Saint Pius X and the Separation of Church and State – Catholic World Report

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Detail of “Pius X”, photo portrait of Francesco De Federicis, 1903, retouched and colorized. (Picture: Wikipedia)

“That the State is separated from the Church is an absolutely false thesis, a most pernicious error.” – Saint Pius X, Our vehements1906

Just over a decade before Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto was elevated to the papacy, France’s transformation from a Catholic kingdom to a secular nation-state was marked by the erection of the Eiffel Tower. In 1889, the Tower was highly controversial, as it was dedicated to the French Revolution and Enlightenment rationalism. It was widely perceived and denounced among devout French Catholics as yet another Tower of Babel, the most visible symbol of a long-running campaign against France’s Catholic identity.

This campaign would later be denounced by Pius X in Our vehements. From reintroducing the French Revolution’s “right to divorce” to changing oaths of office, the French government was robbing France of its Catholic heritage, Pius lamented to his bishops:

You have seen the sanctity and inviolability of Christian marriage outraged by legislative acts in formal contradiction with them; secularized schools and hospitals; clerics torn from their studies and ecclesiastical discipline to be subjected to military service; religious congregations dispersed and plundered, and their members for the most part reduced to the last degree of misery. Other legal measures that you all know followed: the law ordering public prayers at the beginning of each parliamentary session and of the assizes was abolished; the signs of mourning traditionally seen on board ships on Good Friday removed; the erased religious character of the judicial oath; all actions and emblems serving in any way to recall the idea of ​​religion banished from courts, schools, the army, the navy, and in a word from all public establishments.

This long series of abuses will culminate in the French Separation Law of 1905, which abrogated the old Napoleonic concordat between the Church and the French government; it was this law that prompted Pius to publish his outraged encyclical.

For most Americans, even Catholics, the separation of church and state is such an obvious ideal that any condemnation of it may seem repugnant, amounting to a call to resume the Thirty Years’ War and burn the heretics. Certainly, a distinction must be made with nations like France, steeped in an ancient Catholic heritage, and America, which emerged from a very different historical milieu. Both practically and morally, it is one thing to preserve or even restore a centuries-old Catholic system, and quite another to call for the imposition of a full-fledged Catholic denominational state on a population of Protestants. in a country founded by their Protestant ancestors.

At the same time, an absolute separation of religion and government has consequences that should be worrisome for Protestants and open-minded unbelievers no less than for Catholics. For it is not certain that a human value can be entirely dissociated from religious foundations. Why should there be prohibitions against public sexual acts, for example, prohibiting a deep and implicitly religious understanding of the meaning of sexuality? Leaving aside the question of same-sex “marriage”, what possible justification can a government have for privileging married couples over individuals? By definition, how can an oath of office be sacred without at least a hint of religion? As more honest atheists have admitted, even the very concept of human dignity derives from a religious consciousness. Despite Kant’s convoluted attempts to construct an ethics without natural law or God, over time agnosticism about the Supreme Being inevitably leads to agnosticism about created beings. The most famous recent example of this agnosticism is reflected in the reluctance of educated people to say anything about what a woman is.

Even in the American context, the separation of church and state is not really as sacred (ironically intended) as some liberals would have us feel. The famous Establishment Clause of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of a religion” – is evidently directed against a branch of the federal government. It says nothing about the established churches found in several small “s” states at the time of the American founding. Local ordinances shutting down businesses on the Sabbath, prayer in public schools, city regulations regarding pornography, distinctions between “wet” and “dry” counties — these and other religion-based measures have played a role. a prominent role in American life, at least until recently. The unverified assumption that what Congress cannot do, no other authority can do, is based on nothing but the equally unverified bias of the liberal elite in favor of a centralized government. Far from being foreign, the public representation of religious interests is an integral part of the American tradition, albeit at the state and local level.

It should be pointed out that Pius X himself was not the theocrat some critics and supporters might take him for, and that he hardly called for an impassable barrier of enmity between Catholics and their non-Catholic neighbors. . Continuing the teachings of Leo XIII on the defense of the working classes, for example, Pius clarified that “Catholics, in their efforts to improve the living conditions of the workers, a more equitable distribution of wages and other justified advantages, have the right, provided they exercise caution, collaborate with non-Catholics for the common good. Thus, there is some possibility of cooperation between Catholics, Protestants and others, as there is common ground that extends until a particular non-Catholic is able to recognize “the common good”.

Perhaps the only person with whom the Catholic can never work effectively is the militant agnostic modernist. “According to this teaching”, wrote Pie of Modernism in Pascendi Dominici Gregis, “human reason is contained entirely in the domain of phenomena, that is to say of things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the way in which they are perceptible; it has neither the right nor the power to transgress these limits. She is therefore incapable of rising up to God and recognizing his existence, even by means of visible things.

To be clear, it is not stubbornness or fanaticism that prevents the Catholic from meaningfully cooperating with the modernist in the pursuit of the common good; on the contrary, fruitful cooperation is simply prevented on principle, thanks to the assertion of the modernists that no one can have the slightest idea of ​​what the common good is. The seeming futility and insolubility of contemporary controversies stem from dishonest attempts to evade, cover up and obscure the implications of radical agnosticism.

As his feast draws near, it is worth acknowledging how prodigious Pius’s pontificate was. He was the last pope to live in what could easily be recognized as Christianity, after all. His pontificate began with the intervention of the Habsburg Emperor, who had vetoed another candidate; it ended when Pius died in August 1914, shortly after Austria declared war on Serbia. In other words, his pontificate was made possible by an office that would be torn down, along with the last Catholic world power, in an unprecedented and disastrous war that many scholars have called an act of civilizational suicide.

As many readers will no doubt know, the bitterness, revolutions and other bloodshed that followed the Great War helped to enshrine as public dogma the very modernism that Pius X sought to ward off. Today, the question is no longer how to prevent the rise of modernism, but how to deal with it.


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