In 2,000 years of advancing its God-given Great Commission (see Matt. 28:18-20), the Catholic Church has negotiated with many national governments about political issues that impact its mission. Despite their Church’s serious struggles with the state, Catholics should keep in mind that the Church’s primary enemies are not human but angelic, because “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) are much more formidable and resilient than the worst totalitarian regimes. We are thus reminded that we, the Church, must always seek first God’s kingdom “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) lest we lose hope because of setbacks that are earthly and therefore ephemeral.
Given the world is not our final home, the Church’s mission is all the more vital for mankind, especially in modern decadent times, so that governments and peoples around the globe can better grasp—and hopefully implement—the type of policies that will foster genuine well-being of their people. When the Church is docile to Christ and thus focused on its mission (see Matt. 18:1-4), it is an asset to any nation and its people, to which the flourishing of many countries since Jesus walked the earth attests.
Key church-state issues that will be examined are:
- Whether a government acknowledges the existence of God;
- the issue of private property and the economy; and, particularly in light of the American experience, the related issues of
- the family;
- free speech, specifically with respect to pornography; and
Acknowledging man’s creator
The first and most important governmental provision is whether a state acknowledges the existence of God, including recognizing that all men and women have a common human nature and thus possess basic God-given human rights, beginning with the right to life (see Gen. 1:26-27). That is, does a government recognize the natural moral law of God written on the heart of all humans (Rom. 2:14-16), a law that man “does not impose upon himself but which holds him to obedience” (Gaudium et Spes 16)?
When a state doesn’t recognize its subservience to God (see Rom. 13:1), there will undoubtedly be trouble for the Church and a country’s citizens, whether or not the populace is Catholic. Classic examples are Communist governments that are by nature atheistic. In its governmental form, atheism
anticipates the liberation of man especially through his economic and social emancipation. This form argues that by its nature religion thwarts this liberation by arousing man’s hope for a deceptive future life, thereby diverting him from the constructing of the earthly city. Consequently when the proponents of this doctrine gain governmental power they vigorously fight against religion, and promote atheism by using, especially in the education of youth, those means of pressure which public power has at its disposal (Gaudium et Spes 20).
Pope Pius IX reckoned the grave impact this political cancer would inflict even before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. In the first encyclical of his pontificate, the pontiff observed:
Communism, as it is called, [is] a doctrine most opposed to the very natural law. For if this doctrine were accepted, the complete destruction of everyone’s laws, government, property, and even of human society itself would follow (Qui Pluribus 16).
Communist governments substitute their totalitarian rule for God’s sovereignty. China’s Mao Tse-Tung, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin were among the worst genocidal rulers who sought to destroy the Church and basic human rights. Ditto with the fascist socialist government of Germany under Adolf Hitler, who, though not an atheist, remade God in his own nefarious image
(see “What Was Hitler’s Religion?”, catholic.com).
The Church’s response in all these cases is to resist evil and persevere amid the darkness, whether through the witness of Ven. Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan in post-war Vietnam or Ven. Pope Pius XII, who opposed Hitler even to the point of supporting an assassination effort against him.
“We want God!”
Consider also the case of Communist Poland. The Soviet-bloc government sought to replace the Church with a “workers’ paradise,” yet Catholic Poles persevered over decades and declared “We want God!” when their native son, Pope St. John Paul, arrived in June 1979 (“Polish Throng Hails Pope,” washingtonpost.com). That visit helped spark a movement that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of Soviet Russia in August 1991.
The United States is an example of a government that acknowledged God in its Declaration of Independence and whose founders sought to safeguard religious freedom with its First Amendment. Even though various types of anti-Catholicism have sprung up in the U.S. since the nation’s foundation, Catholics have made great contributions to the development of American society. For example, in the twentieth century, strong Catholic families, labor forces, and entrepreneurial spirit contributed mightily to the rise of solid neighborhoods and the vibrancy of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc., until decline began to pervade urban areas in the latter part of the century.
