Five-Hundred Years Later in America

October 31, 2017

It’s Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. It’s also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” which led to the Protestant “Reformation.” For American Catholics, it is a time for reflection on the somewhat uneasy relationship that has existed between themselves and the surrounding culture. The English colonists brought their anti-Catholicism with them to the shores of what would be called the United States, and subsequent history brought such anti-Catholic efforts as Knownothingism and the Ku Klux Clan. Even in recent years we witnessed the shot across our bow that was the contraception mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the effort of the American Civil Liberties Union to compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. And there has been a grand total of one Catholic president since the founding of the Republic, and he was not elected until 1960.

Now none of this is quite the same as being fed to lions in the Colosseum, of course, so too much lamentation over our state of affairs in the United States would be unseemly, presented as we are with examples of martyrs down through the centuries. Still, it would be unwise to ignore the anti-Catholic gene present in our national DNA, which makes its presence known from time to time. It comes from more than the puerile protests against Church opposition to sexual license that we often see. Rather, it derives from the same concern over a foreign governance that motivated Henry VIII. Thus both presidential candidates Al Smith and John Kennedy faced concerns that they would take their marching orders from the Vatican once elected.  

Confronted with such concerns even today, we should not be bashful about the fact that we do indeed consider the spiritual power superior to the temporal power. It is simply a way of saying that we consider God to be of a higher authority than governments. Of course, anyone who holds to theism in any form has to agree with that. Otherwise he would be saying that humans have more authority than the Creator, which would be absurd.

None of this means, however, that Catholics should be in favor of forcibly imposing their religion on the unwilling. On the contrary,

“’Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits.’ This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order. For this reason it ‘continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Sec. 2106) [1]

There are still integralists in the world who will insist that error has no rights. That is a true statement. But it misses the point.

“The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.” (CCC, Sec. 2108) [2] [3]   

There are those who will make the ahistorical claim that religious liberty derives from Protestantism. But the history those claimants ignore is rich with examples showing why religion should never be subjected to the state, and, further, that forcibly imposing religion on people is productive mainly of hypocrisy.

It is not only safe, but preferable, to return the sword to the sheath.

Jack Quirk