Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

In the Face of the State: The Church Too Is a Res Publica, a Public Thing

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 10, 2012

Remember when questions about religious “displays” were raised primarily with respect to public property? In the United States, at least, the question has typically revolved around whether a particular manifestation of religious faith on public (that is, government) property constituted a forbidden “establishment of religion” in Constitutional law. There have been similar concerns in Europe, such as questions about the presence of crucifixes in Italian classrooms.

The history of this issue in many countries is quite interesting, especially as these countries have become more secular. One remembers, for example, the impact of the famous Bundy legislation in New York State, which encouraged the elimination of religious symbols in Catholic schools so that they could receive various forms of state aid. But now, in the United Kingdom, this question is being extended to clothing. At the European Court of Human Rights, attorneys for the UK have argued that Christians do not have a right to wear a crucifix to work.

To work! Now the classic “public space” argument is shifting to the work environment. “There is a difference between the professional sphere where your religious beliefs conflict with other interests and the private sphere,” argued the attorneys. It used to be that we discussed the difference between “public and private”, but now we are discussing the difference between “professional and private”. What does this mean?

Pope Benedict is afraid that it means religious liberty will soon be confined to freedom of worship in church. Not long ago, Phil Lawler made a similar argument, when he noticed that according to the Obama administration, only churches—not individuals—can claim religious freedom.

There is a certain logic here. For a modern secularist, religion is essentially reduced to a private sentiment that ought not to be intruded upon others, unless they happen to share the same sentiment in a specifically religious space. The idea that religious faith could be anything but private is essentially incomprehensible to those who regard religion as irrational, as a disconnected series of ad hoc ideas that happen to make some people feel more comfortable, but which has no relevance outside of personal emotional balance (or imbalance). This equating of religion with mere sentiment was already very advanced in the 19th century. Blessed John Henry Newman argued against it constantly in England. As the twentieth century progressed, even most Christians began to lose a sense of the public aspects of their faith. In view of the immense diversity of religion, they began to reason, it must be the case that religion is essentially a private and even a peculiar thing, almost an idiosyncrasy.

And now, given the rise of the comprehensive modern State, the idea of “private” is slowly being redefined to whatever space the State considers to be essentially irrelevant. Things are private when they are isolated to individuals and small collections of individuals, so that they have no chance of exerting any influence wider than that. If unwanted ideas acquire a broader influence, then they must be prohibited in the space where their influence reaches, because by this new definition private things should not be influential things. With respect to religion, this restriction, as opposed to forthright prohibition, defuses opposition because so many are able to make the excuse that, on balance, it is only fair to limit the manifestation of private sentiments and peculiarities.

In response to all this there is some merit in the usual argument that the separation of Church and State does not require the separation of religion from our public life together, and this is true as far as it goes. But the real antidote is to insist on the fundamentally public nature of religion. It is not only the political order that is “public”. The spiritual and moral order is “public” as well, in the sense that it affects all of us, it deals with the whole spectrum of life and action on which the common good depends, and through the natural law it must actually be sovereign in human affairs. Indeed, it is precisely because of this public character of religion that religious divisions are so devastating to the health of culture and society, and that the decline and disappearance of religious influence is even more devastating.

The Catholic Church in particular is a public institution, with authority to guide the entire human race in its understanding not only of Divine Revelation, assent to which cannot be required, but also of the natural law which again, by virtue of its general accessibility to all through innate human perception, provides the moral framework for the development of society and culture as a matter of basic justice.

For this reason, the first response that Catholics must make when the State tries to privatize religion is to insist, against the State, that the Church also has a public claim, a claim which actually transcends and circumscribes the claims of the State. It is not the State which determines the ends of the Church or the means by which the Church may operate, but the Church which alone can determine the proper ends of the State and the legitimate means by which the State may govern. If the State (or government in a more general sense) has a public character because it is entrusted with the common good in the practical affairs of this world, the Church (or religious authority in a more general sense) has a public character because it is entrusted with the common spiritual and moral destiny of all.

By its very nature, then, authentic religion is not and cannot be a merely private thing. And regardless of how this applies to religious beliefs which lack a firm foundation in reality, we must maintain that Catholicism is not a private Faith, and that the Catholic Church is not a private institution. We need to change our attitude, and we must manifest this changed attitude publicly. It is ludicrous for the State to claim that religion is private and that the Catholic faith must be confined to the space the State assigns to it. This is like claiming that water may run only when pumped, that reality may be discussed only when nobody is present to respond, or that citizens may think for themselves only in storm cellars on the third Tuesday of each month.

No. Religion is a public thing, and in particular the claims of the Catholic Church are irrevocably public, especially when she explains the natural law, outlines the requirements of justice, or articulates the limits of the State. Anything less than this cedes essential territory. I will develop this argument in the future, but for now please make a note: The Church is a public institution in possession of a public authority. The Catholic faith has serious implications for life as a whole, and for the civil authority itself. The State may persecute the Church, but the State cannot alter reality by defining the Church to be something she is not. In other words, the State cannot make the Church a private thing. Moreover, Catholics commit a serious sin when they lie to themselves and others in acquiescence to this myth.

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: - Sep. 15, 2012 2:21 PM ET USA

    Catholics routinely misintepret papal/conciliar documents concerning social morality and the common good, by assuming that the prime actor must be the State. If human beings have a "right" to food, water, education, or healthcare, they conclude that the State has the obligation to provide these things. They completely lose sight of the many, many levels of intermediate institutions which constitute a *society*. The State us swallowing up, not just the Church, but society as such: everything.

  • Posted by: impossible - Sep. 13, 2012 6:56 PM ET USA

    Mr. Plick, you are right on. The mantle of "solidarity" has been awarded to Biden and other faux Catholics by liberals within the Church. In making such an award they ignore the true meaning and goal of solidarity which is properly ordered to the genuinely human person, not just his materialistic wants and needs, and to the common good properly defined. We have allowed secular humanism to be established as the State religion Do clergy still vote 80% Democrat and teach and preach it?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 10, 2012 10:52 PM ET USA

    I would consider your argument more potent if I was not firmly convinced that the Church is not so much being overcome or overwhelmed from without as it is being crippled and sabotaged from within. How many “catholics” were among the radical Democrats right in front of a Cardinal? We will not stand upon who we really are in our own family circles…?, then we will most definitely lose the “the right” to stand upon it outside of them.Jos 24:15 "As for me and my house,we will serve the Lord!"

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 10, 2012 8:46 PM ET USA

    When authority is ceded in public displays of latitudinarianism (in the general sense), difficulties arise. The Church transcends; we cannot attenuate her importance. No one can. How many prelates concur with this essay? Not enough. How many lay folks understand this message today? Not nearly enough. "Serious sin" is the tough talk that must be dusted off. Unfortunately the scandals and lack of orthodox teaching has taken its toll. There is a long way to go. Thanks for stepping up.