THE CATHOLIC VIEW OF CIVIL AUTHORITY AND ITS RELATION TO GOD'S LAW
A couple of relevant sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be found here and here (particularly #1897-1904 and #2104-2109). Here is how I would briefly summarize the basic Catholic position on civil authority: God has created human beings and the universe in such a way that human nature naturally calls for certain forms of organization among human individuals with certain authority structures that go along with them--such as organizations of family and civil society (the state). Since God is the author of the human nature that gives rise to these institutions, these institutions are ordained by God and therefore have his authority behind them. Thus, in Paul's language (Romans 13:1-7), the "powers that be" are ordained of God and are thus ministers of God whom we are commanded by God's moral law to obey. Since these institutions are "ministers of God," they do not have unlimited authority. They only have authority when they are legitimately fulfilling their essential functions in a manner consistent with the objective moral law of God. Essential human governments, then, are a sort of limited microcosm of God's government of the cosmos. Just as God seeks to promote the good and condemn the evil in his government of the world, so human governments ought to rule according to God's moral law, promoting what is good and hindering or opposing that which is evil.
Since human governments, including the state, are under God's law and are ministers of God, the concept of secularism (understood as the idea that the state should refrain from endorsing any particular religious viewpoint or basing its laws on any religious viewpoint--in effect, that the state should embrace Agnosticism and base its laws on that assumption) is contrary to Catholic doctrine. The Catholic worldview insists that just as human individuals are not morally autonomous but are under God's rule, so human societies, including civil societies, likewise are under God and are not autonomous or independent from God. Pope Leo XIII articulated this viewpoint in opposition to Agnostic secularism very clearly in his encyclical Libertas issued in 1888:
15. What naturalists or rationalists aim at in philosophy, that the supporters of liberalism, carrying out the principles laid down by naturalism, are attempting in the domain of morality and politics. The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth. Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man's individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason. To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher. . . .
18. There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the fatal theory of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. Nature herself proclaims the necessity of the State providing means and opportunities whereby the community may be enabled to live properly, that is to say, according to the laws of God. For, since God is the source of all goodness and justice, it is absolutely ridiculous that the State should pay no attention to these laws or render them abortive by contrary enact menu [sic]. Besides, those who are in authority owe it to the commonwealth not only to provide for its external well-being and the conveniences of life, but still more to consult the welfare of men's souls in the wisdom of their legislation. But, for the increase of such benefits, nothing more suitable can be conceived than the laws which have God for their author; and, therefore, they who in their government of the State take no account of these laws abuse political power by causing it to deviate from its proper end and from what nature itself prescribes. And, what is still more important, and what We have more than once pointed out, although the civil authority has not the same proximate end as the spiritual, nor proceeds on the same lines, nevertheless in the exercise of their separate powers they must occasionally meet. For their subjects are the same, and not infrequently they deal with the same objects, though in different ways. Whenever this occurs, since a state of conflict is absurd and manifestly repugnant to the most wise ordinance of God, there must necessarily exist some order or mode of procedure to remove the occasions of difference and contention, and to secure harmony in all things. This harmony has been not inaptly compared to that which exists between the body and the soul for the well-being of both one and the other, the separation of which brings irremediable harm to the body, since it extinguishes its very life. . . .
20. But, assuredly, of all the duties which man has to fulfill, that, without doubt, is the chiefest and holiest which commands him to worship God with devotion and piety. This follows of necessity from the truth that we are ever in the power of God, are ever guided by His will and providence, and, having come forth from Him, must return to Him. Add to which, no true virtue can exist without religion, for moral virtue is concerned with those things which lead to God as man's supreme and ultimate good; and therefore religion, which (as St. Thomas says) "performs those actions which are directly and immediately ordained for the divine honor",(7) rules and tempers all virtues. And if it be asked which of the many conflicting religions it is necessary to adopt, reason and the natural law unhesitatingly tell us to practice that one which God enjoins, and which men can easily recognize by certain exterior notes, whereby Divine Providence has willed that it should be distinguished, because, in a matter of such moment, the most terrible loss would be the consequence of error. Wherefore, when a liberty such as We have described is offered to man, the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil; which, as We have said, is no liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin.
