Crosses on public buildings: Yes or No?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 15, 2018

I would not single out this issue, since it comes from a correspondent I had already mentioned, except that in this case we have a good question. In response to our story on the German State of Bavaria’s decision to put crosses on public buildings, we received an email stating categorically: “I am a proud Catholic, but crosses DO NOT belong on public buildings anywhere.”

To this I responded as follows: “Thanks for your note, but I wonder what Our Lord would say? Surely He is the God of the public order as well as of the private? Surely any nation should honor Christ publicly, just as we should honor Him in everything we do.”

Here is the inevitable make-up-your-own-religion reply:

Our Lord (Whom I revere!) would say, “My cross does NOT belong on public buildings.” It’s that simple. I also have a feeling he would shake his head in sad sorrow at you and your ilk.

You may recall “you and your ilk” from the first piece in this little series on bizarre emails. It is apparently a kind of branding iron. But the question remains: What can be said against manifestations of faith in Christ in the public order? And what can be said in favor?

Background and Principles

In a time and a place in which a deeply Catholic culture was the norm—I mean in medieval Christendom—nobody had any difficulty with public manifestations of Christian faith. In fact, most would have been scandalized by its lack. For a Christian society to suddenly balk at signs of Christ’s presence and authority when it comes to government would have been taken as a deliberate decision to free political power from Our Lord’s moral teaching and spiritual influence. As such, it would have been seen as a fully conscious betrayal of the highest principles of human government.

Moreover, we have it on the authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church that it is not only proper but ideal for the public order to recognize both the Kingship of Christ and the moral and spiritual authority of the Church. To take but one example, we have the following, extracted from Pope Pius IX’s encyclical in 1864, Quanta Cura (Condemning Current Errors):

For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.” [3]
And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” [4]

But in the modern West, as the chief opinion-makers and authorities have progressively abandoned the Christian faith—and indeed as society itself has become less homogeneous—another aspect of the common good has come to the fore, namely the need to preserve peace and harmony as much as possible among persons and groups with very diverse beliefs. Therefore, Pope Leo XIII emphasized the importance of prudence, as expressed in 1885 in his encyclical Immortale Dei (On the Christian Constitution of States):

The Church...does not, on that account [i.e., on account of her teaching on political authority], condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, patiently allow custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State. And, in fact, the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will. [36]

Much more could, of course, be cited on both sides of this question. For on the one side, we have the ideal of a public order based firmly on Christian principles; and on the other, we have the accommodation which must be made for the diversity of the human community, and the legitimate freedom needed to avoid unjust and unwarranted coercion in religious belief or observance.

Symbols of God’s Love and Authority

None of this speaks directly to the presence of crosses in or on public buildings, but it is fairly clear that the cross itself is actually a symbol of a deeper reality, the reality that the public order exists and operates, like all human activities and institutions, under God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is certainly true, and it cannot be treated as if it is nothing but one point of view among many, even if other groups hold erroneous beliefs that they also believe to be true.

We must also keep in mind that the Ten Commandments are the most concise statement of the natural law ever written, and that the moral teaching of the Catholic Church is fully rooted in the natural law. Since it is the deepest moral obligation of human government to rule in accordance with the natural law, the wisest thing any human government can do is to accept the Church’s moral teaching as the optimum guide to a proper understanding of that law, within which government must conduct all of its affairs.

In addition, the public recognition of Christ and the Church, along with both private and public prayer for our political affairs, are means of invoking Divine aid. For it is not just the natural law that is needed by the public order. Also required are spiritual clarity and strength among those who serve, and of course Divine protection for the common good. Not only is Catholic teaching an aid to the proper ordering of public affairs, but also Catholic grace.

Any sort of triumphal political identification with Christ, of course, must be avoided as a grave evil. It is never true that every governmental measure is beyond reproach or that civil government exercises spiritual authority over the souls of its citizens. It is also a sad and sorry disadvantage when the cross is brought into disrepute by standing over the buildings of a government which acts unjustly. But in itself the cross is no symbol of worldly triumph! Quite the opposite, it is a symbol of the burden we must undertake to carry if we are truly to seek the good of all our brothers and sisters in the societies in which we live.

Despite human abuses, anything that reminds us of God’s love and God’s will is a good thing. His love and His will are paramount not only privately and personally but publicly and politically. Therefore, deliberately to eliminate or prohibit such reminders in public life as a matter of principle is a grave error of what Pius IX called “naturalism” and we now call secularism. We have become far too comfortable with this error for precisely the reason which dominates our culture and to which the cross itself gives the lie: Our perennial desire to determine right and wrong for ourselves, without fear of restraint.


Previous in the “illustrative email” series: Authentic religion: Not what we want, what God has revealed

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Cory - May. 16, 2018 10:27 PM ET USA

    Amen, Amen, Amen

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 15, 2018 7:58 PM ET USA

    Gee, a clear, cogent, and concise Magisterial declaration on religious liberty a century before Vatican II. Who would have thought the "pre-modern" Church could have aligned itself so perfectly with the Fathers of Vatican II? It's almost as though the Vatican II Fathers had availed themselves of Magisterial guidance throughout the Council. Given this reality, it still rubs me the wrong way when I see employment announcements that require applicants to "love the Vatican II church."