The Secular State in Historical Perspective
By John M. Swomley
[Dr. John M. Swomley is professor emeritus of social ethics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. He is a frequent contributor to Christian Ethics Today.]
Americans today are faced with a serious ethical problem. Are we prepared to give up separation of church and state, the unique American contribution to constitutional government adopted at the end of British colonial rule? Or will we be seduced into adopting the political agenda of the Vatican and its right-wing Protestant allies? That political agenda, however much some of whose items may appeal to our prejudices, can only be achieved by religious control of the Congress, the Presidency, and the Courts.
When our ancestors decided against remaining a confederation of British colonies, they decided to form "A more perfect union." That union was not only a break with monarchy but became an openly and intentionally secular state unlike those in Europe that claimed divine authority or religious allegiance. The United States was organized by the will of the people. The only reference to religion in the Constitution was Article 6, Section 3, that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for office or public trust under the United States." Even the requirement to support the Constitution could be taken either by an oath or by affirmation.
This decision that the United States must be a secular state was in large part a reaction to theocracy or religious rule by the clergy or established churches in colonial America. This was the case in Massachusetts under the Puritans and in Anglican Virginia where the Governor exercised the ecclesiastical prerogatives of the English crown and also supervised the Anglican episcopacy. Except in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, there were elements of theocracy or reliﾭgious requirements or established churches in the colonies.[i]
There was also censorship and severe penalties in some colonies for blasphemy. Even in Maryland where there was an "Act of Toleration" granting religious liberty, there were penalties for derogatory "speeches, words or language concerning the Holy Trinity or any of the three persons therein." Critical words concerning the Virgin Mary or the Apostles were punishable by "force, whipping, imprisonment and banishment."[ii]
The situation in the United States today is quite different as a result of the Constitution's first ten and the fourteenth Amendments and various Supreme Court decisions. There are, however, numerous actions by state and national legislatures that compromise the maintenance of a secular government and even greater threats by religious pressure groups.
Before outlining these it is essential to discuss the meaning of the word "secular", which comes from the Latin word "saecular" meaning "age" and also "world." It had a particular meaning to the early Christian church, which saw the existing political authority or social system as distinct from the church, which was the community of those who had already entered the new age of loyalty to a specific Christian understanding of God.
A second meaning is identical with the word "neutral." A secular school is neutral with respect to religion. It takes no position for or against the various religious expressions such as Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or its Protestant and Roman Catholic branches. It also takes no position for or against humanism, atheism, or other non-religious movements. The absence of a formal expression of religion signifies verbal neutrality. A teacher's attitude of respect for persons, and teaching which values cooperation and caring may demonstrate religious values. However, a teacher may not verbalize or attempt to teach specific doctrines of a religion.
A third meaning of the word "secular" was given some years ago by V.T. Thayer, who used it in the description of a "secular method of teaching." By this he meant a) an avoidance of dogmatism and indoctrination and a rejection of all attempts by "pressure groups and parochial-minded people to use the schools as instruments for imposing their partisan . . . convictions" on students; b) endorsement of Horace Mann's statement that the function of education is not so much "to inculcate opinions and beliefs as to impart the means of their correct formation;" c) respect for the convictions of others: "the absolutes which a person cherishes for him or herself . . . are to be viewed as relative when applied to one's neighbor"; and d) an assumption that the school does not supply all the ingredients for a full life.. Many things must be left to the home and to other community agencies, religious, and nonreligious.[iii]
A fourth meaning of the word "secular" is freedom from ecclesiastical control. Such freedom is the result of a process known as secularization. Secularization is a historical process rooted in the concept of monotheism and doctrines of creation, wherein Judaism and Christianity held that humans were given responsibility for the earth as God's stewards. This destroyed the belief that events on earth were dictated by the stars or a pantheon of gods such as Jupiter and Venus.
Because this view robbed the Greeks and Romans of their gods, the early Christians were called "atheists." This view of a world created by a dependable and omniscient God whose laws could be discovered led to investigation of the laws by which the world operates, in other words, to modern science. In turn, modern science destroyed the three-dimensional view of heaven above, earth below, and hell beneath the earth and bolstered the idea that we are not puppets of cosmic forces and cannot blame our human condition on God or a devil. It is humans who created the war system and racial segregation. It is humans who can eradicate disease such as cancer and can end war by disarmament and a global community.
