Can We Be Both American and Catholic?

The Flag of Vatican City (Papal flag) flies next to American flags along West Executive Avenue near the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, the day before Pope Francis arrives. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

By: Grady Stuckman, Franciscan University of Steubenville

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The above text is the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which most people simply reduce to describing with the phrase “separation of Church and state.” Hearing this phrase often is troublesome to American Catholics, given a history of anti-Catholicism in this country. However, the society the First Amendment presents us with can indeed be a nation where Catholicism can thrive, if one looks at the teachings of the Church.  

It first must be clarified that the Church does not endorse one form of government over the other, deeming governments to be by nature morally neutral. This implies that a government is only good or bad insofar as it acts, and so its goodness and evilness is measured by whether the citizens are given an opportunity in which virtue may thrive. Here, some Catholics do take a hardline approach called “integralism,” a view that obliges the secular government to directly provide for the religious and moral good of its citizens. This would require it to establish Catholicism as a state religion and possibly implement censorship. While such a society would be the ideal, it would only be truly respectful of human freedom within a country almost entirely composed of Catholic citizens.

St. Thomas Aquinas affirms this when he notes that coercive power is not how one ought to submit to the true faith. Explaining the proper function of the civil power, he notes that “Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.” (Summa Theologica I-II.96.2)

In a nation in which Catholics are not the predominant demographic (and arguably a minority), a paradigm of Church and state called the “two perfect societies” view is acceptable. In this view, Church and state both provide for the moral good of the people, but in distinct categories. The state administers temporal goods, which are the goods pertaining to the continued existence of persons, such as physical security and basic education. The Church administers spiritual goods, which are the goods pertaining to the soul and perfection in virtue, particularly expressed through the Sacraments, public prayer of the Church and her teaching in morals. Such a balance fits what Aquinas describes above.

While having different obligations towards the people, the goods that each institution offers never conflict (since they are truly good for the human person). With this dynamic, there is a real unity between Church and state in one sense: the whole human person is provided for at the end of the day. This is to say that the state ensures the basic functioning of society through coercive power, and makes room for the Church to fulfill her unique mission of bringing all people to unity with God. We turn our attention to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment cited above, in which the state may not prevent the exercise of any religion, unless that religion prevents the state’s God-ordained mission to preserve social-political order. The true religion, of course, would never prevent that.  

Let me reiterate that the state is not establishing one particular religion that all its people are bound by law to observe. Rather, the state is enforcing the universal natural law, or moral law, binding all persons that seek to protect the pursuit of basic goods (such as food, shelter, education, and access to leisure and cultural pursuits), while the Church enforces the divine, positive law aimed at the spiritual perfection of each man. As the Church is universal and thus transnational, she is not confined to one particular state, and God does not love one state above all others. Moreover, one can celebrate all that is good about his own country while still affirming all that is good in other cultures.

The state’s role in religion, according to Catholic teaching, is about creating an orderly society that is capable of receiving the wonderful gifts offered through and by the Church.  I leave you with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, renowned nineteenth-century political commentator on America, about Catholics being well-disposed to public life in America: “American Catholic[s] have divided the intellectual world into two parts: in one they have placed revealed dogma which they obey without argument; in the other they have put political [that is, temporal] truth which they think God has abandoned to man’s free inquiry. Thus American Catholics are the most obedient believers and the most independent citizens.” (Democracy in America, New York: Penguin, 2003, 338).

Edited By: Ariel Hobbes

2 comments

  1. No! We were founded by Deists and Masons. In many places “civil religion” and nationalism takes the place of true religion. The God in Trinity is nowhere to be found.

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