In the American political conscience, the thought of freedom of religion is hardly given a passing glance. Indeed, we owe this which has become such a fundamental part of our collective national psyche to the philosophies which went into our founding credos, and to the men who distilled these ideas and placed them securely into the practice of the jurisprudence of our nation and unto the present age.
Among these men was James Madison, the Princeton-educated Virginian who takes his place in the Pantheon of American statesmen as the “Father of the Constitution.” His contribution to the doctrines of religious freedom which sit so firmly entrenched in our laws and our political consciences may be seen most clearly in his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” written to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785. In that year, the legislature of the Commonwealth had taken up a bill concerning the granting of tax monies to the support of teachers of religion. Madison “remonstrates” against this bill, which he holds to be an usurpation of the rights of the citizens of the Commonwealth, and while a number of the arguments he takes up in this letter are specifically targeted to the character of the bill, his philosophy regarding the matter of Church-State relations in general is quite evident in most of his arguments. Chiefly, he argues that religious faith ought not to be prevailed violently or forcefully upon men, and that it ought to be arrived at through use of rational faculties and conviction. He states that the religion of every man must be left to his own discretion; that the dictates of conscience are to be the arbiter of religious faith for each individual. He goes on to underline that religion ought to be exempt from the authority of society at large and that of the civil government, and that the government ought not to interfere with what he calls a natural right of man to practice whichever religion his conscience dictates to him to be true and right. Madison then turns to an accusatory and suspicious tone, saying that entanglements of religion and the state have only led to a denigration of the purity of the Christian religion, of the lessening of sanctity of the clergy due to their being given over to pride, of the ignorance of the laymen, and of “superstition, bigotry, and persecution.” He goes on to state that these entanglements of Church and State have led to hardships and bloodshed brought on by the State’s attempts to remedy the discord between the various sects of Christianity. The American way of “equal and compleat liberty,”
Such thoughts are, to the modern American mind, merely the way things work and have worked. However, it is apparent from a simple reading of Madison’s letter that his case is made with some less-than-grievous flaws which, once exposed to the light of a higher truth than that of mere human wisdom, are exposed as fundamental errors in the judgment of the workings of society—and especially in relation to the Creator and whichever duty must be paid Him.
By this light of a higher truth, of course, it is meant that supreme wisdom which comes from Almighty God and is transmitted through His Church by those to whom it has been imputed to guard and hold sacred the truths of his law. Among the shepherds of the Holy Catholic Church who have spoken at length on such matters as would concern these matters of the State, the most resonant in our own time is Pope Leo XIII. Pope Leo wrote extensively on a number of matters which concern the modern political mind by drawing on that timeless wellspring of wisdom of the Church’s teaching and presenting, boldly and clearly, the truth of many matters political. His encyclical Immortale Dei is no exception. Intrepidly, the Holy Father of blessed memory argues the fundamentals of the traditional Catholic theology on the relationship between Church and State. The purpose of the Church, he states, is the salvation of souls in the first place, but it also provides many temporal goods—a fact which is broadly witnessed to in history by the immense growth in the arts and sciences in particular and in the advancement of civilization in general in the Western world, a growth and advancement for which no other than the Holy Church could have been given praise. Everything which the Church has touched in civil society, the Holy Father asserts, has been changed for the better—especially in the spheres of morality, virtue, culture, and justice. He denies the charge that the Church is unable to assist in the attainment of the ends of civil governments—indeed, the strife in the early centuries of the existence of the Christian religion which was often blamed on Christian presence in the social order was, according to the Holy Father, the just punishment of “an avenging God” upon that social order which opposed and persecuted the Church.
The Holy Father then constructs an argument in support of a close association between the Church and civil governments from the groundwork laid by centuries of Christian philosophy. Firstly, he acknowledges that man is naturally societal—man is incapable of provision for himself apart from that which is afforded by dependence upon others, both in terms of temporal gains and moral and mental goods. In order to attain to a higher state of being, man must exist in society, and from this it is inferable that man dwelling in community is in accord with the natural order and therefore divinely ordained (the equation of natural ordering and divine ordinance is an obvious one; God is creator of all things and set the order to nature—thus, that which is found to be in harmony with the natural order must be divinely ordained to be so).
Since society is both a natural and divine ordinance and in the interest of the good of the men existing in them, it then follows that there is need for some principle with which society must be together bound: a ruler is necessary to hold societies of men together. Citing Romans 13:1, the Holy Father asserts that rulers of men must be subordinate to the will of God, “for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.” The right to rule over human society, Pope Leo continues, is “not bound up with any special mode of government,” but rulers in any system of governance must remember that their power is derived ultimately from that of God and must “set Him before themselves as exemplar and law in administration of the state.” Inspired by the example of God’s dominion over all of Creation, then, it follows that rulers must govern with a fatherly justice—they must rule concerned, above all, with the well-being of the citizens, and not show partisanship toward one individual or a few persons.