Unfortunately there was a tremendous set-back to secularization when a powerful church in the centuries following Constantine not only identified itself with the imperial structure of the Roman Empire, but sought to dominate it. It ignored Jesus' rejection of the Jewish theocratic state and its legalism. "Man was not made for the Sabbath," Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man." He refused to identify the Kingdom of God with any state or law and rejected the idea of religion as dominance or control by defining his own mission as one of servanthood.
The process of secularization was damaged by theological dogma and ecclesiastical hierarchies and attacks on Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin. Nevertheless events such as the Protestant reformation which sundered a monolithic church; the American and French revolutions; the industrial revolution which urbanized and organized people around another set of values; and world wars, all contributed to the process of secularization.
The effort of the Vatican to maintain its power over Europe through concordats such as those with Mussolini and Hitler, its support of fascism in Croatia, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal, and silence about the Jewish Holocaust also contributed to the ongoing process of secularization. It exposed the Roman Catholic church as a power structure and handmaiden of nationalism; and the continued findings of science eventually forced such embarrassments as the admission of error in opposing the views of Copernicus and Galileo.
However, after World War II the Vatican again tried to shape the world in the image of the Holy Roman Empire. Vatican-sponsored Christian Democratic parties were organized in most of Western Europe and some Latin-American countries. Then, for a time, the Second Vatican Council began the process of dialogue with the world rather than conquering it. This effort had its success in continued dialogue with Protestants and Jews; but with the ascendancy of Pope John Paul II, things changed again.
John Paul II not only identified the Roman Catholic church with nationalism in Poland and Eastern Europe, but encouraged an alliance of the church and the military such as in Argentina, which resulted in the disappearance of tens of thousands of people merely suspected as subversives. On April 21, 1986, during the Cold War, he raised the twenty-nine military vicariates to the status of dioceses with military jurisdiction and governed by a prelate, who is accorded the same rights and privileges as a bishop. Subsequently he attacked liberation theology in Latin America, which he mistakenly believed was inspired by Marxism. The result in many countries was a renewed relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the rich and powerful against serious social change, and the appointment of bishops who cooperated with approved political structures.
In a long statement published in the National Catholic Reporter October 11, 1985, a leading European Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, wrote about the repudiation of Vatican II and a return to the medieval church, "No one is burned at the stake anymore, but careers and psyches are destroyed as required . . . . In very important cases such as that of the recalcitrant Latin American episcopate, [Cardinal] Ratzinger journeys with a whole posse to the relevant country to make unequivocally clear what the 'Catholic truth' is."
In the United States as elsewhere, Pope "John Paul has put his stamp firmly on the American hierarchy, filling vacancies left through the retirement or deaths of moderate bishops with conservative men who reflect his own views."[iv] Those views are those envisioning a theocracy for America where his moral views would be enacted into law. One of those appointees was Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, who was involved in shaping both a Catholic political and legislative campaign to enact papal views into law.
A prominent Catholic professor of theological ethics at Jesuit Rockhurst College in Kansas City, in reviewing a book of Bernadin's fifteen major addresses, wrote, "Bernadin apparently envisioned, for lack of a better term, a civil theocracy for America. By this I mean he hoped that moral positions taken by the Roman Catholic Church regarding the issues would become lawﾅ; moreover, he states that a 'consistent ethic of life' provides a means for 'assessing partyplatforms and the records of candidates for public office.'"[v]
Bernadin and his colleagues were not just theoretically advocating theocracy; he became politically involved. He led a delegation of his colleagues to meet with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter August 31, 1976. As a result the bishops agreed not to endorse Republican candidate Gerald Ford in return for putting two federal agencies with family planning programs under Catholic control if Carter were elected.[vi]
The evidence of a Vatican drive toward theocracy in America is overwhelming and includes the following:
In 1975 the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their "Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities" to mobilize all church agencies in "a public policy effort directed toward the legislative, judicial and administrative areas so as to insure effective legal protection of the right to life," which was basically opposition to legal abortion. In his book, Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Catholic writer Timothy A. Byrnes called the bishops' plan the "most focused and aggressive political leadership" ever exerted by the American Catholic hierarchy.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan became President and effectively changed U.S. foreign policy as the Vatican proposed. Time magazine February 24, 1992 reported that "in response to concerns of the Vatican, the Reagan Administration agreed to alter its foreign aid program to comply with the church's teachings on birth control. . . . 'American policy was changed as a result of the Vatican's not agreeing with our policy,' said William Wilson," who was Reagan's ambassador to the Vatican.
