The Separation of God from State

Why the secularists pounced on Bishop Tobin.

Secularists complain about the Church’s influence over government even as they seek to influence the Church’s internal governance. Witness their attacks on Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence for merely informing Congressman Patrick Kennedy that he should not receive Communion given his lack of communion with the teachings of the Church on abortion and other fundamental moral issues.

In self-dramatizing fashion, Kennedy had publicized and distorted this 2007 confidential request from Bishop Tobin. Speaking to the Providence Journal in November, Kennedy said, “The bishop instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion.”

Bishop Tobin acknowledged the first claim, but denied the second one. He said that while he told Kennedy to refrain from Communion he never told his priests to withhold it from him. In other words, Tobin didn’t exercise all of his rights as a bishop under canon law. He would have been canonically entitled to issue that instruction.

But even a bishop who makes nothing more than a request to a Catholic in his fold is outrageous in the eyes of secularists. They rushed to Kennedy’s
defense in the dispute, though they had no standing or knowledge to referee it, judging the matter through the exclusive prism of their secularism.

They claimed that the bishop had crossed the line between “Church and state.” But how sacrosanct can that line be if secularists feel free to chastise Bishop Tobin for a spiritual interaction with a member of his own diocese?

“This is a political act by a political bishop,” said commentator Lawrence O’Donnell. “Political bishops do the Church absolutely no good. This guy’s—this bishop is a political hack.”

Notice that O’Donnell knows what is “good” for the Catholic Church. Secularists reserve the right to heap unsolicited and destructive advice upon the Church while commanding her to keep silent about matters of public life. Apparently, a bishop shouldn’t speak the truth to anyone, not even members of his own flock, and should set aside the Magisteriumand canon law out of respect for the platform of the Democratic Party.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, bullying Tobin during an appearance on Hardball, used the controversy to invoke the secularist philosophy of Patrick Kennedy’s uncle, John F. Kennedy. He quoted Kennedy’s famous line of jumbled sophistry: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”

Matthews treated the line like a gem of irrefutable wisdom that trumps Church teaching. In reality, it is a decaying monument to a catastrophic secularism that has corrupted two generations of Catholic politicians, largely driven religion from public life, and empowered non-Catholics to lecture the Church on her own affairs. Matthews’ exchange with Bishop Tobin revealed the kind of surreal public life it has produced, an “America” where inane talk-show hosts give instructions to successors of the apostles, where secularists decide who is and who is not a good Catholic and what Catholic teaching and discipline should be.

It is no wonder that Patrick Kennedy, who has been catechized by this atmosphere of arrogant relativism, feels entitled to define for himself what constitutes communion with the Church. “While I greatly respect the Catholic Church and its leaders, like many Rhode Islanders, the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic,” he said.

Under the implications of John F. Kennedy’s doctrine, secularists feel authorized not just to separate church from state but to dominate church and state: all traces of religion are removed from politics while politicians increasingly encroach upon and judge religion. So even the doctrine’s claim of respecting religion as a private matter ends up as false: everything in society becomes “political” under it, and thus an O’Donnell can call Tobin a “political bishop” for simply following Church teaching and Patrick Kennedy can crown himself a kind of pope in the name of a secularism seen as superior to the Church.

At first glance, controversies like this one may appear tiresomely familiar and trivial. But what’s at stake in them is nothing less than the presence of God in public life and even within religion itself. The “separation of Church from state” means the separation of God from state. It means that secularists enjoy an undeserved and corrupting monopoly over all moral and philosophical ordering of society, a monopoly which inevitably extends to religion and seeks above all to neutralize the freedom and rights of the Catholic Church.

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