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Religious liberty and citizenship


The nation-state is never the final arbiter or authority for the Catholic on what is moral.
Bishop John-Michael (Botean)
Eparchy of Canton (Ohio)
Romanian Catholic Church

‘My country right or wrong’, first said by the American naval officer Stephen Decatur, is not Catholic teaching.

The United States always has presented a problem for Catholicism, it seems, until Vatican II tried to balance the absolute claims of the faith on truth (which is right) with ‘the dignity of the human person’ allowing religious liberty, American-style.

I believe we can hold two views on this and still be faithful.

The first and older one has the Church as the state religion: Byzantine-style symphonia like in Orthodox tsarist Russia. The British system, even though it is now Protestant, is a shell of such a system. (I am happy that Canadians still have the Queen as their sovereign.) Fine: ideally the government supports the true faith. But what if, as in ‘Reformation’-era England, the sovereign goes into schism or heresy? (Ideally, in such cases, the subjects’ allegiance to the monarch would be abrogated, but that’s really hard to enforce when the king has the army, etc. to enforce his will.)

The second, accepting the system pioneered in the US and now used by most Western countries, can allow religious liberty as a relative good. The same radical freedom that allows some of our fellow citizens to be wrong also allows the true faith to flourish. The Society of St Pius X, et al., are right to oppose indifferentism (‘one religion is as good as another’), but now it seems to me that Vatican II wasn’t promoting indifferentism at all, but rather the kind of liberty described above. Interestingly enough, the liberal dissenters in the Roman Catholic Church seem to agree with the SSPX that Vatican II taught indifferentism, in which case they are wrong.

One thing that’s wrong with US culture today is that the officially agnostic state has itself become a kind of substitute for religion: witness the Greek-temple-style monuments in Washington. (Reflecting symphonia with the faith, I’d rather have a kremlin or the Gothic medieval-style architecture of Westminster!) This seems to be backed up by Protestantism, which most Americans nominally belong to, which makes sense since Protestantism and the secularism of the founding fathers are sequential, logical errors moving away from the faith. The Protestant religious right seems particularly prone to confuse the two (witness Jerry Falwell’s ‘Liberty University’). They either don’t seem to realize that uncritical acceptance of the American way inevitably leads to the secular humanism they’re against, or they try to rewrite history and paint the founding fathers as good evangelicals, rolling back the Enlightenment-style liberty the framers of the American government envisioned. Some want to go back to Cotton Mather’s New England, with their heresy as the state-backed faith. (In the unlikely event they took over the US, we’d all be persecuted as idol-worshippers in a few years. Just like in Elizabethan England.)

For all their failings, the 18th-century founders of the United States based their new system on natural law, and it has worked pretty well.

My view as a citizen is that God wants loyalty in terms of protecting one’s family and community (echoing Catholic teaching about subsidiarity and libertarian beliefs about states’ rights), not necessarily the increasingly secular, hostile-to-our-freedoms abstraction that is the federal government (a largely modern invention, not intended by the founding fathers). (America should have stayed out of World Wars I and II, neither of which threatened people in the US.) Conscientious-objector status isn’t just for Amish and Quakers. More on World War II.

At the end of the day, in our fallen world only the faith lived out can give some semblance of ‘liberty and justice for all’ (to quote the problematic 1930s US pledge to the flag), not any government.

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High-church libertarian curmudgeon