After the recent discovery by five Supreme Court justices of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the self-described forces of love, tolerance, and acceptance have taken their victory and turned to punish their perceived enemies. An article on the TIME magazine website by New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer has called for the end of tax exemptions for religious institutions, and articles and petitions at Change.org and the Daily Kos have taken similar positions. Couched in the language of “ending government subsidies of churches” (as though government had some natural right to exact tribute from an individual or organization for accumulating money or owning property), the calls are not-at-all-thinly-veiled attempts to attack institutions that do not fall in line with the new re-definition of marriage. Even if a statute were not explicitly written to be aimed at those churches that do not perform same-sex marriages, the IRS scandals of recent years show that this administration is not above exceeding the law to attack its political enemies.
And the effect of sudden taxation of churches would be their demise—churches simply could not afford to pay taxes on the donations they receive or the property they own. Churches would be forced to give up their property, crippling their ability to provide services, both of the social and spiritual kind. This is precisely the aim of the “tolerance” camp: to wipe out the opposition. This would be by no means the first time state power would have been used to coerce a population to accept a religious sea change.
The history we often receive in American schools, tinged as it is by a combination of the vestiges of the nation’s Protestant past and the realities of its secular present, often depicts the period of Tudor England as a positive time in the history of Western Civilization: when Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England, the English unburdened themselves of a distant foreign hindrance and took control of their own religious fate, free to determine their own standards, practices, and beliefs. It just so happened this resulted in the king having the freedom and power to declare his own marriage dissolved, for Parliament to recognize his new consort as Queen of the realm and their children as legitimate, and for the likes of Thomas Cranmer to refashion doctrine in England such that the understanding of the priesthood and the Eucharist was so watered down that the Church of England broke the line of apostolic succession in its ministry.
All this was done in the name of freedom and self-determination. But to those who did not assent to the new situation, the same rights were not extended. Successive acts of Parliament made the acceptance of the king’s spiritual authority and the renunciation of papal fealty binding by law. The king was declared head of the Church of England, a deed which was solidified by the passage of attendant acts prohibiting the passage of any ecclesiastical law without royal approval. The Treasons Act required all subjects under pain of death to acknowledge the supremacy of the king in ecclesiastical matters—it was this law that provided the legal justification for the execution of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. While today we have yet to see anyone executed for defending traditional marriage, we have seen people lose their jobs and their livelihoods.
One of the most devastating attacks on the Church came on the financial front. The clergy of England had been obliged to pay an annual sum to Rome, as all dioceses did as a way to fund the activities of the Holy See. Henry changed this. Parliament passed a law limiting the amount which clergy could pay to Rome, followed by another law transferring the Church tax entirely to the royal coffers. This was followed soon by one of the more egregious and tragic acts of the Reformation period: the dissolution of the monasteries. Ancient establishments that had served the spiritual needs of their surroundings for centuries were seized, their contents sold, their occupants evicted (or, in the case of 18 Carthusians who refused to leave, killed), and the buildings left to fall into ruin. Despite the virulent and occasionally violent protestations of the laypeople in the areas, within four years England’s monastic foundations had been destroyed.
Could the same happen here? It may sound alarmist or extremist to raise such concerns. One might say that an example from hundreds of years ago is no longer relevant. More recent examples abound, however, from the Russia of the Revolution to the Mexico of the Cristeros to, on a smaller scale but more directly relevant, the threat made against the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University after its initial refusal to acknowledge interracial marriage. (I raise this example not because I in any way agree with BJU’s stance, but because the legal precedent is similar, and has been noted by others.) If we think such a future unimaginable, we need only ask ourselves: who would have thought 20 years ago that same-sex marriage would be enshrined as a constitutional right?
Advocates of same-sex marriage claim to be fighting for tolerance and acceptance, but they seem unwilling to tolerate or accept any position that differs from their own. One is reminded of the quip about the Reformation: Martin Luther did not fight for the freedom of all people to interpret the Bible as they saw fit; Martin Luther fought for the freedom of all people to interpret the Bible as Martin Luther did. While the Catholic would concur that freedom is not the ability to do what one wants but rather to do what one ought (that is, to act in accord with human nature and achieve human flourishing in cooperation with God’s grace), the crucial dispute between the Church and the world—perhaps as it has always been—is over what it is that one ought to do. We have seen where this dispute has led in the past. Let us hope we are not led there in the future.