By Korey Maas

In recent years, serious Christians of all stripes have begun to negotiate anew the difficult questions of the Church’s place in (or out of) the prevailing liberal order. Joseph Trabbic is therefore to be commended for his forthright reflections over at Public Discourse on “The Catholic Church, the State, and Liberalism.” As he quite rightly notes, there is a “growing movement to reevaluate the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal politics.” Whatever one thinks of this movement, it should not be entirely surprising since Trabbic also persuasively and, in his own words, “not very controversially” establishes that, “according to previous papal teaching, a Catholic confessional state is the ideal.”

As one speaking outside of the magisterium, I cannot presume to evaluate his further—and central—claim, that “that teaching continues to be normative for Catholics.” On the assumption that it is, however, it is worth asking whether Trabbic has considered carefully the full implications of his logic, or whether he might be trying to have his cake while also eating it.

The Modest Principle of Establishment

Unlike some of the more excitable representatives of the movement to which he refers, Trabbic defends only the relatively modest claim that “the principled liberal demand for a separation of church and state remains in conflict with Catholicism.” He convincingly demonstrates that this was formally taught by nineteenth-century popes such as Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII. He accurately notes that Dignitatis Humanae neither affirms the separation of church and state nor rejects religious establishment. He even persuasively suggests that the early Christians martyred for their refusal to worship the Roman emperor “weren’t rejecting established religion per se. They were only rejecting a particular state religion.”

Though the doctrine of church-state separation has indeed become typical of liberal modernity, Trabbic’s defense of the establishment principle might be deemed relatively modest, in part, because the principle has hardly been unique to Catholicism. Not only was it assumed in pagan antiquity before being more fully theorized in medieval Christendom; it was embraced by most early-modern Protestants and continued to hold sway—at least at the local level—even into nineteenth-century America.

Arguably, when and where it was first rejected, the principle itself was not the primary issue. Rather, it was the assumption that the principle of establishment led inevitably to the practice of persecution. It is undeniably the case that those judged to be heretics had long been coerced, expelled, and even executed in territories with established confessions. But equally obviously, at least in hindsight, this need not have been a necessary consequence of establishment. Contemporary England or Sweden, for example, demonstrate the real possibility of having one’s cake and eating it too—that is, of maintaining an established religion while also acknowledging the religious liberty of non-established faiths.

In light of his noting that the Second Vatican Council did not call for disestablishment, but did say that “the freedom of the non-established religions in such [confessional] states should be effectively recognized,” this would appear to be Trabbic’s own understanding of the normative ideal. What, if anything, then might prevent a Catholic confessional state from both having and eating its cake in the same way that modern Anglican or Lutheran states do?

The Logic of Continuity

Most relevantly, the logic by which Trabbic argues that the principle of establishment “continues to be normative for Catholics” is not exactly that which applies in those officially (if only nominally) Protestant states. His logic—and that of Pius XII to whom he appeals—is that “once the Church has expressed her judgment on the matter, the question is closed.” Further, “Church teaching doesn’t carry an expiration date.” This is the logic by which he concludes that, despite some interpretations, Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, or even Vatican II “couldn’t have reversed Leo’s teaching on the ideal of the confessional state.”

If this is the case, though, and if Trabbic deems a confessional state combined with religious liberty to be the normative ideal, he will have to contend with far more than the Church teaching on establishment vis-à-vis separation. The same document in which Pius IX condemns church-state separation, for instance, not only endorses the principle that “the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship,” but condemns even the suggestion that this principle is “no longer expedient” (emphasis added). The companion encyclical acknowledges a “duty” of the state in “restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion.” Any proposal that this is not “the best condition of civil society,” Pius writes, is “against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers.”

This nineteenth-century papal teaching was by no means novel. Already in the twelfth century Pope Lucius III proclaimed it “fitting” that heresy “be crushed” with the “assistance of the imperial strength.” Nor were such declarations unique to individual pontiffs; they were also reiterated by the Church’s ecumenical councils. Lateran III (can. 27) not only sanctioned confiscation of the property of heretics and declared “princes free to subject them to slavery”; it granted an indulgence to “faithful Christians who take up arms against them.” In the following century Lateran IV (can. 3) mandated—under threat of excommunication and deposition—that princes “expel from the lands subject to their jurisdiction all heretics designated by the Church.”

None of this is to deny that Trabbic is technically correct to note that papal teaching has “never called for states to coerce non-Catholics into acceptance of the Catholic faith.” It might be still more precise, however, to refer to the non-baptized rather than to non-Catholics. As Pius VI concisely summarized what by the eighteenth century had been Church teaching for a millennium, “We must distinguish between those who have always been outside the Church, namely infidels and Jews, and those who have subjected themselves to her through Baptism. The former ought not to be compelled to profess the Catholic Faith; the latter however are to be coerced.”

More to the point, though, religious coercion remains religious coercion even if its purpose is something other than “acceptance of the Catholic faith.” The proscription of non-Catholic worship endorsed by Pius IX, the crushing of heresy sanctioned by Lucius III, and the exiling of heretics mandated by Lateran IV were not intended to compel assent to the faith. Their primary purpose was quite simply to protect the souls of faithful Catholics who might otherwise be led astray by the proselytizing, profession, or even mere presence of alternative faiths. This is why, even into the latter half of the twentieth century, the papacy could deem it “in agreement with the law of God” not only that Catholicism be “the sole religion of the Spanish State,” but also that public manifestations of other faiths not be permitted there.

Principle, Prudence, and Prolegomena to Any Future Catholic State

To be sure, any future Catholic state might in fact refrain from proscribing other faiths or coercing their adherents. Very strong arguments might be made for the prudence of doing so.

But, as Trabbic rightly notes, principle and prudence are two different matters. If he is correct to insist that a question is closed once the Church has expressed her judgment on it, that such judgments don’t expire, and that they cannot be reversed (even if it might appear that they have been), his burden is to explain why the long and consistent endorsement of religious coercion by previous popes and councils does not remain, in principle, “normative for Catholics.” This responsibility falls upon him especially since he is well aware that the “growing movement to reevaluate the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal politics” has often argued explicitly that it does remain normative.

If a cogent argument to the contrary—which does not also undermine his own argument for the normative ideal of a confessional state—cannot be provided, Trabbic’s conclusion that “the principled liberal demand for a separation of church and state remains in conflict with Catholicism” would seem to require a corollary. Namely, “the principled liberal rejection of religious coercion remains in conflict with Catholicism.” For the sake of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, let’s hope that’s not the case.

Korey D. Maas is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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