The fundamental doctrine of the political philosophy of Pope Leo XIII—and indeed, the Church’s tradition on such matters—is found in where he next carries his argument. Since rulers must govern in the interest of their citizens, since rulers are subordinately ultimately to God, and since the Church has done supreme good to the people both in things heavenly and things of the world, it would behoove those who hold power in the state to act by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, he says, command us to worship God, and “it is a public crime to act as if there were no God.” Therefore, it is sinful that the state should not care for religion, regardless of its reasons against such consideration—be it out of pragmatism which avoids entanglements with religion for the sake of things running smoothly or because one religion or another is popular among the people. All are bound to worship God in the way in which He has commanded, and as such religion must be shielded under law—not compromised by it. All are destined toward Heaven, the Holy Father continues, and so the state must be ordered so as to allow the freedom of human persons to achieve what is their ultimate end and the very reason for their creation on this earth. Upon this sort of granting of freedom to men in society “depends the full and perfect happiness of all mankind.”
Civil societies, then, to safeguard both the well-being of community in general but also of each individual in which communities consist ought to protect and profess religion, which is man’s link to God. The argument thus far has raised a fundamental question—which religion is true? We can see that allowing a religion to guide the state is certainly a worthy thing, but which religion ought that to be? As the Holy Father demonstrates, the true religion is easily proved—in prophecies, miracles, the propagation of the faith in spite of constant and vigorous opposition, and of course, the fervor of the martyrs who gave their lives for the Christian faith. It is clear that the Holy Father means to say that the Catholic religion is and ought to be viewed as the supreme expression of the Christian faith, and indeed the
The relationship of Church to State, then, Pope Leo asserts, may be likened to that of the union of Body and Soul. The Body, that is, the State, has authority over attaining earthly goods, while the Soul, the Church, that of attaining Heavenly delights. This echoes the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” From all of this we see that there is to be no suspicion of civil societies for the Church or likewise of the Church for governments, there is to be no opposition—but harmony between the two that the good of mankind may flourish both to the attainment of advancement of virtues in this life and the joys of heaven in the next.
A number of doctrines stand in opposition to this sort of harmony, and the Holy Father summarily denounces them as being at variance with both the precepts of the Gospel and with natural law. Firstly, that all men are in equal control of their lives and moreover masters of their own destinies; second, that government is nothing more than the will of the people; third, that “the authority of God (may be) passed over in silence, just as if there were no God or as if He cared nothing for human society, or as if man…owed nothing to God.” These doctrines place the Church in a position less than or equal to that of all other associations which may exist in a society, making her out to be “just another denomination” or a mere group—owing no credit to her divine foundations. When these doctrines come to dominate the consciousness of a society, then the Church suffers—to the point that even when the Church is given what is rightfully hers in society, men cry out in opposition and demand that she be separated from the state. From this opposition, much harm comes to the Christian life—marriage becomes redefined, goods of the clergy and of the Church’s associations are taken, and the Church becomes just another place for people to gather of their own volition, as if it were not divinely founded. The Church is kept thusly in bondage to the state, not allowed to act freely. The Holy Father boldly condemns the doctrine of popular sovereignty, saying that it is “exceedingly well calculated to flatter and to inflame many passions, but which lacks all responsible proof and all power of insuring public safety and preserving order.” This doctrine, once enthroned as the animating principle of the state, leads to an emphasis on the sovereignty of man and an indifference to religion—which in turn can lead to atheism. If believers are to be consistent, the Holy Father says, they must acknowledge that the One God could not have established disparate and opposing wills, but one will and therefore one Church to transmit his will (thus adding another layer to the fundamental argument).
And thus we return to the arguments set forth by James Madison, and it is plain to see that Madison’s philosophy is at variance with that of Pope Leo XIII and of the broader body of the Church’s tradition. There are many points of
In the first case,
A further contradiction in
When the freedom of men to enter into whichever religious affiliation they so choose according to the dictates of their consciences is abused, continues
Above all, when James Madison’s doctrines of separation of Church and State, and indeed, those of the American political conscience from his time into our own, are scrutinized in light of the Church’s consistent and ancient teachings, it is apparent that the freedom preached by the American regime then and now is not freedom in its truest sense—freedom in Christ—but a sort of imagined freedom, a sort of license which, if left unbridled, leads to all manner of falsities that are destructive to the constitution of individual souls and to the soul of the state.
 Memorial and Remonstrance 1
 Ibid., 2
 Ibid., 4
 Ibid., 6
 Ibid., 11
 Immortale Dei, 1
 Ibid, 3
 Ibid, 4
 Ibid., 6
 Ibid., 7
 Ibid., 13
 Ibid., 13
 Ibid., 14
 Ibid., 25
 Ibid., 31
 Ibid., 32
 Memorial and Remonstrance, 1
 Ibid., 1
 Immortale Dei, 31
 Memorial, 6
 Ibid., 7
 Ibid., 7
 Ibid., 11