book cover imageOn the Road to Emmaus: The Catholic Dialogue with America and Modernity
by Glenn W. Olsen.
The Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
303 pp., $70.

The Gospel account of the disciples meeting Christ on the road to Emmaus has long been understood as a metaphor for the Christian’s life on earth: a pilgrimage to understand the meaning of Christ’s rising from the dead. Glenn Olsen explores that meaning in the context of the complex relationship between the Church and the American state. In doing so, he offers a fresh way of looking at such issues as the recent Department of Health and Human Services insurance mandate.

Olsen offers a qualified objection to the view, held by some Catholics, that the current American arrangement, including the separation of church and state, is the best form of government to preserve the Church’s incarnational theology. Relying on such thinkers as Alexis de Tocqueville, Pope John Paul II, and Henri de Lubac, Olsen states that the Catholic view of freedom, derived from St. Augustine, is “to give up one’s own will in favor of God’s, to adhere to the good, true, and beautiful, rather than doing what one wanted.” This is not the same as secular “freedom,” which implies liberation of the individual from all forms of restraintand authority, even legitimate ones.

Although America has been a refuge for Catholics, it has also been a nation with regular periods of anti-Catholicism. Olsen argue that these periodic attacks of bigotry (sometimes enshrined in law, such as the infamous “Blaine” amendments, which were passed exclusively to prevent public support for Catholic schools) derives from an interpretation of its founding principles that places them at odds with the Catholic understanding of the person and of political society. Given the Church’s insistence that human nature is essentially religious, and that we are formed to seek God, the current secular dogma of “separation of church and state” raises thorny issues, especially in the way the First Amendment has been interpreted. Often, the courts have determined that the First Amendment requires excluding religion from the public sphere, or that religion must bow to secular values. Neither position is entirely consistent with the rich Catholic tradition on the interplay between the secular and religious realms.

Catholics and other Christians are confronted with an increasingly hostile political culture, where the ideals of the First Amendment are being used as a way to restrict religion rather than protect its exercise. Whether he is correct about the ultimate outcome, Olsen explains the intellectual roots of our present condition.  

Gerald J. Russello is Editor of the University Bookman.