Points of Abrasion

A native of Swampscott, Massachusetts, who graduated from Boston College in 1940, FRANCIS J. LALLYis one of the most public-spirited citizens in the Bay Slate, where his chairmanship of the Boston Redevelopment Authority has particularly commended him to the community. Monsignor Lally has been editor of the PILOTsince 1952, and his new book, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN A CHANGING AMERICA, is to be published this fall.


A REALISTIC look at the American scene makes it plain that there are still at work factors of abrasion which turn boundaries into barriers between Catholics and their neighbors. In these areas of contact, sparks can sometimes be struck off which light the community with a frightening incandescence. Social scientists will be quick to see that the problems that arise between the Catholic and non-Catholic citizen in America have very little to do with theology. They are rooted firmly in the social histories of those involved in them and the social postures which time and events have thrust upon the individuals concerned. The religious coloration is only one factor among many, and in nearly all cases not one of prevailing importance.

First of all, there is the so-called church-state question. The view is prevalent that Catholics do not accept, or accept grudgingly, the implications of the first amendment to the Constitution. While many Americans can speak with deep feeling about the separation of church and state, the impression is that Catholics would prefer some form of union of church and state. Actually, the first amendment, even at the time of its writing, was hailed by Archbishop John Carroll with enthusiasm. He was the first Catholic bishop in America, and members of his family had been among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. From the eighteenth century until today, Catholic leadership in America has continued to praise the first amendment and its effects on religion in the United States.

This long-recorded appreciation often seems to be ecclesiastical double-talk, since so many Americans believe that by the very commitments of their religion Catholics must favor a union of church and state. In fact, Catholic teaching on this subject makes each within its own competence distinct and autonomous. In Catholic thought, each one is a “perfect society,” which is to say that it contains within itself all that is necessary for its own proper functioning. Each is independent in its own sphere of action, and while one lays claim to the regulation of the civil order, the other looks to the soul of man and its relation with salvation. To be sure, the Church teaches that the claims of the spiritual transcend those of the temporal order, but this is not to say that the autonomy of the state is by this fact lost or placed in servitude to the Church. There will be areas of mixed authority, as in the case of marriage, which is both a social act regulated by civil law and at the same time a sacrament, matrimony, and therefore properly under the direction of the Church. These two claims on the same human act are not competing, but they call for the cooperation of church and state for a happy solution.

It is not realistic to speak of separation of church and state in any absolute sense, as if man could live his life in compartments and direct his full allegiance now in one direction and now in another. The same human person is at once a citizen and a believer, and so church and state must meet in everyone who lays claim to both of these titles. Catholics have no quarrel with the implications of the first amendment; like all other Americans, they appreciate that it forbids the official establishment of any church in America, and at the same time guarantees freedom for all churches.

The argument of those who wish to put the Church in opposition to the Constitution on this point suggests that Catholics are not comfortable in a state in which the Catholic Church is not itself recognized as the official religion. For some the church-state relation as it exists, for example, in Spain is a Catholic ideal toward which all Catholics everywhere wish to strive. Actually, the relationship of church and state in countries of Catholic majority is a very varied thing. In Ireland, Belgium, France, and West Germany, Catholics have promoted the existing law. which does not establish the Catholic Church but which provides civic freedom for every church to exist and function.

American Catholics have no reason to copy the church-state relationship that exists in Spain; it has no American relevance. Presbyterians make up the established church in Scotland, but Presbyterians in America do not seek the same kind of arrangement here. The English equivalent of the Episcopal Church is the established and official church in England, but Episcopalians in the United States do not seek the same kind of national position in our country. The Lutheran Church is the established church in the Scandinavian countries, but Lutherans in the United States have no designs on America. There is no reason why the historic preferences of religious groups in other lands should in any manner determine the position of their coreligionists in twentieth-century America.