In other cases, the Church has squandered the support of governments favorably disposed toward religious freedom. In Ireland, the sexual abuse of minors and mistreatment of unwed mothers within the Church allowed its enemies in recent years to pass permissive abortion laws and redefine marriage on the Emerald Isle.
(To be fair, the clerical sex abuse crisis has taken its toll on the Church’s mission elsewhere, including in the U.S., as Sunday Mass participation rates among Catholics have declined as contempt by non-Catholics has risen.
Private property and a nation’s economy
Another key political issue is private property and the nature of the economy in general. A fundamental component of pure socialism, of which communism is a severe form, is opposition to private property. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, the first of the Church’s modern social encyclicals, published in 1891, socialist regimes “working on the poor man’s envy of the rich are striving strive to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies” (4).
One hundred years after Rerum Novarum, in Centesimus Annus John Paul II noted how communism supplants human solidarity with enmity among the classes, explaining how the corrosive component of atheism aids and abets the disunifying process: “Class struggle in the Marxist sense and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law” (14).
Leo XIII also recognized that the working class can be tempted toward socialism when a comparative few control the economy and thus are “able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”(3).
Forty years later after Rerum, with the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917 evident, Pope Pius XI affirmed that socialism proposes “a remedy far worse than the evil itself,” referring to “inhumane employers” and the impact of “unbridled” capitalism (Quadragesimo Anno 10). “No one,” Pius XI concluded, “can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (120).
Both Leo and Pius taught that any remedy must recognize and promote the family as the basic building block of society. To provide for his family, a husband needs and deserves just compensation so that he can safeguard his wife and children, including through owning their own home (Rerum Novarum 13). States cannot replace the love of husband and wives for their children nor the collective efforts of families working together on the local level throughout a country.
With regard to labor, the Church supports unions to improve working conditions and wages for workers while simultaneously endorsing what might be called “capitalism with a conscience,” an economy in which entrepreneurs and employees can collaborate freely instead of being subjected to the inefficiencies, corruption, and heavy-handedness associated with state-controlled ventures.
As John Paul II summarized in Centesimus Annus:
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy” (42).
A family affair
Another key Church-state policy issue is the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. Realizing the family—including as an extension of the Church—is an impediment to its totalitarian goals, Communist regimes have always sought to eliminate or least minimize its influence, not only by destroying the bonds of monogamous marriage but also by arrogating to the state the education of children.
It is a testimony to the Church as a whole—and Catholic families individually—that they survived decades of oppression under Communist regimes in Poland, Germany, Hungary, the Ukraine, China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc.
Meanwhile, in America, Catholics overcame pervasive religious bigotry to take advantage of constitutional freedoms that allowed them in time to assimilate without sacrificing their faith. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted some fifty years after George Washington became the first U.S. president,
America is the most democratic country in the world, and at the same time, according to reliable reports, it is the country in which the Roman Catholic religion is making the most progress.
That progress was constituted by the flourishing of the nuclear family, something the U.S. government promoted since colonial times. However, John Adams recognized the frailty of the American experiment, foreseeing trouble for the family in particular and the country as whole if the people began to veer off their moral course. As he proclaimed to the Massachusetts Militia in October 1798:
Avarice, ambition, revenge or galantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other (as given at founders.archives.gov).
In time, Catholics would enjoy a zenith in American culture, beginning in the 1930s and including, because of the rise of labor movements and the Legion of Decency, a period of cultural prosperity that lasted until the early 1960s, when the prevailing Christian culture—as in other Western nations—began a precipitous decline.
Cracks form, walls crumble
Indeed, problems began to fester in the 1920s and ’30s when the Anglican Church in England became the first Protestant denomination to allow for the morality of contraception, and various U.S. Protestant religious bodies gradually followed suit. Margaret Sanger began to prosecute her infernal cause through the American Birth Control League, the forerunner to Planned Parenthood, and contraception became increasingly commonplace in America.
