One of my major preoccupations is the reconciliation of at least seemingly incongruent pieces or patches of thought in search of their common truths. I hold it a moral as well as an intellectual exercise: by balancing the meaning and internal logic of various sources the thinker strengthens his cerebral muscle tone, yet it is moral because it is a most certain way to discerning truth. I want to do that here, and so I will begin with the two protagonists above in my title with perhaps the two statements that would most provoke the other.
At the now unused Papal Coronation rite practiced until 1963 and first discontinued by Pope John Paul I, the Cardinal Protodeacon would place the triregnum over the freshly elected pontiff's brow intoning:
Accipe tiarum tribus coronis ornatam, et scias te esse patrem principum et regum, rectorem orbis in terra vicarium Salvatoris nostri Jesu Christi, cui est honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum.
Accept the tiara decorated by three crowns, and know yourself to be the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world and the vicar on earth of our Savior Jesus Christ, Whose is honor and glory for all ages.
Let us contrast this ritual proclamation with the address of then Sen. John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association now mostly accepted, and for the greater part rightly so:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
I doubt I need to explain the obviously apparent contrast in claims between that of the bishop of Rome as ruler of the world and Kennedy's claim as a Head of State to withhold civil allegiance to him or any prelate. I do intend to repudiate the natural claim that these two entirely or even mostly exclude the other. Pleasurably do I correlatively repudiate both civil and religious fundamentalism, namely that expressed on the one hand by former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum who claimed rereading Kennedy’s words “made him sick” and the late Christopher Hitchens’s claim that religion and theocracy are conceptually and in substance the same thing.
To help secure success in these matters, I limit my ambition. I am not suggesting the Papal Coronation ought to return. The triregnum was abandoned by Blessed Paul VI; John Paul I refused coronation, and Benedict XVI left the crown from his heraldry altogether. I claim neither that all of Kennedy’s words in his address were precise nor as precise as I hope to make them here. I am less interested too in the entire history of the triregnum, upon which like many liturgical, civil, and other regalia, meanings and symbolisms are sometimes imposed a posteriori. I am not interested here in the offenses of religions and states, many of which I a Catholic would hardly deny; I suggest rather an ideal to secure greater liberty to individuals and polities that I claim results from a resolution between these two pronouncements.
There ultimately is a lesson here. Sensitive as we are to authority, especially concerning religion, morality, and democracy, it is too easy to devolve into fundamentalism. Frustration at the challenges of intellectual rigor posed by values dear to us provokes this devolution, and we are the worse for it. Ultimately we must play the diplomacy of ideas. We desire, most of all, freedom from tyranny, religious liberty, freedom of conscience, democracy, and the like, and these desires force us to mitigate between them. Unlike diplomatic compromise; however, often the corruption of one idea elicits corruption in the other. Ultimately sacrificing one of these to the altar of another results in sacrificing both to attain none. We are fools if we do not see this, and we are greater fools if we blindly cast off this intellectual burden and accuse reasoning interlocutors of trying to deceive us.
The dispelling of tyranny is the major preoccupation of those who, in writing constitutions, distribute political powers. The fear thereof issues many of our own preoccupations; the threat of tyranny in its various forms motivates many of our political acts. Tyranny does not lie within the reach of strict definitions as do some other terms, but many would define it as an unjust and unchecked overreach of a ruler who by so doing oppresses the whole or a group under his power.
Some suppose wrongly that mere democracy solves this problem. This supposition happily is lessoning, yet the fundamental error is strengthening in its adherents. Democracy cannot on its own dissolve or prevent tyranny, as evinced by the parties of National Socialism elected into power in the 1920s and 30s, because majority rule might always oppress some minority or otherwise err. Those who step back from this error, however, often attempt to alleviate by problem merely by giving a megaphone to various minorities.
France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen succinctly expresses this this error when in Article 6 it says, La loi est l’expression de la volunté général: The law is the expression of the general will. We rightly contrast with an earlier and erroneous opinion that law is the expression of the opinion of some monarch. Indeed as a believer in democracy I admit its procedural verity, but as to the essence of la loi I cannot assent to the theory that the law is just what we want to do and apply as a polity upon ourselves.
To be fair, Article 2 asserts that the goal of a polity is the preservation of certain rights, particularly liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression. If so, then the law is not merely an expression of the general will, but an entity with a purpose. Just as the general will may be good or bad: so too the law.
Thus if someone else asserts that the general will keeps those in power accountable, we ought not say that they are merely accountable for representing the general will. If the general will is bad, we would have no means by which to call the law bad. An unjust or otherwise bad law can still represent well the general will, so the law that does this is in fact good. Thus the general will should keep lawmakers accountable to something else. But Article 2 is upon consideration rather vague in what it offers. This is illustrated well if we give them their popular meanings. If liberty is the capacity to do what one wishes without threat of violence, we would without quarrel accept that the law can limit liberty (which is what the law does). Does the law limit property, sure. Safety: you can be thrown in prison, your goods suspect, your actions can place perfectly acceptable legal threats on your the very safety, etc. Any lawbreaker might feel oppressed when held to account for his crimes.
