Separation of Church and State Revisited Print
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.



© 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.
   
 

Other Articles By This Author