The Catholic Church lives everywhere and works out some kind of existence even under the most exceptional forms of government. The Church has known the tyrant, the emperor, the king, the dictator, the commissar, the general, and the parliament; in all of these circumstances the Church seeks to work out some relationship which will allow its spiritual mission to function in freedom. What this means in any historical situation is impossible to predict in advance, but certainly in the United States the Church has been well satisfied with that measure of freedom which has made possible such an extraordinary development of Church life over these last generations.

THE question of federal aid to education is an area of abrasion which is closely linked with the subject of church-state relations. Often in these last years the Catholic Church has been accused of “putting its hand into the public trough” to bring out funds in support of Catholic schools. Here again, one of the first charges made against the Church is that in some manner it wishes to subvert the Constitution.

The facts in the case are somewhat different from the public impression. Until recently the Catholic Church has consistently opposed federal aid to education on the grounds that it was both unnecessary and dangerous to educational independence. Now that aid has been officially sought in terms of the national interest and a general “pursuit of excellence,” many Catholics are willing to go along with the idea of federal aid if the children in Catholic schools can be somehow included in its benefits. Any other arrangement, in their judgment, would constitute an act of discrimination by which those in private schools — nearly 13 percent of all attending school in America — would be excluded from public benefit. Such discrimination seems to be inconsistent with the “pursuit of excellence” which is the government’s reason for supplying funds.

The Constitution, as everyone agrees, does not permit the support of religion in any manner that could be called “establishment.” But the constitutional lines are unclear, and lawyers argue in different directions, in the meantime, the decisions of the Supreme Court have come only to the periphery of the question of direct federal aid. Catholics have sought in the past and continue to seek only certain auxiliary services which would permit bus rides, school lunches, health examinations, and, in some areas, school books — all of which have been decided by the Court as within the limits of the Constitution. Last year, and again this year, the request of the Catholic bishops for loans for school buildings caused a violent reaction, in spite of the fact that loans to sectarian institutions for buildings in the public interest have long been a commonplace in education on the collegiate level, as also in the building of hospitals.

The matter of federal aid is not at the core a religious question or even a constitutional one. It is a question of educational policy which must be decided on the basis of America’s educational need for the present and the future. The question that has to be answered is whether Americans, in the pursuit of excellence, wish to exclude from the benefits of federal funds those citizen-pupils who have elected to attend private schools rather than public ones. These funds need never go to a religious institution; they may go directly to a young citizen, and from him to the school of his choice, in the manner of the GI Bill of Rights, which a few years ago was so universally applauded. To suggest, as commentators have done, that federal aid to education means some kind of support of religion is to miss the point of the controversy entirely.

No religious group in America has sought or is seeking any kind of support for its religious activities. Some religious leaders, notably Catholic and Jewish, have argued for a reimbursement for that portion of the school day which is given over to the common core of studies and is without religious significance. This is a nation that rejoices in universal compulsory education. Certainly it is in keeping with this claim for government to support the secular education of all our young citizens, since all our people are taxpayers. This in no manner supports religion. What Americans must decide here, independent of theology or constitutional law, is whether those who exercise their right of choice in education will be excluded from public benefits if they choose in favor of an independent school. Contrary to the long-standing tradition of our country, will those in public schools in some manner be preferred over other citizen-pupils who attend private schools when the government distributes benefits derived from the taxes of all Americans?

ANOTHER area of abrasion in the United States between Catholics and other citizens is the area generally designated as health and medicine. Here the principal problem has been the matter of birth control, although it could also include such questions as sterilization and abortion. Americans are often reminded that Massachusetts and Connecticut are two states of heavy Catholic population which have birth-control statutes forbidding either the use or dissemination of birth-control information and materiel. The impression is widespread that Catholics are responsible for these laws and that they represent an attempt by the Catholic community to write into statutes the proscriptions of their own religious group. It looks like Catholic power in action.

