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On Being Roman Catholic: The Great Intellectual Adventure of Our Time


James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 11/01/14

We live, as I see it, in a culture in which every effort is made to relativize and render innocuous the real differences that exist among the philosophies and religions of the world. We ask how religions are alike, not how they differ. But they do differ. Many want a “parliament” of religions, not a true Church. This endeavor cows religion into political uniformity and irrelevancy. In one of its strands, religion is downplayed because of what is assumed about the various so-called “wars of religion.” The wars of the early modern period were thought to be caused by religion, specifically by their differences.
The solution, as we read in both Hobbes and Rousseau, is to subject all religion to state power in the name of civil peace and harmony. It is further to elevate economic and material interests so that men will not have time for or interest in any transcendental issues. Yet, Chesterton said somewhere that religions do not differ much in externals. All have garb, music, and gestures that are not that much different. Where they really differ lies in what they hold to be true.

In this context, religion is to be rendered clawless. Freedom of religion, the vaunted premise of liberal democracy, comes to mean merely “freedom of worship.” That is, we can believe whatever outlandish and irrational thing we want inside the walls of our churches, but we cannot act outside of them without permission of the state. The public works of religion must first conform to the laws of the state. These laws, in turn, have no other justification but themselves in their own self-defined statement. The notion of written constitutions limiting government by its checks and balances has been rendered inoperable. Courts. legislatures, and executives are not hampered by constitutions or “laws” that transcend nature itself. 

The notion of a natural or transcendent law that in turn allows appeal of civil law to a higher law is rejected. The state is absolutely sovereign. Maritain, in his "Man and the State," once remarked that the very notion of sovereignty could not be properly applied to the state. The term had to do with the status of God in His transcendence, not the state, which was never “sovereign” as God was sovereign. However, once we grant that no higher appeal can be made to judge state law, the state becomes in effect “sovereign.” That is, it holds the place of God. It becomes the arbiter of good and evil. It is, as Hobbes called it, “the mortal God,” evidently with power, through fear of violent death, to eliminate any appeal to an immortal God.

The second of the passages that I cited in the beginning was from Tolkien’s account of the “First Age,” as he called it. Already before the coming men there was the recounting of the fall of the angel or valar named Morgoth, who would be more familiar to us as Lucifer. We are told of the contempt for all things except for oneself, of turning everything to one’s own purpose, to end in lying about the truth of the things that are. We are to read literature, it is said, so that we will have explained to us what happens in human nature that we do not experience or know directly so that when it happens we will recognize what is at stake. I must confess that I see some relation to the state that implicitly lies to us about the nature of our moral acts, lies that end by making what is evil to be our rights, to be thus good.

But I do not propose a critique of the absolute state into which modern democracies, like other political forms, have fallen, usually by a slow, step-by-step erosion of the good. Catholics are often told in St. John’s Gospel that dire things can and will happen to them because of what they believe about who Christ is. We cannot but be aware that many Christians have died of persecution in recent decades. Many people, especially Jews, often comment on the relative indifference that Catholics seem to show for the fate of their fellow religionists in other parts of the world. Part of this, no doubt, is that we have no armies, no independent force.

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