21. This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers [sic] upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide - as they should do - with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community. For public authority exists for the welfare of those whom it governs; and, although its proximate end is to lead men to the prosperity found in this life, yet, in so doing, it ought not to diminish, but rather to increase, man's capability of attaining to the supreme good in which his everlasting happiness consists: which never can be attained if religion be disregarded.
So the function of the state is to be a minister of God for the praise and promotion of good and the hindering and opposing of evil, as these are defined by God's moral law, within the bounds of civil society. The state is, to the best of its ability, to protect the civil sphere from evil and for good. The core of God's moral law is summarized in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, the Ten Commandments "express man's fundamental duties towards God and towards his neighbor":
The Ten Commandments belong to God's revelation. At the same time they teach us the true humanity of man. They bring to light the essential duties, and therefore, indirectly, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of the human person. The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law: . . . The commandments of the Decalogue, although accessible to reason alone, have been revealed. To attain a complete and certain understanding of the requirements of the natural law, sinful humanity needed this revelation: . . . We know God's commandments through the divine revelation proposed to us in the Church, and through the voice of moral conscience.
For example, the fifth commandment is "Thou shalt not kill." The underlying principle of this commandment is that human life belongs to God and is valuable to him, and that we are therefore to respect it. In terms of civil law, this translates into prohibitions against murder. The state works to protect and honor human life by forbidding life to be taken, trying to prevent life from being taken, and punishing those who take it. Oftentimes, good civil laws are agreed upon by Christians as well as by people of other worldviews, even Atheists or Agnostics, because it is apparent to human reason that the breaking of these laws would be bad for the welfare of society. This is obviously the case with civil laws against murder in a general sense. But sometimes there might be disagreement over civil laws arising from different beliefs and values of different worldviews. For example, it has become common of late, and it is becoming more common all the time, for those who hold a secular (Atheist or Agnostic) worldview to defend the legalization of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) in various circumstances. PAS is the the intentional ending of one's own life with the aid of the medical community. According to God's law (see the Catechism, #2276-2283), suicide is a grave sin because it is self-murder. Our lives belong to God and they are valuable to him, and therefore we should not deliberately end them even if continuing to live involves great trials. Rather, we should seek to use our lives for the service of God and man until God himself ends them. But in a secular, Naturalistic worldview, our lives are seen as owned ultimately only by ourselves, and our only ultimate responsibility is to our own desire to live a happy life. God either does not exist or cannot be known to exist, and so we owe no responsibility to him, and nothing is gained by seeking to live according to what are claimed to be God's commands but what are really only the commands of ancient human beings. Within this worldview, a plausible case can be made that it can make sense in some circumstances for people to end their own lives. If my life has become much more of a burden than a joy (say I am sick with some disease which causes a great deal of pain or loss of dignity), why should I not choose to end it rather than continue to suffer? And if this is a reasonable choice, why should I not be able to enlist the aid of the medical profession in carrying out this intention, just as we make use of this profession to help us in so many other areas of life? And therefore many secularists today argue that PAS ought to be legal. Within a Catholic worldview, however, PAS can never be approved or endorsed by the state, nor can the state ever grant a right to it, for the state has no authority to authorize what God has forbidden. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in their Declaration on Euthanasia back in 1980, put the Catholic position this way:
It is necessary to state firmly once more that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.
TOLERATION, LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE, AND SINS AGAINST THE FIRST TABLE OF THE LAW
Ideally, human societies ought to root out all evils among them. But, as the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13) reminds us, until the final judgment it will not be possible to root out all evil without destroying good (and thus perpetrating evil) as well. Therefore, while the state can never grant a right to do evil or approve of evil, there are often occasions where the state must tolerate or refrain from punishing or thwarting evil to an extent. In doing this, of course, just as in its punishing evil and rewarding the good, the state imitates God himself, the great Governor of the universe, who allows various evils to exist somewhat unhindered for a time in order to bring about a greater good. One simple example of this sort of situation (on a small, very temporary scale) is when a thief breaks into a house and holds its inhabitants hostage. Theft is a violation of justice, and so ordinary the state ought to thwart and punish it, but in this case the immediate attempt to thwart the thief would likely result in the deaths of the innocent inhabitants of the house, and so the police will wisely forbear to carry out an immediate apprehending of the criminal. This is, of course, not the same as granting a license to the thief to steal or to break into people's homes. The state will still attempt to apprehend the thief, but it will pursue this goal over a longer period of time and in a way that will also safeguard the safety of the innocents, which is in this case the higher value. We can think of other situations that are not so temporary, where the evil is more entrenched and harder to uproot without causing more harm and so a longer and deeper tolerance is called for. For example, some cities might allow gangs to exist for long periods of time at their heart, not because they approve of what they are doing, but because they cannot completely eradicate them without causing more harm than good. Or the state might allow certain speech that is to some degree offensive, not because the speech itself is approved but because the results of curtailing the speech would be worse. (Indeed, where to draw the line in this area and how to balance the various concerns properly is the subject of a large and long-standing debate in modern western culture over so-called "hate speech regulation.")
