Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Matter of Conscience

A 2015 burden, which may become a 2016 menace, is the old question of conscience and religious liberty.

My college years coincided with the military draft for the war in Viet Nam. I can remember many a heated discussion with young men my age, expecting to be drafted, as to why Catholics couldn't individually declare themselves pacifists by conscience and avoid the draft. Officially the US authorities held themselves to the position that Church teaching required that an eligible Catholic be ready to defend his country if so called. 

Time and again in 2015, we have been confronted with cases where that respect for Church teaching, with civil authorities taking respectful distance from Church teaching and official policy, no longer seems to apply. Apart from ways the health care business has come to weigh on Catholic institutions, the courts seem to have found ways to split hairs or worse, come down hard on Catholic schools and other entities when it comes to hiring or firing people who don't meet a minimum of principle, which 40 years ago would have been in the Church's domain and hands off on the side of the state.

These days I am reading two books which deal with the traditional doctrine on Church-State relations treating the Church as a societas perfecta, out of the realm of state control. One book stands to one side of what we might call the "conciliar divide" and the other its opposite. One author declares the traditional teaching passé and the other insists that the conciliar parenthesis on religious liberty needs to be closed and we need to get back to reasonable men like St. Robert Bellarmine, who knew the limits of the two swords business, but would not renounce the Church's God-given prerogatives.

Streams of ink or their toner equivalent have flowed over the proper role of the Church vis-à-vis the State in society. Of late, or thanks to these two books and the caprice on the part of the state which has marked the experience of my lifetime, I have become less sure that the "religious liberty" explanation carries with it any guarantees. The joy of Bellarmine is that he insists on the principle, never loosing sight of the despot's caprice which thumbs its nose at the societas perfecta and denies it its proper domain also in the public sphere.

Things need to go or do better, but they never really have. Perhaps all I am experiencing is one more brick in an edifice built on shifting sands losing all anchor. There is something more realistic about holding for a principle despite the other's refusal to concede you the point.

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