Feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church: September 17th
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.”
God in the Public Square:
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 bears 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 an article, St. Robert Bellarmine's Influence on the Writing of the Declaration of Independence & the Virginia Declaration of Rights by Karl Maurer. He makes a comparison between Bellarmine’s writings, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and The Declaration of Independence.
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."