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Why Religion and the Church Are the Ultimate Public Things

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 11, 2012

Yesterday I made the assertion that religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular are inescapably public realities (see In the Face of the State: The Church Too Is a Res Publica, a Public Thing). This assertion contrasts sharply with the prevailing attitude in the modern West that religion is a purely private affair and that churches are institutions which by nature cater to essentially private interests. But how do we know that what I have asserted is correct and the prevailing attitude is wrong?

Assumptions Concerning the Privacy of Religion

Before developing a strict argument, it should be helpful to consider the assumptions on which the current privatization of religion is based. From both an historical and a psychological point of view, I believe our contemporaries tend to view religion as private because of three unwarranted assumptions, assumptions which are born of a mistaken accommodation with religious pluralism. The first assumption is that since people have many different religious beliefs, and since genuine religious beliefs by their nature must be voluntary, then religious beliefs must be based on personal choice, and therefore religion must be private. This self-evidently confuses personal with private. Thus, for example, patriotism is certainly a highly personal quality, but by its very nature it is ordered to public ends. So too, I will argue, is religious conviction.

The second assumption is that because religious differences can generate conflicts, which in turn are liable to undermine the common good, therefore the only practical way to order religious affairs is to emphasize their private satisfactions while prohibiting their public consequences. But this response privatizes religion as a matter of political expediency, which is hardly an adequate response to the issue, and which may, in many instances, be a disingenuous response—as may be seen in the next assumption.

The third assumption is that the normative public cultural atmosphere ought to be religiously neutral, which is taken as a mandate for the absence of religious influence. But this erroneously equates neutrality with irreligion, as if what is left in the wake of irreligion is what we all have in common—the proper basis for our common life. Unfortunately, in fact, what is left is the result of a specifically religious decision, which favors the values of some against the values of others, and which is every bit as devoid of neutrality as a confessional—no, I mean a theocratic—state.

Largely under the assumptions enumerated above, this restriction of religion to home and church is a marked tendency of today’s “soft totalitarian” states. Some other forms of religious association are still permitted, including some religious schools, but the overall trajectory is clear, and there is even a vast State apparatus, both financial and political, to control the education of the majority of children with religious parents. Thus in recent history, while religion has not always been outlawed altogether, there has been a consistent legal effort to confine it ever more closely to those manifestations which are incapable of generating a wider influence.

Now of course religion does not gain a public character just because certain contemporary assumptions are dubious. The confusion of the personal with the private, the desire for political expediency, and the self-serving assertion that hostility to religion is the essence of neutrality ought to make us think twice about acquiescing in the naked public square, but these logical slips do not constitute an argument for the public character of religion. How, then, should we argue this case?

The Public Character of Religion Known from Nature

The argument operates at two levels, the natural and the supernatural, and this is important if we are to have any right to expect that all people will recognize its validity. Consider: I may know from some personal revelation that my religious beliefs have been given for the benefit of all, and this would certainly give them a public character which I would be bound by that same revelation to observe. But I could not expect those who had not experienced this revelation to agree with me. On the other hand, if there is a natural way to know that religiosity is incumbent on all men and is essential to human well-being, then I have every right to fault others if they try to dismiss religion as a mere personal and private choice, which ought to be excluded from culture and public life.

Fortunately, we do know naturally that religiosity is incumbent on all men. This is evident from the natural law. Indeed, our innate understanding of this must be carefully undermined (usually in the interest of satisfying our pride or our passions) if this innate understanding is to be temporarily effaced. Thus in every human culture there has been an instinctive recognition that nature is a created reality, which is inexplicable without a Creator, and that we live under judgment (as reflected in the operations of our conscience), which is inexplicable without a Lawgiver. The natural human person, unhindered by later self-justifying arguments, directly intuits that there is a Creator and that there is a Judge.

From this derives the fundamental and altogether natural virtue of religion, which every culture on earth has recognized—the obligation to worship God, to seek to understand His will, and to do it. With the virtue of religion comes the conviction that this obligation is the fundamental duty of life, a duty which applies to all persons, and which must color and characterize all human endeavors, associations and institutions. It is possible to deny this natural intuition through clever rationalizations, but it is not possible to escape its force. Because this virtue of religion is something accessible to and required of all, as touching every aspect of the good of the human person, religion itself has an inescapably public dimension.

