Last month Public Discourse published an essay of mine in which I argued that, contrary to what seems to be a fairly common postconciliar belief, the Catholic Church continues to teach that the Catholic confessional state is the normative political ideal. Christopher Tollefsen graciously responded to my essay a couple weeks ago, also at Public Discourse, raising some excellent questions. Here I offer a reply to Tollefsen.
Tollefsen prefaces his remarks by referencing Richard John Neuhaus’s practical argument against Catholic confessional states. Neuhaus’s argument is easily summarized: We’ve tried this. It hasn’t worked. So, we should avoid it in the future. We could call this the “bad record” argument against Catholic confessional states. While it seems to me that Tollefsen thinks this argument has some merit, he doesn’t clearly endorse it.
According to Jörgen Vijgen, the conclusion of the “bad record” argument is a non sequitur. “Such an objection,” he writes, “often finds its inspiration in the conventional cliché that monotheistic religions are more inclined to intolerance and violence than ideologies that define themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘pluralistic’.” But, he goes on, “[i]n recent years this cliché has been found wanting” (cf. "Is a Catholic State Still Possible and Desirable in the Light of Vatican II?").
We could debate the genealogy of the objection but Vijgen’s reply points us in an interesting direction. Consider that you could also claim bad records for secularized states. Nazi Germany and the Eastern Bloc countries of the last century are just the most conspicuous examples. Our own country, which has been blessed with arguably one of the most benign liberal regimes in history, has a troubling past — slavery, civil war, racial segregation — and an equally troubling present — over 600,000 abortions per year, same-sex "marriage," a booming porn industry, etc.
Perhaps, then, the “bad record” argument cuts both ways. If so, it seems vulnerable to a reductio objection: Confessional states don’t work nor do secularized states. So, let’s just abolish the state. Well, this isn’t an argument I want to make. To paraphrase Michel Foucault, it’s not that all states are bad but that all states are, in a sense, dangerous (including confessional states). This is because they are composed of human beings, who are notoriously fallible. No state will be perfect but that shouldn’t stop us from striving for the ideal.
If there is any value to comparing records – and what that value is needs further scrutiny – then we have to talk about the “metrics.” We need to settle on the criteria by which we determine that a regime has a bad record. I would contend that whatever the exact shape those metrics take, they can’t be consequentialist and need above all to concern themselves with how a regime positively affects the cultivation of virtue since, as I have argued elsewhere in league with a more classical approach, human flourishing is the end of politics.
A normative ideal?
As I said above, in my earlier essay I claimed that the Church continues to teach that the Catholic confessional state is the normative political ideal. At the same time she recognizes that in most contemporary circumstances such a state isn’t a practical possibility. Tollefsen wonders whether the Church can teach as normative something that is an ideal in this sense. He seems to doubt that she can: “The Church has authority to teach what is necessary for salvation, and something that is an ‘ideal’ but not in most circumstances a practical possibility couldn’t be that.”
Tollefsen considers whether there is anything else that the Church holds up as a normative ideal in the way that I’m saying she holds up the Catholic confessional state. The only thing he can come up with that he believes might be thought of as an ideal in this way is the call of some people to leave ordinary life behind to enter into "a closer relationship with the Lord."
But surely there are others. Wouldn’t it be a normative ideal, for instance, for everyone in a Catholic family to remain Catholic? We know, however, that often, perhaps even most of the time, this doesn't happen and it's not practically possible for parents to prevent some of their children from leaving the faith. Nevertheless, it seems to me that parents still have an obligation to do whatever they reasonably can to help their children remain faithful.
If I'm right about this normative ideal with respect to Catholic families, isn't it a lot like what I have said about Catholic confessional states as a normative ideal? I think it is.
So, must Catholics believe that Catholic confessional states represent the ideal political order? The Church teaches that our salvation depends on, among other things, the observance of the precepts of the Decalogue. The very first precept, not only textually but in importance, commands our adherence to the true religion. This is a naturally knowable precept that is likewise included in the doctrine of the faith.