The laws in both Massachusetts and Connecticut on birth control are very old and were passed at a time when Catholics there were an insignificant minority. It was good Protestant teaching at that time that these practices were wrong and, simultaneously, the proper object of civil legislation. There are a half dozen other states with laws of a similar kind where Catholic numbers are almost without influence, as in Alabama and Arkansas. All of these laws are truly relics of an earlier day, when they represented accepted Protestant morality; the present relationship they have with Catholics is in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where efforts have been made to have the laws repealed. Catholics there have declined to vote in a manner that might give the public the impression that they had modified their conscientious opposition to the public dissemination of birth-control information and materiel.

Nowhere in the United States has any Catholic group ever labored to put on the law books of any state legislation of this kind. Nor is there anything in Catholic theology which would suggest it as a desirable thing. The most notable of American Catholic theologians have opposed this kind of legislation on the ground that, besides being ineffective, it invades an area of man’s life which is outside the claims of civil law.

There is an interesting parallel to the Catholic position on birth control in that of certain Protestant groups on the matter of alcoholic beverages. Vastly more states in the United States restrict or prohibit the use of alcohol than in any manner prohibit the dissemination of contraceptives. In nearly all cases a strong restriction on the public use of alcohol is church-related, being the reaction of lawmakers to the claims of Baptists, Methodists, and others who have strong conscientious commitments in this direction. This is to be expected, since it is a common social fact that the dispositions of the majority population leave their mark on civil legislation in any area. Only when it can be pointed out that a minority group is suffering some serious disability because of the majority position is it likely that there will be a change in the legal situation.

If the Connecticut or Massachusetts birth-control laws were declared unconstitutional, Catholics would have no quarrel with this civil decision. They are not, however, likely to be cooperative when they are asked to vote in favor of a program to which they are conscientiously opposed. Similarly, in the South and Midwest, if liquor laws were declared unduly restrictive of the liberties of the citizens, Methodists and Baptists might be distressed, but they could make no theological objection against the claims of the civil order. Catholics in the United States, for their part, have never originated legislation which would impose on others their views on divorce, birth control, sterilization, euthanasia, abortion, or any of the related topics.

The Catholic Church in the United States is generally considered in the public mind to be an advocate of censorship. It is supposed that the Church, authoritarian by nature, likes to impose its views upon Catholics — and upon any others who will accept them — in the matter of books, films, theater, and communications. This is the paternal and protective nature of the Catholic Church, as it is generally understood, which treats its members very much like children who require the care, solicitude, and advice of a wiser mind. So it appears that the Church sets out to control, where it is possible, the kind of films that are produced, the magazines that are distributed, and certain programs that appear on television, and in general to act as a kind of moral monitor for the community. This action most often touches the area of the lewd and the obscene, where Catholic standards, as it seems, are forced upon all members of the community.

Here in the United States the Catholic Church has, one may judge, successfully throttled Hollywood producers through the weapon of the Legion of Decency. It also controls, whenever possible, the materials that are placed upon public newsstands, through the National Office for Decent Literature (NODL). From time to time, when its claims are not met, it handles through public denunciation and a rally of Catholic protests what has not been possible by more subtle means. The impression is that something in the Catholic religion supports the view that freedom of thought is dangerous and that the Church must stand as a moral guardian pointing out whatever is dangerous to faith or morals. To round out the picture, everyone knows that the Church has long had a so-called Index, which lists the books that are out of bounds for Catholic reading.

Five years ago, the American bishops issued a long statement on censorship which received only small notice but which drew the lines on this difficult subject in a most reasonable and acceptable manner. In summary, the bishops said: The restrictions on expression provided by law should be absolutely minimal; they should forbid only those things which plainly subvert the good order of society. However, between that which is legally permitted and that which is morally acceptable. there is likely to be a gray area which will vary with changing standards of society. This area must be regulated by an alert and intelligent public opinion which can make its views felt in a variety of ways and so influence the climate of the times.