One area that in modern times in particular demands much careful, nuanced, and balanced consideration is the question of how modern societies ought to treat violations of what is often called the "first table" of the law--that is, the first three (or four, depending on how you divide them up) of the Ten Commandments which focus more directly on man's relationship to God rather than man's relationship to man--do not worship false gods, do not take God's name in vain, keep the Sabbath day holy, etc. Of course, secularism is dead set against any civil prohibition or punishing of these types of actions, because from an Agnostic or Atheistic point of view these aren't evil actions at all but are of no importance. Since God either does not exist or at least cannot be known to exist, why would it matter whether someone worships the God of the Bible or Zeus, or some statue in his backyard, or whether he engages in insulting speech regarding some imaginary deity? One might as well criminalize the insulting of the Keebler Elves. But things aren't so simple from the Christian point of view. In the Christian worldview, God is the Supreme Being, and he is therefore of supreme importance. He is the fullness and source of all being, all beauty, all worth, and all good. If human individuals and societies ought to value life and protect it, how much more should they value the honor and true worship of the one true God and the preservation of the one true religion? As Pope Leo XIII put it in his encyclical Libertas quoted earlier,
But, assuredly, of all the duties which man has to fulfill, that, without doubt, is the chiefest and holiest which commands him to worship God with devotion and piety. This follows of necessity from the truth that we are ever in the power of God, are ever guided by His will and providence, and, having come forth from Him, must return to Him. . . . God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.
Because of this, Pope Leo is not thrilled at the secular idea that every person has a right that ought to be acknowledged by civil authority to worship whatever he wants and in whatever way he thinks fit:
To make this more evident, the growth of liberty ascribed to our age must be considered apart in its various details. And, first, let us examine that liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely, the liberty of worship, as it is called. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess as he may choose any religion or none. . . . [W]hen a liberty such as We have described is offered to man, the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil; which, as We have said, is no liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin. . . .
This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false.
This point has been made by many popes in recent times, as the subject over the past few centuries has become a pressing one. For some examples, see Quas Primas, Immortale Dei, Quanta Cura, and the Syllabus of Errors.
However, on the other hand, there are other important principles and facts to consider. One of these principles is that God requires of human beings that we worship, believe in, and obey him willingly and rationally. We have been designed by God with the capacity to examine the world around us and to seek and arrive at truth as we follow the evidence where it leads, as well as the capacity to choose freely to follow truth once we have found it. We have a moral obligation to do these things. Therefore, we have a right to have sufficient freedom and "free space" to be able to perform these functions. In short, we have a right to be granted room to perform the duties of forming our moral conscience and of following it. How much "free space" we need to be able to do this will differ in different circumstances, depending on all the factors that make this task more or less easy for us. In some cases, forming our moral consciences (that is, using our reason to examine the evidence and come to a a conclusion as to what is right and good) might be very easy and require little time and effort; in other cases, this process might require a lot of effort and time (such as when the question is a more difficult one, or when one has to overcome opposition arising from having been trained to think in a wrong way or from being surrounded by contrary or conflicting voices). Oftentimes, we do not engage the due diligence necessary to form and follow our consciences to the best of our ability. Sometimes we do engage due diligence, but to some degree of innocent ignorance or confusion we arrive at the wrong conclusion. In this latter case, the question of what our duty is becomes more convoluted. St. Paul addresses this kind of situation in Romans 14:13-23:
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Here we have a situation where some people think that something is wrong to eat when in fact it is not. But even though there is in fact nothing wrong with eating, the person who eats thinking he is doing something wrong is sinning, because he is making a choice (as he thinks) to break God's moral law. St. Paul warns those who are not confused over what can be eaten and what cannot be eaten not to use their knowledge as an occasion to tempt into sin (to scandalize) those who do not have this knowledge. Even if one's conscience is ill formed, it is always a sin to go against one's conscience. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its excellent summary treatment of moral conscience, puts it this way: "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed."
