The relationship between the church and the Christian in society has always been complicated. From the very beginning of the Christian faith, followers of Jesus have struggled with the two worlds they are associated with: earthly and heavenly. Faced with an ever-increasingly secular society, it is critical that Catholics in America embrace unequivocally what it means to be in the world, but not of it. Let me explain.
Professor Russell Hittinger, a senior fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology, recently gave a speech arguing that the correct term for the relationship between the heavenly state and the temporal state is “separate.” They are separate. And this distinction, he explained, was made by Jesus when he declared in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Three times in Professor Hittinger’s speech, he paused to say that this is hard teaching. Even the disciples rejected it, sometimes violently. Peter especially. This is why Jesus admonishes him when in the garden of Gethsemane he drew his sword to cut off the ear of the jailer. Peter was not yet established in his faith, and he believed that the way of Christ was a battle. So Jesus healed the ear and put it back on the soldier. The soldier’s name, Malkos, means “king” in Greek. Jesus established a rule here below. And Peter then understood.
According to Hittinger, Christians should engage with civil society as Christians, bringing their deepest convictions into the public square. But, and this is a very important point, our civic engagement must be no tried to subjugate the civil society to the power of the church. To do so humiliates the Church.
St. John Paul II, in a passage highlighted by Professor Scott Roniger of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in support of Hittinger’s thesis, described the difference between our current economic and political life, on the one hand, and the Christian life: on the other hand, as follows:
“One cannot ignore the great danger posed by genuine imperialisms, which endlessly compete with each other, but which ultimately cannot claim to have at heart the good of the true happiness of mankind. Indeed, the opposite is true. for these powers, for these imperialisms, they see in man the greatest threat to human freedom and inner truth. The coming of Jesus of Nazareth to the world, the incarnation of the Word is the revelation of a completely different economy.
The matter is quite simple. although politics is a necessary and inevitable part of our lives, its ambitions should not be confused with the Kingdom. At the same time, this principle of separation should not lead to indifference. Pope Benedict put it beautifully when he said that “following her finality, the Church sheds the light of the Gospel on earthly realities so that people may be healed of their misfortunes and grow up in dignity.”
The Second Vatican Council, of which Benedict was chief councilor, perhaps one of the few still alive, understood this relationship between the words material and spiritual in its declaration on religious freedom. Dignitatis Humanae explains that all men and women instinctively seek the truth, which is revealed in its entirety in the teachings of God’s Holy Catholic Church, adding that “truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth.” The declaration also points to the evangelistic mission of the Church, explaining that in order for the Church to fulfill its divine mission, which is, of course, the salvation of souls, religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and embodied in law, but also given sincere and practical application.
So here we have a distinction that some Catholics still don’t seem to understand. Let me repeat these words. truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth. It means that the victory of the Gospel is not a victory achieved by imposing political dominance on others.
Fortunately, our constitutional order creates fertile ground for the Church and individual believers. The First Amendment contains two provisions that deal with religious freedom. The Establishment Clause states that the government cannot interfere in religious matters. It’s not quite the same as the Second Vatican Council’s claim that truth cannot be forced, but it’s entirely consistent with it. The Free Exercise Clause, meanwhile, protects our right to worship and: act in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. Again, it seems to anticipate the Council, which calls for sincere and practical application of laws protecting religious freedom.
The religious provisions of the First Amendment not only give Catholics the right to practice our faith, but also create the space in which we can evangelize free from government coercion. As the Supreme Court made clear in a recent decision, these two provisions are not in tension, but rather work to protect religious freedom. We must also note, now more than ever, that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech is an important safeguard when the government tries to impose ideological conformity on Catholics in an attempt to force them to ignore the church’s most sacred teachings.
A look at recent cases shows that when religious practice, rights of conscience, and religious expression are suppressed, and they are suppressed, the Church’s ability to serve and evangelize is compromised. Fortunately, this current Supreme Court is very protective of the First Amendment, especially in cases involving Church autonomy and religious believers.
For example, the Court recognizes that the religion clauses of the Constitution establish a ministerial exemption that exempts churches from government interference in ministerial personnel decisions. The Court’s broad definition of who qualifies as a “minister” is especially important for key roles in our Catholic schools. Needless to say, the progressive lobby, backed by incredible amounts of money, does not want religious schools to enjoy this constitutional freedom.
Two terms ago, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s right to grant custody of children without rejecting church teaching on the nature of traditional marriage. It was an important victory, but many questions remained unanswered. Specifically, does the Constitution protect religious exercise when it conflicts with anti-discrimination laws involving sexual orientation and gender identity?
Last summer, a court upheld Washington state public high school football coach Joseph Kennedy’s right to pray for thanksgiving after games. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the Court’s majority, observed that “respect for religious expression is indispensable to living in a free and diverse republic.”
This term, the Court is reviewing another case involving religious expression. 303 Creative v. Elenis brought to you by Lori Smith, a Christian website designer in Colorado. Smith wants to expand her business by creating custom wedding websites. Lower courts ruled that Smith must also create wedding websites for same-sex marriages or violate the state’s anti-discrimination law. Smith hopes the Court will rule that such a request violates his right to free speech. Given the original nature of the Court’s majority, Smith’s constitutional rights are likely to be upheld.
Strong protections for religious exercise and expression have been good for the Church, allowing believers and the Church to participate and contribute to society without abandoning the faith. And note that while we may feel that our beliefs are being targeted, there is no need for “regime change.” The very act of protection of religious freedom provides an opportunity to evangelize. to present the Church’s teaching and explain why, as Catholics, we believe that its principles, however unpopular, advance the common good.