By Kieran Raval
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, D.C. defended religion’s role in society while speaking at Georgetown University, a Catholic school where the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate has been a debated issue. Earlier this year U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius controversially spoke at Georgetown. And prominent defender of the mandate Sandra Fluke was a law student at Georgetown.
On 13 September 2012, the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center convened a daylong conference to explore “Catholic Perspectives on Religious Liberty.” Religious liberty, of course, remains a critical concern for the Catholic Church in the United States, in the wake of the Health and Human Services contraception mandate. Furthermore, Georgetown’s storied history is very much intertwined with the history of religious liberty in America. Of particular importance was the conference’s keynote speaker: Donald Cardinal Wuerl. As Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl is uniquely positioned to be a counter witness to the many legislative and regulatory threats to the Church and her teachings that originate within the territory of his diocese. As such, Wuerl has taken a great deal of leadership on the religious liberty issue since January.
In his address, the Cardinal wove together an argument for the important place of religious faith within our pluralistic modern society. He noted that at the time of the Founding Fathers, it would have be unthinkable to conceive a society that did not prominently display a robust religiosity in the public square. Thus John Adams could say, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The role of religion in American public life is a deeply embedded tradition, yet that is, of course, under siege by the forces of secularism today.
Cardinal Wuerl emphasized the contributions that religion makes to society. He noted that church and state are home to the same people. Therefore, there is a deep reciprocity and natural linkage between the two within the fabric of society. This is not to say that there is or ought to be a theocracy, but it acknowledges the reality that any clean-cut wall of separation between church and state is simply cannot exist. Religion historically has been a great influence in the public square. Today’s secularists seek to make religion a private, personal affair, rather than a public expression of transcendent truth that brings its claims to bear in the public discourse. We see this kind of thinking in the current attempt to reduce religious freedom to freedom to worship.
Many would point to charitable services as the principal contribution of religion to society. This line of thinking inevitably leads to our present situation: if a religious charity does not fully assent to the magisterium of modern secular liberalism, that charity may lose its government grants and be forced out of the ‘business’ of providing its particular service. If religion is merely another social service agency, what is to say that government cannot take up that same work, sans all of those messy theological and moral claims? We have seen this happen with many Catholic adoption agencies, with Catholic Relief Services’ human trafficking programs, and now the HHS mandate stands to have the same effect on Catholic hospitals and schools.
While the social services rendered by various religious groups are clearly of great benefit to society, Cardinal Wuerl made the salient point that religion’s principal contribution to society is the moral force it brings to bear on the conduct of citizens. In this sense, religion is the “conscience of society.” As such, religious faith serves to pull together the threads of natural law principles such that there exists a certain moral foundation, consensus, and even vocabulary within society. This extraction and elevation of natural law ethical principles is critical in the formation of a public morality and public conscience. The state cannot perform this function. In the interest of avoiding Erastianism, it should be noted that this role of religion in society is not merely a functional service for the state; rather it is a good in itself. Religion principally exists to shape the souls of citizens, even before its soup kitchens feed those same citizens’ bodies.
At a time when many in the Catholic Church are confused about the nature of the Church vis-à-vis her social teaching, Wuerl’s emphasis on the spiritual mission of the Church in society was critical. It is always worth reiterating that the Church exists firstly for the salvation of souls, lest the Church become mired in the suffocating materialism of liberation theology. This is not to denigrate the great importance of the Church’s charitable initiatives. It is, however, to say that without a supernatural grounding, the Church-as-mere-charity will ultimately be unable to make a convincing argument for its place in society against the onslaughts of rampant secularism. Without a transcendent reason for its existence, religion loses its reason for engaging in charitable works and it becomes reduced to mere do-goodery that can be easily dismissed by the wave of the increasingly powerful bureaucratic hand.
With all of that said, there was a more profound significance to the Cardinal’s remarks at this particular conference on religious liberty at Georgetown. Recall that in May, Georgetown brought HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius to campus as the speaker at a tropaia awards ceremony for graduate students. This was nothing short of a complete slap in the face to the Church and her bishops who had been fighting Sebelius’ contraception mandate for the past year. The ensuing firestorm of criticism included this scathing editorial in Cardinal Wuerl’s own diocesan paper and this statement from the Archdiocese of Washington.
Thursday’s conference seems to indicate that Georgetown has gotten the message that, instead of actively undermining the Church’s efforts to defend religious liberty, the nation’s oldest Catholic university needs to be taking an active role in this critical effort. In this regard, Georgetown is very much behind institutions like Notre Dame and Catholic University. Yet, with initiatives like the Religious Freedom Project, and with its history, location, and high caliber of scholarship, Georgetown is uniquely positioned to chart a different course. One hopes that Georgetown takes Cardinal Wuerl’s message to heart and positions itself to be a key part of the religious leaven in society bearing witness to the Gospel, existing in solidarity with the universal church, and forming the next generation of moral citizens. The Church and our society need as much.
[9/21 Update: Georgetown's Berkley Center released video from the Cardinal Weurl's address.]