“Separation of Church and state!”
How many of us have heard this noxious axiom over and over again throughout our lives?
While history has taught us the wisdom of a distinction between Church and State (see Deus Caritas Est), many of us fully appreciate that a separation of Church and State is not merely “ill-advised” but ontologically impossible.
There Is No Good Without God
Everyone is born with a conscience; we’re designed that way. For this reason, while plenty of us disagree on precisely what sort of behaviors qualify as good and which qualify as bad, no one disagrees with the fact that good and bad exist in the first place – not even atheists. Atheists may not think there is anyone or anything that will hold us ultimately accountable for our wrong actions (or ensure reward for our good), but they still believe right and wrong are real in some way.
But what, under atheism, does “good” mean exactly? Does it mean “that which should be sought after” or “done”? And does “bad” or “wrong” essentially mean “that which should not be done”? “Should” and “should not”, as per what?
What about individual prerogative, and what happens when my prerogative clashes with yours? Who, in this case, is “right” and who is “wrong”? And, honestly, what does it really matter in the end – why should we care? According to the atheist, neither of us is going to exist in a hundred years anyway.
Is the majority “supposed” to rule in atheistic morality? If so, why? I’m confident that plenty of atheists would concede that majority opinion has gone horribly wrong at times in the past, as in the institution of slavery. This only raises a further question, though – “gone horribly wrong” according to what? Current majority opinion? What guarantees that current majority opinion on anything is “undoubtedly” right and prior majority opinion was “definitely” wrong? There is no apparent unwavering standard.
What Is Atheistic Government For?
What would government be for in an atheistic universe? Keeping order? To preserve human well-being and life? Why? The raw survival of the species?
Of course, every human being understands intuitively that staying alive is a “good thing” for one reason or another. But that intuition is there only because it’s true – because God is real and, therefore, human life is a gift and a sacred trust. And, therefore, protecting and preserving human life is the right thing to do.
Think about it from a truly atheistic and rational point of view, though. Atheists call neither a lightning strike killing a tree nor a fox killing a rabbit “murder.” When one animal “steals” food from another, they don’t insist that the animal be prosecuted for theft. When one animal forcibly copulates with another, atheists don’t cry, “Rape!” Why, then, the special moral designations for a human being who takes the life of or steals from or assaults another?
There is simply no logic behind these designations, if God (and therefore objective good) does not exist.
No matter how much value I would like to place on my own life or anyone else’s, under atheism human beings simply have no more value than algae or a pile of feces. So what is it about promoting and preserving human life, under an atheistic paradigm, makes it truly “good” in an objective and ultimately meaningful sense? Again, there is no meaningful, unwavering principle.
Whose God? Whose Values?
“Nature itself bears witness that all power, of every kind, has its origin from God, who is its chief and most august source” (Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, 30).
Fundamental to the very concept of government is the notion of “right rule” – the belief that certain things in life are right and certain things are wrong, whether we as individuals know it or not, whether we as majorities agree or not. It is the belief that there are certain meaningful “shoulds” in life and certain meaningful and lasting “should nots” which flow organically and inexorably from the will of a transcendent Governor.
It is precisely these objective moral norms that enable us to assess current majority opinions and make them a thing of the past if those opinions are out of conformity what is truly good and right. (As in the abolition of slavery in our earlier example.)
This natural flow of good and government from God is easy enough to grasp. Much more challenging is figuring out what this means for government’s relationship to religion in a pluralistic society. There is no good apart from God and, therefore, no purpose for government apart from God either. Therefore, there simply can be no coherent “separation” of Church and any given State. But in a democracy, which God or god, which religion of the multitudes out there “should” be predominant in governance and society? And to what extent?
Does prayer belong in places like public schools and in congressional meetings? If so, must it be Christian, or is any prayer from any religious tradition okay? Should each religion take turns? Is it right for tax payer money to be funneled to private schools? One religious group says same sex couples can marry; others sanction only heterosexual and monogamous marriage; and still another group endorses polygamy – which of the three belief systems, if any, should government codify or oppose?
These are questions that deserve careful thought.
The tempting, reflexive response from Americans in particular is to let democracy reign; to, in essence, just keep government “secular” and let everyone choose their own way in their own personal lives. But, since there is no such thing as value-free government, there is more than one problem with this.
Whether it’s Buddhism that provides the guiding set of principles for any given state’s governance, or Mormonism, or a secular code of ethics (whose origin is also God anyway and whose directives vary, depending on the particular system), someone’s sense of right and wrong predominates in every single circumstance. That’s just fundamental reality.
And for some issues such as speed limits and some tax laws, the belief system that reigns is, of course, of little to no consequence. On topics such as abortion, however, it’s a literal matter of life and death. So, the answer to the question about which prerogative should reign is critical.
But Americans don’t shed their democratic paradigm easily. The temptation for many of us – even many good Catholics – is to say, “Love it or loathe it, what do the greatest number of voters have to say about any given law? We’re just not supposed to be imposing our beliefs on other people. We don’t have that right. We have to respect the fact that the majority rules.”
But What Does (Right) Reason Tell Us?
A little cold water in the face from Pope Leo XIII:
“Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true…” (Libertas, 21)
Is objective truth democratic? Is it something we all get to decide on, or is it something we are obligated to discover and adhere to, regardless of personal perspective? The law of gravity is a firmly established fact. If a majority of people ever feel that gravity is in error, this will not change a man’s fate if he jumps off a steep cliff. He will still die or at least be gravely injured, irrespective of majority opinion.
There is only one God and He has only one will. As far as He is concerned, either stealing is wrong or it isn’t. Either abortion is wrong or it isn’t. Either gay marriage is wrong or it isn’t. And we owe God our allegiance at all times and in all places. He is God. Quite literally everything that exists comes from Him. Therefore, everything is comprehensively subject to Him.
Pope Leo points out in another of his encyclicals what should be obvious to all but is lost on way too many of our “Catholic” politicians:
“…it is unlawful to follow one line of conduct in private life and another in public, respecting privately the authority of the Church, but publicly rejecting it; for this would amount to joining together good and evil, and to putting man in conflict with himself; whereas he ought always to be consistent, and never in the least point nor in any condition of life to swerve from Christian virtue.” (Immortale Dei, 47)
To suggest that we owe God our total allegiance in private but not in the exercise of public life is akin to suggesting that our marriage vows are private. We’ve pledged to “have and to hold exclusively until death do us part” but that’s just at home and among other people who believe like we do. In public, among those who don’t believe the same way we do, it wouldn’t be right to force our beliefs on others. Under this theory, we have to stay faithful at home but, outside the home, we have license to sleep with whomever we wish.
It’s akin to suggesting that children must obey their parents at home behind closed doors, but when their friends come over or they are out in public, the children are under no such obligation.
As Leo notes in his encyclical Libertas, “For, to reject the supreme authority [of] God, and to cast off all obedience to Him in public matters, or even in private and domestic affairs, is the greatest perversion of liberty and the worst kind of liberalism” (37).
Let Us Pray
Our discussion will continue next month. In the interim, with Pope Leo XIII, let us pray:
In lowliness of heart We raise Our eyes in supplication to God, and earnestly beseech Him to shed mercifully the light of His wisdom and of His counsel upon men, so that, strengthened by these heavenly gifts, they may in matters of such moment discern what is true, and may afterwards, in public and private at all times and with unshaken constancy, live in accordance with the truth. (Libertas, 47)
Saints Thomas More and Edith Stein, pray for us!