a voluntarily chosen sacrifice by those who wish to play a special role in a non-coercive organization, it is difficult to see how a violation of rights and freedoms comes into it. More to the purpose, what possible bearing does Judge Dedov’s prejudice have on this case? The question is enough to reveal the chaos of the whole situation.

Perhaps we should be thankful for the chaos. After all, with one more vote, that chaos would have turned into Caesaro-Papism—State control of the Church. And it is not just in the chaos of Europe that we see this kind of problem. The same kinds of issues are dealt with regularly in the United States by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which often navigates obscure laws to dubious results based on judicial preference; or in Canada by the Human Rights Commission, another grand tool which lets small judicial committees meddle incessantly in religious affairs. I have no doubt that other countries have similar bodies, most of them odious despite the lofty rhetoric which defines their missions.

Authority Misconstrued

Much of the West today is ruled by narrow judicial majorities backed by the enormous power of the modern bureaucratic State. Call me pessimistic if I do not expect these judges to have consistently rational conceptions of the nature of reality or, therefore, of justice itself. If law consistent with the natural law were our stock-in-trade for the exercise of State power, far less of our lives would be decided by tiny margins of victory. Though large majorities obviously guarantee nothing, the whisker decisions more easily give the lie to the whole system.

Of course, I do not mean that chaotic and even seriously deficient interactions of Church and State are confined to the modern world. They are characteristic of the human condition. But they become very dangerous at the extremes. Thus every intelligent person on earth ought to be dismayed that the pendulum in the West has swung so far in favor of the State and against the Church. The Church is forced more and more to operate almost as if she were a mere private institution in an era in which private institutions have no significant authority.

This is frightening. The Christian social order which underlay the almost fantastic rise of Western culture was characterized by robust intermediary institutions along with a proper recognition of two kinds of authority, spiritual and temporal, represented by the Church on the one hand, and by civil government on the other. What has been lost throughout the West is the understanding that the Church is a public institution in her own right (see In the Face of the State: The Church Too Is a Res Publica, a Public Thing).

Contrary to modern democratic theory, in which liberty and good order are believed to emerge magically from votes, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither human liberty nor right order can flourish without an understanding of what the West has lost. Central to this understanding is a bedrock appreciation for transcendent authority, which includes the authority of the Church.

This latest nine-to-eight religious employment case settled by the European Court of Human Rights depends on far more than its specific decision. Pick a problem: Does the case reveal the slow slide of the West into totalitarianism? The rule of a judicial aristocracy? Uncontrolled bureaucratization? Unmatched intellectual confusion about the nature of the social order? Ignorance concerning the common good? The deification of politics? Paganism?

Again, pick a problem and look beneath the surface. Whatever you choose, you will find its poisonous presence there.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Jun. 17, 2014 9:28 PM ET USA

    This is what one might call the result of religious cronyism. That this case even got into a secular court says all we need to know. The justices should never have even heard the case but that they did so only enlarges their supervision of the Church there. The bishop really lost this case, as do all bishops who do business with caesar.

  • Posted by: PrimoLeoncefalo6330 - Jun. 17, 2014 6:10 PM ET USA

    There is justice here w/ the ex-priest who was fired from his job in Spain. I am no legal scholar, but 'personal autonomy' does not trump a contract with the Spanish education system, esp. including the Catholic Church. The social contract is the one barrier to the totalitarian state you refer to. In the United States, religion of any kind is not taught in the public schools. The Spanish have a clear advantage in this regard. I lived in Spain during Franco's years-for sure, an advantage.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jun. 17, 2014 11:43 AM ET USA

    The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore of 1884 dealt with: "Education is a primary concern, and the bishops show great concern about the influence of secularism, which threatens to remove religion from schools. The pastoral letter places great emphasis on the role of the home in properly forming Catholic children and reaffirms the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage, regardless of the legal status of civil divorce." It was obvious then, as it is now, that Catholic schools are needed.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jun. 16, 2014 6:55 PM ET USA

    I would not be so frightened if I concluded that "the pendulum in the West has swung so far in favor of the State and against the Church". That's part of our business. I would, though, be very frightened if "the pendulum in the Church had swung in favor of the State and against Christ".

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