Jesus promises his followers that they will be hated in this world. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19).
This passage is not anomalous. Practically every book of the New Testament speaks of the persecution and suffering Christians should expect to undergo for their faith in Jesus and for living as he commanded. Some books, like the Revelation to John, are suffused with this theme. Nor is it merely an end-time warning. Jesus promises the supreme blessing to those of every time and place who are despised and abused by the world because of their love for him. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11–12). Baptism is thus an invitation to martyrdom and a promise of suffering at the hands of the world. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial which comes upon you to test you, as though something foreign were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share in the sufferings of Christ, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12–13).
Modern Western Christians have become practiced at ignoring, or domesticating, the blunt insistence of their Scriptures on the world’s enmity toward Christ and those who belong to him. We tend to regard the enmity of the world, like speaking in tongues, as belonging only to the earliest period of the Church’s life. It has, we assume, no universal and abiding application. Perhaps some political arrangements and forms of government are inevitably at odds with the Church—that of ancient Rome, for example, with its obligatory veneration of the emperor, or modern communism, with its institutionalized atheism. But we reassure ourselves that the modern West has developed liberal democracy, a way of organizing political life that poses no obstacles to the Church’s faith and mission, or at least no obstacles that the Church should not be willing to accept.
This trust in the political order is a departure from long-standing consensus. Throughout history, civilizations have supposed that a workable and coherent society requires agreement as to ultimate matters—in other words, a shared religion. The Roman Empire permitted a great deal of diversity, provided there was general public compliance with the modest requirements of the official religion: the cult of the emperor. Christianity, a growing missionary religion that refused to participate in the imperial cult, was seen by the Romans as a threat to the very existence of their society. For similar reasons, communist regimes have insisted that, given their vision of human nature and destiny, they cannot tolerate the presence of militant Christianity. To a greater or lesser degree, virtually all Muslim countries have done likewise.
Liberal democracy in its various forms rejects the premise that religious agreement is required for social cohesion. Liberal democracies claim to abjure, as a matter of constitutional principle, any interest in the religious commitments of the peoples and societies they organize and govern. They require and promote no religion, and they allow all visions of the true and the good, all religions, to make their claims and flourish as they are able. This deliberate neutrality concerning ultimate matters is part of what defines the “liberal” in “liberal democracy.”
Well into the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church upheld the ancient idea that society requires religious unity. In the teaching of Pius IX, the normal situation—not always realizable in practice, of course—is for the Church to be legally established and supported by the state. Liberal democracies of the time were accordingly mistrustful of the Church’s political aims. Their spokesmen wondered whether Catholicism was simply incompatible with liberal polity. During the twentieth century, Catholic thinking on this matter developed considerably, and Vatican II declared that freedom of conscience and freedom from religious coercion are basic human and civil rights. These declarations have been repeated and elaborated in subsequent papal teaching.
To liberal democratic eyes, including those of many Catholics, the Church has belatedly caught up with enlightened modernity. This development benefits believers and unbelievers alike, we’re told. The modern liberal state will not seek to make anyone love Christ and his Church. And by keeping religion out of politics, it will give no one a reason to hate the Church. In a liberal society, we need not fear that the Church will be hated as Jesus foretells: persecuted for her faith in him.
Catholic history in America may lead us to question this win-win promise. Arriving from England in the early 1630s, Catholics settled in Maryland, and the first Mass in British America was celebrated by the Jesuit Fr. Andrew White on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1634. The founder of the colony, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, was a convert to Catholicism. He intended Maryland as a refuge for persecuted English Catholics. Calvert and his son insisted on a policy of religious toleration that was unusual for the time, and initially Catholics, Protestants, and even a small number of Jews lived together in Maryland, each practicing their religion.
It didn’t last. By the early eighteenth century, Anglicanism was legally established in Maryland and Catholic worship forbidden. The suppression of Catholicism was vigorous, on the English model (though Maryland’s penal laws did not extend to the public execution of Catholics). Measures included double taxation, confiscation of property, and loss of voting rights. A law stipulated that should one party to a Catholic marriage die, the children were to be taken from the surviving spouse and given a Protestant upbringing. Catholics in Maryland confronted a hard truth, one that Catholics would face again when the thirteen colonies became the United States. The line between toleration and persecution is thin, whether the persecution be hard or soft. Written assurances of religious freedom are no guarantee that persecution will not gain the upper hand and perhaps drive out toleration altogether.
