Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Constitutional Fiction and the Theology of Government

The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church: September 17th

Few Americans understand that the wording and the modern usage of “separation of Church and State” is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. The prohibition of the Federal government to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is a far cry from separating and excluding the Christian religion from the State all together. After all, at least 6 States of the original 13 States of the Union had government sponsored churches up to 1830.

Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, Roy Moore wrote a compelling article called, Putting God Back into the Public Square in August of 1999. In it he provided at least five historical precedents which effectively refute the secular idea that the First Amendment requires the exclusion of religion from the public square:

• Every president of the United States (with only one possible exception) has been administered the oath of office with his hand on the Bible, ending with the words “so help me God.”

• The Supreme Court begins every proceeding with the ringing proclamation, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

• Throughout our history, the executive and legislative branches have decreed national days of fasting and prayer.

• Public offices and public schools close in observance of religious holidays.

• United States currency bears our national motto, “In God We Trust.”

With that said, Americans have been conditioned to believe that the State ought to be neutral with regard to Christianity. This opinion, albeit a common one, is a relatively recent development. But what is the longstanding Catholic teaching on the separation of the Church and State? If we were to make reference to centuries of papal writings one would have to conclude that the progressive position does not agree with the position of the Catholic Church.

It might scandalize Catholics who subscribe to the secular worldview that as recent as 1862, Pope Pius IX denounced the following proposition: “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” One might be tempted to chalk this up to some kind of an anomaly; that is, an isolated incident. But Pope Leo XIII confirmed this principle twenty-six years later in his encyclical, On the Nature of Human Liberty. He wrote that the separation between Church and State, that is, according to the commonly held secular interpretation, is a “fatal theory.”

To be sure, State neutrality with regard to Christianity as somehow being mandated by the Constitution is legal fiction! It finds little, if no, precedent among the Founding Fathers. For instance, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Jay said, “Providence has given our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as privilege and interest, of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” Nevertheless, this view is downright offensive to advocates of Secular-liberalism.

Moreover, the separation between the Church and the State as it is commonly conceived today finds no sanction in Catholic doctrine; especially as it pertains to the two thousand years of papal writings. I would even argue that the statements of Pope Pius IX and Leo XIII represent the vast majority of the popes who had anything to say about the relationship between Church and State.

The fruits of a long held secular understanding of the separation between Church and State are before us. The deeply held concerns over jobs and the economy among the voters can be traced to the banishment of the Christian religion from our public institutions. As Tocqueville said, religion is the guarantor of morality, and morality, in turn, is the guarantor of freedom. Is it any wonder that the “free” market has come under assault in recent years? Freedom, even as it applies to the economy, is simply unintelligible without Christianity.

We forget that throughout world history freedom has been the exception, not the rule. Liberty is precarious and for that reason it requires grace, discipline and prudence among the citizenry. However, with all the focus on jobs and the economy- a legitimate concern, no doubt -I am afraid that the public is missing the bigger picture. Indeed, the question of America’s survival goes beyond job security, the economy and freedom; all of which are shaped by how we approach Church and State relations. The question about God and man, Church and State goes to the heart of the matter: Does God have a role in our public institutions? The answer to this question, in itself, holds the key to the future of America.

Allow me to propose that the intent of the Framers of the Constitution and Catholic theology on separation of Church and State bear much resemblance. Suffice it to say there are differences. Nevertheless, the theological principles which underscore the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have been articulated by Popes, Bishops and Councils of the Church long before the American Revolution.

One excellent source representing the Catholic position on Church and State relations is a treatise St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine written in the seventeenth century entitled, On Civil Government. Not only is this treatise a reliable summary of Catholic doctrine pertaining to the purpose of the State, but it can be argued that St. Bellarmine’s writings had influenced the Framers of the Constitution such as Thomas Jefferson.

The following is an excerpt from the article “St. Robert Bellarmine's Influence on the Writing of the Declaration of Independence & the Virginia Declaration of Rights” by Karl Maurer.

On the Source of Political Power:

Bellarmine: "Political power emanates from God. Government was introduced by divine law but the divine law has given this power to no particular man." De Laicis (On Civil Government), Ch. VI.

Virginia Declaration of Rights (VDR): ". . . That power is by GOD and NATURE vested in the people."

Declaration of Independence (DOI): "They (the people) are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

On the Origin of Government:

Bellarmine: "Men must be governed by someone, lest they be willing to perish. It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Society must have power to protect and preserve itself." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "Government is or ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community."

