A New Subordinationism

It’s not about the relationship between the divine persons in the Trinity. It’s about the contemporary effort to subordinate the church to the state in our nation.

The subordinationist signs of the times continue to multiply. Through the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate to cooperate in the provision of contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients, the government is pressing religious employers to violate core beliefs concerning human life. It is a strange spectacle to watch federal agents threaten the Little Sisters of the Poor with ruinous fines, as if the nuns had suddenly become a criminal organization.


Outraged state legislators are moving to block religious schools from imposing morals clauses in contracts with their employees. (Morals clauses in Hollywood film contracts remain intact.) Catholic hospitals face intensified pressure to violate certain moral principles if they are to receive state funds or even to survive. In 2009 the Judiciary Committee of the State of Connecticut endorsed a law that would force all religious denominations to adopt a congregationalist model of church organization. Although the initiative failed, new state efforts to interfere with the basic ecclesiology of religious groups will resurface. Once dismissed as the fevered rants of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, calls to abolish civil religious exemptions and religious tax exemptions have suddenly become the received wisdom for fashionable legal theorists.

This expanded intervention of the state in the internal life of religious institutions not only weakens personal freedom and the freedom of the church; it is wounding the national American character. Much nonsense has been written about American exceptionalism, but there is one exceptional trait of which Americans have rightly boasted: our promotion of a robust “free exercise of religion,” with its allied reverence for the conscience of the religious believer. We fail to appreciate how rare in world history is the conscientious objection to military service we have honored during times of military conscription.

When state action diminished religious freedom, federal courts often reversed the damage. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Pierce (1925) and Yoder (1972) affirmed the right of parents to educate children according to their religious convictions against the state efforts to enforce educational uniformity.

When the Supreme Court downgraded the import of the “free exercise” clause in the Smith (1990) decision, which declared that the State of Oregon had to demonstrate only a “rational interest” in banning the peyote used by a group of Native Americans in their religious rituals, Congress promptly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) by a virtually unanimous vote. The act restored the older legal test of “strict scrutiny” for religious freedom cases. Any state action placing a substantial burden on the citizen’s exercise of religious freedom must serve a “compelling” interest and must do so in a manner that is the least restrictive of religious freedom. Only a generation ago, a virtually unanimous consensus accorded religious freedom a near-absolute value in the national hierarchy of goods. But the hysteria over Indiana’s state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this past spring indicates how rapidly that esteem has disappeared. Religious liberty is suddenly dismissed as nothing but a mask for bias and hate.

Gallicanism and Josephism were once quaint heresies reserved for a paragraph in seminary textbooks. They represented ancient efforts to subordinate church to state in vanished monarchies. But the specter of Cardinal Richelieu is once again abroad.

The American bishops have nobly led the good fight against the new assaults on religious freedom. During his recent speech at the White House, Pope Francis praised “the United States bishops, [who] have called us to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that [religious] freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” To illustrate his point, he paid an impromptu visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the current group on the firing line of state encroachment on religious freedom. As our once-robust free exercise of religion dwindles to a wan “freedom of worship,” our first duty is to be lucid.

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Henry George
3 years 3 months ago
Perhaps it is time for the Catholics and other Christians who are being persecuted for following the tenets of their faith to refuse to pay taxes and to co-operate with the government as long as the government denies them right to worship God as they see fit. Fill the jails, refuse to pay fines/penalities - remain loyal to our Lord God no matter what we must suffer for our faith. When we die and stand before the Judgement Throne of God we will not be asked if we followed the tenets of the Constitution but whether we followed the commandments of our Creator.
Richard Booth
3 years 2 months ago
I think we sometimes forget, when specific issues become hot, that America was founded on the idea that there be no State religion. Religions are constituted of belief systems, philosophies/theologies, which often become institutionalized. Which should "win" the battle the author speaks of? So-called religious freedom's advocates (despite existing laws) or individuals' rights and duties dictated by a nation of laws? The ACA is a law. Regarding the cardinal example the author writes of, nations are not religious per se; rather, religion is merely one of the many social institutions within a nation-state.
Henry George
2 years 12 months ago
James, Oddly, for whatever reason, States were allowed to promote specific religions. The outlawing of the exercise of your religion is denying you the right to live out your religion. The ACA is unconstitutional as it mandates that funding for what many consider to be immoral actions - whether they do so for religious reasons or via their consciences makes no Constitutional difference.
3 years 3 months ago
Fr. Conley, You make a serious charge when you say: “The subordinationist signs of the times continue to multiply. Through the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate to cooperate in the provision of contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients, the government is pressing religious employers to violate core beliefs concerning human life. It is a strange spectacle to watch federal agents threaten the Little Sisters of the Poor with ruinous fines, as if the nuns had suddenly become a criminal organization.” Please read Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, the Sisters’ court challenge to the mandates of the Affordable Care Act. The regulations discussed in the opinion provide the relief the Sisters seek if they choose to use them; I can see no moral or ethical objection in doing so. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/15-105-op-below.pdf HARRY Harold T. Hartinger
Louis Candell
3 years 3 months ago
Fr. Conley, I fail to see how the accommodation provisions offered to the Little Sisters of the Poor still violates any right to the free exercise of religion. The organization is not being asked to renounce any religious belief or to actively assist in the provision of any form of contraception. Naturally, the religious order believes that contraception is a moral wrong and it is entitled to that belief. Nonetheless, a right to the free exercise of religion does not entitle it to impose its beliefs on others by insisting that the accommodation provision doesn't adequately protect that right. The right to free exercise of religion does not require those who may may disagree with certain of the religious order's beliefs to relinquish their right to seek legal contraception measures.
William Rydberg
3 years 2 months ago
Thank you Father for giving this larger perspective... I live in Canada, and sadly what you describe has been lost for generations in my opinion. Several years ago our Supreme Court threw out the existing Federal Law on Abortion. To date, there are no laws whatsoever. The newly elected Government Party has banned persons that favour Pro-Life position from running for Federal Election. The previous (defeated) government Prime Minister would not discuss the issue either... Perhaps, a glimpse of a possible American future? in Christ


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