Something Borrowed, Somthing Blue

Lincoln E. Steed September/October 2008
It says something about the blossoming relationship between the once firmly Protestant United States and the Holy see that on pope Benedict XVI's first visit here the media became fixated on his choice of footwear. Red, handmade designer shoes, no less! But surely such an affectation is not relevant! it seems the old protestant penchant for recognizing the symbols of Catholicism has become one of fashion. No wonder the golden monstrance with its extravagant sunburst merited no mention!

From touchdown of "shepherd one" at Andrews Air Force base with President Bush on hand to greet the pope, to the moving service at ground zero, to the open-air mass, to the various ecumenical consultations, it was obvious that not only was precedent being set, but a love affair was underway. On his first visit to the United States, John Paul II knelt down and kissed the tarmac. Benedict's visit took the emotion to the next level. He could deal with business.

To his credit, the pope apologized for the pain inflicted by the priestly abuse scandal. Of course, words alone cannot atone for such systemic actions, but it was a necessary and effective response.

The pope went on pilgrimage to the shrine of 9/11 and ensured the emotional fealty of Americans by sharing their pain. It was an appropriate acknowledgement of a defining moment, and enough to cover for the deep disagreement between Rome and Washington over the militaristic response to that day.

He met with a wide array of religious leaders, including many representing Islam, and showed that dialogue can be had and is not necessarily contentious. of course, the net effect was to confirm him as the preeminent religious figure in the world—but maybe that designation is a natural outgrowth of how his influence is projected, and no reflection at all on the merits of the global faith community leadership.

The pope spoke softly, but he carries a big moral stick. After all, he is justifiably concerned at the West's drift toward secularity and moral relativism. All but the most hardened immoralist have to concede and applaud that he and his predecessor have elevated the tone of moral discourse. Of course, one would have to expect this of the role of a spiritual leader. it is at once demoralizing and startling that so many other religious voices have prostituted themselves to convenient causes and self-serving theologies that justify the worst tendencies of plunder and disregard.

To an often restive new World Catholicism Benedict spoke plainly in words all should note. "Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he told the bishops. "Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the gospel." good stuff if taken spiritually. A little more significant if related to other emerging themes of Rome, however.

In spite of the fact that Rome has challenged the Islamic world to forsake its all-or-nothing approach to church and state, the model is not all that different. In recent years Rome has reemphasized the concept of "subsidiarity." under this model the state is limited in its power over those areas that the Catholic Church identifies as belonging to its care. But it also allows for the state to assist the church in its mission monetarily. And with the invocation of the authority of the magisterium the state itself is a lesser Power—certainly insofar as moral authority—than the church. The net effect is, in theory at least, not dissimilar from the medieval model that ended up requiring the protestant reformation and led to sovereign civil states.

The most telling application of the real-world church-state model followed by Rome is its stance toward the confessional states. Here the preeminence of the church is accepted as the ideal norm and equal treatment for other faiths somewhat fades in priority.

Where Rome has held out an admirable model is its call, mostly to the world of Islam, but sometimes repeated in a Christian context, for "reciprocity." it is a backdoor approach to religious freedom and the free interchange of religious information and allegiance—read right of proselytism and conversion. Under international conventions there must be a right of religious self-determinism. We can only hope and pray that Rome continues to support this bulwark of religious freedom.

The United States continues to see itself as "the indispensible nation." In a day of falling dollar values and rising euro this might seem less true. but in models of religious freedom the U.S. still adheres by constitutional mandate to a cleavage between religious and civil power—no matter how vigorously politically-ambitious church leaders here may denigrate the "separation of church and state." The model has much historic merit, and in the absence of god speaking directly to a chosen leader it is the ideal model to keep any church from using state power to require conformity, and to restrain the state from inhibiting or hijacking religious activity.

There is both irony and danger in the U.S. flirtation with an old World religious identity. Because even with its admirable moral voice and appreciated expressions of support for religious freedom, Rome remains the epitome of church-state union. a student of ancient history can choose to remember the bishop of Rome raised from the ashes of the declining roman empire to become a warlord in his own right, with papal states and claims of sovereignty over the kings of Christendom. But one does not need to go back beyond Benito Mussolini's Lateran treaty of 1929 and the designation of the 110-acre Vatican City as a new state. This is the not so ancient claim of the Holy See. At that point in the modern world a religious power, with every right to exist and advance its faith agenda, became a state with sovereign interests.

No wonder the U.S. so long resisted formal diplomatic relations with the new entity. While there had been informal U.S. envoys to Rome, it was not till 1984 and under Ronald Reagan that the U.S. appointed an ambassador. I personally think it not immaterial that this was done precisely at the time that politically-activist protestant leaders in the U.S. were losing their awareness of the need to distinguish politically between church and state. so the strengthening diplomatic link is not an indictment of the Vatican but a sad little canary in the new World.

Way back in 1998 the papal apostolic letter Dies Domini called on Catholics to "ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy." not a bad goal, per se. We all, in the cause of religious liberty, wish to see laws that respect the broad spectrum of religious activity. the danger, of course, is that Rome means what she always held about her authority to enforce Sunday observance. The apostolic letter was refreshingly honest about the origins of sunday worship, as something without direct biblical command but commended by "tradition" and the magisterium of the roman church.

Blue is a memorable color for religious freedom in the United States. While in catholic symbology it is a color of purity, and often applied to the figure of the mother of Jesus, here in the U.S. the dormant "blue laws" hark back to a time when the blurring of church and state had zealots thinking that moral behavior would follow from compelling to Sunday observance. I could point out that the bible commends the seventh day as such, but still, its civil application would be antithetical to continued religious freedom.

I say we continue to welcome the pope to these United States, as we have welcomed leaders as diverse as nelson Mandela and Nikita Khrushchev. i say we applaud him when he speaks well of religious liberty, and join him and any other person of good will in encouraging the world to moral responsibility and personal piety. and I say we be on our guard about compromising our civil and religious freedom by emulating long-since discredited hybrid models of church and state.

Lincoln E. Steed, Editor
Liberty magazine

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Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."