Before Catholics Yield: Questions for Protestants

THE doctrine of the union of Church and State is evidently in a parlous condition. After a long and fairly honorable history it is about to pass, to use Archbishop Dowling’s phrase, into ‘the limbo of defunct controversies.’ Catholics fear to pay their respects to it. Protestants spurn it.

It is not difficult to understand why the doctrine has few adherents in America to mourn its demise. In its historic Christian form it called for the solidarity of the State with the Roman Catholic Church. One of the characteristic features of the doctrine was that it accorded to that Church a preferred position before the law and placed the State under obligation to proscribe the public exercises of those forms of religion not in harmony with the established cult. In modern America, with our religious heterogeneity and with only a small minority of our people within the fold of the Roman Church, that feature was a serious liability. To Catholics it seemed an insuperable handicap in the struggle for social recognition. To Protestants it was a sinister anachronism.

And yet, now that the doctrine seems to be approaching dissolution, may we not discern virtues of a rather substantial character under a form of thought so forbidding to the contemporary mind?

The most casual student of the doctrine discerns in it a protest — a protest against the absolute State, against the arrogance of a secular nationalism, which our generation needs to hear. We need to know that the State is not above the moral law and that there are elementary human rights which, under God, the State is bound to respect. Italy and Russia both illustrate how brutally indifferent to those rights the State may be. No fiction of absolute sovereignty in an interdependent world can exempt the State from its obligations to mankind. The State which bullies a weak nation is just as guilty in the eyes of God as the man who takes advantage of a helpless neighbor. The gravest danger to individual liberty in our time, moreover, does not come from any threatened invasion of the rights of the State by the Church. It comes from an impudent Cæsarism which maintains that the State can do no wrong, that it is above criticism, that all its wars are righteous — claims which are blasphemous to religious men regardless of denominational affiliation. The State can be and is a grievous sinner and needs to repent. The Roman Catholic Church has taught this truth for centuries, and it is to be hoped that it will keep on teaching it. We Americans have a day of National Thanksgiving. Every modern State might well establish a day of National Repentance and Atonement for its collective sins.

We need such a day all the more now that Nationalism has become the real religion of great masses of the population in both Europe and America. No other religion has ever asked so much of its adherents. As Lucien Romier suggests, ‘it is the only religion which requires immediate and gratuitous human sacrifice and which imposes and obtains such a sacrifice without discussion.’ But this, the prevailing religion of our time, has no day of Repentance and Atonement because the establishment of such a day would mean an acknowledgment that there was a Will above the will of the nation. It would mean a confession of national sins. In time of war such a confession would break the morale of the people. In time of peace no ruler could make such a confession and be reëlected. With popular governments it is more convenient for rulers to confess the sins of their predecessors.

Under the old régime of the union of Church and State, contrition and confession on the part of the State, through its responsible officials, were possible. There was a God with whose will and law the actions of the State should conform. That will and law, above all conflicting national ambitions, hatreds, and prejudices, was symbolized in a manner effective in impressing the mind of the humblest citizen, by one who sat in Peter’s Chair at Rome.

What substitute has the religion of Nationalism provided for the confession at Peter’s Chair of the sins of the State against a supernational moral order? Confession on the part of States there must be if we are to maintain our collective sanity. Perhaps the trouble with the modern world is that, in default of the purging experience of repentance and penance on the part of great States, they have become the victims of nationalistic paranoia. The psychological causes of war may be more subtle than we think.

Before this old doctrine of the union of Church and State passes finally from the realm of practical considerations, may we not recall also that it embodies a religious social philosophy? The Church of the Middle Ages did have a theory which covered the whole of life. There was a separation of powers, civil and ecclesiastical, but no separation anywhere from divine obligation. Christianity was, in truth, a way of living. Men pursued their careers, public as well as private, under the eye of God. The readers of Troeltsch and Tawney know how desperately the Church tried to expand its theory to meet new conditions. With the development of trade in the later mediæval period, and with the religious and commercial revolutions of the sixteenth century, the areas of social intercourse where the voice of the Church could be heard effectively grew smaller and smaller. The Church stood finally like a beleaguered city with bandits and revolutionaries ranging over her formerly peaceful pastures outside the city wall. But there were no abatements of her claims of sovereignty. Man’s life and man’s property, though for the time being the prey of brigands whom the Church could not control, belonged to God. Eventually the representatives of God would reclaim these areas of thought and activity which had been secularized by evil forces.