No major Catholic presence existed in the United States until the great waves of immigration in the nineteenth century, first from Ireland and Germany, then from Italy and Eastern Europe. These Catholic immigrants found themselves amid a native Protestant population that was uneasy with their presence and wary, above all, of their religion. Their worship was legally protected, but the practice of their religion entailed more than the celebration of the Mass. Catholicism is a way of life that affects every aspect of day-to-day existence, and it needs to be nurtured from cradle to grave. At great expense and sacrifice, and in the face of determined resistance, these immigrant communities labored to build the institutions that would enable a fully Catholic life to emerge in their new country. These institutions included not only churches, but monasteries, convents, and seminaries, as well as parish schools, colleges, and universities for the education of their children.
The Protestant culture’s resistance to Catholicism began to subside after World War I. In 1928, Al Smith, a Catholic, was nominated for president by one of the major American political parties. He was soundly defeated, but even in the solidly Protestant South, several states were carried by the Democratic nominee. By the 1940s, Catholic priests, nuns, and even visionaries were depicted as appealing and sympathetic characters in award-winning Hollywood productions such as Boys Town, Going My Way, and The Song of Bernadette. In the 1950s, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen flickered across American network television, dressed in full episcopal regalia and discussing the meaning of life and the threat of communism in unmistakably Catholic terms.
In those years, many American Protestants still doubted whether Catholics were Christians and thought they were probably going to hell, and said so from the pulpit. (Some still do.) Nonetheless, American Catholics became ever more confident that the United States was keeping its constitutional promise of religious freedom. Over time, the progeny of European Catholic immigrants assimilated and thrived, economically and otherwise. During the mid-twentieth century, they did not, on the whole, practice their faith less than their parents and grandparents had done. They did, however, emphasize the convergence of the teachings and values of Catholicism with those of the American culture and political system in which they now felt at home.
In 1960, on his way to the presidency, John F. Kennedy gave a speech before a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston—a classic encounter of assimilated Catholicism with nativist Protestantism. Kennedy assured the Protestant ministers that he did not regard it as “remotely possible” for a conflict to arise between his Catholic faith and his responsibilities as president. But, he added, were he somehow to experience a clash between his conscience and “the national interest,” he would resign the presidency. He thus vouched for his personal commitment to the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith, and vowed that this commitment would make no difference to his conduct as president. Our first Catholic president pledged to govern as though he were not Catholic—or, more precisely, not to allow his “private” Catholicism (Kennedy’s term) to require of him anything that any non-Catholic American could object to in the conduct of the country’s president.
Kennedy experienced a kind of religious persecution. He faced an organized effort to bar him from the highest political office in the land because he was a Catholic. He was not the first person in the history of the Church to downplay the public significance of his Catholicism, or to hide his Catholicism from view altogether. But he took this step not in order to avoid the loss of property, liberty, or life—as many Catholics before him had done—but to gain political office. The persecution he sought to overcome was of the relatively soft variety.
Kennedy’s strategy was, of course, successful (if just barely). His electoral triumph became Exhibit A for many Catholics that America’s constitutional promise had been fulfilled. One cannot help noticing, however, that the dichotomy of private belief and public duty now widely taken for granted by American Catholics comports with the nativism their immigrant ancestors worked so hard to overcome. To say, for example, that when Catholics publicly oppose abortion they are impermissibly “imposing their faith” on others accepts the nativist assumption that Catholic principle is incompatible with responsible participation in a democratic polity. If the American system does, in fact, require political self-annihilation on the part of Catholics, then the conflict between the American political system and Catholic principle runs far deeper than JFK, even on his darkest nights, would have thought possible.
Kennedy’s speech raises an important question: What difference should being Catholic make to our understanding of, and participation in, American democracy? Kennedy’s answer was that it should make none. That can’t be right, but it does prompt reflection on how Catholic faith ought to shape political commitments in the American system, and in pluralistic democracies more generally.
