Can States "Confess" Religious Belief? Should They?


The confessing state exceeds the limits of its authority, either by acting to no good effect, or by acting contrary to good effect. Thus, the confessing state seems inappropriate as a matter not simply of prudence, but of principle.

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In “Contraception and Chastity,” the great Elizabeth Anscombe wrote, “The trouble about the Christian standard of chastity is that it isn't and never has been generally lived by; not that it would be profitless if it were. Quite the contrary: it would be colossally productive of earthly happiness.” Anscombe has always seemed correct on this count to me: the knock against Christian chastity simply can’t be, “Well, we tried that, and found it wanting.” Exactly the opposite is the case.

Yet that is what seems to many Catholic observers to be true of a confessional state—that is, a state in which the liberal norm of “separation” is not observed, and in which the state professes and teaches the one true faith. As Richard John Neuhaus, writing in response to critics of his own anti-confessional approach, noted: “learning from the bitter experience of grandiose notions of the state, contemporary Catholic teaching sharply delimits its [i.e., the state’s] role as spiritual or moral tutor.”

In Neuhaus’s judgment, the record, where states had gone the confessional route, was not good. The ease with which states have gone from “teaching” to coercing is notable. So is the way in which confessional states in the long run seem to run the risk of alienating their citizens, stultifying their faith, or imposing noxious forms of clericalism. Or, of course, all three.

Now, in the eyes of defenders of confessional states, establishment, or “integralism,” this is merely the basis of a prudential, temporally bound, judgment. Were things different, then a confessional state would be quite appropriate. And thus, in the words of Joseph Trabbic, writing here at Public Discourse, “a Catholic confessional state is the ideal, even if in most modern situations it’s not a practical possibility, and prudence would steer us away from it.” Moreover, “this teaching continues to be normative for Catholics.”

About this view I wish to raise three questions.

Ideals and Norms

The first concerns what it means to identify a teaching about an “ideal” as normative. Could the Church teach as “normative” that something is an “ideal”? What would be the point? The Church has authority to teach what is necessary for salvation, and something that is an “ideal” but not in most circumstances a practical possibility couldn't be that.

Is there some other ideal that we can identify the Church as teaching? Lately some have taken to describing Church teaching on chastity and marriage, for example, as “ideals.” The clear implication of this is that in most modern situations, these are just “not a practical possibility.” But that is not the way that Church teaching on these matters is to be understood: Trent teaches that for all sin a sufficiency of grace is available to help Catholics not to sin. Failure is to be expected, but the effort on each occasion not to sin is to be made, and failures are, well, failures, not merely a departure from what would be ideal.

The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience might be helpful analogues to the ideal of a confessing state. In one sense, it seems everyone is called to some form of these; so that is not the sense in which they are an ideal. In another sense, however, as John Paul II wrote, some are called

to leave their ordinary lives behind and to enter into a close relationship to [Christ]. It is precisely this special grace of intimacy that, in the consecrated life, makes possible and even demands the total gift of self in the profession of the evangelical counsels. The counsels, more than a simple renunciation, are a specific acceptance of the mystery of Christ, lived within the Church.

So perhaps a confessing state is like an individual who has been called to leave ordinary life behind to enter this closer relationship with the Lord. That might reasonably be described as an ideal, and we might think, of our own current political society, “we’re just not there yet.” This brings me to my second question.

Confessing States

What does it mean to say of a state that it “confesses,” or “is confessing”? Is this something that a state can really do?

It seems to me beyond doubt that states are agents: states act, typically through persons and procedures given some authoritative status. States act when they enact legislation as a result of a popular vote; and they act when their leaders declare war. Similarly, states have intentions, both good and bad.

It also seems to me that “act” and “intention” do not have exactly the same sense here as when we attribute acts and intentions to a person. In the paradigmatic sense, persons act and intend, but states and other institutions do so only in an analogous sense. The same is true for “believe”; anything that can intend must believe, but states believe only in an analogous sense.

Thus my question: can a state believe, intend, and act in precisely the way necessary to confess—that is, for an act of faith?

Here is a definition of an act of faith:

The assent of the mind to what God has revealed. An act of supernatural faith requires divine grace, either actual or sanctifying or both. It is performed under the influence of the will, which requires its own assistance of grace to render a person ready to believe. And if the act of faith is made in the state of grace, it is meritorious before God. Explicit acts of faith are necessary, notably when the virtue of faith is being tested by temptation or one's faith is challenged, or one's belief would be weakened unless strengthened by acts of faith. A simple and widely used act of faith says “My God, I believe in you and all that your Church teaches, because you have said it, and your word is true. Amen.”