Pope Leo XIII teaches in Immortale Dei that this precept applies not only to individuals but to people living together in society and, therefore, to the state itself as the state is necessarily concerned with the common good of society:
For men living together in society are no less under the power of God than are individuals; and society owes as much gratitude as individuals do to God, who is its author, its preserver, and the beneficent source of the innumerable blessings which it has received. And, therefore, as it is not lawful for anybody to neglect his duties towards God, and as it is the first duty to embrace religion in mind and in conduct — and not merely the religion that each person may prefer, but that which God has commanded, which he has proved, by certain and indubitable evidence, to be the one true religion among all the others — in the same manner states cannot, without crime (scelus), act as though God did not exist, or cast off the care of religion as alien to them or useless, or out of the several kinds of religion adopt indifferently whichever one they please; but they are absolutely bound, in worshiping God, to adopt that way and manner that he himself has shown us that he wants to be worshiped.
Because of our duty toward the true religion, Leo insists, the state must concern itself with and privilege this religion. Thus, he continues:
Therefore, among rulers the name of God must be holy, and it must be reckoned among the first of their duties to favor religion, protect it, and cover it with the authority of the laws, and not to institute or decree anything which is incompatible with its security. They owe this also to the citizens over whom they rule.
At the moment I see no better way to describe what Leo is doing than to say that he is teaching that the Catholic confessional state is the ideal (but I welcome suggestions for more appropriate language). He finds secularized states unacceptable (although tolerable in certain circumstances) and calls on Catholics to create the conditions favorable to confessional states. Yet, pointing to the first few centuries of the Church’s evangelizing of pagan cultures as an example, he understands that this can’t be achieved over night.
But, again, must Catholics believe that the confessional state is the ideal? Leo sees it entailed by the commandment that we must worship the true God, which, as I have already mentioned, is knowable by reason but also taught by faith. However, as Aquinas explains, not all truths of the faith need be explicitly believed by everyone but they should all at least be implicitly believed, that is, we should all be ready to believe whatever we come to understand to be included in the doctrine of the faith (cf. Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 2, a. 5). I have no problem granting that the normativity of the Catholic confessional state need not be explicitly believed by everyone but, if we follow Leo’s teaching, then we can only conclude that it’s something that all Catholics must at least implicitly believe.
Leo repeats the essentials of his teaching on the Church and the state in Libertas praestantissimum (1888), Sapientiae christianae (1890), Au milieu des sollicitudes (1892), and Longinqua oceani (1895). This teaching, which Leo intends in part as an interpretation of the pronouncements of Gregory XVI and Pius IX, is reaffirmed in various ways by subsequent popes. (For a good overview of the magisterial teaching on the Church's relationship to the state as expressed by Leo and other popes, I recommend John Lamont's "Catholic Teaching on Religion and the State.")
Who can confess?
Tollefsen also asks whether a state can really confess. “Can a state believe, intend, and act in precisely the way necessary to confess — that is, for an act of faith?” To convey what he has in mind by an act of faith, Tollefsen quotes a definition from John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary. The essential part of the definition would seem to be this:
The assent of the mind to what God has revealed. An act of supernatural faith requires divine grace, either actual or sanctifying or both. It is performed under the influence of the will, which requires its own assistance of grace to render a person ready to believe.
Of the act of faith, so understood, Tollefsen says that it “does not seem like something that a state can do; nor does it seem that a state could be the recipient of the grace mentioned in this passage,” even if the state is understood to be an agent or person in an analogous sense. (This is, incidentally, also a position taken by John Courtney Murray in "The Problem of 'The Religion of the State'.")
But Tollefsen says that we might understand “confess” in a weaker way, as when we record a belief that we have, as “in the way that our own founding political document records a belief that inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator.” However, in Tollefsen’s view, this mere recording of belief doesn’t seem sufficient to make a state “confessional.”
I’m not wedded to the term “confessional state” and mostly adopt it out of convenience to go along with common parlance. All the same, I do believe that there is a sense in which we can attribute a real act of faith to the state. It's evident (and this was argued against Murray too in days of yore) that the state, like any other group, acts through the medium of the real people who constitute it. In this regard they are the state (not in the absolutist L’état c’est mois sense). We typically have no difficulty saying things like "The United States declared war on Germany in 1941,” and understand that by this we mean, concretely, the members of Congress did this and that Roosevelt signed the declaration. We don’t suppose this act was carried out by some faceless Platonic form.
All Catholic parties to this debate would agree that real people — Mary, Peter, Paul — can perform acts of faith and be recipients of grace. I only wish to add that insofar as they are identified with the state (as, say, public officials such as presidents or legislators), what we attribute to them qua agents of the state we can also attribute to the state.
A transgressive state?