When the Pill debuted in 1960, many Americans—including, sadly, Catholics—were ready to embrace this easy-to-use and effective contraceptive. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court completed the cultural sea change by legalizing the interstate sale of contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut).
In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope St. Paul VI accurately predicted that widespread contraceptive use would result in a general lowering of morality and an increase in coercive measures by states to address population concerns through sterilization and abortion. He also predicted the exporting of such “family planning” internationally, as we have seen the United States do for decades, particularly in its foreign policy with Third-World countries.
During this same period, the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment’s free-speech protections permit pornography. A decline in social morality gained momentum, exacerbated first by the proliferation of pay TV and then the mainstreaming of the Internet and invention of smartphones and other portable viewing devices. Not surprisingly, human trafficking for sexual crimes has increased as well.
Eventually, in a society that has forgotten why the marital act is “marital,” the U.S. Supreme Court redefined marriage to include state-sanctioned homosexual relationships (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015).
The education of young people has accordingly deteriorated. And so, while debates over how to number the Ten Commandments contributed to the advent of the U.S. Catholic school system many years ago, children are now being taught that there is a desired plurality of family models in public schools. The Supreme Court has offered a glimmer of hope through a 2020 decision defending parents’ rights to use their taxpayer dollars to finance their children’s schools, including if those schools are religious (Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue).
How can the Church respond?
Amid the social upheaval in America and around the world, the Church would do well to remember the adage of Darrell Royal, the legendary University of Texas football coach, in discussing how he prepared for a big game: “Dance with the one that brung ya.” In other words, continue to emphasize the fundamentals, including the same basic game plan that has enabled you to get to the big game; so also the Church with its perennial Great Commission.
In short, the Church must be focused on Jesus in its formation of both clergy and lay people, which means promoting the efficacy of the sacraments that Jesus gave us, our seven spiritual weapons to wield against our primary and persistent spiritual enemies. First and foremost, given the frequency we can celebrate them, are the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession.
It is a Christ-centered game plan that will enable us to endure all trials, whether in America or elsewhere, and to provide a credible and attractive witness to our fellow Christians as well as other believers and people of goodwill who stand together with us in key cultural battles (see CCC 2105). By living our faith and encouraging others to acknowledge and embrace the natural law, we will live lives that will—individually and collectively—foster genuine state reform in our own countries and encourage the same for other state governments around the world.
Sidebar: Natural Law, the Family, and the Future of States that Disregard Them
The eternal law, St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes, is God’s rational plan for all of creation (Summa Theologiae, I-II:91:1). The natural law is the “rational creature’s [man] participation in the eternal law” (Ibid., I-II:91:2).
The natural moral law is evidenced in the complementarity of the marital act, the conjugal expression in which husband and wife become two in one flesh through complete self-donation to one another (Gen. 2:23; Matt. 19:4-6). The possibility of procreation further testifies that a couple who engages in conjugal intimacy should be married.
In contrast, efforts to redefine marriage strive to dignify sodomy and mutual masturbation, the fundamental acts that distinguish such relationships, as genuine expressions of love, even though the absence of complementarity, including fecundity, is self-evident in these choices.
In addition, as Pope St. John Paul summarized well, “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family” (Familiaris Consortio 75). This is because the family is the basic building block of society: neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries rely on the collective strength of individual families. At the heart of the family is the relationship between husband and wife: marriage, an institution whose natural origin is affirmed in societies, Christian and non-Christian, around the world (Gen. 1:28).
In concluding his first chapter of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul proclaimed that the natural law is knowable by all men and women and added the consequences of rejecting it are grave.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. . . .
For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error (Rom. 1:18-23, 26-27, 32).
States that reject the natural law through legalizing abortion, redefining marriage, imposing contraception funding on Church entities, etc., are on track to destroy their nations from self-inflicted wounds. The Church must resist such measures with charitable boldness (James 4:7), never flinching from speaking the truth and giving witness to it otherwise, and remembering that the worse of its human enemies—in contrast to its irrevocable angelic enemies (Eph. 6:12)—can be won over to the kingdom.