American school children are taught to revere the sacrifice made by soldiers in the Continental Army, during the winter of 1777-78, at Valley Forge. Most don’t realize that the following winter, outside Morristown, New Jersey, was even worse. Here’s a soldier’s description, from Thomas S. Kidd’s God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010): “We were absolutely, literally starved — I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark, which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals. I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and eat them” (210). Only a few years after the revolution, virtually all Americans came to realize that our collective, national prosperity required a strong central government. Soldiers starved during the revolution because there was no national authority that could compel citizens or states to meet their needs.
As this Fortnight of Freedom occurs at a time when many would argue that the smallest possible government is best, we either need to be reminded of our own history, or ponder life in contemporary societies where strong governments do not exist to protect and promote the common good. A strong government can sometimes be a problem; a weak government always is. More than a century of Catholic social teaching affirms the role of government in promoting the common good. That teaching cannot be a casualty of the current crisis.
Giving government its due, before turning to the Church, ponder the role of faith itself in human life. Consider a letter that Abigail Adams sent to her husband John in 1783. She wrote, “I have a thousand fears for my dear boys as they rise into life, the most critical period of which is, I conceive, at the university; there infidelity abounds, both in example and precepts.” Abigail urged her husband, absent in government service, “I hope before either of our children are prepared for college you will be able to return and assist by your example and advise, to direct and counsel them, that with undeviating feet they may keep the path of virtue.”
That’s faith at the American hearthstone, pondering the meaning of discipleship in an ever-changing world. The very word “religion” comes from a Latin root meaning “to bind together,” which is precisely what it does in the life of an individual or a family. A religion pulls together emotions, virtues, deepest intuitions and aspirations. It clothes them in symbols, rituals, scriptures and commandments. In short, it unifies life. To be human is to collect one’s energies and to focus them outside the self, on something larger than self.
Religion is so intimately bound up with the self — it’s akin to finding a lover and giving oneself to that embrace — that, were it not for our mutual desire to live with others, we’ve have almost as many religions as we do people. The ancients — and until relatively recent times in the span of human history, all peoples — solved the problem of religion, being in equal measure unitive and divisive, by forming societies around single religions: one society, one faith, even if those who dissented were allowed to remain on the periphery. For centuries, this was the Catholic approach to the question: good governments chose the right religion, namely, the Catholic faith as given by God and protected by the papacy.
Some have argued that our bishops are asking the American government to accept their morality as the only one enjoying the right of law. If so, they would be turning away from Catholic teaching itself, because the Church, in the Second Vatican Council’s Document on Religious Liberty, taught that governments must allow religious pluralism, that it is “imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice”(Dignitatus Humanae §6). Why is that? Because we must be free to respond to God, to give ourselves to God according to the dictates of conscience. The Church no longer claims the right to legislate, simply because it is the Church. Put another way, the Catholic conscience — if there is such a singular thing — does not immediately become the constitution of the state. The Church exists to correct conscience, not to coerce it. Yet, even if the Church does not seek to dominate the state, the question remains, how does government, which by its very nature exists to draw us together, coexist with religion, which does the same?
America was founded both by those who represented the established Church of England and by those who had come to these shores in order to reject that Church. And, by the time of the revolution, American society had a growing number of intellectuals who, however they described themselves, believed that all forms of Christianity were in rapid decline.
These three groups – the established religion, its dissenters, and its disdainers agreed on a single point: since there could be no consensus in religion, it should never be the task of government to seek or to impose one. Contrary to popular opinion, America wasn’t founded upon erecting a wall between Church and State, because such a wall would of necessity run through the center of the human person, through the heart of someone like Abigail Adams.
The American Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, who helped draft Dignitatus Humanae, pointed out this error, one now proposed by many in our society, and at the highest levels of power. In The Problem of Religious Freedom (1965), he explained that there is “a hidden premise which is false, namely, a rationalist-individualist conception of man, as if the human person were somehow first an individual and only in the second instance a social being” (37). Remember Abigail Adams. She knew that her sons had been formed as human beings by their family life together. She also understood that they would be shaped by their higher education in, and outside of, the classroom.
All governments, by necessity, regulate the practice of religion. If they failed to do this, there would soon be unending religious strife, and we would return to the aboriginal state from which society emerged. Yet no government can draw a line of separation between religious congregations and religious activity, between Catholic Churches and Catholic institutions — medical, educational, and social — and argue that the one deserves protection of conscience and that the others do not. That line has been drawn by every totalitarian government of the 20th century: worship as you will, but we will control your social agencies. Such an approach attacks humanity itself by relegating religion, an integral part of human nature, to the private sphere.
All religions have expectations of how their adherents will live with others, how they will promote justice and the common good, how they will form their young in virtues and integrity of conscience. No government can legitimately order faith to be confined to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, and yet each government has the unenviable task of protecting the liberty of one person’s religion from the intrusion of another.
American history, and the Arab Spring, remind us that governments either promote the common good or it is the right and duty of men and women to replace them with those that do. We need government to protect us from ourselves, but we also need religion to reach beyond ourselves, to dream, to enkindle hope, the sort of hope that once stirred in hearts of Galilean fishermen, when they heard Jesus of Nazareth say, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” (Mk 5:41).
Rev. Terrance W. Klein