Well before Vatican II, the Catholic Church developed a substantial body of teaching on the place of the Church and faith in modern political life. Two important aspects of that teaching can help us answer this question.
Among the most basic elements of modern Catholic social and political doctrine is the obligation of the faithful to work for the common good of the societies in which they live. That they should expect to be hated for their love of Jesus does not relieve them of the obligation to work for the social good of others, even of those who hate them. Catholics are thus called, by their fidelity to God in Jesus Christ, to work and pray not only for the good of themselves and other Catholics in their society, but for the good of all non-Catholics as well. The Church sees these works of mercy as the responsibility not only of each individual Catholic but of the Church as such, and so she has from the beginning built hospitals, schools, and universities, shelters for the homeless, and kitchens for the hungry. Even prior to the toleration of Christianity in ancient Rome, the Romans looked with amazement at the readiness of Christians to care for all the sick, not just their own, and to bury all the dead, not just their own. As the Romans knew, and feared, these were political acts, with society-changing consequences.
Protestants sometimes share this commitment to the common good of society, as well as a further basic element of Catholic social and political teaching: respect for the dignity of the human person. Each human being is made in the image of the triune God and called to eternal intimacy with God. From this dignity flow rights that are intrinsic to each human being. These rights are not granted by society. They are prior to it and belong to the basis of society and the common good.
Among the rights that flow from the divinely given dignity of each human being, the most basic is the right to life. This right belongs to every human being, but above all, and in a completely unqualified way, to the innocent and vulnerable, whom it is never permissible to kill for any reason. This strong conception of human dignity also undergirds the Church’s insistence on care for immigrants and her opposition to slavery and human trafficking, as well as to all other practices that degrade human beings and threaten their lives.
Catholic teaching on the common good and human dignity appeals to natural law. The truth of this teaching is thus, at least in principle, available to any human being. This commonplace of Catholic moral theology leads some contemporary Catholic intellectuals to suppose that it should be possible to convince everyone who will listen that, for example, abortion is in every case morally evil, and to convince them without appeal to religious beliefs of any sort, including Catholic ones.
This view comes closer to JFK’s logic than most of its advocates would like to admit. Those who hold it suppose, in effect, that they can pretend to be atheists and still win the argument. That may happen, of course, but it would be naive to expect it to happen very often. The natural law is one thing; knowledge of the natural law and action in accord with that knowledge are another. We cannot change our nature, nor can we change the law of our nature. But we can certainly be mistaken about what the law of our nature requires, about whether nature has a law, and even about whether we have a nature in the first place. And we can, as current defenses of “post-birth abortion”—infanticide—show, be utterly and viciously committed to our mistakes.
When you get down to it, then, the Church’s idea of the common good is a distinctively Christian one, and the Church’s main reasons for insisting on that idea are, not surprisingly, Christian reasons. The Catholic idea of the common good is rooted in the conviction that we are creatures of the triune God whose ultimate good lies in intimacy with God. Augustine put this basic conviction in a memorable way: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Nothing can belong to the common good, as Catholics understand it, that does not in one way or another help human beings come to rest in God.
That Catholics have distinctively Christian reasons for the political decisions they make and the social policies they support does not preclude their agreeing with non-Catholics, religious or non-religious, about those decisions and policies. Protestants can share basic theological premises with Catholics. Jews and Muslims will have their own reasons for sharing with Catholics a desire to see the abortion regime overturned, or to see religious freedom flourish in American society. Those religious reasons may overlap to some extent, but they will also differ, especially when it comes to the most basic and decisive reasons. Different religious traditions may agree as to the political good to be achieved—though they may also disagree about it. Either way, those who belong to the Church can act as Catholics in their political decisions while being responsible participants in a pluralist democracy, just as Protestants can act as Protestants, Jews as Jews, and Muslims as Muslims. Catholics do not have to pretend that they are atheists in order to be good citizens and responsible civic leaders, any more than the adherents of any other religion do.
