The Church, the State, and the Sanctity of Life

The Church, the State, and the Sanctity of Life October 9, 2016

As I sat down to watch Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, knowing that much has already been made of both candidates’ self-professed Christian faith, what I dreaded most was the possibility of the name of Jesus Christ being taken up as a political weapon on both sides. In fact, they almost made it through the debate without doing so – until moderator Elaine Quijano raised a question about how they balance their faith with public policy. We can’t know for sure whether the question was intended as a veiled reference to life issues, but the candidates appeared to interpret it as such, unquestioningly accepting (and further perpetuating) the problematic stereotype that the only grounds for respecting life are religious ones.

Predictably enough, Tim Kaine adopted a JFK-style compartmentalization between his personal faith and his public life, citing from past experience as governor of Virginia how he had not allowed the former to influence the latter regarding … the death penalty. With this example, he appears at pains to demonstrate his willingness to allow existing laws to override his conscience even where his own party does not necessarily require it. Even more predictably, when the discussion turned to abortion, he took the disconnect a step further, from a reluctant acceptance of what the law is to a moralized assertion (contrary to his professed personal views) of what the law ought to be, portraying it as a question of trust, and thus making it politically palatable to set the decision to end a life (whether on the part of “American women” as a handily monolithic political abstraction or, to apply the same principle back to the death penalty, the state) at a higher value than that life itself.

Mike Pence, for his part, made a few truly laudable statements, when taken by themselves, around his invocation of “the sanctity of life.” For purposes of public witness, I find it preferable to refer to “the dignity of life,” a term that is just as deeply rooted in Church teaching while also being more translatable into a secular context. But it doesn’t take much of a cynic to recognize that Pence’s chief concern here was not to translate his beliefs so much as to appeal to a part of his base that already shares them, and in a similarly limited way. When he talks about “cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life,” when he states, “A society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable,” I couldn’t agree more. I only wish he applied these beliefs more consistently. But right in the middle of all this, he repeated the violent caricature he’d been drawing of those he refers to as “criminal aliens,” revealing a glaring blind spot in his defense of the vulnerable – one that is unfortunately reminiscent of his attempt last year to dissuade the archbishop of Indianapolis from allowing Catholic Charities to resettle a Syrian refugee family, belying his claim to prioritize Christian faith above party loyalty (unlike Archbishop Tobin, thankfully).

While I found Quijano’s question and the vice-presidential candidates’ responses mostly cringe-worthy, the whole exchange forces me to grapple with a more vexing underlying question: what is the role of faith in public life in, as Kaine called it, a “first amendment nation”? And how does this relate – and how should it relate – to the way we talk about social issues, especially life-and-death ones?

I believe the separation of Church and State is necessary for the health of the Church. Mike Pence is just one of many politicians whose awkward attempts to baptize the party line only underscore this point when they invariably lead to compromise and counter-witness, notwithstanding any pronouncements that faith comes first: the State is a jealous god and will not docilely accept second place. But neither can I accept Tim Kaine’s privatized notion of faith and morals, to be sectioned neatly away to free the conscience to contradict those morals in one’s public and professional praxis – whatever one’s state in life happens to be – willingly conceding first place to State and party in whatever loyalties they demand, and turning back to practice one’s faith only in one’s spare time.

But respect for life should go beyond the Church in any case. If it were only a matter of religious faith, Kaine would be right, and we’d be on shaky ground trying to “mandate” anything reducible to an article of faith as national law. But if the dignity of human life is truly fundamental, we should be able to trust people of multiple faiths and no faith to come to this conclusion through what we might call natural law, through science and reason and moral intuition and empathy. Better that than to leave the matter of trust, as Kaine did, to decisions to end lives – lives he knows are of value, if we’re to believe what he says about his own beliefs.  To build a culture of life, we need to somehow find the language to prove we’re not simply talking to ourselves.

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  • I believe the separation of Church and State is necessary for the health of the Church.

    I’m getting to the point where I believe that the separation of Catholics from political life in America may be necessary for the health of Church members–but not of the nation.

    However, I should like to ask you if you really want Catholic politicians to withdraw from the arena of politics if they are unable to re-criminalize abortion, and if they are unable to persuade their fellow Americans to abandon the death penalty. You seem to want a purist position from them that would make it impossible for them to operate in this society.

    Another thing about almost everything you write, Julia, is that you seem–like many converts to Catholicism from a Protestant faith tradition–to be deeply unaware, at some level, of how profoundly different Catholic religious culture is from Protestantism, and of how alien the Catholic Church has always been in the American context. What is being lost sight of, in all of these “culture wars” in America that Catholics are engaging in is that even the “anthropology” implicit in Catholic theology is opposed to the Enlightenment anthropology that makes America, at its heart, a “liberal” and not a “conservative” set of political propositions.

