During his Apostolic Visit to the United States, on April 16, 2008, which was also his birthday, Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed to the White House by President George W. Bush. The Pope expressed the hope that his visit would be a source of renewal to the Church in the United States. Early in his remarks, he noted the important role that religion has played in shaping American history: “From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator.” Later in his address, he underscored that positive relationship that can exist between Church and State: “The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27).
Less than five years later, under the presidency of Barack Obama, Benedict’s words of hope are undergoing a severe test. In the last month of the Holy Father’s pontificate, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, expressed an altogether different outlook: “There remains the possibility that ministries may yet be forced to fund and facilitate … morally illicit activities. In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs that they proclaim on the Sabbath. We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences.”
President Obama, has made his disregard for the consciences of Christians as well as his disregard for religious freedoms, sufficiently clear. His stance on these issues has provoked a blizzard of lawsuits. The President does not mind Christians worshipping on Sundays, but he strenuously objects to them practicing their religion during the rest of the week. He wants to separate worship from practice, thereby rendering nugatory, the contribution of religion to civil society.
One of the merits of the separation of Church and State is to insure that the State does not take over the Church. Over the past decades, however, Christians have been surrendering to Caesar, piece by piece, what belongs to Christ. As a direct result, religion has become more and more a private matter and less and less societal. The logical end of this series of surrenders is a totalitarian State. T. S. Eliot warned against this phenomenon in his 1965 book, The Aims of Education: “The assertion that a man’s religion is his private affair, that from the point of view of society it is irrelevant, may turn out in the end to lead to a situation very favorable in the establishment of a religion, or a substitute for religion, by the State.”
The widespread acceptance of divorce, co-habitation, contraception, abortion, pornography, indecent language, embryo research, an array of reproductive technologies, and same-sex marriage, together with a growing hostility toward pro-life advocates and those who support traditional marriage, has widened the gulf between the secular world and people of religion. This separation has set the stage for a culture war between the Culture of Death and the Culture of Life.
At the close of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the hopes that he expressed during his visit to America have been contradicted by an increasingly intolerant secular world. What will Pope Francis say to Americans when it is his time to visit the United States? It will have a different ring than the kind message that Pope Benedict XVI presented in 2008. It may have more in common with the address that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave in 1983 when he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. On that occasion, he lamented the fact that “men have forgotten God,” and have replaced Him with vanities: “The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed … they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short-lived value. It has become embarrassing to appeal to eternal concepts, embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual heart before it enters a political system.” Today it is increasingly common for “liberals” to call those who defend intra-uterine life as “fanatics,” those who defend marriage as “bigots,” and those who oppose same-sex “marriage” as “homophobes.”
Politics cannot correct sins of the heart. Christianity is realistic in that it recognizes the fundamental problem of sin. Moreover, it has a remedy in the form of forgiveness and offers the light and the grace for rehabilitation. By excluding religion, the root problem of sin remains unattended and left to fester. As a result, God and His Wisdom are excluded from politics. But this exclusion leads to a series of additional exclusion, as we are currently witnessing on the plane of everyday life: morality from life, marriage from sex, the family, from marriage, and reality from thinking. We are becoming ever more relativistic and ever less realistic. As Jorge Cardinal Medina Estévan of Chile has said, “This sort of division is leading us to what could be called a condition of moral schizophrenia with fatal consequences for society.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput, toward the end of his important book, Render Unto Caesar, makes the following comment: “The world would be very different today if Catholics had ‘stayed out of politics’ in Poland under the Communists, or the Philippines under Marcos, or Malawi under Banda. Would we really be better off if those regimes had endured because Catholics decided that good manners prevented them from speaking up?” Timidity, deference, non-involvement, and faithlessness do not comprise what this archbishop regards as the cardinal virtues. In answering the question he posits, Archbishop Chaput urges American Catholics to work together to overcome the facile acceptance of the evils that mar the contemporary American landscape: “violence, greed, vulgarity, abortion, and rejection of children.”
The survival of America depends on the survival of religion, which embraces the very values that are its legacy, its leaven, and its lifeblood.