How Can You Separate Church and State When the Pope Speaks (so much) about Both?

Did Vatican II pave the way for Pope Francis’ recent change development of the catechism’s teaching on capital punishment? Korey Maas thinks so even if the laity (so far the bishops aren’t giving much guidance) are divide:

Largely unremarked in the debate over capital punishment, however, are its striking parallels with the half-century-long, still unsettled, and also increasingly contentious intra-Catholic dispute concerning religious liberty. This is all the more curious because Pope Francis’s own remarks—now echoed in the language authorized for the Catechism—appear quite intentionally to echo important aspects of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. According to that Declaration, for example, religious liberty is a right grounded in the “dignity of the human person.” As such, it is “inviolable.” This is precisely the language invoked by Pope Francis when he declared capital punishment impermissible because “it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

Moreover, just as Dignitatis Humanae asserts that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine,” while at the same time “developing” that doctrine, so too did Francis insist that his remarks in no way “signify a change of doctrine” or “any contradiction with past teaching”; they represent instead “the harmonious development of doctrine.” Both of these claims have proved controversial for the simple reason emphasized by Feser in the debate over capital punishment: “simply calling something a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so.” As he and Bessette argue, the Church’s earliest theologians acknowledged the legitimacy of capital punishment, in principle, and this conclusion was consistently affirmed by popes up through the twentieth century. The explicit rejection of that conclusion, they therefore reason, cannot logically be understood as a “development” of it.

But precisely the same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to the apparent claims of Dignitatis Humanae, since it deems religious liberty an inviolable right while also claiming not to have changed “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” That traditional Catholic doctrine—as taught by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils for more than a millennium—proclaimed it legitimate in both principle and practice to enforce that duty by means of coercion. Because Dignitatis Humanae appeared plainly to proscribe such coercion, however, it was not at all clear even to the bishops gathered at Vatican II how contradiction was actually being avoided. Indeed, just before the final vote on the Declaration, its official relator frankly admitted that “this matter will have to be fully clarified in future theological and historical studies.”

Once again the problem is that Roman pontiffs speak too much and all of Roman Catholicism’s history (and all those statements) make it hard to claim with a straight face that nothing has changed. History, in fact, is all about change (over time). So to present yourself as superior to Protestantism because you have 1500 years more history is also to open yourself up to the problem of trying to make coherent all of the church’s documents, laws, and doctrines. It is hard enough finding unity in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Now add to that endeavor 2000 years of papal pronouncements, council declarations, and revisions of canon law and you have work that could have made HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, break down in 1982.

Maas puts a fine point on the problem this way:

Quite obviously, given such disparate opinions, the controversy concerning the Church’s teaching on religious freedom is far from settled. But it differs from that concerning capital punishment because, as Feser himself notes, it is one that “most Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have avoided.” And he is surely correct in his understanding of the reason for this: “the older teaching is extremely unpopular in modern times, and thus whatever its current doctrinal status, most Catholics are happy to let it remain a dead letter and leave its precise relationship to Dignitatis Humanae unsettled.” And yet, he finally concludes, “a question unanswered and ignored is still a real question.”

Indeed, it is precisely the same question raised in the controversy over capital punishment: can a practice endorsed for more than a millennium by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils now be condemned as an immoral and inadmissible violation of human dignity?

Protestants may have account for many denominations, but Rome has 2 millennia of cats to herd.

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Even More Baffling than Evangelical Support for Trump

That would be Roman Catholic support for Trump. Korey Maas explains:

In heavily evangelical South Carolina, where a third of evangelicals voted for Trump, Monmouth had 42 percent of Catholics doing the same. Beaufort County, the only majority-Catholic county in the state, went to Trump with 30 percent of the Republican vote. Exit polls from much more Catholic Massachusetts placed Trump’s support from Catholics at an incredible 53 percent, four points higher than his support among evangelicals there.

Nor are state polls the only means by which to measure support for Trump. The comparative data national opinion polls have generated is equally revealing. Calculating the net favorability of candidates (by subtracting “very unfavorable” proportions from “very favorable”), the Barna Group finds Trump’s net favorability among evangelicals at -38. Not only was it twice as high among Catholics, at only -19, but Catholics viewed Trump more favorably than did any other religious category Barna denominated. When the same poll specifically asked respondents to choose a preferred candidate, evangelicals named Ted Cruz. Catholics? The unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner.