In 1981 the Roman Catholic bishops were instrumental in getting Congress to adopt the Adolescent Family Life Act, which prohibits the distribution of funds to groups that provide any abortion-related services, including counseling and referral, or that subcontract with any agency that provides such services. As a result the law discriminates in favor of aid to Catholic institutions and against other religious organizations that do not accept Catholic doctrine on abortion. That Act promotes periodic abstinence from sex as the only means of birth control approved by the Vatican, and would discourage the use of contraceptives.
In 1983 the U.S. Catholic bishops filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in Mueller v. Allen in an effort to invalidate the American concept of separation of church and state in matters having to do with aid to Roman Catholic institutions.
In 1985 Reagan's Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett, a Roman Catholic and a Vatican loyalist, proposed at a Knights of Columbus meeting in Washington, D.C. "the issuance of vouchers to parents for their children to attend parochial or other private day schools." This was in addition to a 1972 proposal by the Catholic bishops for tuition tax credits for parochial schools.
In September 1991 William Bennett announced the formation of the Catholic Campaign for America which included such persons as Patrick Buchanan, Cardinal John O'Connor, Robert Dornan, Mary Ellen Gork, Richard Santorum, Phyllis Schlafly, William Simon, Richard John Neuhaus, and Keith Fornier, among others. According to the National Catholic Register the Campaign was organized to "bring a politically powerful and distinctively Catholic influence on public policy issues." It avoids publicity by design and works through right wing Catholic activists and the Catholic press.
Although there are numerous other little-publicized efforts to advance the Roman Catholic agenda, it is important to note the control for many years of the Republican Party's Platform Committee by Roman Catholic loyalist Henry Hyde who incorporated in the platform the church's long-time papal position that "the unborn child has a fundamental right to life that cannot be infringed." This means that men and fetuses have a fundamental right to life, but pregnant women do not. In an open letter Hyde invited Catholics to develop the Party's 1996, platform. He wrote, "Catholics are a powerful voice of moral authority and fulfill a growing leadership role in the Republican Party." That letter also said, "As a Catholic, I believe the basic principles of Catholic teaching are ideologically, "philosophically and morally aligned with the Republican Party."
In addition to such Vatican-inspired activity not identified as such, there are open efforts by the Vatican to influence American politics. One example is the Vatican instruction released June 25, 1992 to American bishops with respect to legislation about discrimination.[viii] Its opening sentence states, "Recently legislation has been proposed in some American states which would make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal."
An egregious Vatican intervention to influence American public policy occurred in 1987, entitled Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation. In this it announced its opposition to at least fourteen current medical technologies, among them artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.
The chief criticism which must be leveled against this Vatican "Instruction" is the demand that papal sexual ethics be legislated in America so that everyone has to be ruled by Vatican dogma. The following is a key part of the Instruction: "Politicians must commit themselves, through this intervention upon public opinion, to securing the widest possible consensus on such essential pointsﾅ." They are expected to enact into law "appropriate penal sanctions" for any abortion, for
artificial procreation, artificial insemination using the sperm of a third party, embryo banks, post mortem insemination, and "surrogate motherhood."
Again, on March 25, 1995 the pope tried to exercise rule over the United States through his encyclical Evanaelium Vitae. The following are the crucial sentences in a much longer papal decree:
No circumstances, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit [that] which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the church.
