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For the Separation of Church and State

September 19, 2011

Ireland, the Cloyne Report, and the Importance of Secularism.

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Earlier this year, Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), gave a devastating speech to the Irish Parliament reflecting on the findings of the Cloyne Report. The report deals with the sexual abuse of young children within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cloyne.

I’ve posted the speech here:

What struck me the most in his speech, apart from the frank nature of his remarks, was his stern support for the duties of a modern state and its separation from the Church. If anything, the Cloyne report shows that, while the cultural and historical influence of a particular faith may be undeniable, the procedures and prerogatives of that state absolutely must be separated from those any church. In matters of rights, justice, and official policy, the state must derive its decision making from the unmolested judgement of its members as well as the will of their constituents- NOT from the spiritual aspirations of any faith (or disparate versions of that same faith). Of his many fine statements, two of Mr. Kenny’s grabbed me the hardest.

In reference to the modern Irish state:

But thankfully for them, and for us, this is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world.

This is the ‘Republic’ of Ireland 2011.

A Republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of ‘morality’, will no longer be tolerated or ignored.

On that state’s intention of protecting children:

When I say that through our legislation, through our Government’s action to put Children First, those who have been abused can take some small comfort in knowing that they belong to a nation, to a democracy, where humanity, power, rights, responsibility are enshrined and enacted, always, always, for their good.

Where the law – their law – as citizens of this country, will always supersede canon laws that have neither legitimacy nor place in the affairs of this country.

If only our own President had the courage to say anything like that. After all, the crimes perpetrated by clergymen where not limited to Ireland, but happened across the United States as well.

For centuries, Western governments were procedurally tied to the practices of Roman Catholic Church. Later on, other governments would become bound to those of the Protestant faith, one containing a multitude of competing versions of itself. Finally, there emerged a group of statesmen and intellectuals in Virginia and Philadelphia who saw this for the nonsense that it was:

We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
– Thomas Jefferson, 1799

Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.
-John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787-88

Despite this heritage, there is a tendency among social conservatives to say things like: “America is a Christian Nation, so the government should base itself on Christianity”. Or, when presented evidence of the secular deism of our founders, they instead claim that “Well, the majority of people in this country are Christian, so the values of our nation should reflect that”. What I would love to ask them is: Which version of Christianity are you talking about?

Despite their common heritage and founding documents, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians each follow different sets of rules, doctrines and principles. Why should one be able to dominate over the others? You want to talk about “big government”? Try telling me that the US government should be institutionally bound to enforce the beliefs and doctrines of the Baptist church and see how many millions of non-baptists feel. Try telling me that the government should directly follow with the canon law of the Catholic Church, and see how Southerners feel about that. What of our massive Jewish diaspora? Certainly they have made enormous cultural contributions to the US, why should they have to pay tithes to a church to which they do not belong? And are you telling me that the one institution that has the monopoly of force should be tied to one particular faith? Oh yes, because that worked out so well in Europe for centuries.

Again, it would be grossly ignorant to dismiss our cultural and historical ties to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it would be equally foolish to ignore the importance of keeping our laws and governing institutions secular. To be sure, governments can become just as corrupt as any conclave, but there is an important distinction. To those who believe and profess a genuine allegiance to their faith, their church is the guide and guardian of their soul. For those who grow up in that church, to directly challenge that authority is to put their very soul in danger. Violating the laws of your country and being screwed for life is one thing. But being screwed for all eternity has a little different. Such fears and considerations must never be allowed to taint the intentions of any governing body. For if the affairs of that state become entangled with the church, this would make (and has made) the execution of secular justice for horrific crimes like child-rape nearly impossible.

Here is a thought to keep you up at night: how many children, over how many centuries, were raped by those they trusted, and knew they could do absolutely nothing about it? And to be fair, how many good priests, cardinals, and bishops over the centuries wanted to act, but could not, out of fear of excommunication, and the knowledge that those who had sway over the law were powerless in the face of church authority? Enda Kenney emphasized this point in its modern context:

This Roman Clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity, even their sanity, as they work so hard to be the keepers of the Church’s light and goodness within their parishes, communities, and the human heart.

I include this to show that, while I am today a dedicated secularist, I grew up in the Catholic Church and was never, ever abused by any priest (a fact I once addressed in an old essay of mine). Furthermore, I know for a fact that the Father at our Parish would have no interest in personally interfering with the operations of the government, at the local or national level. That was not his job, and not his place, a fact he gladly and rightfully acknowledged.

Besides, from the way things are in Congress now…why would you want a part in it anyway?

The Cloyne Report may be read in its entirety here.

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