It is a remarkable fact of history that Jesus and his apostles, as well as a good number of early Christians, found themselves running afoul of the temporal authorities. In his epistle to Timothy, St. Paul says that he is “suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal” (2 Tim. 2-9) on account of the Gospel. So serious were the crimes of which they were convicted that nearly all of them were put to death.
We do well to meditate on this fact. Why did the political authorities persecute Jesus and his apostles? Were the new Christians attempting to gain political power? Were they promoting insurrections or a new political system with new leadership?
Political power unimportant
Quite the contrary. Every time political power was offered to our Lord, he flatly refused it. When in the desert the devil tried to tempt Jesus to become a king, Jesus showed no interest. When after the miracle of the loaves the people wanted to carry Jesus off and make him king, he fled. When tempted by the Herodians to criticize the tax system, Jesus simply replied: “’Bring me a coin, and let me look at it. . . . Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus said, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’” (Mark 12:16).
When Peter drew his sword in the garden to defend Jesus, our Lord rebuked him with the words: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). And when Pontius Pilate asks him point blank: “Are you a king?” Jesus says unequivocally: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Jesus was not the least bit interested in political power. He had more important things to tend to—like the salvation of the world from sin. And the apostles and early Christians were the same. St. Peter, for example writes to the early Christians:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Pet. 2:13-14).
Those are not the words of a revolutionary.
So then, back to our original question: why was there such a universal conflict between political authorities and the first Christians? The answer is not that Jesus and the first Christians were usurping political authority; it was that the political authorities were usurping the authority of God. They were not in prison for raising their swords in revolt against the state but rather for raising their voices to speak to the conscience of every man against the trespasses of the state on the rights of God.
When we say that a state is “totalitarian,” what do we mean? We mean, as the etymology of the name implies, that the state claims total control over all aspects of human life. There is no sphere of reality that does not fall under the authority claimed by the totalitarian state. The communist regime in the former Soviet Union is a good example of this. It even mandated “communist mathematics,” attempting to invent mathematical theories that would support the political philosophy behind communism.
So what are some sure signs that a state is becoming totalitarian? When it begins to trespass on areas of reality and human life that are not caused or determined by the state but rather have their origin from another authority. These areas that escape the authority of the state can be summed up under two categories: the natural realm and the supernatural realm.
Control over the supernatural
The totalitarian state claims authority in the realm of the supernatural, over man’s relationship with God. Thus the ancient Roman state claimed the authority to dictate what gods were to be worshipped and how they were to be worshipped. In our country, thankfully, we have a safeguard against such totalitarianism. It is called the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion nor restricting the free exercise thereof.”
But our leaders, driven by their totalitarian tendencies, have not been content to observe this law. Somehow, they have interpreted the word “Congress” to include state governments, public schools, and public employees. Somehow they have interpreted “shall make no law” to mean “shall enable no action.” Somehow they have interpreted “establishment of religion” to mean “expression of religion.” So now every action that involves a public expression of religion somehow enabled by any public institution is the Congress making a law establishing religion. Strange.
On the other hand, the second clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted to mean “nor restricting private worship,” ignoring all the public expressions of religion that are required for the free exercise of religion. The net effect is that prayer and other public expressions of religion have been prohibited in our country in spite of the clear words of the First Amendment. This not an interpretation of the First Amendment but a simple refusal of the state to abide by a law that restricts its totalitarian tendencies.
And these tendencies do not end at public institutions: in our nation, private Catholic adoption services have been closed in seventeen states and counting. Why? Because they hold the “irrational” position that children should be given to homes with a mother and father. Our government is in lawsuits against hundreds of private institutions, colleges, educational institutions, hospitals, even the Little Sisters of the Poor. Why on Earth would our government want to close down so many private, religious institutions aimed at charitable works? The answer is simple: the government wants total authority over the practice of religion.