DOI: "To secure these rights (Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness) governments are instituted among men."

On the Power of the People:

Bellarmine: "This power is immediately as in its subject, in the whole multitude." De Laicis, Ch. VI. "The people themselves, immediately and directly, hold political power so long as they have not transferred this power to a king or ruler." De Clericis, Ch. VII. "The commonwealth cannot exercise this power itself, therefore, it is helped to transfer it in some way to one man or some few." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "All power belongs to the people."

DOI: " Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed."

On All Men Born Free and Equal:

Bellarmine: "In the commonwealth, all men are born naturally free and equal." De Clericis, Ch. VII. "There is no reason why amongst equals one should rule rather than another." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "All men are born equally free and independent" was originally written, but changed by the convention to read "All men are by nature equally free and independent."

DOI: "All men are created equal."

Part II: Constitutional Fiction and the Theology of Government:

Below, are four basic principles from the treatise on On Civil Government by St. Robert Bellarmine which provides us a Catholic (and American) understanding of the State/government:

• Human nature was created by God in such as way as to require civil authority its well-being, order and protection. As such, the authority of the State originates from the wise counsel of God. Human beings cannot co-exist without these higher principles of civil authority.

• Although civil authority finds its origin in God, it is not directly communicated to any one particular individual as we find when a Bishop or priest is ordained; in the latter case, the sacramental grace of Holy Orders is communicated to particular individuals directly from the “hands of God.”

• Rather, the authority of the State resides in human nature, that is, in the people because it is for them that this authority exists to begin with.

• Since the people or the citizens of a nation are the purpose or end for which civil authority is ordained, it follows that it is the people’s prerogative to choose not only the form of government they see fit but the system through which their leaders are determined or chosen.

Now, from this Catholic perspective, if the State exists for the citizen then the citizen can be also considered to be the customer of the State. A customer chooses what kind of services it wishes to receive and from whom it wishes to receive it. According to Catholic political theology, people have the inherent right to choose what form of government they wish to be subject to. Furthermore, depending how they want to be ruled, they also have the right to elect who those political rulers might be.

By virtue of this right of choice, the citizen can elect to create a government that invokes God and one that observes the principles of his Catholic Faith. After all, he is the customer of the State and the very purpose of the State is to serve his needs. Just as important, every man has spiritual needs that cannot be compartmentalized apart from his civic life. If the authority of the State comes from God- which the Catholic Church affirms that it does -then like the individual, the State is obligated to pay homage to its Creator. Yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God. What is commonly overlooked, however, is that Caesar belongs to God!

Human nature is composed of both body and soul. And in the end, the common good of society must be of a material and spiritual nature. The Catholic Church does hold to a kind of separation of Church and State in that they are distinct from one another. However, these two entities, like the body and soul, are to collaborate and interact with each other so that the common good of society may be brought about. The proposition that there should be a radical separation between these two institutions is what Pope Leo XIII referred to as a "fatal theory." Such a dichotomy leads to the death of the commonwealth.

Now, if civil authority is a mere invention of man without any inherent God-given purpose, then it can be defined by the powerful or the rich as they see fit. Instead of the authority of the State having the welfare of its citizens as its goal, the State can turn into an end in itself. Indeed, the purpose of government can be defined to mean that the people exist for the State; that the multitude ought to serve the interests of the few. As Pius XI said, “There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity; no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cog-wheel in the Communist system.”

This perversion of power- so common in world history -explains why the twentieth-century was riddled with atheistic or Communistic dictators who killed more of its own people than all the wars put together during that same century. In the absence of God then, the State becomes supreme and rules according to its own whim. Cardinal James Gibbons, in his pastoral letter to the US Bishops in 1919, issued the following warning about the State taking the place of God:

“It lies in the very nature of man that something must be supreme, something must take the place of the divine when this has been excluded; and this substitute for God, according to a predominant philosophy, is the State. Possessed of unlimited power to establish rights and impose obligations, the State becomes the sovereign ruler in human affairs.”

From this state of affairs, joblessness, a down trodden economy, and serfdom are but the sad result. This is where the Catholic Church has historically played a vital role. In centuries past, she has mediated between the State and the citizen; reminding the State it is a servant to the citizen and reminding the citizen that it owes both loyalty and obedience to civil authority for the common good. The Church has also assumed a prophetic role in holding the State accountable; accountable to the divine and natural law. As such, St. Thomas Aquinas’ saying is wonderfully fulfilled: A government which governs least, governs best. But a government can only govern least if the laws of God are daily impressed upon it.