Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Born of Necessity or Dealing with the Maccabees

Picking through my "to read" pile of gifts from Christmas, I came across and read two articles in the genre of what in German is know as "Staatskirchenrecht"[1]. It may not sound like much fun to you, but the gift-givers did really provide me with a treat (excuse my professional deformation!).

Staatskirchenrecht: In Germany especially, it is a category of law with proud and capable practitioners; it goes well with concordats with the Holy See, but also can and does stand alone. It is a discipline which exists in other countries, but which in Germany now for a goodly number of years has managed well relations between Church and State and generally with an honest eye toward justice. I would say what makes this particular category of law and its practice great in Germany is that it is more inspired by principles comparable to hygiene than it is by the sort of adversarial wringing, as in clerics vs. statesman, which leaves the Church neither time nor place to swallow its spit. It would seem that thanks to Bismark's "sins" the Germans for the most part have managed to get something ugly and ignoble out of their systems in order to get on with higher flown notions of what should be meant when referring to the common good. Their legal system, though not perfect in managing Church-State relations, makes reasonable room for the Church and stands head and shoulders above most everybody else.

Elsewhere on the globe we don't fare quite that well. For lack of imagination or for some lingering and visceral prejudices there remains a partial refusal, greater or lesser depending on the country, to let the Catholic Church be fully itself in society. Even so, we live in hope of better times and ampler mechanisms for just letting everyone be and allowing us without qualification to our Catholicness. Those who insist on keeping the Church on a short chain usually do so by plying us with money and seeming advantages which can easily be labelled privileges. They might be our due, but can easily be categorized as conceding us an unfair advantage within a secular state, which has either separated itself from the Church or has forgone the establishment of any particular religious confession as defining a given society, if for no other reason than for historical precedent.

At this point, I go back to where I started and to the two mentioned articles. They are good, I would say, but with one reserve: they enter on the scene and do what most folk have done now for half a century and that is both articles sing the praises of religious liberty as the new synthesis bringing peace to social pluralism and doing so in justice. They apply whether a country has a healthy tradition of Staatskirchenrecht or not. 

Religious liberty: Why so much enthusiasm for something which is hard to document anywhere it may be applied, let alone as being evenhandedly applied anywhere? Land of the free, home of the brave? Canada? Australia? Where, pray tell, is this religious liberty accorded to all and especially to conscientious Catholics as an uncontested and unlimited good? Sorry if I am tempted to suspect that the doctrine on religious liberty, embraced today generally by both sides of the Church-State divide is little more than an untried or perhaps already failed hypothesis. I'm not talking about any of various schemes for financial support as promoting liberty, but seemingly granting us space to be ourselves in the public square. Where does religious liberty ever deliver such? Just try talking to the nice young man or woman at any U.S. Embassy with a religious liberty portfolio and see if the conversation gets to those implications at home or abroad which go beyond the freedom to attend the church of your choice or some carefully circumscribed tax-exempt status shared with who all.

A conflict ridden history has not been well managed, to say the least. All that once upon a time was ancien regime and which held us bound until the French Revolution, secularization or the Risorgimento swept everything away (wealth, property, prerogatives, libraries, schools, much that was beautiful and sacred) included a stubborn or desperate refusal on the part of the hierarchy in the Church, aided and abetted by the emperor and Europe's crowned heads, to move beyond accidents to substance. How could the upper crust get along without the perks provided by the social order of once upon a time which yoked throne and altar? What to do without the third son's niche as abbot here, the second son's carrier as prince bishop and elector of the realm there, not to mention settling an unmarriageable daughter as abbess somewhere else, and for tops, well, cardinale nipote...?

You might say that impatience with the Church's sense of entitlement is more than understandable and that there must be a place in heaven for a Joseph II and for Garibaldi's like as well. All that is fine for as far as it goes, but lest we forget or discount the zeal of the Maccabees for the restoration of the Temple, the covenant of circumcision and the dietary laws, as Church we do have non-negotiables, which just don't seem to be covered under the hypothesis of religious liberty, regardless of who is explaining it. Believe it or not, Church has its inalienable hallmarks, which are born of necessity and flow from the will of God for the sake of the life of the world.

No doubt, the only right place to start a conversation of this sort is by calling bishops and priests to account in terms of their faithfulness to the Gospel. We need more honest, integral, bold witnesses like St. Charles Borromeo, who by prayer and penance sought to conform their lives to that of our Loving Savior, thus credibly speaking His Truth and shepherding His Flock. Maybe it is too much to expect that we can walk hand in hand with a given temporal power for the sake of the good of society.

What I'd like to say is that past schemes (ancien regime) may have been unacceptable vehicles for establishing Christ's Church and furthering its mission. As I read, look and listen, however, I am missing the restless search for whatever that better or adequate vehicle might be. As I say, religious liberty comes up more than short, when it comes to guaranteeing unfettered discourse in the public square, about the truth which comes from God in Jesus Christ. But it's all we've got does not do it for me as a response and hence my insistence that we stand somewhere between a pipe dream and an untried hypothesis when we appeal to religious liberty as the better mousetrap. 

Maybe for next Christmas, some original thinker will have the matter worked out and send me his pioneering new synthesis. Until then I live in hope of better days. 

[1] Das Staatskirchenrecht ist ein Teilgebiet des deutschen öffentlichen Rechts. Es umfasst die vom Staat gesetzten Rechtsnormen, die sich auf die Rechtsstellung von Religions- und Weltanschauungsgemeinschaften sowie deren Verhältnis zum Staat beziehen. Mit einer Staatskirche hat der Begriff nichts zu tun.

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