Please note that the fact that some men and women in some times and places argue against this natural perception is not sufficient to invalidate it. Our own experience, natural reason, and the testimony of every human culture speak in favor of it, and we can see all too clearly what leads some to rail against it, for we too have felt at times the desire to exalt ourselves in pride or exonerate ourselves in selfishness. Moreover, even a moment’s reflection reveals that this basic apprehension of the natural law is always the basis for any morality we possess, and even when we argue against one part of this law, we instinctively do so on the basis of another part. Finally, we perceive instantly that this sense of natural law is the only possible just foundation for our social relations and our political order—and that any other proclaimed source must be a false human ideology which enslaves some for the benefit of others.

In all of these ways, our innate religious sense, based firmly in the law of nature, is an inescapably public reality. Religion is a public thing.

The Public Character of Religion Known from Revelation

We now turn to the argument from Revelation. The natural perception of the existence of a Creator and a Judge leads us to something more—the conviction that if God cares enough to create and to judge, then He must also wish to reveal His will. Therefore, it is part and parcel of our natural apprehension of the virtue of religion to be on the lookout for Divine revelation. It is worth noting that no claimed revelation has ever suggested that religion is a private thing, designed purely to satisfy our own psychological idiosyncrasies, with no implications for our social life, our culture, and our public affairs. This in itself is significant. But I will confine myself here to the one Revelation which I believe can be objectively established as authentic.

The virtue of religion, as conceived in the Revelation of Jesus Christ, is thoroughly public. Progressively through the Old Testament and the New, God reveals that His love extends to all people, not just those who share in the first covenant. Revelation is intended for the good of all, and this even has political implications. As St. Paul says in his first letter to Timothy:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4)

Indeed, Our Lord Himself recognized the public and even specifically political implications of the Gospel when He commanded us not to render unto Caesar the things that are God’s (Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25). Readers will recall too His final command before His Ascension, and the reason for it:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Mt 28:18-20)

Christians possess a Divine mandate to exercise their Faith as a public faith, a salvific gift to all men. Our Lord specifically warns against the leaven of the Pharisees, of the Sadducees, and of Herod (Mt 16, Mk 8), whose sins pollute everything; instead, He insists that Christians become a new leaven of truth and life. The Kingdom of God, He says, is like good leaven which permeates and raises the whole loaf (Mt 13:33). Let’s face it: Those who argue that Christianity is a purely private affair have no idea what they are talking about.

I recognize that, for many reasons, not all will accept Christian Revelation, many will be seduced away from its true meaning, and among those who fail in these ways, not all will be at fault. For this reason, Christians insist on the natural law as a governing principle for all men without insisting on the acceptance of Revelation. But it turns out that Christian morality is based on the natural law. God has built into our very nature a basic understanding of right and wrong, but because we find it so easy to deny portions of the natural law or overlook some aspects of it—whether through inattention, selfishness or cultural conditioning—He provides a means of clarifying the natural law in our minds and wills through His own specific revealed teachings, such as the Decalogue. Thus the Christian is (or ought to be) in an especially good position to assist in the harmonious and just development of human culture and law. At least from the point of view of basic beliefs, nobody is better suited to this task.

Church Authority

The preceding two sections cover both the natural and the supernatural arguments for the inescapably public character of religion, which is so essential to both the individual and the common good. The natural argument enables us to insist that all people, as a matter of fundamental justice, are obliged to recognize this public character. The supernatural argument further clarifies this responsibility for Christians and in any case compels them by Divine command to maintain the public character of religion for everyone’s greater good, and to trust that Our Lord is with them, no matter what their public insistence may entail.

We can easily see, at this point, that just as politics includes within it the beliefs and practices which enable people to attend to their common life and their common good in the pragmatic affairs of this world, so does religion include the beliefs and practices which enable people to infuse their common life with truth and virtue, for both their natural and supernatural ends. And just as governments preside over politics with the responsibility of fostering and protecting the common life and the common good, so too do churches preside over religion with the responsibility of fostering and protecting truth and virtue in the human family. Thus does religion itself teach us about our ends both personally and politically, and about the means which we may morally use in pursuit of these legitimate ends.