    • Julia Smucker

      Dismas, I think you are partly accurate on where I’m coming from and partly misreading me, so I’m trying to sort that out.

      You are correct to hint (whether intentionally or not) at the influence of the Mennonite part of me which may seem to suggest a certain purism, although that’s not exactly what I’m aiming for. At least, I don’t want to go so far as to suggest a withdrawal from political activity in general, but I remain deeply skeptical of the possibility of authentic Christian witness through a high political office in particular, given the level of moral compromise such an office will invariably demand; Christians who seek political office should at least do so without being naïve on that point. Certainly we can and should seek all ways open to us to build a culture of life – which requires a) not limiting our efforts to politics as such, and b) working with secular allies (they do exist) to help us break stereotypes and speak a language that can be understood beyond the Church.

      Contrary to your diagnosis, I believe my having come into Catholicism from the outside makes me more profoundly aware than many cradle Catholics of, as you put it well, “how alien the Catholic Church has always been in the American context” (see this early post for an example). But if you really want to understand my approach on this point, you can refer back to my review of Daniel Schwindt’s most recent book, where I try to explain it in H. Richard Niebuhr’s terms from Christ and Culture. Perhaps my biggest ecclesial culture shock as a Catholic convert is having come from a deeply “Christ against culture” tradition into a deeply “Christ of culture” one. It’s that historical impulse, I believe, that has kept many American Catholics from perceiving their own alienness from the surrounding culture, having focused so much energy on fighting for a place within it.

      I’ve been increasingly convinced that something like “Christ transforming culture” is by and large a better approach. One of the major problems with the “culture wars” is their tendency to focus too exclusively on laws. Not that it’s an either/or: wherever the vulnerable are not protected by law there is an injustice, and just laws are needed to keep the worst cultural (and human) impulses in check. But in the long run, if we only try to change laws, the culture will fight it every step of the way, but if we can change the culture, the laws should naturally follow.

  • Julia Smucker

    Some interesting and apropos comments by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, addressing the Catholic Medical Association:

    We are in the midst of the most dispiriting Presidential election that any of us can remember. None of us are happy with the choices we have, because none of our choices reflect integrity or truth. Each of us has to discern how best we can support the culture of life in this election, but the choices are not good. But there are two lessons for us to learn in this election.

    The first is that we cannot expect the government to transform our culture. We cannot expect that voting for “the right person” will transform everything. Of course, we need to work in the political sphere to build good policy. But culture really transforms politics. And hearts transform culture. Lasting renewal of Christian culture—lasting renewal of the civilization of love—comes through the transformation of one heart at a time, one person who experiences the joy of the Gospel, and then another, and then another. And that kind of transformation requires a real investment, on our parts, in the real lives of other people. We can’t hide that responsibility. At the end of our lives, we’ll be judged by our fidelity to that mission.

    The second lesson is that world is hurting, confused, misguided, and broken. Christ works in our pain, confusion, and brokenness. This election evidences a truth: there has never been a moment when the Gospel is more sorely needed. Without it, the consequences for our nation, and for our children, born and unborn, will become ever more dire. And in pain, and confusion, and brokenness, there has never been a moment when the world will be more open to the Gospel. Our nation is desperately looking for answers to very big questions. And Jesus Christ is the answer to every human question ever posed.

    The full statement is here.

  • Dear Julia,

    Thank you very much for your amicable, tactful and reasonable response to my comment above.

    However, I should like to add to what you said that I consider that your concern for “cradle Catholics’” understandings of the reality of their situation in American politics and culture is not so serious as mine, or as yours ought to be. What you may be omitting is a proper appreciation of the degree to which the influence of American “exceptionalism” as well as Protestant Biblical Fundamentalism have actually wiped away from their religious culture a kind of broad comprehension of the uniqueness of orthodox Christianity, as compared with the heresies that sprang up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What I’m attempting to indicate to you is that I actually think that there has been, throughout the Catholic experience in America, so great an attempt to “fit in” that American Catholicism is actually not a fully integrated part of the universal Church anymore at all—particularly as regards the so-called “authority” of the “Ecclesia,” as understood by theologians of the past, such as John Henry Newman.

    Allow me to quote something to you that I recently saw in the comments thread of an article about Catholics’ position regarding abortion, because I think that the angry, overheated responses of Catholics to it are indicative of a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the historic Church’s position regarding her “infallibility”:

    “A study of the 2000 year history of the Church will reveal that the canonical point in a pregnancy when a fetus is ‘ensouled’ and officially becomes a human being has been at ‘quickening,’ set by Pope Gregory XIV in 1590 at 16 and a half weeks.

