The Catholic Spirit: Church has right, duty to offer witness in public square

By Archbishop John C. Nienstedt

Earlier this month, I prepared the following remarks for 21 Catholic legislators at our State Capitol, engaging them in a dialogue of why the Catholic Church must have a place in the public forum on topics of political and moral consequence:

“My dear legislators, thank you for joining us here this afternoon. Our intention in hosting this forum is to provide both of us an opportunity to understand and, subsequently, to appreciate better the respective roles we share in the public forum.

“Last Wednesday, the StarTribune, which has not always had a favorable opinion of the Catholic Church, ran an article on me. It reported on how I had been called to jury duty here in Ramsey County. It also pointed out how I did not seek to be excused from this duty because of my duties or responsibilities. In fact, it even claimed that I embodied one of the seven heavenly virtues, that of patience, as I sat hour after hour waiting to be called to serve.

“Here, as elsewhere in the political process, there was no appeal on my part to the principle of the separation of church vs. state. As an active, involved citizen, informed by my faith, I chose to do my duty before God and country.

“As Americans, we are grateful to live in a nation that encourages us to engage in public discourse and contribute to policy decisions aimed at serving the common good.  Catholics specifically enjoy a unique heritage and a rich development of teaching with regard to human life, marriage and family, justice and peace, and good stewardship.

“Thus, as both faithful Catholics and faithful citizens, we enjoy the same rights and duties as others in furthering our public efforts. Moreover, the Church and her institutions must be free to fulfill their mission and to collaborate with public authorities without pressure or sacrifice to her fundamental teachings or moral principles.

“Access to the basic necessities of life, adequate health care, gun violence, economic injustice and the recent debate over religious freedom are conversations our sons and daughters are having around every kitchen table.

“Bound by the common destiny we share, obstacles to human flourishing are profoundly challenging to us precisely because they are fundamentally moral matters. Improving social conditions for the family depends upon a greater emphasis on the roles of charity, justice and faithful citizenship. We hope that today’s meeting with you, our elected officials, will help to explain our understanding of the Church’s role in civil affairs.

“The Church is not ours. She belongs to God. Christ, the Savior of mankind, tells us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Charity, the divine virtue of love, consists in loving God above all other things, even if, at times, our devotion to Him pits us against the public opinion of the society in which we live. In and out of season we love our neighbor because we love God, who first loved us. Aspiring to cultivate our neighbor’s happiness is manifest in following the will of God and sanctifying our souls.

“Christ’s self-giving in his sacrifice on the cross reminds us that man does not live ‘by bread alone.’ Material happiness is tempered by our call to care with fervor for the souls of others, to give due regard for the Creator of the Universe and to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his justice,’ over all.

“Recognizing the realities and dangers of sin, the weakness of human nature that is inextricably tied to the root cause of societal and economic imbalances, we as Catholics place our imperfections at the foot of the cross, surrendering our own lives to Christ in prayer, relying on regular access to the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.

“We would be mistaken, however, to imply that the heart of our religious activity stops with our weekly dismissal from Sunday Mass. The Gospel compels us, as a people who hold fast to faith and reason, to bring the essential truths about human life to the public square and to practice charity for the benefit of those who have less.

“God’s love for us is the engine driving Catholic moral and social teachings. Our love of God and neighbor is the motivation behind the Church’s natural obligation to care for society. Her advocacy on behalf of the sick, the marginalized and dispossessed embody the Beatitudes that Jesus so eloquently impressed upon the faithful in the Sermon on the Mount. The social expression of our faith guides the moral character of our involvement in political life with a special responsibility to offer public witness to it.

“It was God who provided his Church with a vision of life consistent with the sacredness of human life and the dignity of all. The modern social teachings of the Church, starting with Leo XIII’s encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (On the Condition of Workers) to the recent work of Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (Charity in Truth), definitively testify that social action is part and parcel of the Catholic faith.

“Scripture reminds us we are to ‘render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ The state exercises its authority in fulfilling the purpose of its existence, namely, to remedy the social disorder caused by sin and to secure moral order in temporal affairs. The Church cannot replace the state in its tasks, yet the state cannot absorb the Church’s competence either.

