Friday, June 15, 2012

Magna Carta

On this date in 1215, King John of England (1166-1216, King 1199-1216) signed the famous Magna Carta, the “great charter” of English liberties. The very first of those famous liberties was the freedom of the Church:

FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever

Of course, it takes more than a piece of paper to guarantee freedom - for anyone. The freedom of the Church had been at issue in the great conflict between King John’s much more accomplished father, King Henry II (1133-1189, King 1145-1189) and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket (1118-1170), martyred by four of the King's thuggish henchmen (otherwise known as knights of the realm) on December 29, 1170 - and subsequently (and very rapidly) canonized in 1173. Magna Carta or no, it would continue to be an issue all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Then, with the Renaissance and Reformation, the situation would only get that much worse for the Church and for its freedom. In England, Magna Carta or no, the Church’s freedom would be eradicated completely by Henry VIII and his successors Edward and Elizabeth, resulting in many more martyrs, the most famous of whom were St. Thomas Fisher (1469-1535) and St. Thomas More, (1478-1535), both honored together on the Church’s calendar later this month.
Almost six centuries after King’s John’s signature had been rather reluctantly affixed to the Magna Carta, the First Amendment enshrined the freedom of the Church in the U.S. Constitution. The American situation and perspective were radically different from medieval England’s, of course. In the medieval case, the Church was one and universal, the State’s equal at least, a real rival superior at times in power. In the American case, the Church was divided into different denominations and sects (some of which enjoyed the privileges of establishment in specific states – the 1st Amendment applying originally only to the Federal Government). It was religious pluralism, which provided the occasion for the American experiment.
In the Church’s self-understanding, the Church is a supernatural society, whose nature and purpose transcend that of the State (or any other social institution). In the American pluralist model, in contrast, churches are among the many and various voluntary social institutions which are at the heart of society, and whose autonomy the State is constrained to respect. Historically, that autonomy has worked to the benefit of the Church, which has thrived and flourished in the free air of American religious liberty. And it has worked well for society as well, which has benefited from the freedom of its citizens to build communities and create a network of familial, educational, and medical institutions (among others), which together have built an authentic American civil society. An activist, purposive government, which acknowledges its natural limits (and its inherent lack of transcendent purpose) will only benefit by recognizing the legitimate space for civil society and its component institutions, the Church first among them.

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