The Symbiosis of Church and State (July 2012 Reflections)


For over 200 years, the Church and the State in America have enjoyed a mutually enriching relationship.  The Church has been free of government restrictions to pursue its mission.  The State has benefited from the influence of religious thinking to clarify the moral dimensions of its political decisions.  The people have profited from the ability to worship God – or not – as they chose.  Society has had the advantage of the beneficence of the charitable activities that flow from religious teachings.

These advantages have come about as a result of the complementary roles of the Church and a democratic society.  The Church acts in the material world to assist man to gain his transcendent end, an eternity in the kingdom of God.  The government of the United States was formed by the People to establish a society marked by justice, domestic tranquility, the promotion of the general welfare, and the securing of the blessings of liberty – conditions that allow the Church to flourish.

A democracy working to achieve the common good requires a populace imbued with civic virtue; and virtue is best instilled by religion.  Without the underpinnings of religion, a government of and by the people cannot succeed for very long.  As then-Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen wrote in his book, Whence Come Wars, without religion, a “democracy will denigrate into demagogy by selling itself to the highest bidder.”  That is, the source of right and wrong will be determined by the rule of the majority.

The consonance between Church and State in America has worked well.  Bishop John Ireland, in addressing the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, on November 10, 1884, said: “There is no conflict between the Catholic Church and America.  I could not utter one syllable that would belie, however remotely, either the Church or the Republic, and when I assert, as I now solemnly do, that the principles of the Church are in thorough harmony with the interests of the Republic, I know in the depths of my soul that I speak the truth.”

The same assertions were made by James Cardinal Gibbons in his inaugural homily after being raised to that canonical rank.  On March 25, 1887, from the pulpit of his titular church in Rome, he stated: “I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our country has liberty without license, authority without despotism.”

This does not mean that societal conditions promoting religious freedom in America have been ideal.  Far from it.  Throughout the nation’s history, there has been bigotry, discrimination, the rise of the nativist Know Nothing movement in the 1840s, xenophobic feelings of the resident Protestant inhabitants toward the waves of Catholic immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vitriolic outbursts of anti-Catholicism that arose as a result of the nomination of Alfred E. Smith in 1928 as a candidate for the presidency of the United States and, more recently, the imbalanced media coverage of problems in the Catholic Church.

None of this, however, could negate the belief of Bishop John F. Nolls, who, in his book, It is Happening Here, wrote, “We have the best government under the best constitution in the world.”  The discriminatory movements of the past were the result of sentiments within the populace-at-large, rather than governmental restrictions or legislative action.

The sentiments of these Catholic leaders reflected the degree of religious freedom provided in the United States in contrast to that of other nations.  The rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany resulted in direct attacks on the Catholic Church and even on the Vatican.  The Communist government in Russia exiled priests and closed tens of thousands of churches.  Similar atrocities occurred in China and Vietnam, and continue today in countries in Africa and Asia.  The Spanish Civil War resulted in 20,000 churches being pillaged and 6,500 clergy being murdered.  When anti-Catholic rhetoric was aimed at Al Smith in the United States, in the same period, as the film For Greater Glory reminds us, the government of Mexico tried to suppress Catholicism with armed force, exiling all bishops, razing churches, and murdering priests and staunchly-religious laymen.

Religious freedom in America is certainly not being purged with military might.  We are not at a point of armed rebellion.  But religious freedom is now being assaulted through government action.  The most overt and egregious move is the HHS mandate which will force religious groups and individuals to pay for health insurance that covers abortifacients, sterilization and contraception, in direct violation of Catholic Church doctrines.  In addition, the mandate defines a religious organization so restrictively that hospitals, universities, schools, and numerous charitable and social service groups, established and operated by the Catholic Church, are not considered religious.

For the first time in the history of this nation, the government is using its powers to coerce religious organizations and restrict religious freedom.  This is a challenge that must be opposed.  We must raise our voices and follow it with actions to say No to this persecution.  We must rededicate this nation to God and to the basic principles set forth in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  We must return America to the land it once was and ought to be.

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Published July 2012 in various Knights of Columbus publications in Maryland

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