What are the implications of the above considerations when it comes to civil law, particular in relation to sins against the first table of the law? We have seen that the state has a duty to oppose evil and to promote good. False religion and blasphemy are great evils, and the state ought not to connive at them. But at the same time, the state has an obligation to protect the right of citizens to form and follow their consciences (since to do so is a moral duty). Therefore, the state must provide sufficient free space for citizens to have time and opportunity to examine the evidence in order to come to the truth in religious matters. In a pluralistic, secular society like ours in the modern United States, this is often not an easy task. While the objective evidence does clearly point to Catholic Christianity as the true religion, the multitude of contrary voices combined with the lack of proper training in how to sort through them and competently arrive at truth, combined oftentimes with bad religious and moral training inclining citizens to the wrong positions, creates a situation where the finding and arriving at truth in these areas can be very difficult and can require much time and effort. (Of course, the degree of difficulty in terms of various aspects of religious and moral truth will depend partly on the degree of "apparentness" in particular truths. The basic, fundamental truth that there is a higher Supreme Being with whom we have to do is more objectively "apparent" than some obscure point of Catholic theology in some minor area--although even in the more fundamental and "obvious" truths there can be confusion when it comes to consciously formulating and articulating the truth, so that oftentimes people might recognize "subconsciously" more than they could articulate to themselves or others consciously.) The state will certainly need therefore to grant more time and space to citizens to work through these issues in our modern times than would likely have been needed, say, in medieval Europe at a time when nearly the entire population was Catholic and nearly everyone had had some basic training and upbringing in Catholic principles and were exposed to them (and pretty much to them alone) on all sides everyday.
And going along with this, of course, people in a modern pluralistic, secular societies are going to be more likely to fall into religious and even to some degree moral error--sometimes through their own fault and negligence, but also sometimes at least partly in spite of due diligence. And this will create a situation where there will be many people who, through no or through relatively little fault of their own, are walking around with badly formed religious and moral consciences. Since it is a sin to go against one's conscience, even a badly formed one, the state will need to take great care to avoid creating situations where people are coerced into sin. The state must protect people in following their consciences even when their consciences are, to some degree, objectively wrong. These observations of how conscience and civil law are to relate to each other, especially in our modern secular pluralistic societies, are central to Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document in which the Church attempted to articulate some key principles in this area:
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. . . .
On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.(3) The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.
So we have here a tension that requires careful balancing. The state's job is to protect and promote good and to oppose and thwart evil according to God's law to the extent that it is reasonably able to do so. On the one hand, there is the good of the true religion, honor, and worship of God and the corresponding evil of false religion and blasphemy; on the other hand, there is the good of protecting citizens in the fulfillment of their duty to form and follow their consciences and the corresponding evil of coercing citizens to sin or preventing them from being able to fulfill their duty to rationally and freely form and follow their consciences. How are these competing concerns to be balanced? Neither of them are absolute--or, in other words, both of them are conditioned upon each other (and upon every other relevant consideration). There is to be liberty of conscience, but within due limits, the limits of a just public order. There is to be the preservation and promotion of the true religion and honor of God, but within the limits of the state's obligation to avoid violating men's consciences. There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to how to balance these concerns. Certainly, the principles of God's law (as opposed to secular or Agnostic or other principles of false worldviews) are to be the foundation for how these issues are to be decided in particular cases, but the particularities of the cases will be unique and therefore it will require active political prudence to decide how to balance the concerns in any given concrete situation. The Catechism in its treatment of this question (#2104-2109--footnotes removed) puts it this way:
The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a "public order" conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The "due limits" which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with "legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order."
