Church’s Role in Public Square

Catholic Sense 9

Church’s Role in Public Square

By David Mills

“Last I heard, we had separation of church and state in this country,” declared a congressman from Colorado just a couple of weeks ago. “I’ve got to say that I think the Catholic bishops and all of the other groups shouldn’t have input.”

“It is profoundly disturbing that the Roman Catholic Church appears to be using threats and fear to manipulate a democratic political process to enforce Catholic doctrine regarding abortion and human sexuality,” declared a columnist for the widely-read website Beliefnet. “Coercive religion should have no place in a church or a pluralistic, democratic nation.”

The congressman was upset that the Catholic bishops had insisted that the health care bill not include abortion. The columnist was upset that the Archdiocese of Washington rejected the city council’s attempt to force it to recognize homosexual “marriage.” Both thought the Church should just shut up, that Catholics have no right to speak, as Catholics, in public affairs.

Dozens of politicians and journalists have said things like this lately. Many of us have heard people tee off on the Church for her alleged meddling in national politics, justified with the inevitable appeal to “the separation of church and state.” Or to “pluralism” or “democracy,” which is the more sophisticated way of saying the same thing.

It’s a kind of magic spell, that short, simple phrase. A Christian raises a question of morality, and the person who doesn’t want to answer the question sings out “separation of church and state,” fully expecting the Christian to curl up like a dead spider.

Never mind that the men who wrote the American Constitution didn’t mean anything of the sort. Never mind that a truly pluralistic, democratic nation expects people to bring their deepest convictions to the public debate over what the government should do.

And never mind that the Church has repeatedly pointed out that she is simply recognizing the right and wrong everyone can see. There’s nothing “doctrinal” or “sectarian” about saying that killing an unborn child is wrong and that the child deserves the same legal protection he would have were he born.

“You shall not kill” is no more “dogmatic” than “You shall not swindle Mrs. Jones out of her life savings.” It’s a statement of the moral law. More to the point, it’s no more dogmatic than “the Catholic bishops shouldn’t have input” and “Coercive religion should have no place in a pluralistic, democratic nation.”

But you will have trouble getting a hearing if you say this. I don’t mean to be unkind, but we should be clear that these responses are not very thoughtful and that Catholics should not be intimidated by them, though they are delivered loudly and forcefully. You may feel as if you’d showed up with your notes for a polite exchange and your opponent showed up with a foghorn and a baseball bat after drinking nineteen cups of coffee. You reasonably suspect that he doesn’t have reason on his side. But you shouldn’t back down.

So what can you say to someone who wants to banish Catholics from the public debate, assuming you can get a word in?

You might try turning the tables and ask him where he gets his own beliefs. If you keep pressing him, he will eventually get to his fundamental assumptions and you can point out that he is just as “dogmatic” or even “religious” about his assumptions as he says you are about yours.

But he may well not answer at all. People who think they have a magic spell don’t like to be interrupted when they’re casting it. They tend to be very annoyed when they find it doesn’t work.

That being the case, you might simply say “What about the Civil Rights Movement?” or “What about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?” The Civil Rights movement was led by Christians ministers acting as ministers. Dr. King’s speeches often invoked God’s judgment on racial discrimination and his will that all his people be free. It was an openly religious movement.

The country would look very different today if these ministers had accepted the secularist view of the separation of church and state. Even the congressman and the columnist would not want Dr. King to have separated church and state. Catholics can demand equal treatment.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on December 4, 2009.