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The Light Dawns: American Bishops and the State

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 24, 2012

For a generation now, a great many Catholic lay people in the United States have marveled at their bishops’ ability to advocate one government program after another in the name of the common good, apparently never dreaming that putting too much trust and power in government could actually pose fundamental dangers to the common good. To put this in terms of specific political parties, for the past generation and more the American bishops have consistently favored the vision of all-inclusive government proposed by the Democrats, failing to take note of the strong tendency of the Democratic Party to use government to override the natural law.

This is not a Republican apologia. While there are marked differences, the two parties are far too much alike to anoint either of them as somehow “Catholic”. Moreover, making the word “Catholic” or “Christian” part of a party label, though not uncommon in other regions of the world, inevitably creates very serious confusions about the Faith. The Church has enough problems presenting a Christ-like image to the world without deliberately making it harder to see where the Faith ends and politics begins.

No, what has for a long time astonished deeply committed Catholic laypeople in the United States is the American bishops’ tendency to view government in a uniformly positive way, such that anything Catholic social doctrine might recommend for the common good should be done through government. Even the Church’s own charitable works were gradually dominated by government funds and government regulations. Or, to frame the question again in a slightly different way, one governmental intervention after another has been advocated in the name of “solidarity”, even though government-imposed solidarity is a contradiction in terms. Yet when it has come time to consider the fate of a beaten and wounded “subsidiarity”, the bishops have mostly “passed by on the other side” (Lk 10:30-32).

In other words, the American bishops very frequently seemed to view government as the primary source of human flourishing, unconsciously joining in the demonstrably fatal modern embrace of the all-encompassing State. If one had not lived through this period of disregard for the dangers to the common good posed by the State, one could not possibly have imagined how uniformly the American bishops—and indeed, most Western bishops—would have fallen prey to the empty promises of the State’s elusive charm.

That was then, however, and this is now.

Episcopal interest in things like subsidiarity, freedom of religion, salutary limitations on government, and the proper authority of the Church has been growing steadily with the gradual renewal of the episcopate over the past ten years. Very likely this is due only partially to what we might call unprovoked interior renewal, but the spiritual life for all of us has much to do with how we respond to specific challenges, and especially to warning shots across the bow. It is true that Pope John Paul II sounded the alarm as early as 1991 in Centesimus Annus (cf. especially #48). But it seems clear that the abuse scandal tended to confirm a long transition from bishops as key players in the larger community to bishops as barely tolerated onlookers. Thus, as more and more bishops began to realize that they really were on the outside looking in, they undoubtedly became more prone to adopt a salutary change in outlook.

Moreover, in the last few years the moral problems with Obamacare (which forced the USCCB to oppose it reluctantly) and now the HHS Mandate (which directly attacks the Church and the Catholic Faith) have shifted a great many bishops into reverse—or perhaps we should say out of reverse and into drive. The word “subsidiarity” actually crept back into the episcopal vocabulary during the Obamacare debates, where it seems to have remained since. In my Insights message yesterday, I called attention to Bishop William Lori’s strong speech entitled Godless Secularism Assaults Life and Liberty (not to mention many other positive values and influences that are essential to the common good). And on Sunday we saw a surprisingly direct hit against the modern State by Bishop Daniel Flores, who challenged what he called “a neo-secular hegemony”. In the immortal words of Osric, the referee for Hamlet’s famous swordfight: “A hit, a very palpable hit.”

Make no mistake about it: An important line is being drawn. Consider today’s story of the attempt to muzzle the Church in the person of Bishop David Kagan, which also demonstrates succinctly how those who have lost their faith (whether inside or outside the Church) rapidly become the Church’s own worst enemies, only too ready to aid the State in its effort to marginalize religion. Resistance, you understand, ought to be futile. When bishops do not act as if it is futile, the usual suspects are infuriated.

Some will reflexively propose and accept any argument, however specious, which tends to favor the State in the quest for secular utopia. The truth is that when you believe, deep down, that this life is your only shot at happiness, you are willing to justify any imposition on others in order to create paradise now. This is the situation for a great many who have either lost their faith entirely or been seduced by the phony release from moral responsibility promised by the dictatorship of relativism. The same ideological tendency that is explicit in Marxist totalitarianism is necessarily an implicit component of all secular states, whether in the Roman Empire or in our own day.

A fundamental realignment is gradually taking place between Church and State in America; the same sort of realignment is overdue throughout the West more generally. Expect, then, that the negotiating room will diminish. Bishop Kagan has it right when he says the free space in which the Church has been able to operate in American society “may go down as an historical anomaly. It may end sooner than we imagine.” It is very important for our bishops, and bishops throughout the world, to recognize this fundamental insight, regardless of its immediate material consequences.

The heavenly and earthly cities are never the same; they will only very rarely even be comfortable with each other. Grasping this point is as essential to the formation of an authentic Catholic culture as it is to an effective Catholic spiritual renewal. Clergy, religious and laity alike must understand that here we have no lasting city (Heb 13:14). When the question arises, “to whom shall we go?” (Jn 6:68), the answer must not be “to the State”.

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: fenton1015153 - Oct. 29, 2012 11:38 AM ET USA

    It will be a very sad day when the State Government directly attacks a Bishop for speaking out. Whether that attack be prison or ultimately death will be seen in the not too distant future. There is much room here for the creation of martyrs for the sake of leading Christ's people and defending the faith. I wonder then how strongly the Bishops will examine their past courtship of large government and their participation in creating the beast that is now emerging.

  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 29, 2012 10:02 AM ET USA

    Take time to read Sections 1883, 1885, 1894 and 2209 of the CCC. Also ponder Section 1901 before you vote: “Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.” Sec 1885 says, “The principle of subsidiarity i opposed to all forms of collectivism.” The slogan for 2012 voting should be, “It’s The Culture, Stupid!” Vote Romney/Ryan.

  • Posted by: William F. Folger - Oct. 26, 2012 3:23 PM ET USA

    Little read 31 pg. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FC FC)” shows *ONE* 45-word par. on Subsidiarity. Then, it becomes ENTIRELY MISSING in the one-sheet 2-sided Bulletin Insert, “CFCFC”, read by MOST in 2008. Neither are changed in their 2008 texts yet are used in hostile 2012! Hence most 2012 Catholic voters CAN’T know the IMPORTANCE of Subsidiarity without which we lose most freedoms & are vulnerable to “guilt-tripping” re “social-justice poverty-topics”. Consciences NEED Facts!