Stafford on Religious Liberty

On November 13, 2008, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, gave a speech at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in which he discussed the role of religion in public life.  It was an important speech, and critical for understanding contemporary Catholic teachings on religious liberty and the relation of church and state.

It’s a highly philosophical discussion, starting with this point, “A person’s public life is not encompassed within the State as the highest social organism, and not subject ultimately only to the political power.”

We can agree with that, I think.

But then comes this:

President Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated 1802 letter to the committee of the Danbury Baptist Association asserting “a wall of separation between Church and State” formally denied the reality of res sacra in temporalibus. He introduced a latent and powerful virus which would eventually be used to diminish and then to wound mortally a theology of discourse in the public arena. It has led to the increasingly secularized states of the American union and their active hostility towards the Catholic Church.

Does the “wall of separation” keep people of faith from acting according to their conscience? Does it keep them from having a voice in the “public square.” No. It simply means that there is freedom of religion and that no church is supported by the state. We are not now, and never have been, a “Christian nation.” But we are a nation in which Christians, Jews, and believers and unbelievers of all other kinds have always had a voice. That’s different than the secularism of Europe. But it was crafted specifically in opposition to the history of church/state relations in Europe, as supported by traditional Catholic teaching (as well as the modified forms in Anglicanism and Calvinism).

He speaks of attacks on individual conscience and blames Jefferson.

Some of these governments are threatening Roman Catholic adoption agencies because of their refusal to select same-sex couples as potential adoptive parents. They are forcing Catholic hospitals to accept medical procedures which are contrary to the dignity of the human person. They are insisting on hiring practices which will destroy the Catholic identity of health and social services under Catholic Church auspices. They have not refrained from coercing the individual conscience. Here the federal and state governments are enshrining the primacy of secular laws over against religious principles. These decisions are the legal and moral progeny of Jefferson’s insistence on debarring personal faith from the public forum.

Jefferson didn’t say that. He said there’s a wall of separation. He said there is individual freedom. He did not believe that the state should run rough-shod over the individual conscience. Stafford refers to the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, but what does it say?

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others ….

And the actual heart of the legislation:

That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Jefferson’s ideas, far from being the cause of infringement on conscience, are the remedy. Rather than rejecting them as evil, Stafford should embrace them as the proper response. This is our American heritage; it protects him as much as the Quaker, the Jehovah’s Witness. It puts all beliefs on the same playing field and says no one should suffer civilly because of their beliefs–which are not things that are for personal reflection only, but which they have the right “by argument to maintain.”

Ah, but it is the Catholic tradition against which Jefferson rails. A tradition in which one church is favored by the state, and its teachings have a privileged place. So we have to ask Stafford if this is what he is really seeking. If Jefferson’s clearly stated concepts, the foundation of American liberty, are odious to him, what does he want us to return to, the Catholic understanding of “Christendom,” against which Jefferson railed?

He doesn’t answer the question. He shifts to a his main topic, human sexuality, and the struggle between the cultural shift of the 1960s and the Catholic response, Humanae vitae.

And he does so in an apocalyptic framework. This is worth mentioning.

Furthermore, since this month, November, is the time in which the liturgy of the Church reflects on the final things – heaven, hell, purgatory and death, I will be attempting to strengthen the Catholic faithful, as St. John did in the Book of the Apocalypse, against the ever increasing pretensions of the state making itself absolute. For the next several weeks the Book of the Apocalypse will be read at daily Mass. The theme of that final book of the Bible is that the Battle of the Logos has always already been won on Calvary. In the immense conflicts associated with the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the overarching task of the Church is to make manifest for the faithful the apocalyptic victory of the Lamb in our historical time.

The emphasis is his. He sees the struggle as one between an absolute state and the Church–and the Church will triumph over the “absolute” state “in our historical time.” He sees the struggle between the Catholic understanding of church/state relations and Jefferson’s as an apocalyptic one, and is sure the Catholic ideal will triumph over Jefferson.

Stafford may be an American, but he seems to have no love for the nation or its ideals. It has moved in recent decades from being “a mansion to a dirty house in a gutted world.” It’s history is characterized by “meanness.” Roe v. Wade is just the latest step for him in a procession that includes slavery and hostility to Indians, with nary a bright spot along the way.

In today’s society, he argues, all that matters is power. Technology, politics, economics, all are tools to maintain power, without religious or philosophical moorings. Instead the human being seen as body and soul, the soul has been suppressed in the service of technology. Here’s his connection to Jefferson–Jefferson’s “wall of separation” removed the “soul” from the body politic. His separation of church and state left the state without a moral conscience. The solution for Stafford: reunite the two.

The response of the Church’s magisterium has been based on the ancient Catholic imagination recaptured happily by Pope John Paul II in his now famous phrase,”the nuptial meaning of the human body created as male and female.” The response includes “being true with the body and the soul.” … David L. Schindler in a recent paper on human sexuality summarized his first principle supporting the differentiated unity of body and soul: “The Soul as it were lends its spiritual meaning to the body as body, even as the body then, simultaneously, contributes to what now becomes in man, a distinct kind of spirit: a spirit whose nature it is to be embodied”.

He carries on the discussion with references to marriage and the Eucharist, noting that the physical is never separable from the spiritual. Salvation is not a matter of freeing the soul from the body; we are essentially human as a unity of body and soul.

