The Public Broadcasting System recently offered a three-night presentation entitled “God in America.” The title really should be, “God in Protestant America,” since the Catholic Church hardly figured at all into the six-hour program.
Mother Seton, Katherine Drexel, Fulton Sheen, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, even the Berrigan brothers, found no mention. Catholic monasteries, universities and health care centers received no credit. Still, the series was not without merit. Freedom of religion, America’s singular gift to civilization, was highlighted in the first segment.
For most of history nations established churches to which citizens must belong to enjoy full civil rights. In England one had to be Anglican to vote as recently as 1829. Only the Orthodox were granted full citizenship in Greece. And even in the American colonies one found established churches. Massachusetts favored Congregationalism well into the 1830s, while Virginia selected Anglicanism as it ecclesial community of choice. Thomas Jefferson largely was responsible for ridding the American government of any thought of establishing a church. Under his guidance, the U.S. Constitution insisted that congress should make no law establishing a religion nor prevent the free exercise thereof. Freedom of religion was already somewhat observed as the new American nation moved west. The Constitution made it a matter of law. Secularism notwithstanding, the U.S.A. has no established church.
Yet the real discussion that should be taking place is not whether Massachusetts, Virginia, the federal government or any other nation has established a religion. A more fundamental conversation should ask whether God himself has established a religion. And indeed, God does have an established church. The Catholic Church is God’s vehicle of salvation in the midst of mankind. The Catholic Church is God’s established church.
There have been recent arguments within progressive circles that Jesus never intended to found a church. They claim his legacy was not an organized religion but simply spiritual values that later generations could espouse and employ at their discretion. However, the Gospel accounts and the letters of St. Paul and especially the writings of the very early fathers of the church indicate a much more tangible heritage bequeathed by Jesus to all believers.
Jesus Christ was indeed a man of the people. The crowds hung on his every word. Yet he is remembered in the Gospel accounts as calling apart 12 men to whom he entrusted truths and practices that were not initially shared with his larger audience. These 12 men were remembered by name even 30 or 40 years after Christ’s initial recruitment. Clearly Jesus was organizing something. Within this apostolic band, Jesus further called apart St. Peter to whom he entrusted responsibilities and obligations not assigned to the other Eleven. This unique role in church life continues today in the office of Peter exercised by our Holy Father, the pope. And there is more evidence of Jesus’ organizational efforts. Very quickly, the embryonic church developed initiation rites, communal meals, penalties for sinful behavior, and a clerical ordering or hierarchy based on service. In fewer than a hundred years St. Ignatius of Antioch could cite specifically bishops, presbyters and deacons as integral to church life. This structural, sacramental and scriptural framework of the church was no accident. Truly God had established a church through Christ. Today Roman Catholics are the beneficiaries of the fullness of this enduring divine institution.
God in his mercy and the church in her wisdom recognize that many other believers share variously in the fullness of revelation entrusted to the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church certainly and many Protestant communities share in the sacramental, scriptural and moral foundation of the church. The Jewish and Islamic worlds embrace some basic, common divine truths that link them to the church as well. And the church even concedes a bond with those communities whose beliefs are informed largely by noble human aspirations. God’s mercy is happily very broad. No one is excluded from the prospect of salvation. Still, all men and women are summoned to embrace God’s established church which takes its foundation from the full teachings and wise directives of Christ himself.