Catholicism Contra Mundum

September 02, 1916

The recent congress of the Federation of Catholic Societies in America was an imposing, because suggestive, spectacle. It was no merely fraternal gathering. It was essentially a declaration of fundamental principles. It made clear the issues upon which the Roman Catholic Church in America is prepared to make a bold stand. It revealed with refreshing frankness the terms upon which it is conceived right to admit loyalty to the Republic. It made plain the accuracy of the old Roman vaunt that the Church is unchanging. All the old dogmas were reiterated. The antagonism to modern sociology was almost passionately defined. The President’s Mexican policy was condemned not in its national, but its religious aspect. Rarely have we been given a more direct revelation of ultimate purpose.

The New Republic has already stated its attitude on these problems. It has asserted that education, philanthropy, political policy, can be conducted only on the basis of the completest experimental knowledge. It is fundamentally uninterested in a revelation which does not derive its justification from the progressive experience of men. The issue so denied has been accepted by Father Blakely on behalf of his Church, in an article that recently appeared in America. He takes his stand against the sociology “whose attack is directed not against the Catholic Church alone, but against the very foundations of revealed religion.” He objects to making the American state function in any fashion save that which is acceptable to his Church. The use of modern educational resources in the training of the child is, as he conceives, simply its paganization. He is opposed to every phase of social policy which does not obtain Catholic approval. The modern attitude, he urges, “is a blind, unquestioning acceptance of the complete supremacy of a godless community over every phase of human activity.” Such a supremacy he can never admit. A life lived on terms unsanctioned by an infallible Papacy seems to him impious and unfruitful.

It is no chance pronouncement he has made. His thought found vigorous endorsement in the orations of the three Cardinals to the Catholic Congress. While they reiterated their loyalty to America, they made it clear that such loyalty was conditioned. They demanded in return the right of their Church to the fullest development of which it is capable. They demanded for it the power to live its life on its own terms, for the purposes it deems the most sacred. It was only when such privilege was conceded that their attachment to America could be genuine and full.

Theoretically, that position is unassailable. But when it is translated into concrete terms of the event it is seen to be an attitude full of the gravest implications. The cardinals– and particularly Cardinal O’Connell — were emphatic that in her own sphere the Church must be supreme. No on denies it. Religious liberty is one of the principles most inherent in our national life. We tolerate every kind and degree of ecclesiastical attitude so long as its work is confined to religious endeavor. The problem of Catholic America is simply and frankly this — that is work is not so confined. The Roman Church has purposes to fulfill, has positions to maintain, that seem incompatible with the progress of the community. It is the official propagandist of obscurantism. It stands four-square against most efforts to advance scientific knowledge. What Father Blakely repudiates as “paganism” is simply an effort to make the American child aware of the ethical implications of democracy, a determination to bring it into contact with all that may develop the good of which it is capable. It means an attitude which recognizes the importance of Darwin no less than of Aquinas. It insists that however significant be the revelation accorded to St. Paul, that is no reason for believing that we must limit our interpretation of the world to his philosophy or Rome’s conception of it. We resent the effort of the Roman Church so to define its freedom as to make it the badge of other people’s servitude. We deny the right of any one, be he Catholic or Protestant or Jew, to remain consistently ignorant of the march of the human mind. Cardinal O’Connell may trace this war to the wickedness of Huxley, of Haeckel and of Kant; but he thereby reveals only his complete indifference to the character of their achievements. It is time that he realized how infinite is our ignorance; time, too, that he should understand how little likely we are to progress by elevating our lack of knowledge to the position of a primary virtue. We do not forget the attitude of Rome to Giordano Bruno and to Galileo; we regret its extension to twentieth century America.

The Roman Church must realize that liberty is a relative concept and that we cannot each on of us do as we will. The modern democracy, for example, has decided to permit divorce. While no one denies the right of the Roman Church to deny divorce to members of its communion, one does object to its stigmatization of divorce as sin for those outside its membership. One down object to its policy of advocating separate schools — as if arithmetic or logic or chemistry could be better taught on Catholic principles or had some mystic relation to the Catholic religion? If the loyalty of Catholics is dependent on our admission of these things we cannot secure their adherence. If they believe that their religion demands that they govern their charitable institutions on antiquated and unintelligent principles, the fact that the subjects of their philanthropy are citizens of the state constitutes ground for interference and control. We have been told by Cardinal O’Connell that his replies to anxious inquiry must be sufficient and go unquestioned. We reply that no answer replete with political significance can be accorded the privilege of infallibility. America is no hierarchy, like medieval Europe, with the Papacy spiritually at our head. Had we any desire to acknowledge its desirability the spectacle of French Canada, made invincibly obscurantist by the efforts of Rome, would e sufficient to secure us from yielding to it. We can reject no weapon which promises knowledge on the ground that it is not found in the Roman armory. We must demand the investigation of all things. We shall judge well of institutions like the Roman Church in so far as they contribute to the scientific conquest of our environment. An institution which calls men like Huxley and Darwin and Kant evil and monstrous, can hardly free itself from our suspicions. A Rome such as this is out of harmony with the needs of the modern state. It is constituting itself visibly and consciously the barrier to our progress. It looks for its truths in the past. It defines the meaning of good to be no more than acceptance of its ancient dogmas. The verdict of a sovereign elected by the chance vote of a political conclave it asks us to accept as divinely infallible. The Church which within a generation cast out a Dollinger, the greatest theological historian of the nineteenth century, and within our time has officially stamped as impious that modernist movement which asked no more than the right of free inquiry, can hardly command our confidence. We cannot believe that a revelation now two thousand years old, so variously interpreted, often enough so doubtfully historical, must have complete sway in the modern state.

The fact is that the modern Church is partly a political power and as a political power she has to be treated. That is why our attitude to American Catholicism must differ radically from our attitude to American Protestantism or American Judaism. The Pope is sovereign of a state none the less real because it is unterritorial in character. He is aiming at the victory of certain principles conceived as ultimate and he is prepared to provoke conflict with all who come into antagonism with his aims. Ruler as he is by divine right, holding, in the power of the keys, the gateway to salvation, infallible in every ex cathedra pronouncement, knowing no limit to a power which he only can define, he is without doubt a formidable antagonist. It is as a great sovereign that he must be treated. His subjects are in the same position as those mistaken Germans who have viewed the United States as a colony of their fatherland. Like them, Catholics are told that their attitude must succeed because of the universal rightness. But just as what we term Prussianism contained, by reason of its very violence, the seeds of its own disintegration, so is this militant Catholicism destined to a similar destruction. No church today can hope for survival if it provokes against it the forces of modern civilization. Only by alliance with their potentialities can it hope to exist.

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