Fr. John's Letter Archives

Enjoy re-reading Fr. John's weekly bulletin letters for the past year.

Behold or Beholden

08-09-2015Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court issued its redefinition of marriage a columnist at the NY Times penned a piece calling for the revocation of the tax-exempt status of Churches that were not ecstatically embracing the redefinition. I must say I appreciate the columnist's candor in showing that the redefinition of marriage was not the end game and that punishment should be meted out to all dissenters.

There are two issues here that need to be examined together. The first: does tax-exempt status of Churches make them beholden to government? The second: what are the implications if the Church redefines marriage? The answers to both show that the intersection of Church-State is a rather complicated, often mutually beneficial and sometimes a treacherous affair. But let's look at the second first.

During the 1930's as the Third Reich came to power it realized that one of the main obstacles to implementing its agenda was the Church, so rather than oppose the Church it jumped on the opportunity to support the long held idea that had been circulating in German Protestant Churches for some time: forming one united national Church. This was eventually adopted by the Church in Germany and became known as the German Evangelical Church or the Protestant Reich Church. The Church had a single unified doctrine that was very compatible to National Socialism. That allowed Hitler to treat the Church as another government agency. Thus the Third Reich had to approve the nomination of bishops and appointment of Church personnel and polity.

The Nazi leaders were finally able to compromise the National Church and thus seize control of it by insisting that the National Church adopt what was known as the "Aryan Paragraph" which was a clause that had to been inserted into any organization's or corporation's by-laws that stated that any non-Aryans, particularly Jews or those of Jewish descent could not hold a civil service position. For the Church this would mean any Jewish converts to Christianity who were employed by the Church in Church run universities, hospitals, parishes etc. (and remember with a National Church, church employment was often a civil service or government paid job) had to be dismissed from employment. In effect this was a way to exclude any Jewish converts from the German Evangelical Church. This was how Edith Stein, later St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who converted to Catholicism and was a teaching assistant to the Philosopher Edmund Husserl was fired from her teaching position.

The debate over whether the Church should adopt that policy was lead by among others Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor who would eventually be executed at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Bonhoeffer was one of the first to see that Hitler's policy towards the Jews would be a huge problem for the Church. When it came to the Aryan Paragraph Bonhoeffer was very clear: to adopt such a policy would be a clear violation of the New Testament which would cause the Church to break from historical Christianity and the German Evangelical Church would cease to be the Church.

The other side argued it was just an employment issue (think of the insertion of the "contraception mandate" into Church employee health insurance) and not doctrinal. In the end the official state Church of Germany did adopt the Aryan Paragraph; Bonhoeffer started what was called the "Confessing Church" so that at least there was one Christian Protestant Church in Germany that retained the authentic faith of Jesus Christ. Needless to say the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph would eventually destroy the Church's integrity and moral authority so that after the war the German Lutheran Church which prior to WWII had world class theologians and the best biblical scholars hands down was never able to really recover.

There are lots of applicable lessons for us today. History amply shows that whenever the Church and state get too cozy things go really badly for the Church. Secondly when the Church compromises its doctrine of belief to accommodate official policies of the state that are clearly contrary to Christian faith and morals the Church loses its moral integrity. Keep this in mind as you think about the issue of the tax-exempt status of the Church and whether it is such a good thing after all? I'll write more about that later.

When it comes to whether or not the Church should accept the civil authority's redefinition of marriage, for me like Bonhoeffer, the answer is very clear. If the Church did accept a redefinition of marriage it would clearly be in violation of the New Testament and the long held teachings of the Catechism and be a rupture from historical Christianity and the Church would at that point cease to be the Church.

"Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic. Do not defend God's word, but testify to it. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity." Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Love, Fr. John B.