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it. [emphasis supplied]
The pope also insisted that his authority to interpret what is moral must be placed ahead of democratic judgments of people whose interpretation of the will of God differs from his. He specifically stated, "Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality." He also said, "As a result we have what appears to be dramatically opposed tendencies."
Another papal intervention is a 1990 papal directive, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"), which required U.S. bishops to exercise control over Catholic institutions of higher learning in their dioceses.
This is intended to involve bishops in course content and faculty appointments at the colleges and universities in their dioceses to insure that everyone is in line with papal orthodoxy. Both the bishops and the college presidents tried to avoid this by recommending "continuing dialogue" between local bishops and the colleges. The Vatican vetoed this in 1997 and told the bishops to come up with more specific rules.
Catholic universities have reason to fear the Vatican, which banned competent professors not only in Europe but in America from teaching if they veered from papal rules or criticized official doctrine.
Even before this Vatican effort to put all Catholic universities under its control, the Vatican demanded a loyalty oath "taken with hands on a Bible, requiring teachers in any university whatsoever who teach disciplines which deal with faith or morals" as well as pastors, deacons, seminary rectors, and rectors of universities.
The Vatican is intent on requiring Catholic universities, some of which have 25 percent or more non-Catholic students, to teach its position on moral issues.
Pope John Paul II is not only a dogmatic monarch expecting absolute obedience from his subjects, but is also a person who seeks the adulation of crowds in every country where he travels. Hans Kung said, "One must not be fooled by media spectaculars. Notwithstanding many speeches and costly pilgrimages that have put some local churches deeply into debt, there has hardly been any meaningful progress in the Catholic church and ecumenicity."
Finally, the pope's focus on changing the United States and at the same time keeping himself, even after death, as the center of American attention is his decision to build a memorial to himself in Washington, D.C., as reported in a July 23, 1997 report in the Washington Times. "The $50 million Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is planned adjacent to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Construction of the 100,000-ft. center will be financed by an as yet unnamed Detroit foundation. Planning for this has been underway for about ten years."
The key to the purpose of this center is found in its focus on the teachings of the current pope and on such issues as abortion, birth control, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and ordination of women. In other words, it "is intended to be akin to a presidential museum for the Pope" and also an agency to supplement the already Catholic-led Heritage Foundation, National Empowerment Television, and Free Congress Foundation. These have been promoting Vatican ideology in the American political sphere ever since Paul Weyrich, a deacon in the Catholic Church, founded them. He turned over the leadership of the National Empowerment Television to William Bennett of the "Catholic Campaign for America."
The Washington Times reported that Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida said the pope wanted this memorial in Washington (instead of Rome or Jerusalem).
Theocratic efforts such as those listed above have frequently been supported by Protestant right wing personalities such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye. There has been no obvious published repudiation of such initiatives either by such Protestant leaders as these or even by mainline Protestant theologians. Criticism has come chiefly from Roman Catholics who want to reform their church rather than have Vatican legalisms entrenched in U.S. law. Mainline Protestant silence is hard to understand, even when caused by ecumenical fear of offending the Pope or fear of being labeled anti-Catholic.
Defense of separation of church and state, including recognition that just laws are made openly with the consent of the people, and not by foreign or domestic religious hierarchies and their pressures, is the bedrock of constitutional democracy. This is obvious to most secular democratic organizations and to many Christians and Jews. Why should it not move ethically sensitive church leaders to its defense as well?
[i] Leo Pfeffer, Church, State and Freedom, (Boiston, Beacon Press, 1953), third chapter.
[iii] V.T. Thayer, The Attack Upon the American Secular School (Boston, Beacon Press, 1951) pp. 29-32.
[iv] Gustav Neibuhr, New York Times, January 30, 1999.
[v] National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999, p. 17.
[vi] R.T. Ravenholt, M.D., "Pronatalist Zealotry and Population Pressure Conflicts: How Catholics Seized Control of U.S. Family Planning Program,s" (Center for Research on Population and Security, Research Triangle Park, N.C. 27709) May, 1991, 27 pp.
[vii] "Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislate Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons," released from the Office of the General Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, June 25, 1992.
[viii] National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 1989.