As Tollefsen sees it, it’s the necessary business of the state to help people meet certain pre-political needs: defense against hostile insiders and outsiders, coordination, and care for people who, through no fault of their own, can’t provide for themselves. And Tollefsen tells us that satisfying these needs appears to “exhaust the limits of the state’s authority.”
So, the last question that Tollefsen poses in his essay has to do with whether the state’s authority should expand beyond what’s necessary to take care of the above-listed needs and concern itself with promoting some particular religion. He suggests that the answer to this question is “No” since religion is something we can only cultivate successfully if we can do so freely. The state, says Tollefsen, should only limit our religious freedom in order to protect the goods and freedoms of others.
Tollefsen, following Joseph Boyle, worries that if the state were to promote some particular religion, this would “skew” public life in such a way that it would hinder rather than facilitate religious inquiry and “inevitably and unfairly [coerce] some to support actions whose rationales are incompatible with deep elements in their worldviews.” Tollefsen believes that this could occur even in a confessional state where the freedom of the non-established religions and of non-believers is respected.
If this is meant as a principled defense of political liberalism, then I can't go along with Tollefsen here. First, I would note that political liberalism isn't religiously neutral since it a priori rejects integralist religions, i.e., it doesn't take them to be legitimate religious options within a polity. (For another take on political liberalism's non-neutrality vis-à-vis religion, see David Schindler's classic Communio piece "Religious Freedom, Truth, and American Liberalism: Another Look at John Courtney Murray.") And to add to this point: every state – liberal, integralist, communist, whatever – makes laws and these inevitably express views about how to live and what to believe (whether this is officially acknowledged or not) and these views will be compatible or incompatible with some religions. No state, then, can claim religious neutrality and, for that reason, no state can avoid “skewing” public life in the way that concerns Boyle. What I'm saying is that the state that Boyle wants doesn't exist and can't exist. Second, to side with political liberalism on the Church-state question is to side against the magisterial teaching that I referred to earlier. That's not something I'm prepared to do. (But it might also be that Tollefsen isn't mounting a principled defense of political liberalism, in which case what I've said just now would need to be revised.)
With respect to the second point above, apart from expressing skepticism about the possibility of the Church teaching something as an ideal in the way that I have claimed she does with Catholic confessional states, Tollefsen says nothing about the substance of the magisterial teaching on the Church and the state. It would be interesting to know more about what he thinks of it, for the criticisms he directs at my essay could likewise be directed at that teaching. Perhaps Tollefsen will take it up in a future contribution to this discussion.
Natura et ratio
The Church’s teaching on her relationship to the state is not only something that makes sense in the context of faith. As Leo observes, it's also in accord with reason. Here’s how he puts it in Immortale Dei:
Nature and reason which command each person to cultivate his relationship to God in a holy and religious way, because we belong to him, and coming from him must return to him, binds by the same law the civil community.
And in Libertas:
Justice, therefore, forbids, and reason itself forbids, [civil society] to be godless (athea) or to treat the various so-called religions the same and promiscuously bestow upon them equal rights, which would likewise bring [civil society] to godlessness (atheismum).
In other words, the magisterial teaching on the Church and the state contains truths that are within the reach of philosophy. Let me quickly run through what I take some of those truths to be.
(1) First, religion is a natural moral virtue belonging to justice. It belongs to justice because it concerns what we owe to another, namely, God. And what we owe to God is worship, which, as Aquinas points out, is what religion is essentially about (cf. Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 81, a. 1).
(2) And, among the moral virtues, religion is first in rank. Why? This is how Aquinas explains it in Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 81, a. 6:
Whatever is directed to an end takes its goodness from being ordered to that end; so that the nearer it is to the end the better it is. Now moral virtues, as stated earlier, are about actions that are ordered to God as their end. And religion approaches nearer to God than the other moral virtues, insofar as its actions are directly and immediately ordered to the honor of the Divinity. Consequently, religion is preeminent among the moral virtues.
All moral virtues are about actions proximately or immediately ordered to God under the formality of summum bonum. Religion is situated at the top of the hierarchy of moral virtues since it alone disposes us to actions that “aim” directly at honorem divinum. There are other reasons to privilege religion among the moral virtues but I'll go with this one for now.