This is not to say these are hopelessly vague; rather to save them we must assert some sort of natural order or natural law to these things. So we could say that democracy is a factor that keeps the rulers accountable to the natural law. If laws violate the natural law, that law is unjust (or following Augustine: no law at all). Yet there are more political machinations that keep polities accountable, within which I argue, democracy fits. There are also the balance of powers and the freedom of speech.
Let us back away from this discussion temporarily and refocus attention to the triregnum, about which John Paul II in his inaugural homily said it was, "an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes." Thus we should say that the triregnum is a symbol of spiritual authority, which above the Roman Pontiff no temporal person can possess. Yet this does not mean that he necessarily has temporal power over other princes and kings.
Jesus Himself affirms the temporal authority of the Roman prefect to whom He said, 'You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.' (John 19:11). Wrongly would one interpret this under the manner of the Divine Right of Kings; rather, we should interpret this saying that all power is from God: to exercise any authority or power wrongly is to offend God Who is that power's sole claimant. Not only does one in authority bear an account to God for how well he keeps to the natural law, instilled in him by nature, but for the laws he promulgates by any power vested in him, which power is the sole right of God Himself.
It is clear, at least for a Catholic, that the highest spiritual authority possessed by any temporal person is vested in the bishop of Rome, who himself must also give an account to God, for that authority is Christ's and Christ's alone. Other prelates possess lesser degrees of this spiritual authority and over certain jurisdictions, or certain dicasteries that in the name of Christ's vicar on earth exercise papal authority. These prelates do not possess temporal authority by any Divine right, however, and while it is clear that while someone must possess temporal authority, no one else possesses it by any kind of Divine right.
Yet both spiritual and temporal authority, possessing different functions, are bound by the natural law. We must assert the separation of Church and state not primarily because of freedom of religion, of which every human person is a claimant, but because as much as possible spiritual and temporal authority are different things. This is true on a more micro-level in government, divided into that which legislates, that which executes laws, and that which judges cases according to law. To check these natural powers, our own constitution divides these into branches executed by different elected groups who hold non-overlapping offices. Following this model then, temporal authority should not exercise spiritual authority, and vice versa (excepting, for the protection of this separation, Vatican City State).
Yet each, to repeat myself, is bound by a natural order and answerable to God. One can witness against the other and hold the other accountable to the natural law. No pope or any prelate ought violate the natural law: none should incite their congregations to violence, abuse children, etc. About those checks spiritual authority applies to those temporal powers, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in 2010 at Westminster Hall, said the following:
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.
Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.
To answer the issue raised by then Sen. Kennedy, neither the POTUS, nor any person of temporal authority, is answerable to the will of any spiritual authority. Yet as the natural law is shared by both temporal, spiritual authority, and by all persons, that which issues from the dictates of reason and concerning which all men and all persons of authority are answerable to God, both temporal and spiritual powers can possess a corrective and illuminative role on the other.
What then does it say about us when we are alarmed when bishops protest injustices by the state? When bishops excommunicate politicians who legalize abortion and euthanasia, who change the nature of marriage, etc.?
It is by nature, remember, that we are free. By following a natural order, we remain free, and by passing laws respecting the natural order we create legal protections for that freedom. A person is most free when he possesses the virtuous habits whereby he regulates his appetites to an order following the dictates of reason: prudence, whereby he gives to others what he owes and acquires what is owed to him: justice, whereby he commands his own passions: fortitude, and finally whereby he regulates his own sensual appetites: temperance. The free state is the just one, as the state and her laws concern relations between persons. A just law respects nature, for the nature of a person in a way is the person, and any person, entity, or law that does violence to a person's nature does violence to the person. We suppose that any inalienable rights of the person are by definition had by nature.
But what of these bishops? Who will rid us of these meddlesome priests? What of our consigning the violation of religious freedom to these men? What do we do, really, when we insist in order to not be oppressed by religion and her morality, the natural law, have no place in civil law? Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! we cry, democracy! Freedom from religion! no ascetic priest can impose his moral code upon our heads! Revolution! The people's rule! Etcetera, etcetera! — This is to say our (for now) democratic laws are not bound by the natural law. It does not matter whether they are just or not, so long as they reflect the will of the people. When we shuffle off the coil of the natural law, it can be said that we no longer live in a free society. A state that claims the right, contra natura, to be one where you can kill unborn children, kill the elderly, change the nature of marriage, oppress the poor, etc. is not free. We are the rulers, but we the rulers are restrained by nothing: not nature, not justice, not God.
We do not accept the checks and corrections of religion not because we do not want any spiritual authority as our temporal one, but because we the rulers do not want to account to the natural law. We are hardly fighting oppression: we are embracing it.