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XIV. Catholic Estimate of Church and State in America

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

One final and practical consideration on Church and State relations in America still has to be made. If the attitude of the civil government towards religious bodies was generally cooperative and sometimes concessive to an extreme, what is the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the principles of American government? Is it critical or neutral, favorable or merely tolerant? Certainly the answer will be complex and calls for a variety of distinctions. Yet some estimate of the Church's appraisal becomes indispensable to meet the current rise of secularism which affects (and threatens) the juridical status of Catholic interests like education in the United States.

From a theological standpoint an authoritative evaluation can only come from those who represent the Church's magisterium in this country and, in the nature of things, are most familiar with the national scene, namely, the American hierarchy. We prescind, of course, from the comparative rare statements of the Roman Pontiffs, as in letters addressed to the bishops or ad hoc declarations to private individuals. In order to insure moral unanimity, a further limitation (with some exceptions) will be to consider only the corporate opinion of all the bishops at any given time or on a specific subject. Moreover, only the barest sampling can be given; but judiciously chosen to point up the fundamental principles.

Address of Bishop Carroll to George Washington

The pioneer statement of the Catholic hierarchy on Church and State relations was addressed to George Washington by John Carroll in 1789, the year following his consecration as first bishop of the new-born republic. Writing in the name of all the clergy and laity of the States, Carroll complemented Washington because "You encourage respect for religion; and inculcate, by words and actions, that principle on which the welfare of nations so much depends, that a superintending Providence governs the events of the weeks, and watches over the conduct of men." After describing the growing development of the nation under Washington's competent care, Carroll observed that "this prospect of national prosperity is peculiarly pleasing to us…because, whilst our country preserves her freedom and independence, we shall have a well-founded title to claim from her justice, the equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood spilt under your eyes, and of our common exertions for her defense… rights rendered more dear to us by the remembrance of former hardships." Then the principal burden of this address, a plea that Catholics be not deprived of the rights to which they have earned a title at the cost of their very lives. "We pray for the preservation of them, where they have been granted; and expect the full extension of them from the justice of those States, which still restrict them." [1] There was more than symbolism in Carroll's approving the American concept of religious freedom and appealing to this same freedom as the guarantee that Catholic rights would not be impugned. His successors in the episcopacy have not deviated from these premises, even when occasionally a single bishop was very critical or complimentary of our form of government, or, as in recent years, the rights of the Church and the dangers of nationalism had to be spelled out in greater detail.

Approval of American Religious Freedom

Scattered throughout the acta of the Councils of Baltimore and appearing in the national pastorals of the bishops is the recurrent theme of wholehearted approval of American religious freedom and not as a reluctant toleration. In the First Provincial Council of Baltimore (1829), the seven members of the hierarchy expressed their "satisfaction (at) our admirable civil and political institutions," whose protection of religious freedom is so effective that the "results of conscientious conviction have produced scarcely any temporal inconvenience (and) seldom snapped or even strained the bonds of charity." [2]

However, the most direct and consequential statement is more recent. Published in 1919 as a pastoral letter it was the first corporate document of the bishops in thirty-five years, since the close of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, when the parochial school system was legislated for all churches in the country. "With great wisdom," say the bishops, "our American Constitution provides that every citizen shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in the matter of religious belief and observance. While the State gives no preference or advantage to any form of religion, its own best interests require that religion as well as education should flourish and exert its wholesome influence upon the lives of the people." [3] While giving this generous appraisal, however, the prelates warn against the growing pressure on the government to make public education universally mandatory.

Individual bishops have sometimes gone beyond the generally conservative position of the hierarchy as a whole, and expressed their approval in unstinted praise of America's separation of Church and State. Two such declarations stand out for their clarity and frequent citation in non-Catholic writings on the subject. In a sermon preached in 1913 on his favorite theme of "Civil and Religious Liberty," Cardinal Gibbons pointed out the historical fact that where "the Church has tried official union of Church and State…she has often been hampered and restrained in her divine mission by the encroachment of despotic governments." Therefore, in his judgment, "as far as our country is concerned, I prefer our American system, where there are friendly relations and mutual cooperation." [4]

Thirty years later, when radicals like the P.O.A.U. were badgering Catholics with planning to "take over" the civil government, Archbishop McNicholas, chairman of the Administrative Board of the N.C.W.C. (right arm of the American hierarchy), publicly protested that "No group in America is seeking union of Church and State; least of all are Catholics. We deny absolutely and without any qualification that the Catholic Bishops of the United States are seeking a union of Church and State by any endeavors whatsoever, either proximate or remote." To which he added, "If tomorrow Catholics constituted a majority in our country, they would not seek a union of Church and State. They would then, as now, uphold the Constitution and all its Amendments, recognizing the moral obligation imposed on all Catholics to observe and defend the Constitution and its Amendments." [5] The Archbishop's precedent for this sweeping declaration was undoubtedly the Constitution of Ireland, where Catholics are in numerical majority, yet where non-Catholic denominations are given full political status and complete liberty of religious belief and worship.

