State and Church: The Church's Responsibility to the State

ONE of the noticeable aspects of the present many-sided conflict between Church and State is the well-nigh complete absence of any self-criticism on the part of the Church. Here and there isolated instances of it may occur, but they are exceptions.

Scrutinize, if you will, either the answer of the German Church to its national critics or the Papal pronouncements on German, Spanish, or Mexican affairs, and you will notice an attitude of all-rightness so far as the Church is concerned and all-wrongness so far as the State is concerned. One would think, in reading these documents, that the Church is wholly surprised the State should do any other than accept the Church at its own evaluation, and that the State’s criticisms are a consequence of pure paganism, or inability to recognize real religion when it sees it.

One would not imply that this unwillingness to criticize itself is peculiar to the Church. It is a common fault at all times and among all institutions. In the past it has been so universal, and at present it is so general, that a wise Church long ago would have discovered and remedied the limitation, for selfcriticism might, in many instances, have corrected the faults and rendered unnecessary the criticism from without.

Why is the obvious lesson so slowly learned? To put the question is to answer it. Would there have been the puritanical revolt against the stage in both the fourth and the seventeenth century had not the general level of theatrical life been low? While the war mood had something to do with Prohibition, and while the attempted reform overshot its mark, were not the real causes individual, social, and commercial abuses of drink?

In such simple cases as these, effective self-criticism has been wanting; the very lack of it has caused the equally intemperate external criticism.

It is a commonplace to say that the Communistic, Fascist, and Nazi states are apparently almost bereft of selfcriticism. They present their programmes with an assurance that their respective states can do no wrong; they do not welcome suggestions of any kind from friend without or from foe within; they laugh at the politics of states unlike their own. And lest we ourselves assume an attitude of self-righteousness, we should remember that the so-called democratic states are equally unable to perceive and remedy their own faults. While we as citizens of the United States and believers in democracy cannot understand the complacency of Fascists, Nazis, or Communists, wondering why they do not see their faults and apply the remedy, we are yet impatient when Mussolini calls public attention to the vast amount of time given by our legislative assemblies to unprofitable talk, when the U.S.S.R. reflects on the moral character of our movies, and when a foreign ambassador quietly remarks that a dictatorship has realized the social security toward which we are awkwardly struggling. We not only do not like this kind of talk; we do little or nothing to make it unnecessary. The world at large not only is hostile to criticism, but is in an unselfcriticizable mood. Individually and socially, we are succumbing to a universal failing.

Now, while we are all ready to grant that the State owes much to the Church, we should as quickly perceive that the Church owes much to the State. As long as foreign states grant to the Church tax exemption and in some instances pay all or part of clerical salaries or other subsidies, and as long as in this country ecclesiastical property is tax-free, the State has a right to expect some manifest value in return. The time has come when the State is asking whether its money is profitably spent. And I imagine it is not an altogether unwholesome question for the consideration of the parties concerned.

The Church must accommodate itself to this practical mood through which we are now passing. As Bellamy said years ago, in his Looking Backward, that the lazy man was the archcriminal in the socialistic society, for by refusing to do his part he threw the whole system into confusion, so now, as we enter into the modified State of the future, the individual or institution that does not make its expected contribution will so threaten the general welfare that its continuance will be endangered. If one will watch carefully the conduct of those foreign states which have taken the affairs of the Church in hand and have either obliterated the Church altogether or brought it strictly under control, one will observe that in every case the norm of ‘usefulness’ has been applied. The State’s action may or may not have been wise in special instances; it may have had a distorted comprehension of ‘usefulness.’ Nevertheless, ‘usefulness’ has been the yardstick by which the State has done its measuring. To give one extra-Christian illustration: Mustapha Kemal — or, more euphoniously, Ataturk — has so thoroughly driven the Mohammedan State Church out of existence that not even clerical clothing may be worn on the street. What people’s private religion may be is their own affair. The State will recognize it in no way whatsoever. Ataturk could not see in what way the Church was doing any good, therefore away with it. His was a practical judgment.

To say that this is a practical age is not tantamount to saying that religion must go, so far as the State may have anything to do with it. A practical age is quick to perceive value. And the more wisely practical the age, the more readily it recognizes value in mature and commanding character. While an appreciable number of the population may honestly think that even the highest type of Christianity is superstitious, enervating nonsense, and therefore ripe for destruction, the bulk of the people are much simpler and much more direct in their reasoning. Many of them care little about the essential rightness or wrongness of a particular religion; they merely ask, what is my religion doing for me; what sort of man does my neighbor’s religion make him; what effect has the Church of England on personal conduct, on social justice, on international relationships; what impression does the Church of Rome make on the IrishAmerican politician, the Fascist statesman, the member of the German middle party (now gone), the standard of honor and honesty among individuals, the relationship between men and the saints, the consequences of receiving the actual body and blood of Christ? That is the way the plain man gets at the root of the matter. His respect for the Church rises or falls with his answer to these questions, for he is a very practically-minded man.

We must make up our minds to the fact that a practically-minded society is not discriminating in its judgments. It estimates everything on the average and in the large. It does not say that because certain Christian individuals and certain Christian groups are thoughtful and useful — that because there is a saving remnant— therefore the Church must be preserved and protected. Rather it deals with averages; it draws its conclusions from the thought and conduct of the bulk of Christians. If, in its opinion, thoughtfulness and usefulness are not the apparent qualities of the rank and file of Christians and churchgoers, and especially of their leaders, society utters one of its undiscriminating, damaging, and yet easily comprehensible condemnations. The remark made to me by a loyal member of the Holy Orthodox Eastern Church, who is also a competent historian, that ‘the Russian Church had got just what was coming to it,’ illustrates what I mean. It suggests not that the Russian Church did not contain many thoughtful and useful clergy and laity, but rather that they were too rare to warrant the continuance of the institution.

