Catholics in America, Be in the World but Not of It

COMMENTARY: While politics is a necessary and inevitable part of our lives, its ambitions should not be confused with the Kingdom.

According to Hittinger, Christians should engage with civil society as Christians, bringing their deepest beliefs into the public square.
According to Hittinger, Christians should engage with civil society as Christians, bringing their deepest beliefs into the public square. (photo: Daniel Jedzura / Shutterstock)

The relationship of the Church and the Christian in society has always been tricky. From the very beginning of the Christian faith, followers of Jesus have been struggling with the two worlds to which they are tied: the temporal and the heavenly. Faced with an ever-growing secular society, it is crucial that Catholics in America unequivocally embrace what it means to be in the world but not of it. Let me explain.

Professor Russell Hittinger, a senior fellow at The Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology, gave a talk recently asserting that the proper term for the relationship between the heavenly state and the temporal state is “separated.” They are set apart. And this setting apart, he explained, was done by Jesus when he declared in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 

Three times in professor Hittinger’s talk he stopped to say that this is tough teaching. Even the disciples rejected it — sometimes vehemently; Peter especially. That’s why Jesus admonishes him when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he pulled out his sword to cut off the ear of the retainer. Peter was not yet confirmed in his faith, and he thought that the way of Christ is combat. So Jesus healed the ear and put it back on the soldier. The soldier’s name, Malchus, means “King” in Greek. Jesus affirmed a rule here below. And Peter later understood.   

According to Hittinger, Christians should engage with civil society as Christians, bringing their deepest beliefs into the public square. But — and this is such a crucial point — our civic engagement should not attempt to subjugate civil society to the authority of the Church. To do so would humiliate the Church. 

St. John Paul II, in a passage that was highlighted by professor Scott Roniger of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in support of Hittinger’s thesis, described the difference between our current economic and political life, on the one hand, and Christian life, on the other hand, in the following way:

“Man cannot remain oblivious of the great threat posed by the veritable imperialisms which vie endlessly with one another, but which cannot ultimately claim to have at heart the good of the real happiness of mankind. Indeed, the reverse is true: For these powers, those imperialisms, see in man — in man’s freedom and inner truth — the biggest of all threats to themselves. The coming of Jesus of Nazareth into the world, the incarnation of the Word, is the revelation of a completely different economy.” 

The point is quite simple: While politics is a necessary and inevitable part of our lives, its ambitions should not be confused with the Kingdom. At the same time, this principle of separation must not lead to indifference. Pope Benedict articulated this beautifully when he said that it is “by pursuing her own finality that the Church sheds the light of the Gospel on earthly realities in order that human beings may be healed of their miseries and raised in dignity.” 

The Second Vatican Council — at which Benedict was a major adviser, perhaps one of the few still alive — grasped this relationship between the temporal and spiritual words in its declaration on religious freedom. Dignitatis Humanae explains that all men and women instinctively seek the truth, which is revealed in its fullness in the teachings of God’s Holy Catholic Church, adding that “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth.” The declaration also points to the Church’s mission of evangelization, explaining that for the Church to fulfill her divine mission — which is, of course, the salvation of souls — religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and incorporated in law, but also be given sincere and practical application.

So here we have a distinction that some Catholics still don’t seem to understand. Let me repeat these words: the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth. That means that the triumph of the Gospel is not a victory that is won by imposing political domination over others. 

Fortunately, our constitutional order sets up fertile ground for the Church and individual believers. The First Amendment contains two clauses relating to religious freedom. The Establishment Clause says the government can’t interfere in religious matters. It’s not quite the same thing as the Second Vatican Council’s insistence that the truth can’t be imposed, but it’s entirely consistent with it. The Free Exercise Clause, meanwhile, protects our right to worship and behave in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. Again, it seems to anticipate the Council, which calls for the sincere and practical application of laws protecting religious freedom. 

The First Amendment’s religion clauses not only give Catholics the right to practice our faith, but also create the space in which we can evangelize freed from government coercion. As the Supreme Court explained in a recent decision, these two clauses are not in tension but work in tandem to protect religious liberty. We also need to note — now more than ever — that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech is a crucial safeguard when the government tries to impose ideological conformity on Catholics in an attempt to force them to ignore the most sacred Church teachings. 

A look at recent cases shows that when religious exercise, conscience rights and religious expression are suppressed, and they are being suppressed, the Church’s ability to serve and evangelize is threatened. Fortunately, this current Supreme Court has been very protective of the First Amendment, particularly in cases involving Church autonomy and religious believers. 

For example, the Court recognizes that the Constitution’s religion clauses set up a ministerial exception, which frees churches from government interference in personnel decisions for ministers. The Court’s broad definition of who qualifies as a “minister” is particularly important for key roles within our Catholic schools. Needless to say, the progressive lobby, backed by unimaginable sums of money, doesn’t want religious schools to enjoy this constitutional freedom. 

Two terms ago, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s right to provide foster care for children without having to reject Church teaching on the nature of traditional marriage. It was an important victory, but many questions were left unanswered. Specifically, does the Constitution protect religious exercise when it conflicts with anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity? 

This past summer, the Court vindicated the First Amendment right of Joseph Kennedy, a public-high-school football coach in Washington state, to pray in thanksgiving after games. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the Court’s majority, observed that “respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic.” 

This term, the Court is reviewing another case involving religious expression. 303 Creative v. Elenis has been brought by Lorie Smith, a Christian website designer in Colorado. Smith wants to expand her business to create custom wedding websites. Lower courts have ruled that Smith must also create wedding websites for same-sex marriages or violate the state’s antidiscrimination law. Smith hopes that the Court will rule that such a demand violates her right to freedom of speech. Given the originalist character of the Court’s majority, Smith’s constitutional rights will probably be vindicated. 

The robust protection of religious exercise and expression has been good for the Church in allowing believers and the Church to participate and contribute in society without having to abandon belief. And let’s note that while we may feel that our beliefs are targeted, there is no need for a “regime change.” The very act of defending religious freedom offers a chance to evangelize: to set out the Church’s teaching and explain why, as Catholics, we believe that its principles, however unpopular, advance the common good.