No Divided Allegiance

In the heyday of nativism, the stock accusation against the Church was that Catholics cannot be good citizens because they owe allegiance to an alien ruler, whose despotic control of their conscience makes them American citizens only in name. At the close of the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1837, the bishops took issue with this calumny, which assumed national prominence three years before, when the Ursuline Convent on Mt. Benedict was burned to the ground by anti-Catholic rioters. During the subsequent litigation, a committee of the legislature voted against any redress for the damage done, on the claim that "Catholics," acknowledging the supremacy of a foreign potentate or power, could not claim under our government the protection as citizens of the commonwealth." [6]

The bishop's answer was a clear exposition of one of the most delicate aspects of Church and State relationship. "We owe no religious allegiance," they declared, "to any State in this Union, nor to its general government." Our fellow-citizens and we, "by our constitutional principles, are free to give this ecclesiastical supremacy to whom we please, or to refuse it to everyone, if we so think proper. But they and we owe civil and political allegiance to the several States in which we reside, and also to our general government." Consequently when, in perfect justice, "we acknowledge the spiritual and ecclesiastical supremacy of the chief bishop of our universal Church, the Pope or Bishop of Rome, we do not thereby forfeit our claim to the civil and political protection of the commonwealth." Two reasons are adduced: because obedience to the Pope does not detract from the allegiance to which civil authority is "plainly entitled and which we cheerfully give;" and more basically we do not acknowledge "any civil or political supremacy, or power over us in any foreign potentate or power, though that potentate be the chief pastor of our Church." [7]

Underlying this statement of the hierarchy was a clearly modern notion of the Church's indirect authority in civil affairs, with no suggestion of the so-called direct power propounded by some ancient canonists, who made the Roman Pontiff temporal and spiritual sovereign of all nations. And even indirect power, as an extension of spiritual authority to temporal concerns which impinge on religious matters should be qualified. The bishops recognized for the American scene what fifty years later Leo XIII told the Christian world, that "The two powers, Church and State, are sovereign. Their nature as the ends they pursue, fix the limits within which they govern by their own right." [8] Accordingly the Church does not concern itself with temporalities that belong to the State, though, by divine mandate she has authority over anything in human relations that is of a sacred character or which pertains to divine worship and the salvation of souls.

Encroachment on the Church's Rights

Perhaps the most familiar theme in the episcopal statements on Church and State relations is a respectful but uncompromising vindication of Catholic rights and privileges when denied or jeopardized by civil authorities.

The most serious of these problems for almost a century after the War of Independence was the trusteeship controversy. According to the provisions of most States, the legal title to parish property and full control of the finances of churches and parochial schools was vested in lay representatives of the parishioners, acting independently of bishop and priests. As early as 1800, John Carroll remarked that if ever the principles of trusteeship became prevalent "the unity and catholicity of our Church would be at an end. It would be formed into distinct and independent societies, nearly in the same manner as the congregational Presbyterians of our neighboring New England States." [9] Thus a typical (New York) incorporation act provided that "the trustees of every church…are empowered to take into their possession and custody all the temporalities of such church…and shall have power to make rules and orders for managing the temporal affairs of such church." [10]

Protests and litigation modified the situation in some parts of the country. But state legislatures were slow to distinguish the Catholic from the Protestant concept of church polity; and failed to see that where lay control among the denominations was taken for granted, it would be fatal to the national unity of Catholicism. Consequently the main deliberations of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866 were taken up with this issue. In a composite pastoral that followed, the forty-seven members of the hierarchy published a solemn indictment that "in many States we are not as yet permitted, legally, to make those arrangements for the security of church property which are in accordance with the canons and discipline of the Catholic Church…The right of the Church to possess property, whether churches, residences for the clergy, cemeteries, or school-houses and asylums, cannot be denied without depriving her of a necessary means of promoting the end for which she has been established… As well might the civil power prescribe to her the doctrines she is to teach and the worship with which she is to honor God, as to impose on her a system of holding her temporalities, which is alien to her principles, and which is borrowed from those who have rejected her authority…This denial of the Church's rights in some States is incompatible with the full measure of ecclesiastical or religious liberty, which we are supposed to enjoy." [11] Repeated by the Third Plenary Council in 1884, the protest finally achieved the desired result, and emancipated the Church of a problem that some historians believe was the most critical in the nineteenth century.

