The Catholic Thing
Religious Institutions, Civil Society, and Secularism’s Disguised Burden Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 09 November 2012

This column is a second excerpted and adapted from comments by the author at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.) as part of the symposium, “Which Model, Whose Liberty? Differences between the U.S. and European Approaches to Religious Freedom.”

Whenever the practices of religious institutions conflict with policies mandated by the secular state – as in the case of the HHS mandate – inevitably someone tries to adjudicate the dispute by asking whether, and to what extent, the religious institutions contribute to civil society, and on what grounds should the secular state limit its powers to accommodate these religious practices.

This way of seeking a resolution assumes that religious communities must somehow justify their existence in terms of benefits they may provide to a self-sufficient civil society. But why should we think this unstated premise is correct?

There is no obvious deliverance of reason that commands us to assign no burdens to the secular state and to presuppose that its omnipresent reach is prima facie justified.  Even though this assumption is what is lurking behind most normative inquiries about the place of religious communities in our public life, I see no reason why we should uncritically accept it. 

After all, we can address the same topic while asking questions that do not make such a controversial assumption. Imagine, for example, raising this question: Would our present arrangement, quality, and character of institutions, and the moral intuitions and anthropological beliefs that motivated their founding, have even arisen in the first place if not for the faithful practice of religious communities?

Consider the setting in which I found myself over three weeks ago, Georgetown University, where I was participating in an academic conference on religion and public life.

Georgetown is a Catholic institution, founded by the Society of Jesus, an order of priests that was launched in response to the Protestant Reformation. My own institution, Baylor University, older than the state of Texas itself, was founded by Baptists, who are rightly proud of their tradition’s commitment to the separation of church and state.  Baylor, like Georgetown, established a hospital, a medical school, and countless other projects underwritten by its theological commitments.

These wonderful accomplishments, however, are hardly unique.  These sorts of institutions, as well as a host of others that advance the common good, have also been created and developed by Presbyterians, Methodists, Jews, Mormons, Episcopalians, Muslims, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-Day Adventists, to name just a few.

In all these cases, the religious communities maintain that the creation of institutions of this kind is a faithful application of the moral commands found in their most sacred writings. These moral commands presuppose an understanding of human nature and the human good that is at root theological.

Consequently, it is not surprising that secular attempts to justify these institutions and their practices often appeal to notions that seem to function as non-religious versions of the theological beliefs they are employed to replace, even if that fact is rarely recognized.

So, for example, the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) tells us that the first principles of justice are derived from a thought experiment in which a small set of human beings, blessed with both personal innocence and a God’s eye point of view, is able to provide the basis on which human equality and dignity ought to rest. 

            Philosopher John Rawls

  It is difficult to believe that Rawls would have thought such an account of justice plausible if he had not been intellectually formed in a civilization that had in its own story a creation narrative in which human beings in the original position, though initially uncorrupted and in submission to the God’s eye point of view, never lose the imago dei, the ground of their intrinsic dignity, even when they stray from Eden.


          It is this understanding of the human being’s condition and her greatness that gives meaning to the institutions, works of mercy, and ways of life produced by the wide variety of religious communities I have already mentioned. 

So rather than asking how religious communities contribute to civil society, as if we could abstract and sequester them and still recognize what remains, I think the more interesting question we should be asking is this: In what ways would a civil society, with a tapestry of ideas and institutions woven from theological threads, risk unraveling if religious communities and their institutions were marginalized by policies and cultural trends intrinsically hostile to their mission?

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University. He is the author of Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, and (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics, a festschrift in honor of Hadley Arkes.

© 2012
The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (10)Add Comment
written by G.K. Thursday, November 08, 2012
Thanks for posting this, Dr. Beckwith. I would point out that there are already plenty of real-world examples from the modern period which answer the question you raise, including Jacobin France, Mexico under Diaz, the Soviet Empire, etc. In every case these societies collapsed after just a few decades. What caused their collapses? Each had unique circumstances, so one simple cause won't apply, but the disintegration of the moral integrity of these societies (e.g., the fact that people quit trusting each other) was a major part of the collapse.

