The Catholic University of America


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School of Theology and Religious Studies

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

4:30 p.m.




Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, S.T.D.

Archbishop of Washington


Cardinal William Baum University Professor of Theology

at The Catholic University of America

It is an honor and great pleasure for me to be invited to give the lecture in honor of the late Cardinal John Dearden sponsored by the School of Theology and Religious Studies and to speak on the theme, "The Role of Religion in a Pluralistic Society: Religious Faith and Public Policy."

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity and privilege of speaking at the Canon Law Society of America Convention in Costa Mesa, California. I could not help but notice, when looking at the map of California, that the names of cities and communities from San Diego all the way north to beyond San Francisco read more like a litany of saints than anything else. What those names and what those early missions, dating from Blessed Junipero Serra, vividly proclaim is how embedded into the culture of our country is Christian faith and in that particular instance, our Catholic faith.

For purposes of our discussion of the place of religious conviction in public policy in the United States we will begin with a focus on the religious and political traditions of what is now the eastern part of the United States. While it is true that portions of our country were colonized by Europeans, mainly from Spain, long before the arrival of those from England and portions of northern Europe, nonetheless the enduring impact on the political structures that we recognize today derives from the political philosophy experienced in much of the original thirteen colonies with antecedence in English Common Law and political theory.

To explore the developments in the relationship of faith and public policy I want to begin with a recognition that in recent years we have witnessed a movement in some public opinion fora away from an appreciation of the basic religious values that underpin our laws - religious values accepted and expressed by a great variety of faith communities - to the assertion of the need to substitute a so-called secular frame of reference within which public policy should be articulated.

For example, until very recently in our public civil life mention of God was taken for granted and prayer inspired by belief in God was a routine part of public, government sponsored, programs and activities. What was expected of the one offering the prayer was that it be generic enough so as not to exclude the specific denominational sensitivities of the vast majority of those present. Hence, one did not use a formula of prayer that clearly spoke to only one religious tradition.

The current non-acceptability of reference in public civil life to any religious point of transcendence has become a matter of preoccupation precisely because in the foundation and unfolding of our way of life it has always been assumed that good public policy - that results in a good and just society and in virtuous citizens - ultimately must have some religious antecedence. The religious foundational reference point validates the claims of the society to bind its citizens to a specific way of living. In short, without some transcendent reference point that binds all of us, moral value is reduced to personal opinion and a simple majority of voters.

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. 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 - what we know we ought to do.

Our society is a free one because people having different value systems can express their preferences. Differing opinions are not a threat to a healthy human society, nor to the political process based on a desire for a common good.

It is also our contention that the exclusion from public life, policy and law of values held by a significant segment of the society is a serious threat to the well-being - the common good - of a pluralistic society.

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 long-accepted moral principles and commitment to defend basic human rights. The fact that these long-accepted moral principles are also proclaimed by the religious faith of the majority of people in the country should be seen as a blessing rather than as cause for concern.

As we explore the role of religious conviction in a pluralistic society I will touch briefly on the following points:

1. The experience of religion and its place in the formulation of public policy in the history of the United States;

2. The normative role of the natural moral law in the formulation of positive civil law;

3. Religious faith is the conscience of society. The struggle for social justice, an example of the impact religious conviction can have in recasting public policy;

4. The shift today towards a so-called secular value system to replace the traditional faith-based one, and

5. Is this the time for our Catholic contribution to such public national debate to find an appropriate voice on campuses of Catholic institutions of higher learning?


Among the earliest European colonists to arrive in what is now the northeastern United States were the pilgrims who landed on the coast of Massachusetts. Before they left the small ship, the Mayflower, and ventured to shore to establish what would be for them a new experience in living, they reached an agreement known historically as the Mayflower Compact. In 1620 these intrepid women and men seeking a life of freedom determined that they would recognize two principles by which their freedom would be guided: the law of God and the common good.