For example, as I said earlier, in the context of modern secular, pluralistic societies, there needs to be a lot more space given for conscience-formation than would have been the case probably at most times in medieval Europe. If a person in a medieval European society were to have set up a golden calf in the middle of town, this would have been seen by everyone immediately and clearly as an attack on the honor of God and on the truth of the true religion. It would naturally have been regarded as an act of treachery against the common core values of the society, and therefore the emphasis in that setting might best have been put not on respecting the individual conscience of the golden-calf-worshipper, but rather on protecting the just and good established values of the society and the honor of God and the true religion. This is not to say that the state should have completely ignored the individual conscience of the idolater, but that the more immediate and greater value at stake in that setting probably would have been the objective immorality of his action considered in light of the perspective of the rest of the society. However, in modern times, the setting up of a temple to a false god is regarded very differently by society. It is not seen or likely intended directly as an attack on the God and faith of Catholic Christianity but as a natural expression of the consciences of particular groups within society. In that context, the emphasis will probably be better put on protecting conscience than on punishing idolatry--not that idolatry should be considered acceptable, but that concerns about conscience would be more at the forefront. Therefore, in modern times, there will probably need to be a greater emphasis overall on protecting conscience than punishing expressions of false religion per se. In the United States today, it would be absurd to try to legislate overnight that expressions of non-Catholic religion should be prohibited and punished. This would result in wide-scale serious negative reaction (even rebellion), and much of that reaction would be justified, for our action would simply make no sense to most modern US citizens, not necessarily because they are deliberately trying to fight the truth but because the idea of punishing non-Catholic religions as such would be so new to them that they simply would not be able to comprehend the rationale for it. It would seem, and understandably so, like a fanatical attempt to impose an arbitrary tyranny over the society. The focus at this time and in this place ought not to be on legislating bans on public displays of false religion but on evangelizing a non-Catholic culture--that is, on preaching the gospel so that individuals who make up the society can be brought to the truth. When individuals are brought to the truth, this will naturally have the effect of altering society as well. The Catechism puts it this way (#2105--footnotes removed):
By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them "to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live." The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.
This is not to say that we cannot legislate on Catholic principles even today. In areas where we would do more good than harm by doing so, we have an obligation to work for the promotion of just laws in every area of social concern. There are many areas where the conscience of society is not so confused that it is impossible to conceive even today of making and enforcing laws and policies that promote goodness and justice. Of course, this is the case with laws against murder and theft and other things about which we Catholics are generally in agreement with others in society, but it is also true in more controversial matters--like abortion and euthanasia--where it is still feasible to expect justice to be done. Even when it comes to expressions of religious falsehood and especially blasphemy, there is, I think, still opportunity to more immediately influence laws towards greater justice and public decency in some particular cases and ways. (See the Catechism's discussion of the relationship between civil law and the observance of the Lord's Day--#2187-2188--for another example of this.) And, of course, even when it would be wrong or futile to try to apply immediate civil coercion in some particular area, our long-term goal should always include (among other things) working towards establishing as much justice in civil law and policy as possible.
In short, the balancing of competing values often calls for a limited tolerance of certain evils. Pope Leo XIII put it this way in Libertas:
33. Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence.(10) But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, "neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good."(11) This saying of the Angelic Doctor contains briefly the whole doctrine of the permission of evil.
34. But, to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires. Wherefore, if such tolerance would be injurious to the public welfare, and entail greater evils on the State, it would not be lawful; for in such case the motive of good is wanting. And although in the extraordinary condition of these times the Church usually acquiesces in certain modern liberties, not because she prefers them in themselves, but because she judges it expedient to permit them, she would in happier times exercise her own liberty; and, by persuasion, exhortation, and entreaty would endeavor, as she is bound, to fulfill the duty assigned to her by God of providing for the eternal salvation of mankind. One thing, however, remains always true - that the liberty which is claimed for all to do all things is not, as We have often said, of itself desirable, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights.
Note that a limited toleration of certain evils for the sake of the overall common good is not at all the same as the modern secular notion that religious pluralism is itself a good thing, that false religion is equal to true religion, that it doesn't matter what religion people practice, or that there is some kind of right people have to practice false religion, to blaspheme God, etc. The Catechism puts it this way (#2108--footnotes removed):
The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities.
The state, while it must sometimes tolerate evil, can never condone or grant any right or permission to practice it.
Published on the feast of St. Narcissus of Jerusalem