This does not seem like something that a state can do; nor does it seem that a state could be the recipient of the grace mentioned in this passage. And so the idea of a confessing state puzzles me, even, and perhaps especially, if thought of as similar to an individual called to life according to the evangelical counsels. How could a state be called to this?

Now, there are weaker understandings of what it means to “confess,” certainly. A confessing state might simply be one that “records” its “belief”—in a more quotidian sense of belief, and not in an act of faith—about the identity of the true faith, in the way that our own founding political document records a belief that inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator.

Could it not have gone further and recorded a belief that that same Creator sent His only Son to redeem human beings, and that His Church now is most fully manifest in the Catholic Church whose members are His body? The form of “belief” here needn’t be the kind of belief characteristic of an act of faith in the sense above, just the more human kind of belief that a state must have in order to do things like identify this form of relationship as marriage, and that form of human life as protected by law.

This mere recording of belief does not seem sufficient to me to make the state “confessional.” Many people who urge a confessional state as an ideal seem to have more in mind: that the state should teach the one true faith as the one true faith, not simply record a belief in it. Or that the state could declare Holy Days of Obligation as holidays because they were Days of Obligation, or at the Church’s behest. Or, at the extreme, that the state could punish with temporal punishments those who had sinned against the Church by, e.g., blaspheming.

All these seem to me to go beyond the political authority of the state, which I will discuss in the next section. But I will end this section with a point about epistemic authority.

The state could be warranted in all these acts, I think, only if the state could know that the one true faith was just that. For to teach as true a false faith—to declare that false faith’s precepts to be true, to celebrate as divinely warranted the false faith’s Holy Days, or to punish defectors from the false faith—would, pretty obviously, be immensely harmful to the natural good of religion, and to the one true faith. It could not possibly ever be justified.

But what degree of certainty could warrant a state in determining that it had correctly identified the one true faith? The only certainty, I suggest, that could warrant that is the certainty that comes with faith; but I have argued that states are not proper subjects of faith. They cannot, therefore, have the certainty that is necessary for teaching and acting in the ways described.

The Limits of Political Authority

In various venues, I have argued that political authority derives from pre-political needs for which the exercise of that authority is necessary. Those needs include defense against hostile outsiders; defense against rogue insiders; coordination; and the meeting of material needs that will otherwise go unmet through no fault of those whose needs they are (such as abandoned orphans, the disabled, and so on). Human beings, living in overlapping pre-political societies, are not self-sufficient to meet these needs, and political authority and law are not merely expedient, but necessary if they are to be met efficiently and fairly.

Satisfying these temporal needs seems to me to exhaust the limits of the state’s authority. But why not expand the authority of the state beyond what is necessary to meet these needs? After all, as Adam Bailey has argued, just because a hammer was made for one purpose does not mean it cannot be used for another.

The exercise of political authority always involves a step away from what I take to be the normative default condition for human beings: the condition of liberty. Human persons are by nature free, and their fulfillment as human persons depends on a responsible exercise of that freedom. In some domains, fulfillment is not even possible apart from the exercise of that freedom, and so it should not be limited except as needed to protect the goods and freedoms of others.

Religion is one such domain: its successful pursuit depends on its being a free pursuit, predicated on a free inquiry into religious truth. Thus, religious freedom should not be limited except insofar as to protect the goods and freedoms of others.

But, one might say, a confessional state that also upholds the religious liberty of non-confessing citizens does not do that. It does not limit freedom at all, even though it asserts that a particular belief is the correct terminus of inquiry, and a particular religion the correct terminus of belief and action. Perhaps that is true; or perhaps, as Joseph Boyle has argued, “such political action skews public life in ways that hinder rather than facilitate this inquiry, and inevitably and unfairly coerces some to support actions whose rationales are incompatible with deep elements in their worldviews.”

It seems to me that it does not matter which answer is correct: if the confessing of the state has no skewing or coercing effect, then it is pointless and thus a misuse of its authority (this would make the state’s confession quite unlike its assertions on matters such as marriage or abortion, since those assertions should have coercive effect).

On the other hand, if its effect is coercive or skewing, then it is, as Boyle claims, unjust. In either case, the state exceeds the limits of its authority, in the first case by acting to no good effect, in the second case by acting contrary to good effect. Thus, the confessing state seems inappropriate as a matter not simply of prudence, but of principle.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

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