"In the name of God amen" they began this first written articulation of a political philosophy in the English Colonies that has served as an underpinning for the American political experience for over four hundred years. At the heart of this formula is the understanding that God and God's law - however it is known - is normative for human action and that in the application of that basic principle and its translation into positive civil law the common good would also exercise a normative function.

In a whole series of documents from The Fundamental Orders in 1639 which was an effort at the first written Constitution that set permanent limitations on government power and the Virginia Bill of Rights authored by Thomas Jefferson through the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 which guaranteed the inhabitants of that territory the same rights and privileges that the citizens of the thirteen states enjoyed through the many colonial charters to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and our own United States Constitution in 1787 this theme is repeated over and over again. We are a free people who recognize the sovereignty of God and God's law in our personal and societal life.

Thomas Jefferson stated that the ideals and ideas which he set forth in the Declaration of Independence were not original with him, but were the common opinion of his day. In a letter to Henry Lee, dated May 8, 1825, Jefferson writes that the Declaration is "intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give that expression proper tone and spirit."

One is struck by how comfortable the framers of the foundational documents for the United States were with the recognition of their relationship with God as an integral part of their personal and political experience and the existence and role of a natural moral order that necessarily made an impact on and was normative for civil law. This brings us to our second point.


Jefferson took no particular pride of authorship in recognizing as the norm of political life the "Law of Nature and Nature's God." The political thinking of the colonists at the time of the American Revolution was to a great extent colored, shaped and formed by the writings of the traditional political philosophers but also by the ideas prevalent in British political philosophy represented by John Locke.

The whole concept of moral law held a pre-eminent place in the thought of pre-Revolutionary thinkers, preachers and politicians. It was recognized that at the foundation of all law was God's immutable, natural law.

The expression of the natural law in terms of God's law, articulated in this world through our rational nature, is similar to the scholastic position on natural law. It also finds resonance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which speaks not only of the foundational nature of the natural moral law but speaks of the commandments themselves as privileged expressions of the natural law.

Besides the influence of the clergy, the system of colonial colleges was another factor in instilling young America with a sound and abiding view of the traditional doctrine of the natural law. The American system of colleges dates back to the birth of the colonies themselves, with the foundation of Harvard in 1636 following by six years that of the colony of Massachusetts Bay. It is in these colleges that the tradition of scholastic philosophy was carried on and imparted to the young colonists.

James Walsh in his classic work the Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic published in 1935 makes a solid case that among the elements of fundamental studies developed throughout the American colonies included the study of law both natural moral and civil.

But it was John Locke who had the greatest influence on the political thinking of the American colonists. His doctrines concerning the origin of the state, the function of government and the natural law were all commonplace with the colonial thinkers.

My purpose in the citation of documentation that influenced the founding of the United States as a separate and independent nation is to highlight how much at ease American citizens have been for centuries in recognizing the vital role of religious faith in our public life. At the same time we value the pluralism of the expression of religious faith, the protection of society from the hegemony of any one religious faith or church, and the acceptability of a recognized moral order that anteceded positive law, and determined its boundaries.

This vision of the relationship of a divinely established natural moral order to public policy was not universally shared and certainly was not without challenge. German philosophical idealism and the positivism of Auguste Comte play a significant role in the unfolding of the political reflections of many 18th and 19th century scholars and politicians.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, is often credited with changing the focus of American civil law and its interpretation. It is recognized that a great deal of the emphasis today on the autonomy of civil law and its detachment from a frame of reference beyond the mind of the civil law giver dates from that period of American jurisprudence that found little difficulty in severing the bonds that tied positive law to a common natural moral order.

It would be years before we would see play out in our lives what currently plagues the American political scene: the assertion that separation of church and state means separation of God from all public political life. What was initially understood as a safeguard to protect the religious freedom of all faith communities has come to be interpreted as a mandate to exclude all public mention of God.

