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Tangled Webs: Church and State in Springfield, Massachusetts

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 24, 2013

I used to think divorce and remarriage was the chief means for people to weave a tangled web from which there is no escape, either for themselves or for their children. Of course Mary the Untier of Knots, and certainly Our Lord Himself, may have something to say about my assertion of “no escape”. Yet divorce and remarriage remains, I think, the chief way in which people get themselves, and their innocent child victims, into all but impossible situations, complete with all but impossible rationalizations.

Nonetheless, there are other means of weaving tangled webs, and politics is certainly another commonly used technique. Let me refer you to today’s story about the creation of an historic district in Springfield, Massachusetts, in order to prevent destruction or alteration of a beautiful Catholic church, built in the Renaissance style in 1925 with no fewer than 65 stained glass windows. A Federal court has just upheld the city’s action against a religious liberty appeal by the Diocese of Springfield.

I am not quite ready to say that “the people” through their public representatives should have no right to create historic districts, but such arbitrary restrictions on the rights of the original creator and owner of a structure to alter, remove or replace it raise a whole raft of questions. Not least among them is the question of whether action of this type is a preservation or a falsification of history. History, after all, like all of time, includes change.

But the importance of the questions is infinitely raised when the creator and owner is the Church. Although the Diocese of Springfield lost its appeal against the city based religious liberty, in fact the judge failed to address anything but a narrow and secular view of what religious liberty means. In these cases, it always seems that religious liberty is considered some sort of an abstract right to worship God in some sort of an abstract way—a kind of “think what you want” sort of liberty. That’s a profoundly unCatholic concept, and it will not do at all.

The Catholic faith is explicitly sacramental, that is, incarnational. It is a faith which not only may be but must be reflected in the whole life of the person, and incarnated (so to speak) not only in concrete human activities and social structures but in works of education, art and culture. On the short list of such embodiments of the Faith, without any possible question, are churches. How we build them, care for them, use them or let them fall into disuse, is very much a part of Catholic religious life and identity. To put the matter as mildly as possible, it does not belong to heathen authorities to make such determinations.

The West in general no longer recognizes the unique authority of Catholicism as a public faith, and of the Church as a public institution. I would not have wanted to be a medieval town council attempting to interfere with the proprietorship of a local church building, and I would not like to see the city fathers of Springfield going before God at the judgment with some theory about how their custody of human history permitted them to usurp the authority of His Church over its own consecrated buildings.

Faithful readers will recall that I have written recently about the Church as a public authority parallel, and actually superior in many ways, to the State. See for example In the Face of the State: The Church Too Is a Res Publica, a Public Thing and Why Religion and the Church are the Ultimate Public Things. If you think that Pope Gelasius’ theory of the Two Swords creates certain problems in human affairs, I am here to insist that it cannot hold a candle to the tangled webs we weave by pretending the Church lacks public authority, ultimately serving as a creature of the State.

Love of history notwithstanding, secular enactments which restrict the Church’s authority over her own buildings are deep violations of the natural liberty of the Church, and therefore of each person’s freedom. This is true whether one likes the building plans of the Diocese of Springfield or not. This is a mindset which leads to genuinely hopeless entanglements, entanglements that inescapably bring religion to its knees—and not before God.

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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