On a Catholic view of things, different kinds of political arrangements may be morally legitimate, provided they serve the common good of the society they order and govern. This is not to say that all legitimate forms of government are equally good or desirable. Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae endorses freedom of conscience and freedom from coercion in religion. It tilts toward a principle modern liberal democracies claim to embody, and so was welcomed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. When Dignitatis Humanae developed Catholic doctrine in 1965, it seemed to make sense to say that Western liberalism basically coincided with Catholic teaching. Things have changed a lot since then.
As Catholics in colonial America discovered, religious freedom is not irrevocable, even in societies that affirm it. Western constitutions enshrine freedom of conscience and religion among their fundamental values, but this hardly guarantees that Catholics and others will not be subject to religious coercion. Today, state coercion in matters of religion, demanded and encouraged by potent forces in American society, is an increasingly vivid fact of life. In one of recent history’s ironies, the Catholic Church is now the world’s foremost institutional defender of religious freedom, while Western democracies seem increasingly inclined to limit that freedom and to compel conformity with distinctively secular conceptions of human nature and destiny.
It seems not to be enough, for example, that abortion is legal in all fifty American states, and medically assisted suicide in some. Catholic nurses and physicians who object in conscience to these acts must be compelled to participate in them, on pain of losing their jobs, their licenses, and their livelihoods. It seems not to be enough that contraception and abortion are available at government expense to employees of Catholic religious orders and universities. These Catholic institutions must be compelled to pay for them. A change in presidential administrations means the coercion sought by the federal government and recently contested in the courts is for the moment in abeyance. But it would be exceedingly optimistic to suppose that the precarious conscience protections currently in place will not be subject to further pressure, and to renewed demands for coercion aimed at bringing Catholics and other religious Americans into line with the beliefs and values of those who make the demands. As one wealthy crusader against conscience protections for religious Americans likes to put it: “We’re going to punish the wicked.”
At present, the most obvious attacks on the freedom of the Church and the right of her members to lead fully Catholic lives come from the political left and focus especially on abortion. This fact may mislead us into thinking that the reality confronting the Church is simply the contempt of liberal elites for traditional religion.
In fact, it is the world that hates the Church and wants to silence her witness to Christ. Persecution of the Church can come from the political right as easily as from the left. In the Reagan years—not so long ago—spies were sent into Christian congregations in pursuit of immigrants from Central American countries thought to be sources of communist malefactors, and priests, religious sisters, and Protestant ministers were jailed for sheltering these immigrants. What Catholics call the corporal works of mercy (see Matthew 25) were criminalized by the U.S. government. It is naive to think the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the American right might not lead to a demand to reinstate this regime on a more massive scale.
The reason for the present zeal against the Catholic Church and other traditional religious communities in the United States is not obscure. It is itself a religious zeal, rooted in the fact that we all tend to absolutize our beliefs, especially those bearing on matters we consider of great, even ultimate, importance. We often regard opposition to our beliefs as wicked, an evil that must be rooted out. The ancient idea that a coherent society requires agreement as to ultimate matters expresses a sober recognition of the innate religious zeal of human beings.
The Catholic Church, like some other long-established religious communities, has experience with this basic human impulse and the dangers it poses. Our natural religious yearning is, in truth, a restless desire for God. But it can go terribly wrong—especially when we have grown weary of the worldly renunciations our yearning for God requires of us. Because religious matters are of ultimate, indeed absolute, importance, freedom of conscience for those who believe differently must be carefully guarded. Knowing only their own rectitude, the current promoters of religious coercion—the persecution, soft at least for the time being, of traditional religious communities—have no such consideration.
One might object that now is not the time for Catholics to complain of persecution. What we are seeing now is not persecution—the unjust treatment of the Church and her members, rooted in animosity toward the Church’s faith and the witness of her life—but its opposite: the just action of the state against crimes committed within the Church.
The crimes of which some priests and bishops now stand accused are grave sins against God and against the faithful committed to their charge. Just criticism of the Church, and just action against those who have public responsibility in the Church, sometimes comes from without, indeed sometimes before the Church can muster the courage to address the crimes from within. So it is now, to our great sorrow. We must not, then, confuse the just action of the state—even of the aggressively secular state—with persecution.
