Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Church and State in Democratic Socities: The Shifting Balance

One of the most difficult issues facing Western, democratic countries is the Church/State relationship. As with most critical issues in our day, in our emotivist (to borrow Alasdair MacIntyre's term from his remarkable book After Virtue) society, this issue is mostly dealt with at the polar extremes and takes the form of shouting across the divide. However, one cannot fail to note the contradiction inherent in the desire of those who want to prevent people of faith from bringing their faith into the public square, to interfere, by means of civil law, in the life of the Church. In the U.S., if one sticks with a reasonably constructivist view of the Constitution, the religion clause of the First Amendment was written more with an eye to preventing government from interfering with the Church, than vice-versa.

As a result, recent years have seen the erosion of religious liberty in our country and in the countries of Europe, especially under the ever-expanding auspices of the, frankly, frightening European Union. Now, do not misunderstand, I think a union of European countries is a great idea. I also recognize the legitimate autonomy of both the Church and the State and even the necessity for this arrangement. As with so many things, my hesitations are not about ends, but means. Therefore, the relevant question is not if, but how and to what extent union is achieved, just as the question is not should the Church and State be separate, they should for the good of both. But, this separation has to be respected from both sides and not result in people of faith being disenfranchised. Separation must not result in the State taking a de facto atheistic or agnostic stance because that, too, means choosing a perspective and, in the United States, it is a perspective at odds with the overwhelming majority of citizens who comprise our nation. Hence, faith in God is a constitutive element of the governed from whose consent the three branches of government (the judiciary not being exempt) derive legitimacy. On the part of religious believers, we must understand and respect that it was for good reason the founding fathers of the U.S. constitutionally banned an established religion and that, while we are overwhelmingly a nation of believers, we are also a constitutionally pluralistic society. This is what we might call a dialectical tension at the root of our republican democracy, thus requiring constant discussion, even negotiation.

It is also important to note that much of what concerns Catholics in the arena of public policy is not merely derived from scripture or revelation, but from nature and reality. In a word, from reason. This is certainly the case with the Church's stand on life issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from aborted fetuses, or creating life in the laboratory for the purpose of harvesting stem cells, in vitro fertilization, the death penalty, war etc. On issues more to the point of this post, reason and nature are also the bases on which the Church upholds the constitution of the family and on which our understanding of human sexuality is also based. Therefore, public, even political, advocacy for these issues does not boil down trying to impose our faith on anyone, as Senator Kerry mistakenly said over-and-over in 2004. As Catholic Christians living in the U.S.A., we must recognize that democracy, as noted in an earlier post, Faith and Politics in a Pluralistic Democracy, to quote Senator Barak Obama, "demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all". At the intersection of faith of reason is the dignity of the human person, which is the foundation of all these stands. One's stand on any of these issues essentially boils down your view of the human person, be you Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, atheistic materialist, or agnostic, or whatever. The Christian Tradition, which is a living tradition, certainly supplies us with the intellectual resources to coherently and persuasively engage in the kind political dialogue a healthy pluralistic democracy requires.

Returning to Europe, two very significant things have occurred in recent years that are instructive. The first is the rejection of the proposed E.U. Constitution back in 2005 when the proposed Constitution was rejected by both the people of France and the Netherlands. Despite its rejection, among those who are seeking re-calibrate the E.U. constitution in order to bring it back for another ratification vote, as with its original drafting committee, there is refusal to acknowledge what is but historical fact, Europe's Christian heritage. The second event occurred even prior to that when, in 2004, the E.U. rejected Rocco Buttiglione, as the E.U.'s Justice, Freedom and Security minister primarily because he is a believing, professing, practicing Roman Catholic and during his hearings, when asked, he affirmed his belief that abortion, artificial insemination and homosexuality are immoral, even sinful. On the subject of homosexuality, when questioned, he responded, ""I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime". Once his nomination became imperiled, he wrote to EU President, José Manuel Barroso, "The only thing I cannot do is to change my principles against my conscience for political convenience".

The Church in the United States in recent years has not been immune to the erosion of what, according to our Constitution, should be exempt from government interference. That being written, I have to admit, that when Church institutions take government money, things get a bit complicated, but receiving such funds to work for the common good should not require the Church to forsake its beliefs. The most recent example of this occurred in Massachusetts last year, when the state sought impose a law on Church-run adoption agencies, forcing these agencies to allow gay couples to adopt children. Refusal would result in Church-run agencies losing their ability to provide adoption services. As a result, and no doubt with great sadness, Cardinal O'Malley directed the Catholic agency in the Archdiocese of Boston to cease providing adoption services. This brings up quite a few questions, not about what motivated the refusal to grant exemptions to faith-based agencies, but about what are best described as unintended consequences and effects of such an absolutism, which, again ironically, is the fear expressed by secularists when seeking to ban faith from the public square. In order to see what happens when this kind of absolute thinking prevails, regardless of who originates it, a few questions need to be asked. The first among which is, Who, if anybody, wins in such a case? Orphaned children? No. The Church? No. The state? No. Gay couples, who, in the state of Massachusetts, were already able to adopt children from just about any other licensed adoption agency in the state? No. Liberty and justice? No.

Anyway, this same story is playing out in the U.K., only on a national level. William Rees-Mogg, in the Times online, addresses this issue in a piece entitled Now, all our English liberties are becoming orphans. Let us not lose the focus of our faith and forget that in many instances such challenges provide us, as Christians, a tremendous opportunity to witness to our faith by not being absolutists and by proposing constructive solutions that build bridges and by not self-righteously burning them. One example of this occurred back in 1997 when then-Archbishop Levada responded in a model way to such a challenge from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which he wrote about in an article for First Things, The San Francisco Solution. This lesson has been well-learned by the Holy Father and put at the service of his determination to engage the world in a positive manner. This is borne out by his appointment of Levada as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and his elevation of the former S.F. prelate to the College of Cardinals and by his wise appointment of bishops in the U.S., especially to prominent major archdioceses, like George Niederauer to S.F. and Donald Wuerl to D.C. This strategy is currently being employed, as Rocco, just the other day highlighted over on Whispers , in the Archdiocese of Seattle, in a post entitled In the Northwest, Echoes of Levada. In my opinion, this approach is preferable to the ineffective, heavy-handed public pronouncements by some prelates during the last presidential election in the U.S. I would add that, unfortunately, Cardinal Levada's S.F. Solution was not replicated by in the recent controversy surrounding adoption services in San Francisco, which came to the media's attention in the wake of the Massachusetts controversy.

In sending the twelve into the world for the first time, Jesus told them he was sending them "out like sheep into the midst of wolves". So, he ordered them to "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10,16). This is our challenge. "All churches and church leaders," said Thomas Collins, the newly installed Archbishop of Toronto, in a pre-installation interview with the Toronto Star, "have not only a right but also a reponsibility to be active in such political and policy discussions.

"We are part of society,"
he said. "We've been here since the beginning and are massively involved."

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