Purely secular moral approaches are very brittle and disintegrate very easily. They generally have little insight into human nature, reject natural law, and cannot withstand determined rational challenges. Solzhenitsyn's testimony to the failure of the Soviet system to convince people rather than merely cow them, provides superb documentation of the brittleness of that system. When faced with even the weakened state of the Orthodox Church's theology during those years, it could not rationally convince many people that it was better.

One thing that worries me, though is the challenge of an aggressive Islam. Unlike Christainity, Islam has not experienced the struggles with secular authorities over the centuries of its existence. Wherever it took root, it sought political power to secure its religious growth and eventual dominance. Yes, it is true that the problem du jour is an over-reaching secularism, but perhaps we face a more serious threat just over the horizon ... Will there be a new Lepanto?
written by Manfred, November 09, 2012
Would it be helpful to this discussion if I reminded all of us that this country is ruled by an elite and that Messrs Obama, Biden et al are merely EMPLOYEES of that elite? Eight of the ten wealthiest counties in the U.S. went solidly Democratic in this last election. Obama won by larger margins than the national margin. Example: Mayor Bloomberg of NYC is in the top twenty(?) of the wealthiest men in the U.S. He insists that the citizens of "his" city be forbidden from eating trans fats, smoking or buying soda in 32 oz. bottles. Yet he travels around the country spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of aberrosexual marriage when referenda on the this subject. appear on ballots. This nation is financially and morally bankrupt. If you knew that I was $16,000,000,000,000 in debt, how much respect, or notice, would you ever accord me? I sincerely believe that this election has put many questions to bed including the very subject of "religious freedom". ONLY ONE RELIGION IS TRUE! Only one religion could ever and can ever save us! We have been living a foolish idea for hundreds of years to accommodate hundreds of heretical sects and fake religions (including Mormonism!) and now the secular, atheistic government has finally exposed it for the silliness it always was. We will never be a confessional state, but at least the Church can finally devote itself to its mission of saving the souls which God has placed in its care.
written by Other Joe, November 09, 2012
GK, how could there not be a new Lepanto as the other side is calling for one to redress the outcome of the first? The late Mr. Osama wanted the re-re-conquest of Spain. Let those who have ears hear. It remains to be seen if a post-Christian west will respond with as much, or any vigor.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 09, 2012
@other Joe, I agree. I just voiced it as a question to match Dr. Beckwith's closing. We can already see the weakness of the moral system of the secular West when faced with an aggressive Islam. The way U.S. government officials have twisted in the wind over the attacks on U.S. embassies and citizens in September (Benghazi was the deadliest of these, but NOT the only one), being unwilling to make a strong defense of freedom of speech. This is one of the secular West's central moral principles (see Rawls' strident defense of it in his _Justice_ book for example). There are many more examples from Western European countries where supposed principles of secular morality, hard won through the series of treaties/wars between nation states from the 15th century onward, are pushed aside when challenged by a rough-and-tumble, no-nonsense Islam.

Secular moralities are brittle, as I wrote before, and easily disintegrate when faced with a determined opposition. I can't of a more determined opposition at this point to Western secular morality than aggressive jihadist Islam.

On a side note, the Russians have fought the Chechnyan wars not by maintaining a strict secularism to their military units, but by introducing an abiding presence of Orthodox faith (Putin openly displays his Russian Orthodox faith, for example). From their experience under the Soviet system, which disintegrated within 70 years, they know they need something stronger when facing a determined Islamic foe. Can you imagine such a government practice in France or Denmark?
written by athanasius, November 09, 2012
I agree with GK. Further, I believe that "secular" approaches, at their heart, are really religious. It is just that the deity is the state. How else can you explain the fervor among "secularists"? They claim rationality, but their positions are often irrational and form an incoherent whole. But they still cling to their ideas with a fervor that can only be described as religious.

This is why they are so hostile to Christianity and Judaism. Because these religions present threats to their religion, and so must be stamped-out. The ironic thing is that Catholicism, for all the claims of its being irrational, is inherently rational and fully coherent. An exploration of St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI's (especially Regensburg) writing show how faith and reason work together to teach the truth of God, who is truth itself.

