Is any kind of cooperation between Church and State possible in the current political climate? If yes, what kinds, with what limits? If no, what does that imply about the apostolic ministry, and our share in it as deacons?
Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington has an excellent post, summarizing the "real and subtle" attacks on the Church in the US. In addition to the obvious coercions of court-imposed rules in the abortion issue and so-called same-sex marriage, etc., he notes items such as the (still pending) HHS regulations about health insurance requirements, denials of grants solely on the basis of Catholic pro-life doctrine, increasing government intrusion in Church affairs (e.g. as attempted in Connecticut in 2009), and so forth. He doesn't mention the Obama administration's arguments before the Supreme Court earlier this year, in the case of a Lutheran teacher who was fired from her position, which were blatantly contrary to the First Amendment. Nor does he mention the current suits and counter-suits at Belmont Abbey College, nor the ruling against California's Catholic Charities a few years ago, which also have to do with health insurance regulation. The list could be extended quite a bit further.
He concludes his article this way:
"At the beginning of a New Year, please take these threats seriously. The extreme secularists presume they can simply wear us down by their repeated and numerous legal maneuverings. And, frankly, they may be right, unless people like you and me are vigilant and unflinching in supporting the Church as she battles these attacks.
And don’t be too sanguine about how we should be willing to endure persecution. We should, but that does not mean we simply surrender our Constitutional rights at the door and let secularists, and proponents of the cultural revolution isolate us. We have every Constitutional right that any American does and we cannot simply let the Church be silenced by either ignoring the problem or minimizing it."
Msgr. Pope is proposing an engagement of culture by the Church. The first goal is to resist the false claim that the Church has no role in public life, which has been dubbed the "naked public square." The second goal is to win certain "natural frontiers" (namely, faith and morals, and their intersection with public policy) within which the Church can act publicly, without having to defend that role repeatedly and minutely. The third (and unspoken in this article) goal is, of course, the conversion of culture.
In the same vein as this engagement, we have something like Archbishop Neinstedt's leadership on the proposed constitutional amendment in Minnesota in defense of marriage. This is a good particular instance of the USCCB's priority for the defense of marriage and the building up of a pro-family culture, which has been so badly eroded over the past three to four generations. Clearly, public policy about marriage and family is not immediately subject to the Church's Magisterium, the divine authority to teach on all matters of faith and morals. But equally clearly, public policy about marriage and family has profound, long-lasting, and far-reaching implications for just about every other area of public life, from education to the social welfare net to economy and taxation. The Church does not dictate public policy, but we should absolutely want to influence and shape public policy. Therefore, one would be correct to conclude that this sort of engagement is crucial to the Church's role in public life, and therefore worth fighting for the right to do so (clearly a right in both the natural law and the Constitution, but as Msgr. Pope has shown, one which is denied by the current administration and its secular ideology).
But engagement is not the whole of our Tradition. We also have the tradition of what might be called isolation: Catholic institutions separate from the public ones, self-funded and therefore autonomous to a far greater degree. At one time this was true of all our Catholic schools and hospitals, though it isn't universally true in these areas today. At one time, this logic was so clear and accepted in the Church that we organized all kinds of separate Catholic groups in public life: even things as apparently insular as Catholic actors' guilds, for example. (Given the debauchery of "Hollywood culture," maybe this separatism shouldn't be deemed anachronistic!) The Catholic Charities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is holding to this logic. In light of what has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois, this is perhaps not a bad idea at all. But is it an engagement of the culture; and if so, how does it engage?
I would argue that this sort of separatism is a necessary component of the engagement of culture. Engagement requires clarity about our goals. This means Catholic identity, and Catholicity in general, must be clearly upheld in practice. Separate Catholic institutions do that. So too does the "separateness," the consecration, of clergy, of religious, and of families. From that clarity of identity comes clarity of mission. Without that clarity of identity, mission is inevitably compromised by ideologies.
O God, our refuge and our strength, look down in mercy on Thy people who cry to Thee, and by the intercession of the glorious and immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God, of St. Joseph her Spouse, of Thy blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of all the saints, in mercy and goodness hear our prayers for the conversion of sinners, and for the liberty and exaltation of our holy Mother the Church. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Update: Two more views on this same topic: Pope Benedict XVI's address to the diplomats credentialed to the Vatican, and Bishop Jenky (Peoria, IL) in his annual Festival Letter.