The Confessional State, Catholic or Liberal?

Why am I allowed to attend Mass on Sundays? Is it because God has commanded that I worship him, and having a social nature I must do so in union with my fellows within the bounds of the Church founded by Christ for that purpose, on the day he rose from the dead? Or is it because I want to?

The first answer was given by states that officially professed Catholicism. A Catholic confessional state, as they were historically called, recognized as true that Catholics bear a duty from God to attend Mass on Sundays. Given their duty, Catholics had a right to exercise it, and the right was practically expressed in Catholics’ liberty of action.

The progression thus ran from truth, to duty, to right, to liberty. Liberty in the Catholic confessional state meant a liberty of truth. This liberty, which extended to the other sacraments, to the Church’s preaching and teaching, and to the Church’s temporalities such as buildings and liturgical goods, was generally known as the liberty of the Church.

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That is not the answer given to me by the governments of the United States of America and the state of Kansas. These governments, taken as a single entity for the sake of convenience, allow me to attend Mass on Sundays because I want to. The state’s answer expresses liberalism, a governing philosophy that grants liberty in matters of religion within the bounds of public order.

Is this answer, like the prior one, the answer of a confessional state? Most people would say no, because the state does not officially profess a traditional religion like Catholicism. However, the state does officially profess liberalism, and in a prior essay I have argued liberalism functions as a religion.

If that is true, I also live in a confessional state. The state, however, professes something other than Catholicism. Is there a problem for me as a Catholic?

I immediately wonder about my liberty. On what is it based? The liberal confessional state tells me I have religious liberty, and that religious liberty includes a right to worship God by attending Mass on Sundays. We are already two steps back in the progression, from liberty to right. I next wonder on what my right is based.

Unlike a Catholic confessional state, the liberal confessional state does not recognize my duty to worship God. The liberal confessional state recognizes a duty of its own, specifically the duty to let me do whatever I want on Sundays. When I ask the liberal confessional state why it has such a duty, it explains that it is officially indifferent to my worship.

Liberals, the faithful of the liberal confessional state, tell me this ensures my right to worship. I am strangely unconvinced. It is as though my right to worship God comes not from him but from the state. So long as the state is indifferent, the liberals seem to mean, I am safe. What happens when the state loses its indifference?

Liberals say that is not a problem, so long as everyone is liberal. Liberals frequently talk about the freedom of worship, in fact, but again I am uneasy. Liberals used to talk about the freedom of religion. Are my liberties slipping?

I begin to suspect my right to attend Mass on Sundays is a mere convention in the liberal confessional state. I am protected by the laws, but laws change. So I wonder if truth lends any support.

I ask liberals to identify the truth most central to their confessional state, and they name—liberty. This only restarts the analysis, so I ask what they mean by liberty. They respond that one should be allowed to do what one wants consistent with the will of others. When I posit a liberty of truth for the sake of discussion, they immediately reject the idea. The liberal confessional state is indifferent to my worship and will not consider arguments based on religious truth.

Liberty in the liberal confessional state is therefore not a liberty of truth, but a liberty of will. The liberal progression runs from will, to duty, to right, to liberty. It starts with what one wants, then imposes a duty on the state to protect it, which in turn constitutes the want as a right, making it in practice a liberty.

So the truth is no support. The liberal confessional state considers only the contending wills of its citizens when it defines the bounds of religious liberty. Not surprisingly, a state officially indifferent to the thing I most treasure, my Catholic faith, provides little real protection.

Why, then, have so many Catholics embraced the liberal confessional state? A prominent reason is the favorable comparison it offered with the wars and persecutions attendant upon the Protestant Reformation. As between war and persecution on the one hand, and indifference on the other, the latter could almost appear to be the liberty of the Church. The same is true for Catholics who experienced life in Communist or Fascist states.

In fact, some Catholics have mimicked the liberal confessional state’s policy of indifference. Given its comparative peacefulness, the policy apparently seems to some like a proper living of the Gospel.

Indifference was relatively easy when liberal confessional states were closer in time to Catholic confessional states. Societal norms regarding religion and morality were naturally more Catholic then. Over time, as society moves farther from Catholic practice, our indifference will become more strained.

For example, it was relatively easy to be indifferent to the liberal confessional state’s allowance of divorce and remarriage. After all, one might not know whether the first marriage was valid. Perhaps the divorce was merely an administrative decision and did not touch the reality of marriage as constituted by God. It is impossible, in contrast, to be indifferent to the liberal confessional state’s allowance of same-sex “marriage.” This arrangement is intrinsically contrary to the reality of marriage as constituted by God.

Unfortunately for Catholics, the liberal confessional state has its policy, and that policy is indifference. It seems the liberty of the Church would best be served by a state that is not indifferent. But if a state is not indifferent, it must profess something. Catholicism is the obvious choice. “Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2244)

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Charlemagne’s coronation in 800” painted by Frederich August Kaulbach in 1861.


  • John Andra

    John Andra is a lawyer living in Lawrence, Kansas.

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