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Should Religion Be Private?

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From the time of the early Roman emperors, the state has sought, sometimes vigorously, to gain control over the Catholic Church. St. Augustine, in the fourth century, wrote eloquently and convincingly about the radical difference between the City of God and the City of Man. In the following century, Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496) confronted Emperor Anastasius who wanted to absorb religion into the state, both forcefully and successfully. In dealing with the emperor, he was at one with the great medieval Pontiffs.
“There are two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled,” he wrote, “the sacred authority of the priesthood and the authority of the kings. And of these the authority of the priests is so much the weightier, as they must render before the tribunal of God an account even for the kings of men.”
Not only did Pope Gelasius distinguish between that which belongs to Caesar and that which belongs to God, but he alluded to the obligation that Christians have in working for the benefit of the state. This obligation is “weighty” enough that God will judge Christians on the Last Day on how well they discharged their civic responsibilities.
He defended an institutional diversity, arguing that morality and religion, though independent of political decisions, nonetheless influences them. Christians will be judged on how socially influential they were.
This saintly Pope practiced what he preached. He was a true father to the poor, dying empty-handed, as a result of his lavish charity. Giving to the poor, establishing hospitals, orphanages, and schools are just a few ways in which Christians throughout the ages have provided benefits for society. The Church is apostolic not only in the sense of bringing Christ’s message to the world, but also His Love in the form of charitable actions. Religion, specifically Christianity, has a rightful place in the world.
Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), a Catholic convert and formidable political philosopher, wrote extensively about the separation of Church and state. “Without, therefore, acting directly on any institution, civil or social, or any state of life,” he wrote in his Quarterly Review of April 1848, “it is evident that religion must act indirectly on them all; for the stamp which it impresses on a man will accompany him everywhere, and will be seen more or less in everything he undertakes.” One way in which Brownson used religion to influence society was in his work to abolish slavery.
The coaching staff does not influence the players on the field directly, but surely, through their advice, inspiration, and various other aids, influences them indirectly. No one is championing a complete separation of players from coaches.
Jacques Maritain may have expressed the issue most eloquently in The Things That Are Not Caesar’s (1931) when he wrote: “Nothing is more important for the freedom of souls and the good of mankind than properly to distinguish between these two powers [the spiritual and the temporal]: Nothing, in the language of the day, has so great a cultural value. It is common knowledge that the distinction is the achievement of the Christian centuries and their glory.”
Christianity has supplied culture with invaluable benefits, including the notion that man has an inalienable dignity, that marriage is a sacred institution, and that justice and mercy should prevail. Without these benefits man is denied his proper functioning and risks being enslaved by the state. Christianity should not be reduced to something private since, in its proper mode, it confers immense benefits to culture.
More recently, two major American prelates have written thoughtful books on why Catholicism should not be private. Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., in Render Unto Caesar (2008) states that no other community than the Catholic Church understands better “why the health of our public life requires men and women of strong moral character in political service.” The Church, not the state, teaches and proclaims the importance of virtue and good character. He laments that America is now exporting “violence, greed, vulgarity, abortion, a rejection of children.”
Thus, in the spirit of St. Gelasius, he states that “American Catholics must work to change that or be held co-responsible.”
Finally, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, in God in Action (2011) writes: “Religious institutions are by their properly communal nature public actors. When secular life is constituted without respect for religious freedom, it becomes profane, and persecution of religion becomes inevitable.”
Christianity is communal because man is communal. And this is so because God is communal. Making religion private is a rejection not only of man but also of God.

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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)

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