“On the contrary, being careful never to infringe upon the conscience of its citizens, civil authority guarantees religious freedom for its followers and the religious institutions to which they belong.

“Although Church and state may serve different functions, faith and politics meet wherever moral law is applied to life. Most political decisions are moral decisions shaped by our values and principles, our beliefs and outlooks. These determine what we believe policies ought to achieve.  The Church recognizes that reasonable people may disagree on the application of moral principles. Prudence, however, requires us to judge principles correctly; this is ‘right reason applied to practice.’

“Therefore, moral decisions must be linked to truth. Our Founding Fathers envisioned the inclusion of moral reasoning and moral convictions in public discourse without disenfranchising the source of those convictions, which is truth.

“Freedom, likewise, cannot be understood apart from truth. Ignoring who man is or his relationship to God or neighbor cannot be justified in light of the moral order or the teaching of Christian faith. The common good cannot be served by materialism or an extreme individualism that gives way to license. Freedom beyond the confines of the true moral order strikes at the dignity of the human person.

“When human self-worth is disregarded in one area, it loses significance in every other, and recourse to freedom is then used to justify any behavior, whether it be social, economic or political. Hence, we cannot demand a greater support for the material needs of the family while closing our eyes to the social agenda that weakens marriage and family life.

“In 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document on the political responsibility of Catholics. ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship’ represents the teaching of our bishops’ conference and our guidance for Catholics in the exercise of their rights and duties as participants in the democratic process. This document shines a light on the importance of forming our consciences according to objective truths rather than following misguided appeals that seek to advance solely ideological interests.

“For Catholics, civic responsibility is both a virtue and a moral obligation. We must oppose intrinsic evils, which can never be justified, as well as other concerns, which require action in the pursuit of justice and the promotion of the common good. These include the right and duty ‘to voice just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.’

“As bishops, our fidelity to the welfare of society prevents us from remaining on the sidelines. Our accountability to God requires that we, through rational discourse, lend our influence toward achieving the requirements of justice, reviving the sacrificial demands from which justice can prevail and, therefore, the strengthening of human life.

“We firmly remind our public officials that social injustices cannot be fought while ignoring, or worse, perpetrating, other kinds of human injustice. On matters that upset human ecology, our faith counters with a rational perspective that links our commitment to a just, humane and prosperous society based upon an inner logic of humanity’s existence and eternal purpose.

“The holistic teachings of the Catholic faith challenge us to respect life, from the moment of conception until natural death. The Church serves the hungry and provides shelter to those in need while also condemning the destruction of human life in the name of research.

“Our Catholic hospitals provide medical care regardless of a person’s ability to pay. We ask the faithful to open the gate to their hearts, to welcome the stranger in our midst, and advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. We challenge private and public institutions to protect the environment for future generations, and encourage families and community groups to help solve the social justice issues of our times.

“We counsel and care for the defenseless, the victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, but do not fail to point out how these tragedies are triggered by our social obsession with promiscuous sex as well as the evil of pornography.

“We urge harmony between capital and labor, and encourage political decisions that pursue living wages, just working conditions and greater participation in the economy.

“We recognize the reality of God’s revelation to us, the clarity of the nature of marriage between one man and one woman, the right that children have to a mother and a father, and we champion their rights above the interests and desires of adults.

“We defend religious institutions, like Catholic colleges and hospitals, and we champion such Christian institutions against violating their consciences by being forced to cooperate with that which they believe to be immoral.

“We need a conversation on how the good conforms to human reason and ­human dignity, so that our society will not continue to overlook the consequences of these principles or that our laws will perpetually lack substance or meaning.

“There is no realm of worldly affairs that can be withdrawn from the Creator and his dominion. We believe we have an obligation to teach the morals that shape the lives of every man, woman and child as given to us by Jesus Christ. The witness of the Church, therefore, is found in her public nature, and her proposed rational arguments to shape policy decisions is a working model of the right of individual believers and religious bodies to participate and speak out without government interference, favoritism or discrimination.

“We urge the public and their representatives to consider carefully that ideas have consequences for future generations. What we do today impacts the world of tomorrow.”

God bless you!

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