The Catholic Thing
Separation of Church and State Revisited Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 05 March 2012

“The strangest accusation in this manipulated public discussion has the bishops not respecting the separation between church and state,” Francis Cardinal George of Chicago wrote on February 26 in the Catholic New World. “The bishops would love to have the separation between church and state we thought we enjoyed just a few months ago, when we were free to run Catholic institutions in conformity with the demands of the Catholic faith, when the government couldn’t tell us which of our ministries are Catholic and which not, when the law protected rather than crushed conscience.”

The long history of what is called “separation of church and state” has come full circle. It began over concerns with too much interference by religion in politics, though the opposite was usually the danger. The United States was almost the only country in which bishops could be appointed without government interference and in which Catholics were free to have and run their own institutions.

The Catholic Church has hammered out an incisive understanding of the claims of secular and spiritual power. Both have a proper place. Within the last months, however, the Obama administration actively claims practically full control over most aspects of public life, including religious life. The administration not only seems to have no respect for the Catholic position, but no sympathy for the tradition and Constitution of this country itself. 

The Catholic Church became comfortable with the historic arrangement of practice and principle. Suddenly the Church, with the institutions she has worked many generations to establish, is in the deadly sights of an all-controlling state. Many of the principal actors pushing for this state aggrandizement are Catholics. They, of course, claim a “right” to explain what the Church and the state really are. Optimists expect help from the courts or the electorate, but it’s rash to count on it.

Cardinal George’s analysis is incisive. “This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told that she must ‘give up’ her health care institutions, her universities, and many of her social service organizations. This is not a voluntary sacrifice. It is the consequence of the already much discussed Department of Health and Human Services regulations now filed and promulgated for implementation beginning August 1 of this year.” The issue is no longer abstract.

Cardinal George does not speak only for himself. Most other bishops have realized the same threat, as has the Holy Father in recent ad limina visits of U.S. bishops to Rome. Some few bishops, most of the Catholic university world, and much of the laity still cannot or will not believe that it has come to this. But it has. Bishops are being forced to be bishops in a way few ever anticipated, not a bad thing, really.

          Caesar: Render unto me the things that are God’s.

Some Catholics who voted for Obama now feel “betrayed” by this new policy. That is mostly deliberate blindness to far-reaching social policies that were fostered by this administration from the beginning. It is just no longer possible to hide. The agenda of the administration is to change the Church so that it conforms to the corrupting principles motivating these regulations. It looks like the bishops understand that their very theological nature is being put to the test in the public order. 

What will happen? Cardinal George gives four possibilities: 1) The Catholic hospital or university can voluntarily secularize itself to deny any relation to the bishop or Catholic inspiration. Cardinal George calls this “theft.” 2) Huge fines can be levied to avoid paying for insurance that covers abortion and other mandatory ills. 3) The institutions can be sold to non-Catholic groups or local government. 4) Close them all.

The irony is that the issue being fought on both sides is in the unholy name of “social justice.” Many elements of the so-called Catholic left have long striven to make morally legitimate the practices that are being most objected to – abortion, contraception, euthanasia, gay marriage. One side says such things are matters of “social justice.” The other side defines “social justice” in another way.

Accepting what the administration understands as “social justice” would make the Church a bulwark, not an opponent, of this all-caring state. The Church would only have places of worship, as in most totalitarian, Muslim, or socialist states. All the “human” things would be the state’s to define, enforce, and govern.

“Many will recognize. . .a tactic now familiar in our public life,” Cardinal George observes, “those who cannot be co-opted are isolated and then destroyed. The arguments used are both practical and theoretical.”

This nation was once called the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” The brave and the free are now those who fear being “destroyed” by the state that once “separated” the two powers. We are being asked to render to Caesar the things that are God’s.

James V. Schall, S.J.
, a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (18)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, March 05, 2012
"The Church would only have places of worship..."
Don't bet on it; in France, under the Law of 9 December 1905, all places of worship were declared the goods of the nation. "Associations cultuelles" [worship groups] are merely permitted to use them. "The Church" has no legal existence and, thus, cannot own property. Only individuals can have rights.
written by Pamela Garrett, March 05, 2012
Mr. Schall has one detail wrong in his article above: "It began over concerns with too much interference by religion in politics, though the opposite was usually the danger." The mantra about religion interfering with the state is a very modern one.