    In 1869,Pope Pius IX was campaigning to make papal infallibility part of the canon. French Catholics had blocked him for years. Bonaparte III, worried about a century long decline in France’s birth rate offered Pius a bargain. If Pius would ban all abortion and set the moment of ‘ensoulment’ to conception, France would drop its opposition to papal infallibility. The deal was struck and, Pius issued his Apostolicae Sedis Moderationi, declaring all abortions a sin. This didn’t officially take effect until the 1917 Code of Canon Law and was finalized in the Second Vatican Council in 1962-1965.

    There have always been influential Christians who have argued for millennia over whether abortion should all be illegal or whether a delayed ensoulment should be the demarcation. Outside of 3 year period beginning in 1588, when Pope Sixtus V’s Effraenatam declared ensoulment to be at conception (quickly reversed upon his death by Gregory XIV), the official stance that ensoulment happens at conception is an extremely new official stance by the Church.

    Keep this dubious and often-changing religious policy out of the lives of people who don’t agree with the Church’s current policy!”

    Unlike the respondents, I am not the least bit disturbed by what the writer considers to be the Church’s “inconsistency,” and I regard the Catholic commentators who are so exercised by it to be, according to their inability to “think with the whole Church”, more Protestant in religious culture than Catholic. This is because, apart from fundamental dogma, I regard it as the Church’s prerogative to change her teachings regarding MORAL THEOLOGY, according to broader experience of the world as well as scientific discovery. I consider this prerogative to be explicitly justified in the Scriptural text “What you shall bind on earth, I shall bind in heaven, and what you shall LOOSE on earth, I shall loose in heaven.”

    Therefore, it does not surprise me that the Apostolic Church has “discovered” only relatively recently the intrinsic “sinfulness” of the act of aborting a fetus, and I accept it as “Truth” revealed gradually, by a “Holy Spirit”, in the “time-space” continuum that we, as human beings, are forced to exist in. I also accept as another “religious truth” revealed by a “Holy Spirit” the recent “discovery” that executions are now incompatible with basic Christianity. Unlike Catholic Fundamentalists, I also believe that the Church is fully empowered to “regularize” the conditions of divorced Catholics and those who experience “same-sex-love,” and it wouldn’t surprise or shock me in the least if some future hierarchy determine that homosexuals may be welcomed into faith communities with public ceremonies of “binding friendship,” with the tacit assumption that such relationships at least aspire to chastity—properly understood to be completely compatible, in heterosexuals’ situations, with an active sex life–as all Catholic couples ideally aspire in their marriage vows. That, of course, does not mean that such “pledges” would be “sacramental marriages”—just sacramentals. I also will not be surprised—unlike the American Catholics who are enamored of Scriptural literacy—if the Church one day finds a place at the communion rails for individuals who have been divorced against their wills, as my sister has been.

    I firmly agree with Pope Francis that the exclusions that exist now are heartless and fundamentally un-Christian, but I have every confidence that the Ecclesia I belong to will someday recognize her failings in these regards, and rectify them. I believe that the demographic losses to Catholicity in American culture are natural and inevitable, because most American Catholics, in their rush to be “accepted” by a fundamentally Protestant nation, have actually never really considered, at a deeply intellectual level, what it means to be Catholic. They do not understand—and probably would wholeheartedly reject—what Newman suggests in his Development of Christian Doctrine–that an institution that is at once human AND perfectible should be expected to have changed, and “to have changed frequently.” What Newman means, of course, is that the Church is DIVINELY COMMISSIONED to seek out “Truth” wherever it lies and to consider herself to be not the “owner” but the “seeker” of Truth, as revealed GRADUALLY, in the form of a divinely-inspired and guided dialectic.

    David Cruz-Uribe, in his article above, seems to have a more than glimmering awareness of the alien nature of Catholicism’s implications for an American political life than most others who are trying to involve their co-religionists in America’s “culture wars,” but to second his testimony I want to quote to you a passage from a very interesting book which I have been reading recently as background material for a course of AP English Literature and Composition I am teaching in my college preparatory school:

    “By the nineteenth century, it had become commonplace for American Protestant historians and educators to insist upon the supposed historical and ideological link between Protestantism and American exceptionalism. This hugely influential mythic narrative of American origins linked Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ seventeenth century search for religious liberty in the New World with the eventual dawning of American democracy, making Protestantism central to the evolution of American identity. Catholics, then, were unceremoniously excluded from Protestants’ self-satisfied self-celebration. The onus was on them to show that they truly belonged in America: a task made more difficult by the three contradictory allegations that mainstream historians often lobbed against Catholics. Protestant historiography typically presented Catholics as ignorant “Johnny-come-latelys”: foreign, undereducated undesirable unfamiliar with or actively hostile to American values. [The irony being that we were, actually ‘unfamiliar’ with and, increasingly, actively hostile to CATHOLIC values.] This view sneered: ‘you’re not truly American, you just got here.’ But perversely, nineteenth century historiography also cast Catholics as the colonial ‘bogeymen’ of American history, fusing Protestant fascination with the ‘mysterious’ and ‘irrational’ rites of the Church with their paranoia of the ‘predatory’ military genius of Catholics’ native allies (many of whom were themselves Catholic) to create the impression of a papist juggernaut bent on the extirpation of Protestant North America. This historiography countered Catholic claims to Americanness with the objection, ‘you’re not American, you are the evil “other” that threatened the survival of our fledging nation.’ Finally, Protestant propagandists presented contemporary American Catholics as the unreflecting, zombie-like victims of unscrupulous papal mind-control, suggesting that Catholics were unfit psychologically for participation in the glories of American individualism, democracy and freedom, concluding : ‘you can’t be American, you are the unthinking product of an absolutist, authoritarian religion.’

    This book (Emma Anderson, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs) might convince you, better than a lot of other tomes, of what was lost in accommodating Protestant objections to fundamental principles of Catholic theology, and of the intellectual contortions made by American Catholic apologists, in order to accommodate those objections.

    Finally, just let me add that, as a supposedly “liberal” Catholic who makes “exceptional” allowances for my support of candidates like Hillary Clinton, but who, at the same time recognizes the anti-Catholic bigotry of her secularized and atheistic supporters—and who also believes in the necessarily “counter-cultural” political stances enjoined by the American hierarchy (which imply, for intellectual and moral “safety’s sake” an occasional “dropping-out” of the whole political process in America), I am fully prepared to support to some degree BOTH of the proposed Catholic alternatives to contemporary American political ideologies:

    My support of both would obviously consist, in the context of the looming Hillary-regime in America, an outspoken and vociferous defense of Catholics’ resistance to any encroaching by a supposedly “liberal” political regime against the religious liberties both of Catholics who support a “liberalizing” of Catholic moral theology, as well as those who—mistakenly, in my view—insist upon fundamentals that aren’t “fundamental” at all.

    • Julia Smucker

      Dismas, thank you in turn for your respectful and nuanced response. Without wanting to wade into every detail of what you’ve written here, I wonder if we agree on more than you assume. I certainly do appreciate Newman’s thought on the development of doctrine, and I believe I have at least a little more awareness of history than you give me credit for. The troubled history of Catholics’ attempts to “fit in” in America, to the point of a stunted view of catholicity (here I wouldn’t go quite as far as you: we’re an integral part of the universal Church as long as we’re in communion, we just have trouble keeping sight of how much bigger the Church is than America and its concerns), has been possibly the most perplexing thing I’ve dealt with in my life as a Catholic. What have I written than would make you think I don’t appreciate the gravity of this?

      • I’m glad we agree on the most important things. The only thing that would have made me think that you don’t appreciate “the gravity” of Americans’ stunted view of catholicity has been your willingness to engage in the “culture war” over abortion. I don’t even try, even though I basically agree with the Church’s position, and that’s because I consider American culture to be a “lost cause” for genuine Christianity. I think it’s very important, for the sake of the Catholic Church’s spiritual health and survival that its clergy and devotees agree to become a counter-culture, and to essentially “drop out” of the political arena, and stop trying to prove that we are “Americans first.” One of the few things I agreed with Benedict XVI Ratzinger about was that the Church is stronger when it’s so counter-cultural vis-a-vis modernity that it is a persecuted minority. I WELCOME the persecution of the pagans, so long as it comes uninvited.

        • Julia Smucker

          Now I’m curious how you’re defining “culture wars”. Do you mean that you consider any opposition to abortion to belong to “culture war” activity categorically? If so, that would make me fit your definition, but then it’s broad enough to include many of us (myself definitely included) who find culture-war-style combativeness not only distasteful but deeply counterproductive. I certainly do try to promote a consistent ethic of life in everything, which I hope is manifestly evident.

          Anyway, abortion – like probably any life issue – is neither a solely American issue nor a solely Catholic one (see the last link in the post, to an interview with the founder of Secular Pro-Life), and to categorize it as either or both would be a perfect example of the deeply uncatholic myopia you’re talking about. So maybe we agree on that point too, in the end?

          To the main point here, which should not go unnoted: I heartily agree about the Church being stronger as a counter-culture. That’s basically what I’ve been arguing in some form or another the whole time I’ve been Catholic. So now we have agreement between you, me, AND Benedict XVI. I think this calls for some sort of fanfare!