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Clarifications on the political enforcement of faith and morals

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 20, 2015

In response to my exploration of the limitations of the religious liberty defense, some readers raised the question of whether government is morally bound to recognize the Catholic Church as the source of the true religion and to enforce some portion of the Catholic Faith.

The answer to this question is actually both yes and no. Each and every human person is morally obliged by the natural law to seek God and do His will. Each and every human person is further morally obliged to accept, honor and follow the precepts and teachings of the Catholic Church insofar as he or she recognizes the Church as the proper fulfillment of the religious dimension of human nature. But as this recognition comes only supernaturally, by faith, it cannot be imposed materially, as a requirement of all governments. Nor may any State impose the Catholic faith on its citizens.

In fact, the whole purpose of religious liberty is to enable us to freely seek, find and commit ourselves to the truth about God and his relationship with the human person. To impose this by rule is an abuse of worldly power which frustrates the very ends it has in view.

But one may well ask whether it can possibly be immoral for government to prudently fashion its laws according to the specifically moral teachings of the Church. Here again the answer is both yes and no.

Actions are intrinsically immoral for the human person insofar as they are a violation of the nature he has received from the Creator. The Ten Commandments are essentially a summary of the natural law, and all Catholic moral analysis is profoundly rooted in the nature and ends of the human person. If we ignore ritual injunctions, which are necessarily tied to a particular religious doctrine known from a supernatural Revelation, the moral content of Divine Revelation is simply a reaffirmation and clarification of what God has communicated to all men and women through nature itself.

Thus it is not true that government, or the State, is bound to Catholic moral teaching because it is “Catholic” or because it is “the Church” that teaches it. Recognition of the Divine authority of the Church does not come through the natural order. It comes only through Faith. Any given group of “governors”, and therefore any given government, may or may not enjoy this recognition.

But at the same time, government is bound to the very same moral principles because they are discernible in the natural law. And since the natural law is given to all, it is binding on all. This is why Catholic teaching has always held it just and salutary for both individuals and governments to recognize the Church and choose to follow her moral teaching. Catholic moral teaching is a short course in the natural law; advertence to the Church can protect against many errors in personal and political moral judgment.

In other words, it is a requirement of all states to govern within the moral limits set by the natural law for the simple reason that the natural law conveys true morality regardless of how it comes to be known. But it is similarly a requirement of all states to refrain from politically imposing a particular religious observance or a particular set of religious beliefs. Here justice demands freedom, for the truth in these matters can be known only supernaturally. It is both beyond the competence of the State to impose them and contrary to the nature of such goods to be imposed.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 22, 2015 12:39 PM ET USA

    Reuben Slife: Leo XIII, in Immortale Dei #6, states exactly what I stated, that government is morally bound to act in accordance with the natural law. The recognition of the existence of God and our need to seek to learn of him and do his will are part of the natural law. He goes on to say in #7 that it is easy to discover or prove that Catholicism is the true religion (which would be as true in practice as it is in theory if so many obstacles did not limit the effectiveness of our search). But, well-aware that the true religion is known and embraced only through Faith, Leo does not impose it on the State or bid the State to impose it on its citizens. (Catholics themselves, of course, are bound to govern in accordance with the moral teachings of the Church because they recognize, in Faith, the moral authority of the Church, which can infallibly expound not only Revelation but the natural law. Thus Catholic politicians who argue that they cannot impose "Catholic" moral teaching on citizens are simply making an excuse to abandon the natural law in favor of fashionable moral opinion.)

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 21, 2015 11:27 PM ET USA

    Good clarifications by Dr. Mirus and Reuben. Here is what Boniface VIII said: "For 40 years we have been experienced in the law, and we know that there are two powers ordained by God...We say that we wish to usurp the jurisdiction of a king in nothing...It cannot be denied that a king or any other person among the faithful is subject to us by reason of sin." From gloss n. 2 in Denzinger 468 (Deferarri's transl.), and gloss in DS 870. Boniface is avoiding political imposition, but not spiritual.

  • Posted by: Reuben Slife - Jul. 20, 2015 11:10 PM ET USA

    I think, Dr. Mirus, that the position you take here doesn't go quite as far as the Church has gone: see, for example, Leo XIII's Immortale Dei, no. 6-7. And this passage is (indirectly) supported in Dignitatis humanae 6. (Though John Courtney Murray's translation obscures that.) Of course, DH represents a major change--but, I think, one of practice, not doctrine. I recommend Fr. Waldstein's "The Second Vatican Council's Teaching on Religious Liberty in the Light of Tradition" as an explanation.