Trump’s favorability among Catholics is further confirmed by the Pew Research Center, which finds 54 percent of Catholic Republicans claiming he would, if elected, be a good or great president. Cruz (52 percent) and Rubio (51 percent) polled almost as well, but no candidate surpassed Trump. . . .

Still there’s more. Catholic support for Trump appears unhindered even after his recent and very public spat with the pope. Trump described as “disgraceful” Pope Francis’ assertion that “this man is not a Christian if he has said things like that.” The “things” in question were Trump’s proposed immigration policies, not least the building of a wall along the border with Mexico. Yet Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray notes that, contrary to the pope himself, a “whopping 76 percent of Catholic Republicans said they favored building a wall across the Mexican border and 61 percent specifically said they approved of Trump’s immigration plan.”

Partly prompting the bewilderment about evangelicals backing Trump has been the fact that prominent evangelical leaders—from Al Mohler and Russell Moore to James Dobson and Max Lucado—have publicly criticized him. None, though, is to evangelicalism what the pope is to Catholicism. For Catholic voters to defy the Democratic Party machine is remarkable enough; but to defy both party and pope? For Trump? For the unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner?

So much certainty, so much unity, so much authority, so little wisdom.

Why Fox News Isn't the Best Judge of Religion in Public Life

First the story:

In mid-December, six-year-old Isaiah Martinez brought a box of candy canes to his public elementary school. Affixed to each cane was a legend explaining the manner in which the candy symbolizes the life and death of Jesus. Isaiah’s first-grade teacher took possession of the candy and asked her supervising principal whether it would be permissible for Isaiah to distribute to his classmates. The teacher was informed that, while the candy itself might be distributed, the attached religious message could not. She is then reported to have told Isaiah that “Jesus is not allowed at school,” to have torn the legends from the candy, and to have thrown them in the trash.

Such is the account of Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, who is serving as media spokesman for the Martinez family. Organizations such as Fox News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze latched onto the story with purple prose and pointed commentary to rally the base. The Daily Caller described the teacher as having “snatched” the candy from Isaiah’s hands, “and then—right in front of his little six-year-old eyes—ripped the religious messages from each candy cane.” Fox News said “it takes a special kind of evil to confiscate a six-year-old child’s Christmas gifts.”

Turns out the teacher in question is a Christian and her former pastor explains what may have happened:

Such behavior would be entirely unbecoming of Christians even if the teacher in question were all the things she has been called. In fact, she is herself a pious and confessional Christian, though it would be impossible to discern as much from the coverage of much Christian media.

I know this because I was present at her baptism; I participated in the catechesis leading to her reception into the theologically (and, overwhelmingly, politically) conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod; I preached at her wedding; my wife and I are godparents to her children, as she and her husband (who is himself on the faculty of a Christian university) are to our youngest. Needless to say, I have complete confidence that her far less dramatic version of events is much the more accurate account.

Some will say that precisely as a Christian she should have had the courage of her convictions and allowed the distribution of a Christian message in her classroom. And yet, precisely because she is a catechized Christian, perhaps she understands that in her vocation she serves under the authority of others.

Perhaps it was wise in the litigious context of America’s public schools to confer with and defer to the supervising principal. Indeed, a lawsuit arising from virtually identical circumstances is still, ten years on, bogged down in the courts. If the answers to the pertinent legal questions are not immediately obvious to the dozens of lawyers and judges involved in this previous case, one can hardly expect them to be self-evident even to an intelligent primary school teacher. Thus, those critics who have dismissively counseled her simply to “read the Constitution” betray (in addition to a lack of charity) either an unhelpful naivety or a willful ignorance.

Of course, if you want to score points in some sort of publicity competition, demonizing this woman is not a bad strategy, though why Reformed Protestants also resort to such behavior (yes, I’m thinking the BeeBees and Rabbi Bret) is another question. But if you want to think through the layers of significance in such occurrences, maybe it’s better to check if as in this case the teacher belongs to a church and what her pastor thinks.