The Gentile Gallery filled with excited faculty, students and visitors on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. to argue on the topic of the First Amendment and the Catholic view of Church and State in the first Dumb Ox Debate of the semester.
The Gentile Gallery was transformed into a parliamentary chamber as people began to fill the room, many of them in professional attire ready for the much-awaited debate on the motion: “This House believes that the First Amendment undermines the Catholic view of Church and State.”
The debate was not reserved to the well-informed representatives of both the affirming and opposing sides but was opened to audience members who wanted to make a speech.
On the affirming side were William Newton, who holds a doctorate in theology, and Athanasius Sirilla, a sophomore majoring in math and philosophy with honors. The opposing side was composed of Carrie Perham, a senior majoring in international business, and David Willey, a sophomore majoring in humanities and Catholic culture.
Newton gave the first opening statement, saying that the Church “definitively” teaches that the state “ought to recognize her unique mission” of the salvation of all mankind. And while the Church believes that Church and State ought to come together, he said, the First Amendment undermines this belief, therefore undermining Church views.
Sirilla agreed with Newton and added that one of the two empowering pillars of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court, has “directly contradicted and undermined what the Church has said (and taught).”
On the opposing side, Willey argued that, as taught by Thomas Aquinas, the Church should not exercise its authority over a pre-established government in order to not cause scandal. Perham added that “the First Amendment is in line with Catholic value,” as it allows for an economic system that helps the Church to thrive.
When the floor was opened for further debate, Michael Sirilla, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville who holds a doctorate in systematic theology, argued for the house by saying that every government has the “duty to honor God and the Church that Jesus Christ established.”
The opposing side welcomed another audience participant who argued against Sirilla, junior Zachary Mercugliano, who said that having a First Amendment actually does support the Church’s teaching because it allows Catholics to express their religion in government “as individuals” instead of having the government do it for them.
The parliamentary chamber erupted in an energetic roar of excitement when sophomore Clement Harrold took the floor, where he argued on the affirming side by first acknowledging America’s greatness as a country and ending by saying, “Great though it may be, you as Americans must also bear in mind your Catholic identity.”
He went on to argue that it is not the First Amendment that the audience should be focusing on, but the ruling of the Supreme Court on the First Amendment. He concluded his five-minute speech by emphasizing, “by affirming the motion tonight we can all play a part in making America great again.”
The debate ended with closing remarks from both the affirming and opposing sides, and afterward, the audience voted in favor of the affirming side, that in fact, the First Amendment does undermine the Catholic view of Church and State.
The Dumb Ox Debate was hosted by the Veritas Society, which plans to host future debates during this spring semester.