The church will not remain silent in public square

| Jason Adkins | June 22, 2011 | 5 Comments

The following column is provided by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which advocates on behalf of the state’s bishops for public policies and programs that support the life and dignity of every human person.

We hear it in various forms. Some complain that the church should not be speaking out on divisive issues, but in­stead should spend its time and resources feeding the poor and spreading God’s love.

Others say the church as a religious organization should have no role in the formation of civil laws. Still others complain that the church should not be weighing in on so many issues where there seems to be legitimate room for disagreement.

So, what is the role of the church in public policy debates?

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it well:  The church “is not the master, nor the servant, of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

Catholics, individually and as a community, have a religious obligation to speak out on behalf of human dignity and the common good. We are our brother’s keeper and must seek to promote laws that foster justice and human flourishing.

Proposing, not imposing

That same responsibility compelled Rev. King, a Baptist minister, to work for civil rights. And today we all celebrate his witness, which relied heavily on the truths of the Bible, natural law and the founding principles of the American republic.

But aren’t we forcing our opinions on others? Absolutely not. The church can only propose; she never imposes. The church must convince others of the reasonableness of her views and make arguments that are persuasive to people of diverse faiths and people outside the various religious traditions.

Fortunately, we know all truth is one, because it originates in the logos of God. The truths of reason complement and reinforce the truths we know from faith and vice versa. Thus, Catholics are ideally situated to bring an effective Christian witness into the realm of politics.

Unfortunately, the well-worn and thoroughly discredited view that Catholic participation in politics somehow violates the “separation of church and state” continues to gain adherents, and even more so these days when the failings of the church’s members are all too visible.

But Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor (not found in the Constitution) was meant to ensure that the state would not interfere in the life and mission of the nation’s churches, not to silence religious people from speaking about public affairs.  In other words, the First Amendment protects religious people from government, not government from religious people.

Speaking out

Visit http://www.mncc.org and click on the box on the right side of the page that says “Join MNCAN” to access the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s advocacy network. Once there, you can navigate to “Elected Officials” to find contact information for your lawmakers or navigate to “Issues & Legislation” to access current MCC action alerts.

The ‘naked public square’

Banishing religious voices would result in what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus described as the “naked public square.” By that phrase, Father Neuhaus was describing a world in which religion was completely privatized.

Imposing the “naked public square,” however, would deprive this land of the public moral witness and social capital the framers of our Constitution believed was necessary to sustain the American experiment in ordered liberty.

That experiment was tied to the recognition that all persons are created equal and endowed by a Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thus, the political deliberations of our representative democracy must be grounded in “self-evident truths” reflective of a respect for the universal moral law built into the fabric of nature by the Creator or — as the Declaration of Independence says — “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”

Promoting dignity, justice

As good citizens and people of faith, the church must remind American society of the universal moral law upon which its foundations were laid so as to promote human dignity, justice and the common good.

It must do so even when those truths are unpopular. Our voice of conscience will result in many complaints that we are supposedly infringing on others’ rights and violating the unspoken social compact that we keep our theology to ourselves.

It may even require the church to suffer.  But our responsibility to animate the body politic with the soul of moral truth compels us to speak.

We will not remain silent.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena, Spotlight

  • Dknbob94

    While the Bishops are always vocal on subject matters that are safe Catholic matter, e.g. abortion, and same sex marriage, I find their silence in other areas, like the attack of the GOP on the Unions, the cutting of medical benefits to the poor and the vulnerable, and, the stalemate in the budget talks between the MN GOP and Governor Dayton, deafening! Once I was so proud to be a Roman Catholic because my bishops actually stood up for the Church’s Social Justice Teachings in the public square. Of course, these were the days when Archbishop Roach was head of the NCCB. Archbishop Roach was a strong advocate for the poor as were many of the bishops then. It seems in the past 20 years that either the Bishops are ashamed of the Social Justice Teachings, or afraid that in speaking out the financial support of the Church from wealthy patrons may dry up. I believe that the teaching authority of the Bishops will be taken more seriously by all the faithful and those outside the Roman Catholic Church, if they once more begin to show some strong teaching in this area.

  • Joebagofdonuts

    The previous comment is, to put it charitably, not in any way tethered to reality.  Archbishop Nienstedt had a column on the budget a few weeks ago, and sent a letter to the Governor and legislative leaders concerning human services spending and the moral measure of a budget that has gotten quite a bit of media attention.  Those are just two very recent examples of an episcopate deeply attuned to the full range of issues.  A quick look at the MCC website reflects this same reality. 

    Sometimes we hear or see only what we want to so that the facts don’t undermine our prejudices.   

  • Joebagofdonuts

    The previous comment is, to put it charitably, not in any way tethered to reality.  Archbishop Nienstedt had a column on the budget a few weeks ago, and sent a letter to the Governor and legislative leaders concerning human services spending and the moral measure of a budget that has gotten quite a bit of media attention.  Those are just two very recent examples of an episcopate deeply attuned to the full range of issues.  A quick look at the MCC website reflects this same reality. 

    Sometimes we hear or see only what we want to so that the facts don’t undermine our prejudices.   

  • Guest

    The biggest issue many Catholics have is that it seems that the Bishops are in cahoots with the Democrats way of doing things on every issue but the right to life from conception to natural death.   There is no merits received for paying taxes and “forced” charity, only in truly giving do we receive those merits.  So the Church either needs to keep to reminding us to take care of the least of these as an individual or collective act done by free will [not taxes] or develop some kind of theology of taxation that can be squared with Scripture.

  • Mary

    Jesus never called for a Roman welfare state.  He said we should give our own coat to the person with none, not someone else’s. The letters written by Sen. David Hann and Rep. Keith Downey were polite but firm, and I think Archbishop Nienstedt needs to rethink his letter to Gov. Dayton.  The Archbishop also needs to discover what the root causes of poverty are.  It’s not so much a function of economics as it is of morality or the lack thereof. The seven deadly sins are a big reason for poverty, and the Church has refused to confront them for decades.  Instead her bishops and priests lobby the government for funding and programs that enable people to continue in lifestyles that cause poverty all the while blaming the rich.

    It’s easy to criticize or complain when you aren’t involved in the deliberative process of hammering out a budget in a cash strapped state during a sick economy.  Perhaps the Archbishop should put forth a budget for the State and let us critique it.  He should also know that the taxpayers don’t have money trees growing in their basements.