I am confident that in the end, the Church will triumph. These heretical systems will collapse of their own weight, but not before doing much damage to society and individuals.

But what do we, the faithful, do about it in the meantime? We need to remain faithful, learn about our faith, and TEACH it. Sure, many will not listen, but some will. And when secularism does collapse, we need to be there to show our brothers and sisters the light of Christ.

We must also live our lives joyfully, because we will not convert anyone if we are bitter scolds. We profess that life is a good. We must live what we profess.

Above all, we must completely put our trust in Jesus and his divine mercy. Jesus told us to live one day at a time. I will do so, joyfully, hopeful that whatever comes I will spend eternity with my true love, forever singing his song of love.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 09, 2012
@athanasius. Good comments. It's partly the irrationality that makes secular moral systems so brittle. They are essentially pragmatic peicemeal constructs, rather than thought-through wholes. When challenged by a determined group's counter-system they break up and fail to maintain a coherent social whole. People cease to believe in the peices one-by-one, lose trust in in the moral system as a system, and finally in each other. Economic consequences accompany this moral disintegration as well. The society ends up abandoning its own moral principles, such as they are, and other stronger moral systems become tempting to the people making up the failing society.That's precisely why Islam has been so successful in disrupting the Western secular moral system.

But why, you may ask, hasn't Roman Catholicism had similar success against Western secular moral systems? Well, part of the answer is that up until the late sixties, we did have great success in shaping the U.S. but the Roman Catholic Church allowed itself to be disrupted through the exploration of Western secular moral systems within the Church itself. We shot ourselves in the foot (or maybe in the back), and we lost the unity of determination that Islam, as a non-Western system, still possesses.

A the best it will take two or three generations to get that back. But if God continues to bless his Church with Popes who are unafraid to push back against secularism, and even better, unafraid to bring back an aggressive approach to Church discipline, it will easily happen. It's really the work of the Holy Spirit leading the Church into all truth as Jesus promised.

So rejoice! Again I say, rejoice! The Lord will bring it all to a good end.
written by Other Joe, November 09, 2012
Yes GK. But you didn't mention the attacks on Christians in Islamic territories. The secular west is still trying to sell tolerance for an intolerant system with the vain hope of - I don't really know, setting a good example? I would offer tolerance for tolerance and rebuke for intolerance. Please don't someone quote back the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord had no problem wielding the whip when money lenders were bringing dishonor to His Father's House. The Islamists are putting out lamps that were lit 2,000 years ago and have been burning ever since.

I believe it was Napoleon who said that if religion didn't exist, it would have to be invented. He had seen with his own eyes the excesses and catastrophe of the first great French materialism experiment. History seems to suggest that when brittle materialism (secularism) breaks in the first fresh breeze, a dictator arises to exploit the fractured relationships between citizen and state.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 09, 2012
@other Joe: no doubt we face a determined and grim foe in jihadist Islam. It is a far larger challenge than Western secularism. But because The Lord is on the side of his Roman Catholic Church, we can have confidence of the outcome. Yes,there will be suffering, and as Cardinal George has ventured, the next two or three generations may be ones of harsh persecution of the Roman Catholic Church both in Western secular societies and in the Islamic world. But we will always have the consolation of the truth and the present love of The Lord to see us through.

As Tertullian wrote, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church".
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 10, 2012
Other Joe

In fact, it was Robespierre who said, e « si Dieu nʼexistait
pas, il faudrait lʼinventer » - "If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him"

In the same speech, he said, "Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a Great Being, who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime that is of the people. The people, the wretched applaud me; if I find critics, it is amongst the rich and the guilty."

He added (and many would agree) "Since college, I have been a pretty bad Catholic [un assez mauvais catholique]
written by Other Joe, November 10, 2012
The quote is also attributed to Voltaire. I had read that Napoleon said that to one of his aids. Perhaps he was quoting another. It seems to be a French way of thinking.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters