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Just weeks before the 2012 election, in a discussion held in the gymnasium of a small Midwestern Catholic college, the college’s president asked everyone to stand, turned to the large American flag hanging from the rafters, and asked the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with him. For him, such a gesture seemed the natural or obvious thing to do. But will, or, more importantly, should the next generation of Christian leaders share the same zeal to affirm American civil religion?

In increasing numbers, American Christians have come to realize that the ethos and ends of the American government often undermine Christianity and its institutions. Like other Western, secular states, the United States now seems antagonistic to religious institutions, threatening their capacity to form their members and to engage in the practices they need to grow and flourish. It seems more plausible now than in the recent past that Church and state will be locked in a long struggle.

Christians, however, have too often failed to recognize that we’re frequently swayed by the deep, romantic national identity that America fosters so well in its citizens. It and not the Church often sets the agenda. The calls for religious freedom very quickly focus on the rights of conscience, reinforcing an individualism that downplays the importance of the freedom of the Church to occupy public space on her own terms.

In response to the government’s decision to force Catholic institutions to comply with the new health care law, for example, one might have hoped for a strong, prophetic, and theologically serious response from a Catholic leadership that feels especially besieged by the Affordable Care Act. Instead, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave us the feeble “Fortnight for Freedom.” In name (“Freedom”), time (concluding on Independence Day), and icon (the Statue of Liberty), the USCCB merged American mythology with Christian history. The bishops’ rhetoric suggested no inherent incompatibility between being American and following the gospel. If the new health care law were only more American, there would be no need to protest.

We need to use more than the weapons of modern political culture—the language of rights, for example—to make a cogent defense of the Church. Christians need to understand—on the Church’s terms, not the world’s—the challenges they face. Discipleship makes claims on the follower that differ from those made by the nation on the citizen. This is a lesson taught by the Catholic understanding of papal primacy and, perhaps unexpectedly, of clerical celibacy.

Both function as spiritual declarations of independence for the modern Christian citizen. Both preserve Catholic identity, not by petitioning the state for rights but by mounting a theological counteroffensive against the pretensions of the modern nation-state.

Mandatory clerical celibacy became a topic of heated discussion between traditional Catholicism and the enlightened spirit of reform in eighteenth- and ninteenth-century Germany. This debate belonged to a broader dispute over how to modernize German Catholicism. Enlightened reformers deemed harmful the veneration of relics, worship in Latin, and the promotion of miracles. Critics also suggested that mandatory celibacy was a needless, unnatural alternative to conjugal life, which should be regarded as normative for human flourishing. Of course many Catholics objected to these arguments, but many others found them persuasive.

The debate about celibacy went from simmer to boil in 1828. Two Catholic laymen from the University of Freiburg—Karl Zell and Heinrich Amann—penned a Denkschrift (opinion piece) arguing that the Church needed to set aside the discipline of celibacy for priests. The authors handed out hundreds of free copies to influence literate townsfolk and university students. They appended letters to the Baden parliament, Archduke Leopold, and the archbishop of Freiburg. Twenty-one others, mostly lay professors at the university, added their signatures of support.

Mandatory celibacy, Zell and Amann argued, had no meaningful theological foundation: Biblical arguments seemed inconsistent, and the early councils had produced no law of celibacy. It was merely a practice imposed in the medieval period to ensure that parish plots of land stayed in ecclesial possession rather than passing down to the children of clergymen. Since the imposition was both unnatural and lacked clear theological warrant, many Catholic men who would have otherwise chosen the priesthood decided against it. Intellectually mediocre and spiritually tepid, those who entered the priesthood were proving incapable of promoting vigorous piety and joyful religiosity. Mandatory celibacy was hurting the Church.

Zell and Amann showed concern for more than just the Church’s well-being. They argued that abolishing mandatory celibacy would benefit Germany as well. History showed, they said, that celibacy was one of the means through which the pope secured power. Priestly celibacy was made mandatory first by monastic communities and later by religious orders. These orders, the Jesuits in particular, relied on Rome for charters that allowed them a degree of freedom from local ordinaries. Roman power increased, while the ability of bishops to shape local matters waned. Anyone learned in European history, added Zell and Amann, knew how frequently the papacy abused whatever power it had accrued.

The abolition of mandatory celibacy would provide protection from papal tyranny. Allowing priests to marry “would allow their views and ways of thinking to fuse more with those of their surroundings and so reduce their somewhat excessive notions of spiritual and papal power.”

It was the imperative of fusion that mattered most to Zell and Amann. For them, celibacy impeded the project of creating a more efficient Germany. Celibacy had a political meaning at odds with the German state’s desire for docile citizens administered by expanding bureaucracies and ready for conscription into their growing armies. Eliminating the requirement of celibacy would “forge a closer connection between priests and the state, the fatherland, as well as to their fellow citizens.” A married priesthood would have the positive effect of aligning priests with the ethos of the nation-state, allowing the Church to join with other important institutions—the universities, military, and Protestant ministry (especially in Prussia)—that were at that time increasingly conscious of their responsibility to contribute to a common German identity.

Zell and Amann’s desire for a “closer connection” between Church and state followed a larger trend in early nineteenth-century Germany. Modern developments and technological advances dramatically increased the demands for government control. The French Revolution spread democratic ideals that encouraged a view of national life as a unified, coordinated reality expressed in and through state actions. This view became very influential in Germany. It was a region of Europe unified by language and culture but divided into numerous states and principalities, which led to collective weakness. After their humiliating defeat by Napoleon, the new, larger German states sought greater unity and efficiency. Elements of civil society such as guilds and universities found themselves eliminated or brought more fully under the control of the modernizing German states.

These states also sought to impose new regulations on churches. The religious conflicts after the Reformation were mitigated by the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever rules chooses the state religion) put in place in 1555 as part of the Peace of Augsburg. It secured a relatively high degree of religious unity within each German principality. However, as Germans yearned for unity—and as that yearning was satisfied through political consolidation—the religious arrangements of the sixteenth century no longer sufficed. The patchwork states from the old Holy Roman Empire were often no larger than small cities. The newer, larger states encompassed large minority-religion populations. Prussia, which would eventually become the vehicle for a united Germany, provides the most obvious example.

Forced conversions were of course unthinkable. No one wished to return to the hostilities of the Thirty Years’ War. So the newer states negotiated workable arrangements. The Vatican signed concordats with the larger, more centralized states that emerged after the Napoleonic conquest, including Württemberg and nearby Baden, where Zell and Amann taught. These concordats conceded to the states varying degrees of control over ecclesiastical affairs. In 1820s Germany, Catholics did not, as a matter of principle, regard government intervention as an infringement on their religious freedom.

In their Denkschrift, Zell and Amann sought to further this trend and more fully integrate church affairs into the larger administrative structures of the modern state. The immediate goal was to create political pressure. Johann Adam Möhler, a young professor at the University of Tübingen, led the opposition. Tübingen housed two theological faculties, one Protestant and one Catholic. The Catholic faculty, established in 1817, quickly sought to demonstrate that it was capable of the same high level of theological discourse for which the Protestant faculty was known. Johann Sebastian von Drey, the most prominent Catholic professor, established a journal that called for theological debate and renewal. Thus the Catholic “Tübingen School” was born and greatly influenced the shape of Catholic opinion in southwestern Germany.

Möhler became a leading member of this school. In 1825, his first great work, Unity in the Church, was published to significant acclaim. Beautifully written, Unity combined German romantic themes of love and community with a retrieval of the early Christian understanding of the Church. Two years later he produced a nearly six-hundred-page work on Athanasius, presenting him as a model of orthodoxy.

At the outset of the controversy over clerical celibacy, Möhler was still four years away from his remarkable work of Catholic apologetics, the Symbolik, which would make him one of the most well-known and influential theologians in Germany, and also win him international acclaim. Yet even in 1828, he was a rising star, advancing the Tübingen School’s reputation for theological depth and innovation.

Möhler’s reply to the Denkschrift, titled Beleuchtung, or “Illumination” (it has been published in English under the title The Spirit of Celibacy), was swift and devastating. After biblical and historical chapters in which he argued that the warrants for clerical celibacy were much stronger than Zell and Amann allowed, he put forward a general theology of celibacy that was the first expression of his political theology.

Although he did not agree with the Denkschrift’s argument for abolition, he agreed with it that celibacy was incompatible with the state’s ends. Celibacy is indeed useless to the state—which made it crucial for maintaining the Church’s independence. Married life introduces responsibilities and inclines heads of household to become invested in the state’s system of education and welfare, in addition to its economy. Celibacy disrupts this process of integrating men into the stream of family life and its responsibilities. As a result, unmarried priests remind Catholics of the “non-unity of Church and State,” as Möhler puts it.

Celibacy focuses on the heavenly city, and the practice of celibacy indicates an eschatological hope for life in the next world. It is “a living testimony of faith in a constant outpouring of higher powers in this world and of the omnipotent rule of truly infinite forces in the finite.” This focus and hope doesn’t just differ from the concerns of the earthly city, it challenges their claims to be ultimate. “An institution like [celibacy] can never grow on the soil of earthly states and for that reason, as long as it flourishes in the Church, it will form a living protest against all attempts to make the Church lose herself in the state.”

It is a massive mistake, therefore, to view celibacy as an ecclesial practice borne of particular contingencies, like feudal laws of primogeniture. Clerical celibacy is an essential dimension of the Church’s existence as a spiritual institution ordered toward ends beyond the competence and authority of temporal rulers. Celibacy does not automatically function this way, of course, just as the married life does not guarantee obeisance to the state. But when it is one expression of a larger vision of the Church as a foretaste of the kingdom of God, it can serve as a sign of contradiction in an age too focused on the present.

In his Beleuchtung, Möhler contrasts Catholicism and Protestantism, which he sees as harboring a tendency toward complicity with the state. No doubt his judgment was influenced by the creation of the Unionskirchein 1817 by the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III, a forced union between the Reformed (Calvinist) and Lutheran churches. Friedrich Wilhelm not only used his temporal power to unify the Lutheran and Calvinist churches into a single state church but inaugurated Prussian liturgical reform. As Thomas Albert Howard has noted in Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University, the purpose of the new liturgical norms was to “unite all citizens” and to do so by promoting “Christian fear of God, true virtue, and love of the Fatherland.” Being German and being Protestant were fused.

Protestant vulnerability to this kind of state domination, Möhler argues, stems in part from its rejection of clerical celibacy. He encourages Catholics to resist the fusion of religious and national identity: “The mere existence of celibacy as such shows that we have something very different to honor in the Church.” Celibacy is a visible sign of a nonproductive, useless spiritual project that contradicts the notion that the Church is merely “something worldly that is part of the realm of the state.”

This does not necessitate an antagonism toward the state. Möhler was no sectarian. However, he understood the logic of the Denkschrift’s arguments against clerical celibacy and vigorously rejected any suggestion that the Church has no higher purpose and advocates an asceticism with no greater end than to be useful to the state. Celibacy fosters an eschatological imagination. If it is abolished, argued Möhler, then Catholics would find it much harder to avoid the subordination of ecclesial identity to a supposedly larger national identity, something he saw happening to German Protestantism.

Möhler drew attention to the political significance of papal primacy as a pointer to the nonunity of Church and state in other works. In his work on Athanasius, he notes that this great churchman advocated Roman primacy over and against the Arians, who elevated the empire to a quasi-divine status. “The Arians’ inherently diminished church sought reconciliation with the state in order to give the church value and salvific status. The Catholics, on the other hand, could never reconcile the divinity of the savior with this meager representation of herself as a state church.”

Möhler saw a clear analogy between Athansius’ fourth-century resistance to a Church–empire “fusion” and the situation in Germany. He argued that papal primacy helps the Church maintain her freedom. In early nineteenth-century Germany (as in many other European states at the time), a bishop was subject to the state, something the Church acquiesced to in exchange for state funding of local churches. This continued earlier practices. Episcopal appointments had for centuries been based on the realization that secular authorities, on whose protection the local churches relied, would exercise some control. Officials in Rome would have had little idea who might make a good bishop in Münster.

Thus, episcopal appointments required approval from secular governments, and in some cases the state had the power to appoint. For example, the bishop of Rottenburg, whose territory included Tübingen, would have been expected to help the state in its goals for liturgical and educational reform. Indeed, Tübingen professors who shared Möhler’s ideas had been proposed as bishops only to be vetoed by the state because they were “too Roman,” or “ultramontane.”

It was against this background that Möhler put forward the papal office as the governing power that could be trusted to act with the Church’s best interest in mind: “For the states deal with bishops as with subordinates, whereas the pope is respected as an acknowledged power independent of all states. In him, we are free.” And: “Inasmuch as he is the visible center point for all Catholics wherever they are located among the earthly empires, the Pope likewise is a living symbol of the existence of a life lifted above all that is finite and earthly.”

The authors of the Denkschrift wanted the papacy to recede, whereas Möhler wished it to be enhanced. Enclosed within the territory of a secular sovereign, the diocese was only too easily subordinated to the interests of the state, and the bishop’s authority got co-opted: “Just try leaving the bishops to deal with the regimes, to endow cathedral chapters, seminaries, and the like, and see what a mess they make of it!” He recognized that the power of the papacy resists the state’s power grab because it transcends national boundaries.

Although he did not set out to do so, and in fact the term itself was unknown in his era, Möhler helped inaugurate modern Catholic political theology. He formulated a response to the modern drive toward an all-powerful, all-encompassing mode of civic solidarity focused on the nation-state, expressing for the first time the political significance of papal primacy and a defense of celibacy.

Neither the papacy nor the institution of celibacy require Catholics to take up arms, participate in insurrection, or join a permanent international revolution. They do, however, buffer Catholics against the tendency to view the Church as an appendage of the state. Möhler concludes that both the papacy and celibacy “bear witness to the Church’s having a higher origin and higher goals than anything that could be understood as deriving from the state.”

Möhler’s robust defense of papal primacy and celibacy did not end debate about the Church’s role in the modern state. Not quite ten years later, the new archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering, refused to comply with a government policy. The Catholic-majority city had fallen under the jurisdiction of Prussia, the result of Metternich’s reorganization of Europe to prevent a resurgence of French dominance. The Prussian government promulgated a policy on mixed marriage that required both Protestant and Catholic churches to recognize them as legitimate. It was a signal instance of “fusion,” a bureaucratic attempt to ensure a universal law of marriage in a mixed population.

Catholic canon law permitted mixed marriages only if the couple agreed to raise the children Catholic. Archbishop von Droste-Vischering refused to follow the Prussian mandate, and tensions mounted. In November 1837, Friedrich Wilhelm III had the archbishop imprisoned. The crisis escalated owing to the energetic polemics of Joseph Görres, a Catholic publicist familiar with Möhler’s work. Görres compared the archbishop to Athanasius, and his imprisonment became a rallying cry for Catholics across Europe.

The archbishop of Posen was also arrested in 1839, for taking the same stand as did von Droste-Vischering. Rome forced another bishop’s resignation over the same issue. After the Württemberg government stripped him of his position, Joseph Mack, a Tübingen theologian who had publicly opposed the Prussian policy, was stripped of his university position as well. Möhler’s most loyal followers pled with their bishop to defend Mack, but to no avail.

Germany was on its way to unification, which it achieved in 1871, shortly after the Catholic Church defined papal infallibility. What followed was the Kulturkampf, a protracted struggle of the Catholic Church against Bismark’s policies that were designed to secure the fullest possible fusion in the newly unified Germany.

The challenges facing the Catholic Church in nineteenth-century Germany certainly put current threats to religious freedom in perspective. There is no immediate danger that secular authorities will supervise seminary curricula, fire professors who write articles deemed subversive to government interests, or veto the pope’s future episcopal appointments—all of which happened in Möhler’s time. Yet there are striking similarities between the challenges he faced and those facing us, not least the state’s demand that the Church do what the Church cannot do, whether that be recognizing mixed marriages, as in mid-nineteenth-century Germany, or, as in our time, approving insurance plans that include contraception and abortion.

From Möhler we can learn how to think about the freedom of the Church in a theological way and to find in her life means of resistance to the overreach of government. Clerical celibacy is a spiritual discipline, and papal primacy a sacred office, that contend with secular power for control of our public reality. They point to a body neither circumscribed by national borders nor resigned to being a disincarnate, “mystical” body floating above time and space. This body, celebrated in the Eucharist, puts national boundaries and loyalties in their proper context.

Grant Kaplan is an associate professor in the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University.