Moreover, just as there are all kinds of governments, and all kinds of people vying for control of governments, so too are there all kinds of churches and all kinds of people vying for control of churches. Some get their job done better than others, even though in the matter of morality, all are subject to the same natural law. But there is this difference, which we know only from Christian revelation, that just as God has established the temporal authority as “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rm 13), so too has God established an authority over virtue and truth, as known through both the nature He has created and the Revelation He has bestowed.

The Catholic Church alone has been given the authority to safeguard all that God has revealed for our salvation in both nature and Revelation, through the successors of Peter, for whom Christ prayed, that his faith might not fail, so that he could confirm his brothers (Lk 22:32). This is not the place to write an extensive defense of this truth. I introduce it here for believers simply to demonstrate its implications for the public character of not only religion but of the Church herself. The Church is the ultimate conduit and protector of all that the virtue of religion has to give to man, in every aspect of his life and culture, and not least in every aspect of the public order.

For this reason, not only is religion an inescapably public thing, but the Catholic Church is an inescapably public authority, whom the nations ignore at the great peril of sinking into injustice, vice, social bankruptcy and ultimate collapse. Through her moral principles, governing both personal life and the disposition of the social order as a whole, the Church prunes, shapes and guides human culture in every dimension. Not one of her teachings is a private teaching. Not one is irrelevant to any aspect of personal, associational or public life.

Human governments may preside over the political life of nations, but the Church presides higher still. By her mastery of the virtue of religion, she is the ultimate public authority, constituted by God to tell the truth about man, which should be heeded in every plan and enterprise. She is also the authority, despite her lack of worldly power, that endures from age to age even while the greatest human empires—ignoring her gifts and betraying her sacred trust—rise up under the sun, only to sin, to fail and to fall again.

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: Retired01 - Apr. 15, 2018 3:52 PM ET USA

    The good stuff is the sugar coating to the perennial poison pill.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Apr. 13, 2018 5:28 PM ET USA

    You can get good stuff out of anything he writes if you "read it in the right spirit", that is ignore anything that smells the least bit suspicious. But why read anything that you have to watchout for snakes, when there is so much good stuff out there that is safe? Especially things he denigrates from P VI, JP II, and B XVI.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Apr. 13, 2018 4:03 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this.

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 13, 2018 2:11 PM ET USA

    Unlike his predecessors, we cannot evaluate the formal teaching of our current pontiff on its own merits. Because Francis is a community organizer, and a cipher, we must look to the behavior of the pope's lieutenants, (e.g., Spadora, Paglia, Rosica, Coccopalmerio, Schönborn, Martin, even the atheist Scalfari) to understand the pope's real intentions. The real message is embodied in the actions of his lieutenants, not Francis's printed word.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 13, 2018 10:43 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the encouragement. I find GE to be a mixture of "the smooth with the crunchy," theologically speaking. Paragraph #118 on humility is my personal favorite.

  • Posted by: Cory - Apr. 12, 2018 11:22 PM ET USA

    With much better advice from the saints (Avila, Lisieux, de Sales, JPII) and even Mother Angelica, I think I will put my precious time to reading them than the exhortation.

  • Posted by: impossible - Sep. 13, 2012 7:12 PM ET USA

    Perhaps the statist effort to silence Christianity, more particularly the Catholic Church would promptly end if the issue were framed by reference to the noisy proclamation/call to prayer by the muezzin? Obama would promptly apologize and freedom of religion would be restored.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 11, 2012 9:13 PM ET USA

    And sometimes these sins include horrors and crimes against humanity of staggering proportions that men struggle to no avail to comprehend. Today is yet another profoundly sorrowful reminder of the capacity of man to injure fellow man in the most monstrous ways, failing even to recognize the basic "Golden Rule." Disregard for the Church as "the ultimate conduit and protector of all that the virtue of religion has to give to man" can lead to unimaginable suffering. Her Lord is Prince of Peace.