A quick visit to Gunston Hall just a few miles down Hwy 1 will show Mr Schall that the issue was really about the state estabilishing its own religion and interfering with the religious beliefs of others by demanding all attend the "state" church. When Aquia church burned down (just north of Stafford) in 1757, all people of every faith were taxed AGAIN to rebuild it (having been taxed to build it just a few years previously). George Mason's uncle was senior warden. So George Mason would have witnessed first hand the controversy that sprang from this unjust taxation. Thus, George Mason made it the first in his Bill of Rights for the Commonwealth of Virginia -- upon which our own national Bill of Rights was founded.

The new regulation by the HHS is doing essentially the same thing that George Mason sought to abolish -- establishing a state church to which all must contribute no matter what their private beliefs. While it may have been a long time since we faced this dilemma, it is not new.

The current Administration simply wishes to do what the Tudors did in England -- establish a state religion and the policing mechanisms to enforce compliance. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, that same structure was put in place (though not in the other states). George Mason objected to it. He had no problem obtaining support from Congressional members of the other states as it was the English police state that had propelled their forefathers into hacking out a new way of life from a dangerous and untamed wilderness.

We have trod this path before...,
written by Sue, March 05, 2012
This tragic outcome was an easily predicted result of the USCCB agitation for "health care for all", which was an open invitation for the federal government to dictate what constitutes health care.

This is simply the long-term gameplan of Hesburgh, Notre Dame, and the Rockefellers clicking into place. In order to address the problem, the Church must root out the enemy that remains within (all too present at USCCB).
written by Manfred, March 05, 2012
Thank you for an excellent article, Father Schall. As one who follows the Catholic press, I had assumed all along that the real enemies of the Church were Michael Voris, Bp. Williamson and the SSPX and Fr. Pavone of the Priests for Life. Just kidding. I, and others, have been the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, frantically dialing 911, and all to no avail. We are reaping the fruits of all the incompetency, neglect and fecklessness of the last fifty years. Christ has removed His Hand from His Church in this Country.
written by Lindsay Johnson, March 05, 2012
Thank you for this moment of clarity.
written by Grump, March 05, 2012
Once the State can compel individuals and private institutions to violate conscience on any matter it defines the essence of tyranny.

Of the four options you list, father, No. 2 would seem to be the best. Refuse to submit to a human law, as the apostles did. "We must obey God," Peter said. Let the State penalize the Catholic Church in whatever manner it chooses, including stiff fines, for not bowing to Caesar. Human law can be changed but God's laws remain immutable.
written by Louise, March 05, 2012
Is there a fourth course of action, Fr. Schall?

Why not refuse to close and refuse to pay the fine and refuse to sell? Why not force the state to use physical force and let all the world witness the destruction of our country?

To choose any of the three mentioned by Cardinal George is simply capitulation, an admission that we don't have anything worth fighting for, and that our God is powerless to help us. And they will ask, "Where is your God?"
written by Tony Esolen, March 05, 2012
I agree with Louise above. Call it the "You and Whose Army?" strategy. Massive civil disobedience is called for.
written by Chris in Maryland, March 05, 2012
Louise is right...force the state to use physical force. Don't roll over and play dead, like the dioceses in Boston and Illinois already did in adoption services.
written by Dinie, March 05, 2012
We are playing into this administration's hands if the Catholic church gives up it's hospitals, schools and universities in opposition to the health-care mandate.. Religion will have effectively been banished from the public square, especially the loudest voice of all religions - the Catholic Church. This is what this administration desired in the first place to marginalize religion in order to set up a state religion. But first,it's loudest critic must be gotten rid of. Wonder who that is!
written by Martial Artist, March 05, 2012
I wholeheartedly agree with Louise, Professor Esolen and Chris in Maryland. Standing up to a tyrranical government, one has been moving steadily away from its founding documents and the Rule of Law for over a century at the minimum, through massive civil disobedience is, I think, the only hope that remains for both this country and for all faithful Christians, not solely for those of us who are Catholic.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Kerv, March 05, 2012
It is a shame that the President can't find anyone competent to advise him on the constitution. Perhaps he can find an expert, like someone who may have formerly taught constitutional law. Then again, Caesar never needed no stinkin constitution!
written by Frank, March 06, 2012
"It is better to serve God than Man." Where did we hear than one before? I agree with those who here who advocate defiance. Refuse to pay the fine, refuse to close facilities and run them in accordance with rules of the Church. When the Government applies force in any manner, the Government will be the loser.
written by Sue, March 06, 2012
What about joining in with those who are suing the government over Obamacare? or What about calling out the troops to contact their congressman to repeal Obamacare? Never been done...we've been importuned to Fight FOCA, to stand with Stupak, to oppose the HHS mandate...but never have the people in the pews been asked to, simply, Oppose Obamacare.