Aside from what is openly condemned by the law, public expression in modern society, as the bishops see it, should be regulated by society itself and the general community opinion that prevails in it. This surely is no puritanical expression of censorship, but a very democratic concept of the regulation of the faculties of expression in contemporary society.

It often will be difficult to know where to draw the line in civil law, and the decisions of the Supreme Court in recent years indicate that this line cannot be drawn with any finality at a given moment. At the same time, legislators do their best to set the standards for public order, and the court, for its part, is always ready to be heard if liberty is unduly restricted.

Public opinion, however, which has its own responsibility, must be marshaled and organized so that its voice will be heard and its efforts bring results. The National Legion of Decency is this kind of public-opinion organization. Catholics in various parts of the United States subscribe to and support the Legion, which they accept as a guide on the moral value of films. The Legion ratings are especially attractive to mothers and fathers who require information concerning movies which might be seen by their children. The fact that it fills a need is obvious by its success with the millions of American families who accept its classification with confidence. In this way the Legion forms a public opinion, and it docs this responsibly, aware of the influence that it has among Catholic Americans and others.

A similar organization, the NODL, classifies the now popular paperback books which appear at every street corner. Parents have been distressed by the fact that they cannot judge the contents of these books except from their rather lurid covers. The list from the NODL provides a guide assisting them to supervise even the casual reading of their children. These lists are not supplied either to law-enforcement agencies or to do-good organizations as a weapon with which to harass and distress any local merchant. The NODL is an organization of public opinion which helps to form the decisions of those Americans who place confidence in it. An equivalent of the Catholic organization on decent literature now performs a similar function for Protestants, who face the same dilemma as their Catholic neighbors.

When prelates in the Catholic Church make public statements concerning films, plays, or even books, they may seem to be dictating their views to the total community. Nothing could be further from the truth. In these moments, they are exercising for their own people, and others who accept their views, a moral leadership which is their proper right and duty in the Church and the community. They are not trying to rewrite laws, they are not trying to dictate to the courts; they are attempting to inform the public and by information to create that mass of public opinion which must accept the responsibility for the decency of the climate in which men live.

The Index of Forbidden Books is often a problem for non-Catholics. Americans can best understand the Index if they think of it as a kind of “reserved shelf” where books are placed for limited circulation only. These books are not destroyed; they are not placed permanently out of bounds for all Catholics; they are marked with a danger signal as books which could confuse the immature and unwary. Permission can be granted to read volumes on the Index for any valid reason, such as scholarly work or other important work. In the days before mass education this reading reservation was a more important function than it is now, but the Church continues to believe that some men may be deceived by erroneous opinions and attracted by subtleties beyond their comprehension. A generation that has lived through the havoc created by Mein Kampf or Das Kapital cannot look lightly upon this view.

Altogether, the Church’s views on censorship are not either puritanical or libertarian, but between these two there is a philosophy in which man accepts responsibility for his society, and the Church is prepared to give its moral guidance to those who will listen to its voice.

The present problem of pluralism in this country is the learning of the rules of the game. Each one is free to exercise his religious rights, guaranteed by the civil law, just so long as these do not interfere with the equally important religious rights of his neighbor or offend public decency or safety. Every American will have his ideal for his country, and much of this ideal will likely be common to all Americans. All the same, the nation assumes somewhat the disposition of its people, and we have moved in the last century from a Protestant country to a pluralistic one. This change has not been a comfortable one for all concerned, and it is especially difficult for those whose prevailing ideal has been replaced. Catholics and Jews especially must acknowledge their part in this transition, even when it merely meant putting into social reality the political concepts of the Founding Fathers. If it is painful for the ascendancy to descend, it can be perilous for the minority which finds power first. Civic tolerance is only a kind of armistice; civic confidence is the stuff from which the good society takes its strength.

Over the bitterness of the past and the abrasions of the present, thoughtful Americans who see all the religious traditions in their complex social context can plan a happy future. It will not be one in which our differences vanish, but rather one in which our shared confidence sustains them all in civic harmony.