As religious liberty and conscience protection are threatened in our country, it seems opportune to reflect upon our relationship to the state as Catholic Christians. In doing so, it can be helpful to look to the book of history, for this is not the first time the Church has found herself caught “between a rock and a hard place.” Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, for one, has attempted his own historical analysis, comparing the philosophical underpinnings of the Health and Human Services contraception mandate to the ideology that fueled the atrocities of the French Revolution. While it is certainly surprising to hear an American presidential candidate warning about the philosophical dangers of the ideals of the French Revolution, there are nonetheless apt parallels.
In a campaign speech in Plano, Texas, Santorum decried the error of the French revolutionaries, who maintained that the rights of the citizen did not come from God but from the fraternité, the people themselves united in a commonwealth. The contractualism implied by this principle poses a threat to the objective character of human rights by placing their foundation merely in the social contract of the state. The rights of citizens are then subject to the ebb and flow of political ideologies instead of being rooted in a human nature created in the image and likeness of God.
Turning to the Church’s response to the French Revolution, we may be surprised to find that, of the three revolutionary ideals, it was not liberté or egalité that was considered especially subversive or destructive, but fraternité. Of course, the Church has always taught that fraternité, or brotherhood, is itself a true human good, but the flaw of the revolutionaries lay in attributing it chiefly to common citizenship in the state. For them, fraternité was found in the bond of citizenship and then, only by concession, in subordinate social groups. The state was to be the primary locus of communion among men, and all other social groups would derive their legitimacy from the state.
This “concessionist” theory of fraternity and the omnicompetent state is abhorrent to the Christian, who finds his deepest and most fundamental communion not in the state, but in the Mystical Body of Christ. The sacred solidarity of the Church cannot be trumped by mere secular citizenship. In this regard, the subtle rhetorical strategy of the current administration to reduce freedom of religion to mere “freedom of worship” is cause for grave concern, for it signals the state’s ambition to exercise a monopoly over human fraternity. If the state successfully redefines religion to encompass only what occurs within the walls of sacred buildings, then religious groups and organizations in general will cease to enjoy any significant Constitutional privileges. Religion will be reduced to the level of one subordinate social sphere among many in the life of an American citizen.
Unfortunately, the secular mindset struggles to fathom that, as Christians, we offer our very life in worship to God through the religious submission of intellect and will. We worship Christ by following Him in all that we do, not only in our parishes, but also in our homes, in our universities, in our hospitals, and in our workplaces. Our fraternity with Christ and with his Church informs all that we do and all that we are, down to the depths of our baptized souls.
There need not be a conflict between the fraternity of citizenship and the fraternity of the Body of Christ, but if that conflict is pressed upon us, let us have no doubt where our true fellowship lies. Lent is a good time to reflect upon this question and to critically examine where our fundamental loyalty, our deepest bond of fraternity, lies. Do we place all our faith in Christ, or does our hope reside elsewhere? Let us consider the example of the martyrs of the early Church, who, out of fidelity to the Body of Christ, refused to sacrifice to idols even when threatened by the coercive powers of the state. Thus did they proclaim that they belong to Christ and to the only fraternity promised to prevail against the very gates of hell.
Image: St. Ignatius Church, Port Tobacco, Maryland (Founded in 1641, St. Ignatius is perhaps the oldest continuously administered parish in the United States.)