To those who ask, “Whatever became of the doctrine of separation of church and state?” this month’s actions by Pope Benedict XVI pretty much provides a definitive answer: it’s almost nonexistent. Earlier this month, the Pope made his first trip to Latin America since he became pontiff. It is there that nearly half of the world’s one billion-plus Catholics live.

In order to give reporters on the papal plane something to chew on, Benedict said he supported excommunication for politicians who back legalized abortion. The edict followed Mexico City’s decision to legalize abortion if it is performed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Not only is the person having an abortion excommunicated, so too are the doctors and nurses involved in the operation, and now, any lawmakers who support the procedure.

Excommunication is a form of punishment that cuts off membership in the Catholic Church and the sacraments (including communion) of the church. While the Pope’s remarks were aimed at recent events in Latin America, they suddenly took on added meaning for at least 18 Catholic House Democrats who issued a statement saying, “Religious sanctions in the political arena directly conflict with fundamental beliefs about the role of democratic representation in a pluralistic America – and clashes with freedoms in our Constitution.”

The Vatican’s position, said Benedict, is not negotiable. And furthermore, he said, “This is nothing new. It’s normal and is what has been foreseen by the Catholic Church’s doctrine.” But once the shocked – shocked reaction from Washington was in the mix, the Vatican began an ecclesiastical soft shoe worthy of any Broadway musical. The Vatican press director, Father Federico Lombardi, attempted to “clarify” the Pope’s statement. “No one has been declared excommunicated by the Pope,” said Lombardi. While Mexican bishops had threatened to impose that perturbing penalty, they so far had not done so, therefore “there was no decree of excommunication for the Pope to affirm.” [Catholic World News, May 9, 2007]

Then Lombardi added the postscript that got all those U.S. legislators’ underwear all wadded up: “Individuals who vote for abortion have excluded themselves from communion.” So, according to this “logic,” it is not the Catholic Church who has denied the sacraments to wayward politicians, it is the politicians themselves. So does this mean that separation of church and state is intact – that this is not really intervention by a religious group into American politics, but merely a longstanding warrant that Catholic politicians inherited when they were baptized?

If Separation of Church and State means the church stays out of the state’s business and the state stays out of the church’s business, then indeed the metaphor is not intact. Thomas Jefferson added emphasis to the notion when he coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” [letter to the Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802].

In addition to the excommunication issue, the Catholic Church is already distributing voter guides to the faithful, urging them to oppose any candidate who countenances abortion, cloning, euthanasia, stem cell research, and same-sex marriage. Other Catholic leaders are urging voters to adopt their stance against the Iraq war (a human rights violation ), the death penalty, and certain strains of Christian fundamentalism. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, has compared Bush to Hitler and is calling for his ouster.

The Catholic Church has suffered a drastic decline in membership over the past few decades. This also included a serious reduction in the number of Catholics entering religious orders to become priests and nuns, although some convents now report a slight increase in applicants. Church and school closings were also rampant during the past several years, due to the cost of maintaining the vast numbers of places of worship and education that flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rise of secularism and the “Me generation” in America follows a culture that wants to enjoy the whim of the moment and further blur the difference between right and wrong.

Rome continues to prohibit artificial or assisted reproduction to infertile couples craving parenthood. The Church also forbids the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS for same reason – a condom is also a contraceptive. These dictates are more honored in the breach than in the observance by Catholics, since the human longing for parenthood, and the fear of life-threatening viruses are two imperatives that outweigh any Vatican dictum.

Add to all of this a growing rift between the Church’s traditionalist wing and the more liberal 30-somethings over the wider use of the Latin Mass, the standard service before the Second Vatican Council. It is a delicate balance between those of an older generation, who sense a conservative drift in Catholic affairs, and the current crop of modern Catholics, including younger priests who are unfamiliar with the long practiced Latin version. Tie this in with generational differences on religious freedom, ecumenism, and interfaith relations, and once can sense the gathering “perfect storm.”

– Chase.Hamil



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