Puritanism took over the essential elements of this mediæval theory of life as a divine vocation. And Puritanism is the only self-respecting and logically consistent social philosophy Protestants have ever had. Puritanism substituted religious assemblies and consistories for popes and bishops. The Puritan Church had constantly to steady the ark of the State. The Puritan system, having been brought to this country, dominated New England. It generated a temper of mind as inimical to the ‘godless’ State as any theory of Roman Catholicism. Vestigial action patterns created by Puritanism are with us still. When someone proposes that the State dispense liquor according to Canadian or Swedish plans, the cry goes up that ‘it would be immoral to place the State in alliance with the unholy traffic.’ The theory of the ‘godly’ State gets under way once more. In legislative issues which concern personal vices, marriage, divorce, and Sabbath observance, our inherited Puritanism still asserts itself.

Protestants, for the most part, have abandoned Puritanism and now find themselves without any religious social philosophy at all. Their religion is confined to private virtues, ritualistic observances, institutional practices and associations, and mystical energies. Specialized recreational, philanthropic, and educational functions are ‘acquired characteristics.’ Without are business, politics, international relations, education in the broadest and most effective sense, and general philanthropy. In every one of these spheres the Church, Catholic and Puritan, once had a social philosophy. Protestantism now covers them all with bland exhortations to practise the brotherhood of man and the golden rule.

The eclipse of religious social theory, however, does not mean the passing of all philosophy from these vast, secularized areas of the modern world. Far from it. Nature abhors a vacuum in thought as well as in space. The area vacated by religion has been occupied by Militarism, Imperialism, and Capitalism, and on the Continent, where the masses have become estranged from Catholic teaching, by Socialism and Communism. The churches, Protestant and Catholic, behold at a distance the development of a secularized ethic whose principle is simply the prudential adjustment of conflicting impulses within the individual and of competing interests within society. The State according to this principle is an institution of power fashioned by the dominant elements within the social group to enable them to settle their own difficulties and to control the weaker members with as little friction as possible. The view that life, personal and collective, is the fulfillment of a divine vocation is utterly alien to this world of thought. ‘Business’ and ‘politics’ assert their complete independence of religious guidance and ignore even the suggestion that religious ideals are at stake in their respective spheres.

When the Church does undertake to express a collective interest in or judgment concerning any problem of public ethics, she seems ‘out of character.’ The activities of the Church in promoting Prohibition, for instance, arc resented because they have no foundation in her social theory. If the churches are concerned with the Volstead Act, why are they not also concerned with the enactment and enforcement of a hundred other laws and with other political issues just as vital to human progress? The interest of the churches in the Eighteenth Amendment. is an aspect of their vestigial Puritanism. If the churches would develop a Christian social philosophy and lay it alongside the ideal and practice of the modern State, they would find enough divergence to frighten them by the magnitude of their task.

Without a social philosophy, the churches are doomed ultimately to ethical impotence. The religious life cannot be lived in a social vacuum. Everywhere it is conditioned by the concrete situations of the modern world, for dealing with which ‘business’ and ‘politics’ claim sole responsibility. Farsighted men in the churches see the significance, sinister for religion, of this claim to absolute ethical autonomy on the part of these secular interests. These men have organized the Federal Council of Churches and the National Catholic Welfare Council to give expression to religious ideals in public relationships. They are feeling their way amid a world of infinite moral complexity, but they know what they are about. They are aware that religion must be good for the whole of life if it is to be good for any part of it.

What if this doctrine of the union of Church and State is an ancient landmark surviving all the tramplings of a secular age, marking a way to a view of the world in which religion and life will have overcome their disastrous dichotomy? It is a rather safe guess that only a religion which is the companion of man through all the vicissitudes of his experience has any future in Western civilization. For a timid, apologetic religion, fawning on our secular prosperity for sustenance, humanity will ultimately have little use. It may tolerate such a religion for a while, paying it tribute out of consideration for a sturdy Catholic and Puritan ancestry which compelled respect, but in the end such a religion will be thrown out of its own house. Only a religion which troubles our modern secular world with the thought of ‘judgment’ can heal it.

Before Catholics yield their ancient doctrine to the final ravages of a triumphant secularism, it seems to the writer, accordingly, that in all fairness they may ask us Protestants such questions as the following.

Has contemporary Protestantism a vital conception of a supernational moral order, and does it accept as a religious obligation the task of establishing institutions which will symbolize and interpret that order to average men?

Has contemporary Protestantism a social philosophy, and, if it has, how does that philosophy differ from the Catholic view of society as a spiritual organism?

Has contemporary Protestantism thought through the meaning of this process of paring down the realm of spiritual sovereignty? Business, politics, and education claim emancipation from that sovereignty now. Ethics seeks autonomy. To-morrow the mystical energies of religion will be secularized by psychiatry. In fine, over what area of human interest is religion to remain sovereign, after it has given up its claim to a vision of the whole of life, public as well as private, in a divine perspective?

Before we secure adequate answers to these questions, we may discover that it is no slight achievement to build a structure of thought which enables man to live through the entire range of his associated life in the presence of God. Yet, such was the achievement in the days of its prime of the now apparently discredited doctrine of the union of Church and State.