Religious Liberty: The Long View

Believers won the latest battle concerning the free exercise of religion in these United States. The Supreme Court again proved amicable in its 7-2 decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, ruling that the 40-foot Peace Cross standing on a public cemetery for nearly a century can remain, largely because it was erected in a different time and for a different people. Had the cross been erected more recently, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his concurring opinion, the court might have come to a different conclusion.

Catholics do not need reminders that, despite a series of small victories brought by the Supreme Court in the last few years, a different court could have produced a different verdict. We do need to remember, though, that religious liberty—the right to practice our faith as it prescribes, unencumbered by outside forces such as governments or other associations—has always been challenged by the powers of this world, and always will be, regardless of the country or government in which we find ourselves.

The reason is this: the finite world cannot come to grips with the infinite, incarnate God dwelling in our midst. What the world, incredulous and threatened, cannot understand it seeks to manipulate, control, or destroy.

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Jesus sought to strike a balance between the natural and supernatural orders when he instructed us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” From this the Church developed early on what became known as the theory of the two swords, one symbolizing divine authority and the other temporal. The Church wields the former sword, which concerns the preeminent goals of the supernatural and of eternal salvation; she entrusts the latter sword to the appropriate secular authority to govern earthly concerns. In this schemata, the secular authority is expected to acknowledge the Church as the higher authority.

With some notable exceptions—the canonized monarchs of Europe and Emperor Henry IV waiting in the snow to receive Pope Gregory VII’s forgiveness come to mind—the opposite of this theory has been put into practice: for the bulk of history the state has tried to control the Church. Painting with a very broad brush, the state has generally done this in two ways: through persecution or through the investiture of pro-Catholic governments in Church affairs.

What is sobering for believers is that, in the long view of history, the Church has endured both persecution and investiture in the very same lands. Catholicism was illegal in the Roman Empire for the first 300 years of its existence. When the Empire shifted first to tolerate it and then to honor Catholicism as the official religion of the empire, the imperial government immediately began to meddle in Church affairs, trying to lead her down the path to Arianism.

Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish kingdom that is now modern France, saw himself as the defender of the Church. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, defended the papal states which were in constant warfare, and promoted the faith by establishing cathedral schools throughout his realm. Yet he also intervened in dogmatic matters, such as with the heresies of adoptionism and iconoclasm. Most notably, Charlemagne insisted that the famous “Filioque”—that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son—be added to the Nicene Creed, and it was first sung in the Mass in his own court before this practice spread everywhere.

Centuries later, Catholicism was outlawed in Charlemagne’s former kingdom when the French Revolution sought to destroy the faith by confiscating churches and sending thousands of Catholics to the guillotine. When the revolution failed, Napoleon restored the Church, but kept it under strict control. The Church in France was more fully restored after Napoleon, only to face further restrictions by the government in the twentieth century.

We could add examples from England, China, Russia, and even the United States: Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy, in Russia’s case) was illegal, persecuted, tolerated, or supported by different governments at different times in each of these countries. The point is that Catholics’ ability to practice their eternal faith is always influenced, for better or for worse, and more often for worse, by the temporal government under which they find themselves.

Without question, toleration and support from the government are infinitely better for Catholics living their faith. Today in China, for instance, even if Catholic parents want to attend Mass in the state-sponsored Patriotic Church, they cannot bring their children who are not yet 18 years old. Practically, this means that mom or dad often need to stay home. It was just three centuries ago, less than 100 years after the death of Father Matteo Ricci, the first Catholic missionary to China, the emperor issued an official decree of toleration for Catholicism.

The point here is not to argue for the ideal relationship between Church and state. Rather, it is to remind us that, in the long view, the relationship between Church and state is never fixed: at any point, the free exercise of our Catholic faith might be horribly restricted. And when that is the case, our salvation might become more difficult without regular access to the Mass and the sacraments. Consider California’s proposed bill, just recently withdrawn, that sought to violate the seal of confession.

We should not fool ourselves that we all would be willing to risk our jobs, fortunes, and lives if our government should—God forbid—ever really turn against the practice of our faith. Our Lord, in his own agony, wisely counseled us to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” For every saint and martyr from times of persecutions, there are innumerable other Catholics who gave up.

Instead, knowing that no arrangement between the Church and secular authorities will ever be rock solid, we must heed the command of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes.” We must fight vehemently to protect even small religious concerns, as we have been doing in our court system. If we do not, the forces that oppose our faith will push their agenda harder  perceiving no resistance. On the other hand, we should not sell ourselves and our faith in exchange for government protection, which history has shown will pass away sooner or later. Only Christ’s words will never pass away. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren to do whatever we can so that his words will be heard without manipulation or restriction.

Turning again to history, we know there are no guarantees in this life, except suffering on the road to eternal glory. We ought, then, to pray for St. Peter’s intercession, and follow his exhortation: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:8-11).

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from  “Henry at Canossa” painted by Eduard Schwoiser in 1862.


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