Now let’s pause for a moment to ask whether religious neutrality is even possible. When the call goes out for a neutral State, what is the rationale and what is the objective? A neutral State means a State without religious convictions or allegiances. It is not a State guided by no principles, in search of no particular good. That would be absurd. A neutral State is, in theory, a State committed to justice and to other good things such as liberty, equality and fraternity. But what is justice? What is liberty? What kind of equality are we talking about? What makes for real fraternity? Is virtue necessary to such ideals? Which virtues, and how shall we cultivate them? Are we certain that they can be cultivated without religious reference or support?
Make no mistake: as soon as one attempts to answer such questions, one is on theological ground. Indeed, as soon as one asks whether the State can or should be neutral, one is on theological ground. For if we say that the State must be neutral, meaning not merely that the State must be even-handed in its treatment of citizens, whatever their religion, but that the State itself must eschew every theological idea or religious association, we are also saying that the State is a sphere in which God must not be acknowledged as God. And that, of course, is a way of saying that, whatever deity there might be, it lacks any legitimate claim over the State—which is a theological statement, and one to which Catholics can by no means assent.
As we saw, Murray asked the council fathers to choose between a State attempting to exercise public care of religious truth and a State limited to public care of religious freedom; hence also between a State willing to intervene in religious matters on a regular basis and a State willing to intervene only “to maintain the essential exigencies of the public order.” He asked them to choose between the Leonine demand for establishment and the requirement of religious neutrality. But these are false dilemmas if religious and theological neutrality is unattainable. Moreover, establishment is not the only remaining alternative if the search for that sort of neutrality is abandoned. The other option is to seek a country built on sound moral principles, including a robust sense of justice, in which there is an open discussion as to where these principles come from, why they are important, what they actually mean and what arrangements will best support them.
And what, then, if it turns out that public care of religious freedom requires at least some public care of religious truth? That decisions about the “essential exigencies” of public order, which depend in turn on decisions about the common good and about the moral order that undergirds it, require some theological or religious guidance or discernment? That care for the conditions that encourage religious flourishing entails caring for both freedom of religion and some particular religion or religions? There is no obvious reason to reject such conclusions out of hand, and these indeed seem to be the conclusions of the council.
Murray knew, of course, as did Maritain, that a moral foundation is necessary for a just society and for authentic liberty. In his earlier work he worried “that the moral footing has been eroded from beneath the political principle of consent,” and that the idea of “a natural law that makes known to all of us the structure of the moral universe in such wise that all of us are bound by it in a common obedience” has become all but moribund. He feared the consequences for liberal democracy, consequences already becoming evident even in America. What he did not appear to reckon with adequately, however, is that this abandonment of natural law begins with abandonment of the collective responsibility to acknowledge God.
These are deep waters. Both Murray and Maritain have been accused by other Catholic thinkers of succumbing to a nature-grace dualism at once injurious to the faith and, given the ever more-rapid erosion in view, politically impotent. I’ll not try here to navigate that debate. My point is that the decisions for which Murray calls inevitably entail overt or covert religious judgments. He does not wish to detach freedom from law or law from morality. But how are we to detach morality from religion, “the moral universe” from its Maker and sovereign? How do we acknowledge this Maker, or refuse to acknowledge Him, neutrally? Personhood, freedom, justice, moral order, the common good, the State as a limited good, God as the highest and necessary and qualifying good: these are not and cannot be religiously neutral concepts.
So, for example, we may well agree with Murray, respecting the point at hand that the State must be subject to strict limits “in what concerns religious freedom.” The requirement for interference, he says, “is fourfold: that the violation of the public order be really serious; that legal or police intervention be really necessary; that regard be had for the privileged character of religious freedom, which is not simply to be equated with other civil rights; that the rule of jurisprudence of the free society be strictly observed, scil., as much freedom as possible, as much coercion as necessary.” But in privileging religious freedom, we are already making a religious judgment; and in deciding on what is “really serious,” we may well have to make another such judgment.
In Canada, we have taken as a motto desiderantes meliorem patriam [they desire a better country]. This sounds the note of transfiguration, drawn from Hebrews 11, a text that refers to those who put their hope in the heavenly city of which God himself is the builder. And, of course, the main motto on our coat of arms, a mari usque ad mare [from sea to sea] is taken from Psalm 72, where it contains a messianic reference to the one whose dominion shall be over the whole world and whose kingdom shall have no end. No one in their right mind confuses Canada with that kingdom. Yet those who seek a better country by announcing a kingdom not of this world may also seek a better country in this world, in the saeculum, as our mottos suggest. They will do so (if following the path marked out by Vatican II) not by demanding establishment for the Church or by insisting that the State translate the teaching of the Church into the law of the land, so as to enforce conformity, but by inviting the city of man to organize itself in a way reflective of, or at least open to, the truth about human sociality revealed in the city of God.
Since they belong to the city of God, they know that the city of man is not their abiding home, and they do not seek to force their will upon it. They do not even demand a crucifix on the wall of the legislature. But they do labour to show the State what justice is, and mercy. And how to craft positive law that faithfully reflects natural law—including the fact that it is good for man to acknowledge and honour God, and bad for him to ignore or deny God. They ask the State to pass no law that violates natural law or that does violence to the teaching of the Church and to the responsibilities of the faithful. And if they are not heard, they serve God and their neighbour, if need be, through the discipline of non-violent civil disobedience to the State.
They know that seeking a better country in the saeculum requires, whether they themselves are a minority or a majority, a polity in which people of different beliefs can live together in peace. But they also know that there can be no peace among men who cannot acknowledge God thankfully and who will not submit even to that which reason reveals about God. To take the opposite view—the view that peace requires a religiously “neutral” State and a naked public square—is not to seek a better country but a decidedly different one than our forebears thought they were seeking. It is to build a nation devoid of eschatological hope and so also of political humility.