Church and Sect Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 20 April 2009

Here’s a quick question: Are you Catholic first and American second, or the reverse?

Yes, sometimes this might be a false choice, but just off the top of your head, which is it?

Just to speak for myself, I’m Catholic first and American second. I don’t understand how any believer of any faith could think differently. If you are lucky, you spend eighty or so years in America. Dead, on the other hand, is a long time. An American passport or American attitudes may not be ideal for travel into the undiscovered country. Except for those simple souls who think that Americanism is Christianity, a reflective person knows there will be days – in certain periods a lot of them – when a real believer must take a different path than other Americans.

The Catholic Church occupies an odd position in the United States. We are a church that has survived the rise and fall not only of nations, but of whole civilizations. Along the way, we developed a complex sense of the Church’s social responsibilities. Catholicism is compatible with American-style democracy – and with many other forms of government – yet does not concede that the public arena is properly understood as purely neutral or secularist.

God is Lord of all, including a pluralistic order like our own. The Catholic Church, as other churches once did, teaches that the basic elements of His rule, including universal moral principles, must be acknowledged, even if only indirectly, for any regime to be legitimate. And therein lies the heart of the problem of the Church in America today.

The German sociologist of religion Ernst Troeltsch famously sorted faith groups into two large categories: churches and sects. Churches regard themselves as having responsibilities that are as wide as the world. Troeltsch’s church par excellence, of course, was the Catholic Church. Sects, by contrast, are for the most part content to live a private existence, removed to a greater or lesser degree from the world, which they regard as a temptation and the realm of the Prince of Darkness. Evangelicals mostly took that stance until the 1980s, and seem to be headed back into it again.

Still, for a long time, America operated underneath a kind of sacred canopy. It had strong sectarian Protestant elements, but also a general agreement of God’s importance to society, which included everything from deism to Anglicanism. Those of us who study religion and politics sometimes joke about a remark attributed to President Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief – and I don’t care what it is.” Ike may never have said it and, if he did, meant something more defensible. In any event, well into the 1960s, lots of people would have agreed that religion means a great deal to the kind of democracy America once professed. President Obama’s remark in Turkey a few weeks ago that we just consider ourselves citizens – though not entirely true – shows the distance we have traveled in the interim.

In the process, most religious groups in America have been more and more squeezed into the sect model, others squeezed themselves into sectarian inconsequence and think the holdouts should follow their example. It seems to be the only viable way in a pluralistic nation, though it was not for most of our history. Faith groups played a crucial role in ending slavery, racial discrimination, and in the establishment of our democracy itself, among many other things.

Catholics have in recent decades been considered doubly sectarian: just one more private religious association with the added complication of being tied to leaders who wear funny clothes and speak odd languages in a foreign country.

Lots of Catholics today have themselves internalized this attitude. I notice many of our co-religionists are quoted now as saying they don’t pay much attention to the pope or even our own bishops. For them, the Church is, at most, whatever they happen to like that’s going on in the local parish.

Most of the problems we have seen over Catholics criticizing their own Church for getting involved in politics reflect this thoroughly un-Catholic view that churches are really supposed to have no large public role, that they are all supposed to be just sects (unless we are talking about vague aspirations like avoiding conflict, helping the poor, and feeling good about ourselves).

It’s not only non-Catholics now, but Catholics themselves who run through a familiar litany. Opposed to abortion? Don’t have one. Regard homosexual relationships as not the equivalent of marriage? Hate is not a family value. Think experimenting on human embryos cheapens human life? Sorry, religious dogmas can’t stand in the way of science.

These are clever rhetorical ripostes, too clever – and too superficial. But they reflect the deeper disconnect of lots of our own people now. It’s not just the treason of the clerks in events like the recent embarrassments of Notre Dame and Georgetown. It’s a growing number of Catholics who do not realize that, in their sojourn in America, they have not moved into a larger world, as they think, but shifted allegiances from a universal church to a North American sect.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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