In Christ, the sacred and the secular always meet

Father John A. Kiley

Surely no line of Scripture is more misleadingly quoted than Jesus’ pronouncement to “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Not only is this quote broadly used to justify the separation of church and state, but more deviously it is being extended to endorse the separation of religion and society. Progressive politicians no longer mention freedom of religion but rather refer cleverly to freedom of worship. Religion, of course, embraces the fullness of the believer’s life: church, politics, business, family, etc. All human activity has a religious dimension. Worship on the other hand is what takes place within a church building. Worship is liturgical, ritualistic and ceremonial. The immediate focus of worship is the sacred; the broader focus of religion must include the secular. Progressive politicians have no problem with parishioners lighting candles, whiffing incense and singing hymns. That’s worship. But some government leaders do have trouble with religious persons protecting traditional marriage, shielding the unborn, defending authentic conception, preserving dignity at the end of life, limiting medical experimentation and maintaining cultural vestiges from America’s theistic roots.

During the Second World War, C. S. Lewis was the voice of religion over the BBC for the war ravaged people of the United Kingdom. Professor Lewis later combined his very celebrated radio talks into the still quite popular book “Mere Christianity.” Perhaps there was a God who would eventually make sense of Britain’s carnage and destruction. Lewis was fortunate to be able to broadcast when the Protestant consensus that characterized England and Scotland since the sixteenth century still held sway. While not always observed, the basic doctrines and morals and rituals of the 1940s were not that much different from the religious convictions of the 1840s or 1740s. Britain – as did America in that era – had a common religious culture from which Lewis could speak and to which Lewis could speak. There are very few places in the Western world that can make that claim in this new century. Who could speak for Britain, who could speak for America now? The once universal Christian consensus – Protestant or Catholic – has vanished and with it went a common language that would comfort every listener. Religion and society have long parted.

Professor Lewis has somewhere suggested that religion is ten percent faith and ninety percent culture. If everyone reading “The Quiet Corner” right now would take a moment to reflect on this comment, he or she would certainly come to the same conclusion. It is very unlikely that the Rhode Island Catholic readership were introduced to the faith through a burst of spiritual revelation. Much more likely, the Catholics of Rhode Island were tutored in the faith by cultural elements: crèches at Christmas, ashes at Lent, palms at Holy Week, fish on Friday, throats on St. Blaise’s day, May processions, Catholic schools, good old CCD, the aunt a nun in Canada, the uncle a missionary in Samoa, a crucifix on the bedroom wall, the Bible bound in white leather, and of course family baptisms, Communions, confirmations, wedding and funerals. Even the secular world acknowledged Christmas, Lent and Easter. Christian culture was the framework of society in the recent past. With this structural support, Catholics could be led to a deep appreciation of the spiritual life, to a mature appreciation of the faith, to a firm grasp of the Divine. A religious culture is the facilitator of a religious faith.

In America’s pluralistic society today, Catholics cannot expect to find crucifixes on every wall or Bibles on every coffee table. But Catholics can genuinely lament and legitimately mourn the phasing out of religion from public life. The union of throne and altar that characterized much of Western history for both Catholics and Protestants – and still describes much of the developing world – often bordered on tyranny. But the confluence of religion and culture is not a mere historical aberration. The influence of supernatural faith upon human culture is a direct consequence of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. A totally spiritualized Christianity is an incongruity. The Word will continue to become flesh until the end of time. History must always have a religious element. Rendering to God and rendering to Caesar are not the mutually exclusive responsibilities today’s world envisions. Those who would faithfully serve God will certainly respect Caesar; and those who effectively want to serve Caesar will need God’s help in the process. In Christ, the sacred and the secular must always meet.