The reasonable gap between worship, citizenship

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The marquee of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars announced the passing of a member. He was a parishioner whose Mass of Resurrection we scheduled, knowing that fellow vets and their families of all faiths would attend in good numbers. Since it was to be a cremation, the family requested that the flag be placed on his casket during Mass. Sure enough, a large turnout came. But they were surprised to see the white pall covering the casket: it is not permitted to drape the flag over the remains of the deceased or to stand it in the sanctuary of church.

Church directives mandate this, even though many Catholics do not know it. Worldwide the church holds to this since history teaches what happens when church and state are not sufficiently separate. When the Roman empire collapsed in 476, civil authority fell by default to bishops in their respective See cities. For the sake of order, bishops merely continued the many civil practices that they inherited, such as awarding divorces to people who claimed their marriage had failed. While bishops and other Christians lamented the inevitable number of break-ups, their humane way of dealing with it was having the partners civilly divorce and perhaps start over with new partners.

It was not until the 1274 Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons in southern France that marriage was declared one of the seven official sacraments, at which point the council fathers acknowledged that they could not continue church divorces. So canonists proposed the new policy of annulling failed marriages if the husband or wife could produce grounds acceptable to a tribunal. We still do this today. But the very name for the merging of church and civic realms tells of the seamy side of such an alliance: caesaro-papism. And it did not help that, since 750, the pope was a de-facto king of what came to be called the Papal States, several thousand square miles of central and northern Italy, which had all the trappings of any other European kingdom: standing army, tax collection system, cabinet positions — and the contest of powerful families like the Borgias and the Medicis to put their man on the papal throne. One can understand the abuses that followed.

When Giuseppe Garibaldi and his followers in the 1860s fought to unite Italy, which had been a peninsula of separate provinces, he seized the Papal States. Catholics were astounded. Pope Pius IX excommunicated him and many with him. The New York Times editorialized that the Roman Catholic Church had died, bereft of its historic terrestrial glory, vestiges of which we saw when popes were carried aloft in a sedan chair for the throngs to see, exactly as other European royalty did.

So we learned the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson’s gap between worship and citizenship. It has not been easy, such as with Catholics seeking in vain to get state money for our parochial schools. But far better than having, as do England and Spain, an established church — the Anglican in the first case and the Catholic Church in the second. Citizens not belonging to the established church usually suffer.

Which brings us back to the parish funeral of a distinguished Air Force parishioner. Rome wants it to be clear that the church does not endorse all the policies and decisions of any civil state. Certainly it teaches its members to practice the virtue of patriotism and to shun the vice of nationalism, the counterfeit facsimile of the real thing, which urges citizens to bless and promote wrong or outright evil laws. If only the German Catholic Church had been more vocal in its rejection of the Third Reich.

An American flag on a casket or in the sanctuary could easily suggest that the church endorses the law of the land made possible by Roe vs. Wade: abortion on demand. It could lull someone into thinking we Catholics support an unjust war being waged by our government, which is not endowed with infallibility. It could persuade members that enslaving kidnapped Africans, not outlawed until 620,000 American military had died in our Civil War, was agreeable to us Catholics.

I went to the VFW hall for the post-Mass luncheon expecting a minefield. Vets and their wives demanded to know why I disallowed a fine and noble custom, often seen even in Catholic cemeteries. Before leaving, I thanked each vet at my table for his service to his and my country.