We might simultaneously earn the gratitude of non-Catholics in this country, who have been oppressed by the fake Catholics in Congress who have brought our country to the precipice.
written by Bill B, March 06, 2012
It is surprising to me to see someone from Georgetown actually defending Church teaching. You must be jewel in a pigstye.
written by kieranesq, March 06, 2012
The bishops' position assumes that there is a big difference between, on the one hand, requiring institutions calling themselves Catholic to provide insurance that covers contraception/sterilization/chemical-hormonal abortion, and, on the other hand, requiring individual taxpayers to fund such things through their taxes, as we already do of course. The first is purportedly a violation of the free exercise clause , but not the second. The bishops say they are willing to shut down essentially all Catholic institutions in this country (those serving non-Catholics as well as Catholics) rather than comply with the first mandate, yet they won't do much to stop the second.

Is the distinction purely a pragmatic one? In other words, they think they have a chance at getting an exemption in the first case, but they realize that it would be totally unworkable for there to be an exemption in the second? (It would be unworkable to grant exemptions in the second case. If exemptions were granted in this case, they would have to be granted to people opposed to launching pre-emptive wars, nation-building in the Middle East, and other questionable things the government does with our tax money.) What is the principled reason to treat the two cases differently? If you say that the one involves freedom of religion and the other does not--well, why is that? Is not a Catholic lay person working in the world entitled to the same freedom of religion as Catholic clergy and lay people who work for Catholic institutions?

This brings us to the next point, which is, if indeed there is little difference between the two cases, is it really required as a matter of conscience not to comply with the mandate? According to Catholic teaching-- this in the Catechism and many other places--it is a duty, binding in conscience, to pay one's taxes. One rarely if ever hears or reads an argument from any authoritative or orthodox Catholic source that one should withhold taxes because a portion of the money will be used for immoral purposes. (An exception is Dorothy Day, who gave up essentially all income so as not to have to pay taxes to the national government (she did pay state taxes, which are not used to launch wars and are more in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity).) Excepting Day, there is very little support for the proposition that ordinary lay Catholics should refuse to pay taxes, and, on the contrary, there is overwhelming support for the proposition that they should and must pay them.

Religious institutions are not used to paying taxes, given the 501c(3) exemption in the federal tax code. Now they are being asked to pay what amounts to a tax, with the knowledge that a portion of the tax will be used for an immoral purpose (and the great majority of the money will be used for a moral purpose -- health-care -- that the bishops have long advocated). In other words, religious institutions are about to be subject to a regime similar to the one under which ordinary lay Catholics in the world have long lived.

What is the proper response? Certainly the first response is to oppose the mandate--by negotiation with the Administration, by working through Congress, by public protests, public statements, petitions, campaigns, attempts to elect candidates who are against the mandate. But what if these efforts fail before the mandate comes into force? Would it be immoral to pay the tax to Caesar while continuing to work to repeal the mandate? This is what ordinary lay Catholics in the world have long done, even though we, too, oppose for reasons of conscience many of the uses of our tax money; and this is what the bishops have said is our duty.

One more point: it is amazing, but now it looks as if, through the bishops' failure to teach Humanae Vitae or the Catholic laity's rejection of it (whichever you prefer, and there is certainly plenty of blame to share), the Catholic church in America could lose its hospitals, schools, and charities. The bishops want to say this is not about contraception, it's about religious freedom; but no, in the end, the public is going to make a judgment about this largely on the basis of the belief that is going to be violated by the mandate. If we were strong, we would not even be resorting to this argument about religious freedom and exemptions. (How weak is it to argue that you ought to be exempt from a law because of a belief you won't even publicly defend, a belief that 90%+ of your nominal followers reject.) If we were strong, we would argue against the mandate as applied to anyone, not just as applied to a small minority of "us" (i.e., only Catholics working for Catholic institutions can get the exemption, not the vast majority of us working in the world), not because of beliefs that are specific to a minority of Catholics but because contraception/sterilization/chemical-hormonal abortion are harmful.
written by Louise, March 06, 2012
"How weak is it to argue that you ought to be exempt from a law because of a belief you won't even publicly defend,"

THANK YOU. RIGHT ON!! It looks as if some chickens are coming home to roost. It's about time.
written by Doug Indeap, March 10, 2012
Arguments for a "religious employer" exemption have gone from wrong to ridiculous.