The subject of moral acts is each person, a dual unity of body and soul, a psychosomatic whole. Anything that smacks of a body-soul dualism is firmly rejected. One cannot attempt to free the soul from the body. When a human being seeks the truth and the good, his body is not an afterthought or an accident or a ‘tomb’ for the soul.

This anthropology has implications for how we understand civil society, as well.

As Archbishop of Denver, in 1996 I addressed a Pastoral Letter to the people of northern Colorado on the historical importance of a culture formed by the medieval Anglo-Saxon Sarum Rite and by the even more ancient Gregorian Sacramentary. Peoples in such a culture intuitively interpreted reality through the covenantal and bridal relationship of God and creation and of Christ and the Church. Consequently, they would find absolutely inapprehensible the acceptance and promotion of homosexuality activity as a valid moral option. Such activities are a direct assault not only upon the Sacrament of marriage but also upon the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Here the emphasis is mine. This is the goal. This is his desire: that we “intuitively interpret reality through the covenantal and bridal relationship of God and creation and of Christ and the Church.”

The human spirit finds its inner completion only as something honestly externalized, since the human spirit in this life is always already embodied. The body is the externalization of the spirit.

He wants to return Catholic faith to its role as the spirit of the body politic, rendered soulless by Jefferson’s doctrine of separation of church and state. Morality can’t just come from within–that leads to relativism and subjectivism. Jefferson’s vision of a society where each person is free to argue can only lead to chaos, for Stafford. There must be an external reference in truth. He doesn’t spell out his vision, but leaves it for us to complete the analogy, quoting a medieval poem in which the separated Divine Lover pines for Man’s Soul.

In the autumn of 2008 we must begin anew with that sentiment of our medieval brother. Quia amore langueo. With Jesus we are sick because of love toward those with whom we are so tragically and unavoidably at variance. The reader has now become one with the narrator who is addressed in line one as “Dear Soul”. As Humanae Vitae with the whole Catholic tradition teaches, we are to “be true with body and soul”.

Stafford expresses well traditional Catholic teaching on the relationship of Church and State. His talk is in harmony with the teaching of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quas primas (November 12, 1925), establishing the Feast of Christ the King in the Catholic calendar, by which he sought to exalt Christ’s “necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created,” through the application of Christian principles to secular government. Stafford’s criticisms of American society echo those made by Pius XI of the western world in general, and identify the same root problem:

What We said at the beginning of Our Pontificate concerning the decline of public authority, and the lack of respect for the same, is equally true at the present day. “With God and Jesus Christ,” we said, “excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.”

Stafford’s criticisms of American church/state separation likewise echo complaints made by prior popes. Consider, for example, Pope Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos (15 Aug 1832):

14. This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say.21 When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit”22] is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws–in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.

Likewise, Pope Pius IX, Quanta Cura (8 Dec 1864):

4. 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.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests?

Later in the 19th century, Leo XIII wrote Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, denouncing “Americanism,” fearful that its teachings (freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, even democracy) might infect the Church.

But, beloved son, in this present matter of which we are speaking, there is even a greater danger and a more manifest opposition to Catholic doctrine and discipline in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity. They are of opinion that such liberty has its counterpart in the newly given civil freedom which is now the right and the foundation of almost every secular state. …

These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.

Some thought that Catholic teaching on religious liberty was changed by the Vatican 2 document Dignitatis Humanae. Let us be clear about the teaching of the Council. It affirmed religious freedom, that is, “immunity from coercion.” But it insisted on the Church’s right to a place in civil society. Here is a key paragraph:

Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

During his 2008 visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI frequently praised the American tradition of religious liberty–but carefully avoided mentioning separation of church and state. He emphasized that religious liberty is not merely a right of the individual conscience, but also must include the right of Christians and churches to freedom of action in the public sphere. See, for example, his remarks to the UN:

It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves – their faith – in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights. The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature. The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order. Indeed, they actually do so, for example through their influential and generous involvement in a vast network of initiatives which extend from Universities, scientific institutions and schools to health care agencies and charitable organizations in the service of the poorest and most marginalized. Refusal to recognize the contribution to society that is rooted in the religious dimension and in the quest for the Absolute – by its nature, expressing communion between persons – would effectively privilege an individualistic approach, and would fragment the unity of the person.

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was simply the theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, spoke often of a “hermeneutic of continuity,” meaning that the Second Vatican Council should be interpreted in harmony with prior teaching, not as a new break. Cardinal Stafford’s talk gives us insight into how the Council’s teachings on religious liberty can be understood in continuity. The state cannot coerce the conscience, while at the same time it  must give freedom to the Church to teach and guide those consciences and social policy. The Church claims to be the sole authoritative teacher of truth; it sees that its moral teachings will triumph over all societies in the “social reign of Christ the King.” It sees this as the solution to the crisis of the contemporary world.

Let’s be careful, then, that we speak not only of religious liberty, but that we uphold the American tradition of separation of church and state as well. It has served us well. It allows individuals to be guided by their own religious teachings and morals, but it does not give a privileged place to any church. It affirms the freedom of individuals to believe, and to act in accordance with those beliefs, without fear. If that freedom is threatened–and I agree with Stafford that it is–then the solution is not to tear down the wall, but to build it even higher.

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