An equally fundamental right was threatened in the first-quarter of the twentieth-century, when many States agitated for compulsory public school education and in two of them, Michigan and Oregon, the question was put up to popular referendum. Anticipating by three years the storm provoked by the Oregon school law of 1922, the bishops admitted that "since education is so powerful an agency for the preservation of religion, equal freedom should be secured to both." This becomes imperative where the State refuses religious instruction any place in its schools. Therefore, "to compel attendance of all children at these schools, would be practically equivalent to an invasion of the rights of conscience, in respect of those parents who believe that religion forms a necessary part of education." [12] Although the Oregon school act was passed shortly after in direct contradiction to these principles, they were fully confirmed by the Supreme Court which disclaimed the right of civil legislators to impose a common system of education on all children in the State.

More surprising than the Church's insistence on her divine right to educate, was a statement of the hierarchy in 1948 reproaching the national judiciary for its stand in the McCollum decision of the same year. Conscious of their right to protect the welfare of Catholic children in public schools, and aware of the growing concept of a secularist separation of Church and State, the bishops expressed their reluctance to criticize the supreme judicial tribunal, yet "lawyers trained in the American tradition of law will be amazed to find that in the McCollum case the majority of opinions pay scant attention to logic, history, or accepted norms of legal interpretation." After this straightforward criticism, they expressed the hope that "the novel interpretation of the First Amendment" as meaning separation of religion from civil government, "will in due process be revised. To that end we shall peacefully, patiently, and perseveringly work. We feel with deep conviction that for the sake of both good citizenship and religion there should be a reaffirmation of our original American tradition of free cooperation between government and religious bodies--cooperation involving no special privilege to any group and no restriction on the religious liberty of any citizen." [13] As a matter of record, the Supreme Court did practically reverse itself four years later in the Zorach case when, in the spirit of the hierarchy's statement, it encouraged the State to cooperate with religious authorities and not "throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence."

Directives to the Civil Government

Consistent with her right to safeguard particular Catholic interests, the Church has also exercised what is sometimes called her "directive power" in temporal matters, when spiritual values are at stake. She feels at liberty to instruct the civil authorities on their duty to promote the spiritual and moral welfare of the nation. Since the end of the First World War, statements of the American hierarchy in this area have been frequent and realistically detailed on the most urgent problems of the day.

One of the most aggressive statements of the government was on the growing urge to paternalism, which "must be resolutely checked." Granting that "federal assistance and federal direction are in some cases beneficial and even necessary; but extreme bureaucracy is foreign to everything American." In fact, "the press, the home, the school, and the Church have no greater enemy at the present time than the paternalistic and bureaucratic government which certain self-seeking elements are attempting to foist upon us."14 What the bishops identified as a danger to America in 1922 was already shaping into Communist tyranny in Russia, Fascism in Italy, and within the next decade into National Socialism in Germany.

Moreover, family life must have freedom to meet the responsibilities of the Christian law, "there must be no undue intervening of the civil power in the domain of husband and wife. This requirement involves two points of obligation. Freedom implies that right be respected. The State must respect the rights of the family. It must not therefore fail to provide opportunities for adequate housing of families, for the requisite schooling of children, for the common benefits supplied through the taxing of citizens." By the same token, the State may not interfere with the family. It must not discount paternal authority by invading the home and legislating upon matters which are of strictly domestic concern." [15] While dealing with current tendencies to usurpation of parental rights, this warning is strikingly similar to the Church's protection of the family against state domination since patristic times; it is especially pertinent today (e.g., the sex-education controversy).

A more specific issue with moral implications was compulsory military training on which the bishops expressed their disfavor in a short but pointed resolution in 1945. Admitting the need of preparedness for an adequate defense of the country, they felt "our government should explore the possibility of having military conscription abolished in all countries, and, to that end, might well consider how our control of economic assistance to other countries may be used to lend weight to our plea for such abolition." [16] This appears to have been the first corporate declaration by Catholic authorities in America against military conscription, and may be taken as a sign of the Church's solidarity on a delicate subject, which Protestant bodies for more than a century have used as a test of strength in legal and judicial conflicts with the State.

Catholic Motivation to Patriotism

The one guiding principle in the Church's attitude toward the State is her command to civil obedience, imposed by the will of God from whom all legitimate authority derives.