Questions about the government requiring or prohibiting something that conflicts with someone’s faith are entirely real, but not new. The courts have occasionally confronted such issues and have generally ruled that under the Constitution the government cannot enact laws specifically aimed at a particular religion (which would be regarded a constraint on religious liberty contrary to the First Amendment), but can enact laws generally applicable to everyone or at least broad classes of people (e.g., laws concerning pollution, contracts, fraud, negligence, crimes, discrimination, employment, etc.) and can require everyone, including those who may object on religious grounds, to abide by them. Were it otherwise and people could opt out of this or that law with the excuse that their religion requires or allows it, the government and the rule of law could hardly operate.

When the legislature anticipates that application of such laws may put some individuals in moral binds, the legislature may, as a matter of grace (not constitutional compulsion), add provisions to laws affording some relief to conscientious objectors. In doing so, the legislature need not offer the objector a free pass. For instance, in years past, we have not allowed conscientious objectors simply to skip military service for “free”; rather, we have required them to provide alternative service in noncombatant roles or useful civilian work.

The real question here then is not whether the First Amendment precludes the government from enacting and enforcing the generally applicable laws regarding availability of health insurance (it does not), but rather whether there is any need to exempt some employers in order to avoid forcing them to act contrary to their consciences.

Those demanding such an exemption initially worked themselves into a lather with the false claim that the law forced employers to provide their employees with health care plans offering services the employers considered immoral. The fact is that employers have the option of not providing any such plans and instead simply paying assessments to the government. Unless one supposes that the employers' religion forbids payments of money to the government (all of us should enjoy such a religion), then the law's requirement to pay assessments does not compel those employers to act contrary to their beliefs. Problem solved--except perhaps for an employer who really desires not just to avoid a moral bind, but rather wants to retain control of his employees' health plans, limit their choices to conform to the employer's religious beliefs, and avoid paying the assessments that otherwise would be owed. For that, an employer would need an exemption from the law.

Indeed, some continued clamoring for just such an exemption, complaining that by paying assessments they would be paying for the very things they opposed. They seemingly missed that that is not a moral dilemma justifying an exemption to avoid being forced to act contrary to one’s beliefs, but rather is a gripe common to most taxpayers–who don’t much like paying taxes and who object to this or that action the government may take with the benefit of “their” tax dollars. Should each of us be exempted from paying our taxes so we aren’t thereby “forced” to pay for making war, providing health care, teaching evolution, or whatever else each of us may consider wrong or even immoral? If each of us could opt out of this or that law or tax with the excuse that our religion requires or allows it, the government and the rule of law could hardly operate.

In any event, those wanting an exemption put up enough of a stink that the government relented and announced that religious employers would be free to provide health plans with provisions to their liking (yay!) and not be required to pay the assessments otherwise required (yay!). Problem solved–again, even more.

Nonetheless, some continue to complain. They fret that somehow the services they dislike will get paid for and somehow they will be complicit in that. They argue that if insurers (or, by the same logic, anyone, e.g., employees) pay for such services, those costs will somehow, someday be passed on to the employers in the form of demands for higher insurance premiums or higher wages. They counter what they call the government’s “accounting gimmick” with one of their own: the “Catholic dollar.” These dollars remain true to an employer’s religious beliefs, it seems, even after paid by the employer to others, e.g., insurers or employees, in that they can be used only for things the religious employer would approve. The religious employers’ aim, we are assured, is not to thereby control the actions of others, oh no, but rather is merely to assure that the employers themselves do not somehow act contrary to their own beliefs by loosing “their” dollars into hands that would use them for things the employers themselves would not buy. Their religious liberty, the employers say, requires not only that they be exempted from the law, but further that anyone to whom they pay money also be exempted and thus “free” to act according to the employers’ desires.

I wonder what they would think of their tag-the-dollar theory if they realized that I have loosed some of my “atheist dollars” into society and they have some in their wallets. Those dollars can be used only for ungodly purposes, lest I suffer the indignity of paying for things I disbelieve. Whatever they do with them, for god’s sake, don’t put them in the collection plate.

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