November 22, 2012
The renowned English writer Graham Greene once wrote about the tragic effects of persecution on the Church. He said, “Private houses were searched for religious emblems and prison was the penalty for possessing them. Every priest was hunted down or shot, except one who existed for ten years in the forests and swamps, venturing out only at night…no church left standing except one--now used as a school…” (
The Lawless Roads, p. 26). Living in those conditions, one woman remarked, “we die like dogs…No religious ceremony… allowed at the grave” (
Graham Greene was not describing the effects of the French Revolution (1789–1799).
Most certainly, those effects were tragic and vehemently anti-religious. Once King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined, France embarked on a vast campaign against the Catholic faith. Church properties were confiscated. The external signs of faith were forbidden. Crosses were removed from sight. Statues toppled. Clergy who did not conform became subject to the death penalty.
This disdain for the faith and persecution of the Church reached its climax with the desecration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. On November 10th, 1793, an entourage of ballet girls led a procession into the church. The actress, Mademoiselle Maillard, representing the Goddess of Reason, was enthroned on the altar with great festivity. Reason had exalted itself to take the place of faith and, in its ascent to power, had trampled the rights of believers, spilling their blood on French soil and despoiling the Church of her properties.
But Graham Greene was describing none of this. Nor was he recounting the effects of the 1917 Russian revolution. Undoubtedly, the Church suffered grievously under atheistic communism. On January 23, 1918, the Soviet government first declared separation of Church and State. Then the state initiated the systematic dissolution of the Church, confiscating her properties and imprisoning her faithful.
By 1926, the Roman Catholic Church had no bishops left in the Soviet Union. By 1941 only two of the almost 1,200 churches were still active. Under Stalin, thousands of clergymen were arrested and murdered. Atheism spread and the open practice of the faith was gone. But Graham Greene was not referring to this dire situation.
Nor was he speaking about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). During the radical leftist uprisings of those years, tens of thousands of people were killed, including 6,832 clergy. Churches, monasteries and religious houses were desecrated and burned. On one night alone, 50 churches were burned. Out of the 58 churches in Barcelona, only the Cathedral was spared. But it is not to these bloody events that Graham refers.
Rather, the renowned English writer was speaking of something that happened much closer to home. Graham was writing about Mexico. In the early part of the 20th-century, Mexico became the first explicitly Socialist, anti-religious constitutional republic. The new revolutionary government used its resources to eradicate the Catholic faith. What a radical departure from Mexico’s Catholic past!
Mexico’s first constitution in 1824 had stated that the religion of Mexico was Catholicism and would forever remain so. Then, in 1917, a new constitution, extremely hostile to religion, was enacted. In fact, it promulgated a draconian anti-clericalism that rivaled hatred of the Church during the French Revolution. The Church could no longer teach. Only the state could. Religious orders were dissolved. Catholic organizations could no longer advocate on public policy. Convents, monasteries, churches and schools were confiscated. Priests caught celebrating the sacraments were put to death and churches desecrated. Freedom of religion was gone!
By 1940, the Church in Mexico “legally had no corporate existence, no real estate, no schools, no monasteries or convents…no right to defend itself publicly or in the courts, and no hope that its legal and actual situations would improve. Its clergy were forbidden to wear clerical garb, to vote, to celebrate public religious ceremonies, and to engage in politics” (Donald J. Mabry, “Mexican Anticlerics, Bishops, Cristeros, the Devout during the 1920s: A Scholarly Debate,”
Journal of Church and State 20, 1 (1978) p. 82).
In 1925, in the midst of all the political upheavals that brought to power governments bent on using their authority to trample on the rights of individuals, exalt the socialistic state and destroy the Church, Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King. With this feast celebrated at the end of the liturgical year, the Pope recalled us to a basic truth of our faith. To Christ alone has been given sovereign authority over every nation and race, every time and season. When individual believers forget this truth and governments act as if they are the sole authority, the consequences are dire. History has already shown what happens and America cannot afford not to learn from history.
Ever since the day that George Washington wrote to Colonel Lewis Nicola, refusing to even think about assuming the role of king over our country, Americans have never been ruled by a king. Our Founding Fathers established a Republic with democratic principles. They chose to install a government whose legitimate purpose is to protect the rights of individuals. They understood that all human individuals possess God-given natural rights. They looked to government to protect the rights of individuals, not least of which is freedom of religion.
Every human government is human! It is subject to the temptation of assuming too much control. At this particular moment of history, we face this threat. Secularism at the highest levels of our government seeks to limit the practice of religion to the private sphere and to marginalize the Church and her teaching. Radical secularists who influence government decisions, along with some of our leaders in government and even professed Catholics in political office, are poised to punish anyone, including the Church, for non-conformity to an agenda that excludes the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience and allows no place for the Church in the public forum.
At the present, there are over 100 plaintiffs with suits in federal court over the present administration’s arrogant decision to take away freedom of religion in terms of health care. This sobering fact should sound the alarm to every reasonable person of good will, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. Once a government can take away a single God-given right, it will be emboldened to take away other rights and to persecute those who do not conform.
At a time when some choose to make political decisions not on what God demands of us for the common good, but on what we desire for our own good, the Feast of Christ the King challenges us. Christ is Lord. Even when it costs us something, are we willing to sacrifice and give him our highest allegiance? If not, history shows us what happens!