Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Tolerating the Secular State,
the Enemy of Faith
Church Militant and Triumphant (detail, at the center are pope and emperor - by Andrea da Firenze - Wikipedia Commons)
Let us pass from the general principles set forth in our theological considerations* to a great historical example, the question of separation of Church and State.
Prior to the French Revolution, a united regime of Church and State existed in all the Catholic nations of Europe. In the Protestant states, the most powerful sects were united to the Crown. As a result of the secular principles of the Revolution, separation of Church and State was gradually introduced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the State is secularist in most of the West. Where it is not, the privileges of the official church are virtually meaningless.
This immense transformation, the natural and typical fruit of a tendency towards laicization that has made itself progressively felt in the various sectors of Western culture, in society, and in life itself, was inherently prejudicial to the Holy Catholic Church.
As faith is the root of all virtues and virtue is the essential condition for the salvation of souls, laicization is contrary to faith. It is easy to see the risks souls face in the secularist milieu in which we live. If the end of the Church is the salvation of souls, it is easy to understand why she opposes every form of laicism. We state these elementary matters in such detail and clarity because even the most elementary things are either entirely forgotten today or run the imminent risk of being forgotten. Not only atheistic materialism but liberal laicism is contrary to the Catholic faith.
By a mystery of Providence and, above all, through the deplorable culpability of men, the Catholic reaction lacked the force necessary to impede the laicization of the West. Faced with the lamentable reality of the separation of the Church and the State, what can we do? If we lacked sufficient strength to prevent this separation, much less do we have the power to reverse it immediately. The only recourse, therefore, is to tolerate it.
Now, even the gravest evils may bear advantages that, while secondary, are nevertheless valuable. This can be said of the separation of Church and State. In the regime of the union of Church and State, the life of the Church was hampered by numerous governmental interferences, each more irritating and perilous. With their separation, the interferences ceased legally. Given the inestimable worth of the Church's liberty, one can understand, from this viewpoint, the benefits this new situation may provide. We should take every advantage of them.
On the other hand, separation imposed burdens. The gravest is the explicit, solemn, and provocative affirmation that religion is merely a matter of personal prerogative, whereas the domains of the State and of public life are— and should remain—lay affairs.
This principle would easily influence not only social institutions but every sphere of the Nation's mental life, a typical case of a fruit that gives additional force to the effect of its own cause. With this would come a debilitation of the sensus Ecdesiae [the mind of the Church], adulterating the roots and contaminating the fruits of the nation's religious life. It is necessary to tolerate the inevitable, but we must also use all available means to prevent its disastrous consequences. Otherwise, rather than being upright and wise, tolerance would cause a disaster so great no words could suffice to describe it.
How should we react? The Magisterium has ably fulfilled its solemn duty by endowing the faithful with an admirable body of doctrine on the relations between Church and State. It falls to Catholic intellectuals to comment upon and disseminate these principles with an amplitude, an insistence, and an attractiveness proportional to the immense gravity of the evil. It falls to the directors of Catholic works to constantly call the attention of their members to the growing secularization of life wrought by the secularization of the State, the injury thus rendered God, the harm done to souls, and so on. It falls to the Catholic press to spread to the furthest ends of the earth zeal for the principles jeopardized by separation of Church and State. And finally, it falls to all the children of the Church to prepare, over time but indefatigably, a reaction that may attain the suppression of this terrible evil.
Much has already happened. We are not among those for whom the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is but a mere narration of the errors and failings of Catholics—clearly this way of seeing things is unacceptably deformed. But we must recognize that if much has been done by us who are Catholic, far more remains to be done.
No one in the Catholic ranks is dispensed from professing the thesis that the Church ought to be united to the State. But, in the light of the legitimate distinction between thesis and hypothesis, a regime of dangerous co-existence between one and the other was created.
In other words, everyone continued to profess the thesis that separation is an evil, but, in the present hypothesis, a lesser evil. Everyone accepted this. Consequently, it behooved us to tolerate separation—morbidly, impassively, lazily. The thesis being stated, the hypothesis was uttered with resignation, giving us to understand that it was destined to last for centuries, without profound harm to the Church. As a result, little or nothing was done to inculcate a clear notion of the risks of this regime, of their gravity, and of the continual action that was indispensable to prevent them from becoming reality.
On the anti-Catholic side, the most efficient, powerful, and refined means of forming public opinion were employed to the effect of laicizing the nations of the West to their inmost core. The result was stated in an impressive and profoundly wise affirmation by His Excellency, the Most Rev. Msgr. Angelo Dell'Aqua, substitute for the Vatican secretary of state, in a letter to his Excellency the Cardinal Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Carlos Carmelo de Vasconcellos Motta: "Because of the religious agnosticism of the states, the Catholic sense of modem society has been weakened or almost lost."
Those who know what faith is and what its role in salvation is can appreciate the tragedy of this affirmation, made with a frankness and resolution that demands due homage. It is possible that our means, much less than those of the adversary, have not garnered results in the human plane, even if ably employed. But God does not neglect those who do everything possible. He chastises those who, not confiding principally in Providence, neglect to employ the few resources they have at hand. A slingshot seems inadequate to stop a giant, but with one David felled Goliath.
If we had but prayed. If we had but acted. If we had but fought.
* * *
When all is said and done, the past is the past. Is it not best left buried? Why exhume it?
Because the problem of tolerance looms before us. We are speaking of knowing, on a thousand occasions, to what point we may and should be tolerant. We have every reason to fear that contemporary man will often lazily and apathetically tolerate what should be vigilantly, firmly, and astutely tolerated and even opposed.
We offer these reflections, written in a spirit of ardent sympathy, fraternal frankness, and loyal cooperation, in order that such a monstrous evil may be avoided.
* These theological considerations were set forth in "When Tolerance Is Intolerable" (Crusade, March-April 1997), the first installment of this article. The entire article was the last in a series originally published by the author in 1957. For the other parts of the series, see "What is Tolerance?" and “Tolerance, a Dangerous Virtue" in our November-December 1996 and January-February 1997 issues, respectively.