Let us render unto Caesar, but not forget the God in us

Posted: June 08, 2012

As I write, a jury of 12 good Philadelphians is deliberating over the fate of Monsignor William Lynn, who stands accused of protecting sexual predators. He is the proxy for a hierarchy that far too late came to understand that criminals are criminals even if they are sick of mind and spirit, and wear Roman collars.

Today, I don't know what type of verdict those good people will render. But it doesn't matter. The fact that there is a trial at all, one where the defendant is protected by the same system that separates the guilty from the innocent regardless of creed, color or cash flow, is a triumph. Caesar is given his due, because no one — priest or penitent —is above the law.

The lawyer in me is proud of that fact; proud, too, that the secular mobs who scream for the dismantling of statutes of limitations have not been successful. While priests should be held to the same standard as laymen, they should not be targeted for special punishment, which is exactly what those who advocate eliminating limiting statutes seek. You cannot ignore the fact that this move to make it easier to sue alleged sexual predators gained strength just at the moment that the sex-abuse scandal exploded in Boston almost a decade ago. So many of the so-called civil libertarians who would use their last breath to defend the rights of the accused see nothing wrong in neutralizing those rights when it comes to clergy. Anyone who denies the anti-Catholic or, at least, anti-clerical nature of these ‘reforms' is either naïve or dishonest.

I am a lawyer. I am also a Catholic. But I could just as easily be a Jew, a Buddhist or a Protestant and still believe that Caesar needs to share the public stage with God. Each has his sphere of influence, dignity and relevance to these times. The Founders clearly knew this when they forged that most miraculous of compromises: the Religion Clause of the First Amendment. First, they made sure that no single religion would have a stranglehold on the government, aware as they were of the problems of mother Europe, including Inquisitions, purges and terror. That's why they wrote "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." But, unlike the heroes of the European Enlightenment, who were actually hostile to God, they understood the importance that religion played in both public and private life. And so they included these words in the amendment: "[Congress shall make no law] prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Sometimes, it seems, we focus on the words that we like the best and ignore the others. It's true that spiritual people tend to take an expansive view of free exercise, arguing that sectarian prayers in public schools, for example, are legal. They're not.

But the trend has actually been in the opposite direction over the last half-century. Now, it seems that even the slightest whiff of religion sends church-state separationists to the courts. And that is clearly not what the Founders wanted, given the fact that they refused to co-opt Enlightenment principles into either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

Americans have always believed that there is a symbiotic relationship between humans and the divine. The trick is finding the right balance, since, as Archbishop Charles Chaput notes in his book "Render Unto Caesar": "History is a great teacher and one of its lessons is that when religion and the state mingle too intimately, bad things can happen to both." But that doesn't mean that we should purge religion from the public square, and that the only good legislator is one who denies his faith.

I remember when Mario Cuomo gave that now-famous speech at Notre Dame where he said that he might privately be opposed to abortion but that as the Governor of all New Yorkers he was required to uphold its legality. At the time, I was just entering law school, and thought that this was a very cagey answer. Very "lawyerlike." And it made me lose respect for Cuomo, and those like him who say they refuse to impose their beliefs on others. The truth, as the Archbishop observes, is that no mainstream American wants a theocracy. But neither do we want a world where it's seditious to talk about "God" in the same breath as "law," and where we are afraid to infuse our public acts with spiritual motives.

The recent controversy over the birth-control mandate shows that people may not accept every tenet of their faith, but they do respect faith in general. The attempt by the Obama administration to marginalize religion and the religious might have worked in secular Europe, but it won't work here.

That is because our strength as a people derives equally from our courts, our creeds and our conscience.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com and read her blog at philly.com/FlowersShow

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