(3) I said earlier that the primary end of politics — let’s say of the state — is human flourishing. Let me put this more precisely. The primary end of the state is to create the conditions, in the way appropriate to it, that are most conducive to human flourishing. The state is concerned with the good of the political community as a whole. That is, the state is concerned with the bonum communum. What’s good for all citizens is to thrive or flourish as human beings. Ergo…
(4) To flourish, to live the good life, requires virtue. This means that the state naturally has an interest in virtue. If religion is the most important of the moral virtues, as Aquinas argues, then religion must be of foremost concern to the state.
(5) But we can be wrong in our beliefs about God. And if we get our theology wrong, then our religion may well become a vice rather than a virtue. Or rather, what we call “religion” would in this case merely be a simulacrum. From this it is evident that the state can’t satisfy itself with supporting whatever happens to go by the name “religion” but is obliged to support true religion.
(6) But how, exactly, does the state do that? Much of this — although not all of it — will be a question of wise prudential judgments that need to take into account the historical and cultural circumstances of the time and place. But one thing that can be said generally is that the principle of subsidiarity would require that the state’s supportive role with respect to religion would be secondary to the roles of the Church and the family. Put differently, the state would be at the service of the Church and the family.
(7) The state shouldn't physically coerce people against their will to adopt specifically religious practices since this would force them quite literally to "live a lie." Does this mean that all religions must be granted equal rights in a state? Obviously this doesn't logically follow. What rights other religions would have in a particular state would — like the positive support of the state for true religion — mostly be a question of wise prudential judgments that take into account the historical and cultural circumstances of the time and place.
Of course, there are a host of objections that people will be eager to raise against the philosophical vision I’ve just outlined. If you’re a skeptic or an atheist, this view of things will seem incredibly wrongheaded and dangerous. It will likewise seem that way if you don’t believe religion is a moral virtue or that the state should concern itself with human flourishing. And – ça va sans dire – if you’re a political liberal, you’ll want to reject it too. Well, bring on the objections! I haven't given much by way of philosophical argument to back up the claims I'm making in (1)-(7). So, there's plenty more to do.
(For a more developed philosophical case for some of the foregoing, I recommend Aquinas's De regno. Alongside Aquinas's argument in that text is a defense of monarchy as the best regime. Although I have nothing in principle against monarchy, I'm not convinced that Aquinas's defense of it is essential to his main argument. If I'm wrong, I would be glad to be disabused of my misinterpretation.)
In a post here last week I mentioned how Paul VI's Humanae vitae is standardly regarded as a "dead letter" and observed that this is true for Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris as well. In this collection of dead letters we can certainly include the magisterial teaching on the Church and the state, and I'd like to comment on that briefly by way of conclusion.
In the last century John Courtney Murray was among the leaders of the resistance to the magisterial teaching in this area, subverting it through a masterful bit of revisionist hermeneutics, and many Catholics, from across the spectrum, have been happy to follow Murray. This has contributed much to making that magisterial teaching a dead letter.
Although I think it is deeply misguided, I prefer Charles Curran's straightforward rejection of the magisterial teaching on the Church and the state to Murray's distortions, which even an admirer like Curran (who calls Murray "the most outstanding Catholic theologian in the United States in this century") recognizes as distortions. "Murray's theory of development, especially with its historical analysis of Leo XIII, is ingenious," says Curran. It enabled its adherents "to affirm religious liberty without having to repudiate the teaching of one of the more recent popes." However, Curran doesn't believe that the texts can bear Murray's reading. Thus, he continues: "It seems that [Murray's] own prejudices have entered into his historical interpretation in a number of different areas." And further:
I do not think Leo XIII would have recognized himself in the picture drawn by Murray! There are many indications that Leo would not have accepted his defense of the confessional state as merely belonging to the polemical and/or historical aspect of his teaching (American Catholic Social Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches, p. 229).
William Portier and Michael Schuck, among others, have also noted the obvious untenability of Murray's interpretation. Of Murray's insistence that Leo's teaching on the state's care for religion was intended only to apply to a specific historical circumstance and not meant as a general doctrinal principle, Schuck tells us that "[c]lose reading of the texts does not support these claims" (That They Be One: The Social Teaching of the Papal Encyclicals, 1740-1989, p. 107, n. 79). I agree. In my Public Discourse essay I mentioned how Longinqua oceani makes Murray's distortions altogether evident. (But there are other ways to bring it to light.)
I'm unsure what Tollefsen thinks of Murray on this point. He doesn't mention him in his reply to me. Perhaps Murray's revisionism is another thing that Tollefsen will discuss in future comments.