That an action is just, however, does not mean that the motives for it are unmixed. Rigorous civil proceedings against the perpetrators and enablers of clergy sexual abuse may be motivated by sympathy with the victims and indignation over vile crimes. Or they may be motivated by animosity toward the Church’s faith and the witness of her life. Or they may be motivated by both at once. Sadly, many of those called to witness in a special way to the Church’s faith and her way of life—to make public the call to holiness—have themselves provided choice weapons to the enemies of Christ and his Church. These weapons will be used against the Church and her proclamation of the gospel well into the future, not only by those who rightly seek justice for the innocent, but by those who detest the Catholic faith. And like Israel in exile, the innocent in the Church will have to suffer with the guilty.
As the Second Vatican Council was ending, many American Catholics thought the Church and American society were, after a long history of mutual distrust, entering into a relationship of overlapping values and mutual support. This was a reasonable supposition at the time. Roughly from the end of World War I, Catholic life in America flourished. The Catholic Church went about her divine mission relatively unhindered, and did so for the balance of the twentieth century. Rather than being the normal state of affairs, this period may turn out—it is too early to tell for sure—to have been more in the nature of an interlude. The Protestant grip on American public life had loosened, and Catholics were left more or less alone. But enough remained of the Protestant vision of ultimate matters to provide a public moral framework. A broad moral consensus obtained, in which Catholics could gratefully participate.
Now that consensus is long gone. Griswold v. Connecticut was fair warning (to say nothing of Roe v. Wade). The legislative and judicial procedures of the American system, which long bolstered a Protestant vision of ultimate matters, now promote and enforce a secular vision in which man’s final end is dogmatically denied and each person is burdened with defining his end as he sees fit.
The American founding presupposed a Protestant moral consensus, and the country lived off that capital for generations. Today, in the absence of widespread agreement as to ultimate matters, the consensus necessary for a functioning society is likely to come about by coercion and violence (recall the Civil War). We are now witnessing a perverse theologizing of liberal democracy, which entails an enforced agnosticism regarding ultimate matters—the war of personal freedom against religious freedom. The condition for participation in public life is that one not profess a faith that has public consequences. Under these circumstances, Catholics—and Protestants, Jews, and Muslims—should not expect that liberal democracy will protect them individually from coercion; still less will it protect the freedom of their communities. For Catholics especially, the twentieth-century American experience may turn out to have been merely a respite, a breathing space between one coercive era and another. The countries of Europe have different histories. But there, too, religious communities may find themselves under the yoke of an all-conquering secularism that cannot tolerate their insistence that faith must be practiced, not just silently believed.
The world hates me,” Jesus says, “because I bear witness concerning it, that its works are evil” (John 7:7). Perhaps modern liberal democracy is the best system yet devised by the mind of man for coping peacefully with conflicts over the true and the good. But it cannot make those conflicts go away; still less can it overcome or eliminate the opposition of the world and the Church. That opposition runs far too deep for any political system to remove it. At best, politics can secure a modicum of order, an always partial and temporary peace.
As Augustine rightly taught, the world’s opposition to the Church is neither arbitrary nor transitory. It stems from a primordial conflict of loves: “Two loves, then, have formed two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, formed the earthly city, and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, the heavenly city. The one glories in itself, the other in the Lord.” Christ and his Church bear witness to this world that it is passing away, that its love is evil and issues in death. Liberal democracy is neutral, at least in principle, as to ultimate matters, but human beings are not neutral—least of all those who claim to have no convictions concerning the true and the good. They will use whatever instruments are available, including the procedural devices of liberal democracy, to secure the triumph of their love.
The Church lives and serves God and all human beings, under whatever political arrangements happen to obtain. Catholic teaching recognizes this abiding state of affairs. So the Second Vatican Council reminds us, borrowing words of Augustine: “The Church, ‘like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,’ announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes.” As we sojourn in this foreign land, tracing by faith the way to that city “whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10), we must work tirelessly for the good of all people, as God has made it known to us. We should not expect that our work will create for us, or for anyone, a home in this world. The world will offer us homes on its own terms, whether the terms of the left or of the right. But the blandishments of the world offer no peace, no home that lasts. Our peace lies, and will always lie, beyond this world.
Bruce D. Marshall is Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?