Before turning to review the current situation where the principle of separation of church and state has for all practical purposes become separation of God from the public life of citizens I want to touch on the role that religious faith plays as the conscience of our society. The history of the struggle for social justice in the United States is inexorably interwoven with the development of Catholic social teaching and the ability of that teaching to form public policy.


We have become accustomed over centuries to the voice of the Church and faith communities as the voice of conscience. The discussion and national debate surrounding the development and publication of the pastoral letter on war and peace May 3, 1983, by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is one example. The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response called the whole nation, whatever the religious conviction of individual citizens, to address some particularly complex issues including the development, deployment and use of nuclear weapons.

Today the current debate over a range of issues including embryonic stem cell research, partial birth abortion, physician assisted suicide and immigration reform legislation is framed in moral principles rooted in Christian theology.

Where the impact of well articulated faith based principles most evidently helped to form public policy in the United States is in the area of labor relations, working conditions and the attendant social justice issues

Catholic social teaching has traditionally marked as a milestone the publication of the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. This was the first focused and concentrated articulation of the Church's understanding of the dignity of workers and their rights. It also provided a rationale for explaining the worth of labor itself - not that this was completely new. Over many centuries, commentators on the Book of Genesis expounded on the importance of human work and its place in God's plan.

The reason Rerum Novarum is highlighted so regularly is because it was the beginning of a long series of papal encyclicals and statements constantly developing the theme that work is an integral part of the human experience and workers have an innate human dignity and the rights that accompany it.

Today we look back aghast at what was the cultural climate that permitted the exploitation of workers or the slavery of peoples. I suspect that someday future generations will look at our age equally appalled that under the banner of "choice" we have witnessed the justification of incredibly evil acts. When we look at the Church's social teaching and the papal encyclicals in which it finds articulation we can not only take great comfort in the leadership that the Church provided but also draw courage to support that same teaching office as it faces equally grave injustices today.

There has always been to some extent an outcry in the political and economic world rejecting the social doctrine of the Church on the grounds that the Church, when it entered into the world of labor, economics, business, and the social order, was a better mother than teacher. The years had passed since Rerum Novarum but the oppositional refrain was pretty much the same: "separation of church and economics" or "separation of social and moral teaching from business."

Against the backdrop of the development of social justice awareness and the significant role of religious faith in promoting such an enlightenment it is surprising to see how quickly and dramatically a shift has taken place that substitutes a secular vision of life for the traditional faith inclusive one.


In the arcane arena of legal interpretation at the level of the United States Supreme Court nothing has so marked the new mentality than a series of decisions that have progressively eroded the First Amendment protection of the right to free exercise of religion.

Scholars point out that what established the foothold for what was once recognized as an extremist view of the "separation of church and state" was the debate, many years ago over an issue that is surfacing again today, whether Catholic schools would receive public funding. That issue, then as now, was the question of whether or not monies paid by all citizen tax payers should follow the children of those citizen tax payers to the school of choice or whether education should be a government-run monopoly.

In Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press, 2002) Philip Hamburger traces the widespread anti-Catholicism sentiment of 19th century America that would provide the fuel for the extremist position on separation of church and state, a separation never mandated or intended by the Constitutional framers.

Hamburger's is a masterful work. Essentially his thesis - one with which we can readily agree - is this: There is no understanding of a constitutional intent to separate Church and State in the manner it has come to be interpreted for many years in America. It was a general consensus, in fact, that the State would accommodate Church as it was inconceivable that a democratic society could function without the support of religion. The intent of the First Amendment was to guarantee that the State - or a state - would not impose a specific faith on individuals and snuff out the rights of religious "dissenters" which were those Protestant sects that dissented from the established churches.

The new interpretation enshrined in a number of court decisions has had a dramatically chilling effect on religious expression in the public square. Bureaucrats in public institutions, fearful of threats and lawsuits from the guardians of the new secular vision of our society, began a virtual purge of faith-based speech and expression.

Accommodation to diverse relig