Control over nature
The second area where totalitarian states seek total control is the realm of nature. The past decades have witnessed a remarkable lack of respect by governments for the natural world, with devastating effects in many places. But as Pope Francis observes in his encyclical Laudato Si, if governments think that human nature can be manipulated for its own purposes, there is no reason why the rest of the natural world ought to be respected and conserved. If you care nothing for human nature, I have a hard time believing you really care about the Great Barrier Reef or the spotted owl.
And it is in this realm of human nature that our government has begun to trespass in astounding ways over the past decades. There are many aspects of human life that are determined by nature that the state has the duty to recognize and protect and which the state has no authority to manipulate or control. Personhood, marriage, family, male and female are all natural realities, and yet it is exactly these realities that the state pretends to create and control.
According to its totalitarian ideology, these natural realities are merely social constructs. And “social construct” means “made by the society” (i.e., the state) so that they are wholly subject to the authority of the state.
We can give examples for each case. The state has manipulated the definition of person to exclude obviously living human beings. In some states if a pregnant woman is assaulted and the baby dies, the baby is treated as a person, and the assailant can be tried for murder. But if instead that day the woman has an abortion (even if it is due to pressure from a man), the same baby is treated as a non-person. This means that, according to the state, personhood is not founded in nature but is conferred or not conferred by the state on whomever it pleases. And now with the advent of assisted suicide, the elderly and the infirm can fall outside of the state’s definition of person.
Marriage and family are also obviously natural realities, not in any way created by the state. Before any state existed, men and women were uniting in lifelong communions for the sake of raising their children. And without marriage and family no state could exist. Marriage and family does not depend upon the state, but vice versa. Without men and women coming together to raise their children, human nature could not continue: marriage and family are therefore necessarily natural.
Yet in our times the state has the audacity to claim that it is the author of marriage and family, creating new definitions of marriage and family in the name of a false tolerance that shows no tolerance to children who need a father and a mother.
The most recent and audacious usurpation of the natural realm by our government has come in the form of gender ideology, which asserts the obviously false position that male and female are social constructs. Imagine that: whether you are male or female depends upon the state! In fact, male and female are natural and good differences necessary for human flourishing. But the state now forces its citizens to treat as male or female whomever identifies as such.
Future generations at risk
All of these false assertions are presented to the young as a matter of civil rights, but they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are really about the “rights” of the state to dominate all aspects of human nature.
Our children need to be taught that their dignity as persons does not come from the state; that the dignity of their families does not come from the state; that the dignity of marriage and their dignity as male and female do not come from the state but from God, the Author of nature.
The most egregious violation of human dignity over the past decades has come from the scourge of abortion, where a defenseless child is killed in its mother’s womb. Even the rhetoric of “choice” that is used to justify such a barbarous act is hypocritical: for the sake of making one, ugly, violent choice, millions of beautiful choices are snuffed out. So, no, those in favor of abortion are not even pro-choice. In the U.S., one out of every three children in their mothers’ womb die from abortion. And the greatest scandal of all is that the only reason abortion is legal in our nation is because Catholics have continued to vote for pro-abortion politicians. Such Catholics must repent.
So I have a question for you: if the doors of the place you are sitting right now were locked and you were informed that one third of the people in your building will be killed in nine months unless the pro-abortion laws in this country are overturned, how would you vote? You know full well how you would vote: you would vote 100 percent pro-life. When it’s your life, suddenly it becomes important. As Ronald Reagan famously quipped: “I see that all of you who are in favor of abortion have already been born.”
Abortion is not a political matter, it is a matter of keeping a commandment at the very heart of our religion: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s just that simple. And if someone came to test Jesus about this matter, I know what he would say: bring me a child. Whose image and inscription do you see there? God’s. Then render unto God the things that are God’s!
For those who are afraid that they are bringing their religion into the ballot box, I have one observation. A political system that allows people to vote, regardless of their beliefs, has a name: democracy. And I guarantee you that those who are anti-religious will bring their opinions into the ballot box.
When all is said and done, we Catholics have an obligation to protect those without a voice, the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Yet our hope is not found in the next president of the United States, nor in the Supreme Court. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. And in all things, his will must reign in our hearts.