When in the early days of the country, Catholics were openly denied their political rights and forced to suffer for conscience' sake, the bishops exhorted them to "recollect the assurance of the Saviour, 'Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you'." Instead of answering the charges that Catholics are "enemies of the liberties of the republic," let them continue, "while you serve your God with fidelity, to discharge honestly, faithfully, and with affectionate attachment, your duties to the government under which you live, so that we may, in common with our fellow-citizens, sustain that edifice of national liberty in which we find such excellent protection." [17]

That was in 1833, at the height of the trusteeship problem and on the eve of the Nativist movement which organized the Know-Nothing party "to resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome…by placing in all offices in the gift of the people, or by appointment, none but native-born Protestant citizens." [18] Twenty years later, when nativism still plagued the American electorate, the hierarchy urged the faithful to "discharge your civil duties from the higher motives which religion suggests." To answer the captious critics of the Church of Rome, "show your attachment to the institutions of our beloved country by prompt compliance with all their requirements…Thus you will refute the idle babbling of foolish men, and will best prove yourselves worthy of the privileges which you enjoy, and overcome, by the sure test of practical patriotism, all the prejudices which a misapprension of your principles but too often produces.” [19]

The wisdom beyond these injunctions has been proved by experience. Carefully distinguishing the juridical status of Catholicism in the States from the personal animosity of certain people (even in the government), the bishops were confident that by a patient endurance of the latter, the former would even the day. Also their analysis of non-Catholic prejudice which time showed to be accurate, is still valid and worth applying to contemporary needs. What normally arouses bigotry is Catholic principles that by nature are alien to the Protestant and secularist mind. Yet for Catholics there can be no compromise on principle; so to disprove the bias occasioned by a source that cannot be changed, let the faithful strive with emphasis to show their patriotism in practical things, and betimes the hostility will be neutralized or at least modified to a tolerant acceptance of Catholicism as an institution via acceptance of Catholics as patriotic citizens.

So far from membership in the Church being incompatible with civil allegiance, Catholicism offers the State a body of citizens whose patriotism is founded on the deepest convictions of religion. Certainly the Church withstands political powers when they arbitrarily conflict with the rights of conscience and the moral law. But in the Catholic system, "this undeniable principle does not entail the same consequences as in those of the sects. In these, the individual is the ultimate judge of what the law of God commands or forbids, and is consequently liable to claim the sanction of the higher law, for what after all may be, and often is, but the suggestions of an undisciplined mind, or an overheated imagination. Nor can the civil government be expected to recognize an authority which has no warrant for its character as divine, and no limits in its application, without opposing the State to disorder and anarchy." Examples of such projections of arbitrary beliefs demanding political approval fill the pages of America's legal and judicial history. Mormon polygamy and Puritan temperance are cases in point. "The Catholic" on the other hand, "has a guide in the Church, as a divine institution, which enables him to discriminate between what the law of God forbids or allows; and this authority the State is bound to recognize as supreme in its sphere--of moral, no less than dogmatic teaching.” [20] As often as the Church's right to teach her subjects their duties to God and country, civil authority has gained in prestige and the people, even outside the Church, have become better citizens. But where this divine mandate was ignored or over-ruled, not only religion suffered but political institutions as well. A single instance, like America's entry into the Second World War, demonstrates the cogency of this fact. When "thoughtful statesmen (were) perplexed, (and) patriotic citizens divided in their opinions as to the procedure our country should follow," the Catholic hierarchy simply declared, "We support wholeheartedly the adequate defense of our country,” [21] and by that judgment made the whole nation their debtor.

Chapter XIV - References

  1. Peter Guilday, The Life and Time of John Carroll, New York, 1922, pp. 365-366.

  2. The National Pastorals of the American Heirarchy, Westminster, Md., 1954, p. 20.

  3. "Pastoral Letter of 1910," Our Bishops Speak (W. M. Huber edit.), Milwaukee, 1952, p. 63.

  4. A. S. Will, Life of Cardinal Gibbons, New York, 1922, vol. I, p. 318.

  5. Wilfrid Parson, The First Freedom, New York, 1948, p. 83.

  6. National Pastorals, p. 90,

  7. Ibid., pp. 90-91.

  8. Leo XIII, Encyclical "Immortale Dei," Acta Leonis XIII, vol. 2, p. 129.

  9. Patrick. J. Dignan, History of the Legal Incorporations of Catholic Church Property in the United States, New York, 1935, p. 75.

  10. Laws of the State of New York (1802-1813), vol. II, pp. 214-216.

  11. National Pastorals, pp. 206-207.

  12. "Pastoral Letter of the Archbishops and Bishops of the United States," Sept. 26, 1919, Ibid., p. 338.

  13. "The Christian in Action," Nov. 21, 1948, Huber, op. cit., pp. 151, 153.

  14. "Paternalism in Government,” February, 1922, Ibid., p. 264.

  15. "The Christian Family," Nov. 21, 1949, Ibid., pp. 157-158.

  16. "Resolutions of the hierarchy on Compulsory Military Training," Ibid., p. 237.

  17. Second Provincial Council of Baltimore (1833) National Pastorals, p. 78.

  18. Gustave Myers, History of Bigotry in the United States, New York, 1943, p. 187.

  19. First Plenary Council of Baltimore (1852), National Pastorals, p. 192.

  20. Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866), Ibid., p. 206.

  21. "Statement of the Bishops of the United States on the Crisis of Christianity," (Nov. 14, 1941), Huber, op. cit., p. 106.

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