We Christians ought not to be surprised at the radical criticism leveled against the Christian Church in Russia and Mexico and in pre-war Spain, nor at that singular mixture of radical, moderate, and partially sympathetic criticism common in Germany, for in times past Christians have criticized Christians in almost identical terms. They are the old criticisms come home to roost. Apart from the contention that atheism is the only thoughtful and useful credo, there is a surprising similarity between the counts on which many a State is now arraigning the Church and those on which Christian was arraigning Christian at the turning of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is a significant parallel.

Russia and Mexico, for example, are, whether rightly or wrongly, faulting the Church for encouraging thought and practice based on superstition; they are affirming that the Church has done practically nothing to ameliorate the condition of the poor or to educate the ignorant; they complain that the monasteries are controlling an unreasonable amount of land upon which no taxes are paid, that their charitable activities are negligible, that their educational influence has fallen to a low point, and that their religion, if it may be called such, is a self-centred and unprofitable mysticism; they point to the fact that not only have the Church’s leaders been very closely in sympathy with the State, but the judgment of these leaders is singularly dependent on that of the State. Such, in brief, is their criticism.

How familiar it all sounds! It would almost seem as if these states had known their Church History and had mastered especially that period which we know as the dawn of the Reformation. For in that cross-section of time Wycliffe, a Christian, electrified his fellow Christians by repudiating the accretions on the Christian tradition as superstitious stuff and nonsense, utterly unlike the religion Christ lived and taught, and although England was slow to follow his lead, Bohemia championed his cause. Roman Christian appeared against Roman Christian when the impatient John Colet, the whimsical Erasmus, and the calmly indignant Thomas More pilloried their fellow churchman for forgetting the simple teaching of Jesus, putting ease before self-sacrifice, and the institution before its purpose. And non-Roman Christian was arrayed against Roman Christian when Luther rose up in wrath against those who would offer cash equivalents for moral conduct and an ecclesiastical legalism for the grace of God. Christian authority was pitted against Christian authority when Calvin substituted an infallible Bible for an infallible Pope. And the Lutherans of Sweden and the Popeless Romanists of England were dealing summarily with the Romanists when they, unconsciously following the example of Bohemia, dissolved the monasteries, confiscating their lands and scattering the monks, because, on the whole, these had ceased to commend themselves as educational, charitable, and religious centres; because they withheld too much land from taxation without giving an adequate return, and because, on the whole, they represented a foreign power which at times seemed more political than religious.

Again, let me say, how familiar it all sounds! Substitute Russian or Mexican for Christian and one may use the same causes for criticism and practically the same reasons for attack. It is an extraordinary repetition of an episode of history. To repeat, virtually the only difference between them is that in the chapter of European history four hundred years ago Christian was drawn up against Christian, the one trying to punish or persuade the other back into usefulness, while now the indifferent Christian, the partial Christian, the Germanic pagan, and the Godless Communist are bringing against the Church the same accusations for the same reasons.

In my more or less optimistic moments I wonder whether the conditions in the midst of which we find ourselves are not the last of three purifying experiences through which the Church has passed or is passing — the first, those infra-Church reforms when Alfred or Francis or Saint Catherine of Siena tried to bring the mediæval Church back to its own confessed ideals; the second, those reforms of the sixteenth century which tore the Church to pieces that it might be rebuilt according to the pattern of Christ; the third, and from many points of view the most threatening, the contemporary attack of those who want either to strip it of all save what is called positive Christianity or to destroy it altogether. Whether or not the last of these experiences will have a consequence as purifying as the others will depend altogether upon the way Christians pass through it.

One hesitates to point the moral and adorn the tale. But the answer lies with those who have a large conception of the Person of Christ, who can stand over against themselves in self-criticism, asking in all modesty whether their lives, individual and corporate, reflect sufficiently the spirit of their Master.

Can one read, for example, the crassly pagan and ignorant strictures on the use in Christian public worship of foolish, coarse, cruel, and radically anti-Christian passages of the Old Testament without being smitten with the thought that there is much in what these critics say?

Can one listen to the Nordic complaint that the Gospel as represented by the churches has lost its thrill, that one must return to nearer and more intimate heroes, without taking one’s own religious pulse?

Can one meditate upon the Communist’s challenge to the Church to tell what it is doing for the downtrodden and exploited, to prove that its voice is free to condemn the wrong, and that its conscience is unshackled by paralyzing tradition, without bringing one’s self up short and sharp with very embarrassing self-questioning?

Can one reflect upon the Turkish, the Russian, the Mexican confiscation of Church lands, ostensibly that they may be put to more productive use for the sake of all the people, without uncomfortably appraising the product that comes from one’s own tax-free parish real estate or theological school property? In short, can one observe carefully, read widely, and think deeply without asking searching questions about the Church’s responsibility to the State?

No; Christians, however consecrated they may be, and the Church, however well it may be doing, should have a troubled conscience. The arraignment of the Church means that the Church has not met the State’s rightful expectations. Large-minded men will take these lessons to heart; they will regenerate their Church with the saving grace of selfcriticism.