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Archbishop: Religion matters because we’d be a mess without it

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., waves to school children after he and Pope Francis arrived at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington, D.C., after giving an address to a joint meeting of Congress in 2015.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., waves to school children after he and Pope Francis arrived at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington, D.C., after giving an address to a joint meeting of Congress in 2015. Associated Press

A number of years ago I was invited to speak at a conference at Harvard University. At the conclusion of my presentation an attendee asked: “What do you people think you bring to our society?”

The reference to “you people” was to the front row of the audience, which was made up of representatives of a variety of religious traditions, all of whom were in their appropriate identifiable robes.

I answered with questions of my own: “What do you think the world would be like if it were not for the voices of all of those religious traditions represented in the hall? What would it be like if we did not hear voices in the midst of the community saying, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness? What would our culture be like had we not heard religious imperatives such as love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do to you? How much more harsh would our land be if we did not grow up hearing, blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers? What would the world be like had we never been reminded that someday we will have to answer to God for our actions?”

And even though recently challenged, religious faith and its moral perspective are not only still valid but essential aspects of a truly good and just society.

To his credit, the man who asked the question smiled and said, “It would be a mess!” I find that today, many Americans I come across have the same question as that gentleman at Harvard.

What religious faith and what the Catholic Church specifically bring to the public square are what they have always brought: a recognition of the spiritual dimension of human life and our relationship with God; a way of life that follows on the recognition of who Jesus is and his way of life, and an ethical and moral frame of reference that guides our personal and collective decisions.

Historic fabric

Faith, with its ethical and moral imperatives, has historically always been part of the fabric of our nation’s culture and social structure. And even though recently challenged, religious faith and its moral perspective are not only still valid but essential aspects of a truly good and just society.

George Washington in his Farewell Address spoke of the necessary and vital part religion must play in the well-being of the nation. “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principles,” he said. Without some transcendent and objective reference point that binds all of us, moral value is reduced to subjective personal opinion and a simple majority of voters.

One example of the need for a deep appreciation of the limits of human action today is found in the debate around the life issues. If the starting point in making decisions on who lives and who dies is the human political process — or the arbitrariness of power — then all human life becomes vulnerable. It is essential that we continue in the ancient and always relevant understanding that human life does not originate with us but is a gift that we receive, nurture, enhance, help to flourish and at every stage respect. The increased technological ability to manipulate elements of human life from genetic engineering to what is euphemistically now referred to as “facilitating the conclusion of the life process” tempts much in our modern culture to transfer authorship and authority over all life to ourselves and our collective decisions.

Our thesis is that the place of religion and religious conviction in public life is precisely to sustain those values that make possible the common good that is more than just temporary political expediency, and thereby keep life from becoming a mess. Without a value system rooted in morality and ethical integrity, there is the very real danger that human choices will be motivated solely by personal convenience and gain. Law can become a matter of might — who has more power — rather than right, that is, what we know we ought to do.

Objective reality

The recognition that there is an objective reality against which our judgments and legislative decisions must be measured and to which they must confirm is not an imposition of moral judgment, but a recognition of reality, which we as human beings did not create and cannot recreate. To speak out against racial discrimination, social injustice or threats to the dignity of human life is not to force values upon our society but rather to call it to its own legacy of long accepted, moral principles and commitment to defend basic human rights.

The conviction that we are a free people who recognize the sovereignty of God and God’s law in our personal and societal life has long been a cornerstone of the American experience. It finds expression in a whole series of documents from the first settlements to our nation’s founding, including our deep-seated conviction that there are self-evident truths and that we have inalienable rights from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”

When we stand up today in the public arena and the courts for the identity, integrity and freedom of religious ministries, we do so not to protect a narrow privilege, but to uphold American constitutional guarantees and to protect our right and duty as people of faith to serve “the least of these,” and contribute to the deepest good of humanity.

For example, in the midst of ideological combat and polarized politics, Catholic Social Thought — which is grounded in concern for the dignity of the human person and the common good, including authentic human freedom and justice — makes connections and builds bridges. These principles offer a vision of human flourishing that begins with who we are and how we care for others, rather than what we have and how we advance our own interests.

Religion and Gospel values are not optional extras in the effort to build the common good, but essential. Science and technology have brought mankind enormous progress, but science and technology by themselves will not save us. At the heart of the contribution of the Church to the public square and therefore public policy is the recognition that it is not by bread alone that we live.

In simple words, Pope Francis has written, “An authentic faith — which is never comfortable or completely personal — always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.”

This is another way of describing what Christian faith brings to the common human endeavor and how it can shape both culture and policy to promote human flourishing. To make this world a better place and create a society that is truly good and just — this is a task we share and a duty we have as both believers and citizens.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

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