The early Christians lived in a police state and were judged subversive if they refused to worship the Roman emperor. Yet even during periods of persecution, these Christians insisted they were law-abiding citizens. The anonymous author of a short second-century essay known as the Letter to Diognetus, for instance, said of his brothers and sisters: “They share the laws men make, but their lives are better than the laws.... In a word, what the soul is to the body Christians are to the world.”
Of course, that ringing sentence described an ideal never yet fully realized. There have always been plenty of Christians to whom the psalmist’s rebuke of the Hebrews could be applied: “They mingled with the nations and learned to act as they did” (Ps 106:35). To be accurate, it should be said that Christians aim to be what the soul is to the body.
Granted this qualification, it is fair to say that genuine Christians have not sought to flee the world but to improve and perhaps to transform it. This is true even of apparent exceptions. The medieval monasteries cultivated not only contemplation but also the surrounding fields. Contemporary Amish-Americans may spurn much machine technology but they excel in such civilizing enterprises as farming, cooking and crafts.
Christians have, however, often collided with one or another political state because both religious and civil society are deeply concerned with many of the great zones of human experience—family life, education, the arts and sciences, the care of the sick and the welfare of the poor and the quality of national life.
John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit theologian who was one of the chief architects of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (1965), used to point out that the church has two goals in its relationship to any state: freedom to pursue its own mission and as much harmony as possible between its values and laws and those of civil society.
Both goals encounter impediments in the United States today. In a report to the U.S. bishops last November, Mark Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted certain threats to freedom. “Religious institutions,” he said, “have increasingly been subjected to pressures to conform to the culture in ways that are contrary to their teachings.”
One case Mr. Chopko cited was analyzed in America’s pages two weeks ago by Thomas C. Berg, a law professor (“Religious Freedom in the Catacombs”). A California law says that if private employers offer their employees prescription-drug insurance, this coverage must include contraceptives and drugs that induce abortion. Catholic Charities of Sacramento does indeed provide drug insurance but wishes to be exempt from the requirement of paying for contraceptives. On March 1 of this year, the California Supreme Court denied that exemption.
That the question of abortion should have been a factor in this case is not surprising, since abortion is the most glaring current instance of disharmony between a civil law and the moral principles not only of Catholics but also of many other citizens. After all, a Newsweek poll in 1998 found that 56 percent of those surveyed believe abortion is wrong, although 69 percent think a woman should be allowed to choose it with her doctor’s advice.
A number of Catholic politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, routinely say that although they are personally opposed to abortion, they defer on this bitterly divisive question to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that in effect legalized abortion on demand.
All the same, as our editorial of May 24 noted, it is reasonable to expect Catholic politicians to do what they can to reduce the number of abortions. One officeholder who did just that was Robert P. Casey (1932-2000), who was governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995. He was a liberal on economic and social policy but also firmly pro-life. Under his leadership, the Pennsylvania legislature in 1989 passed a law placing a few restrictions on abortion. In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld three of these provisions. Pundits like to say that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, but to be correct they should say Roe v. Wade as qualified by Planned Parenthood v. Casey is the law of the land.
His party penalized Governor Casey for his courage and convictions by refusing to allow him to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. His deeds, however, had already spoken for him. To borrow a few more phrases from the Letter to Diognetus, Robert Casey had not only been a witness to the Gospel, but he had also played “his full role as a citizen.”