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The Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, S.T.D.

Archbishop Wuerl

Thursday, March 8, 2007 •  University Club, Washington, D.C.

Archbishop of Washington
Religious Faith and American Political Life

Thank you Tom O’Hara for your gracious words of introduction and for your service as Chair of the Mount Saint Mary’s University Board of Trustees. It is good to be with you and the Mount Saint Mary’s University community. I also want to thank Dr. Thomas Powell for his kind invitation to give this address as part of the Mount Saint Mary’s Presidential Lecture Series.  It is an honor to take part in this distinguished program and I am pleased to speak to the theme “Religious Faith and American Political Life.

For purposes of our discussion, 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 13 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.

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

3. Reclaiming our place in the public forum: Several indications of the challenges we face as we exercise our responsibilities in the Church and in the wider community.


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 400 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.

And just a few years later as Catholics seeking religious freedom arrived in what is now Maryland, Mass was celebrated and God’s blessing invoked upon this new experiment in living in a community that recognized both personal freedom and God’s law as a norm for life. In 1634, the first parish was established in what became the capital of the colony of Maryland, Saint Mary’s City. Its early history is a record of religious freedom, tolerance and the inspiration that faith brings to the establishment of public policy and a common good.

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 13 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.

This conviction has long been a cornerstone of the American experience. It finds expression in our deep-seated conviction that we have inalienable rights from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”

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.


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 on 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.

In November 1986, the plenary assembly of the United States Catholic Bishops approved a pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the United States economy entitled Economic Justice for All. It, too, brought the force of moral authority to an area too often driven by other motivation. The list could go on.

The just war doctrine was foundational in the national debate involving our military intervention in Iraq. Today debate over a number of moral questions continues to be rooted in natural law ethics and Christian theology: embryonic stem cell research, partial birth abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and migration involving Asian, Pacific Rim and Latin American people.

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 all persons have an innate human dignity and the rights that accompany it.

We must also remember that this was the time of freewheeling capitalism that had a theological justification rooted in the teaching of many reform Churches. There was a counter theology–contrary to Catholic teaching–that proclaimed that wealth was a sign of divine predilection and that the condition of many workers was predestined in God’s plan.

Today the challenge is from another source–secularism. The assumption of the "secular" model of society as the only acceptable way of addressing life colors much of our media presentation and sets the tone for the discussion of most issues of true significance. Precisely because of this, I submit that we need to look again at the place of religion and Gospel values in our efforts to build the common good.

Pope John Paul II, in a series of encyclicals points out how the Church continues to bring significant moral, ethical and social insights to public policy. In Laborem Exercens on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1981, we find a continuation of the Catholic social teaching. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1987 on the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio of Paul VI offers additional insights on the social order. And a succession of encyclicals Centesimus Annus in 1991 on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Veritatis Splendor in 1993 on the fundamental truths of the Church’s moral teaching, Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, 1995, on the value and inviolability of human life and Fides et Ratio in 1998, on the reasonableness of faith and compatibility of faith and reason.

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical God is Love reminds all of us of the Church’s constant teaching that our obligations are to love God and because of that to love our neighbor as well.

We cannot divide personal morality and ethics from political life any more than we can separate spiritual values from human values. It is an unnatural and unhealthy condition for the individual and society so to compartmentalize our most firmly held convictions that they are not allowed to affect our public lives. Such a schizophrenic approach to life is, at best, unhealthy. Closer to the truth–it brings devastation to the person and to society.

Increasingly, there is a realization in our country that secular humanism is not able to provide the moral guidance we as society so desperately need. Technology and science can provide us the ability to do many wonderful things. They have, in fact, extended far beyond the dreams of even a generation ago our capacity to accomplish things. But what human technology and science cannot answer is “ought we to do everything we can do?” The question this generation faces is reduced to a simple but highly sophisticated one: Is what we can do, always what we ought to do?


I believe that the current effort to bleach out God from our public life is wrong for a number of reasons. First, the secular view of life being imposed on a diverse pluralistic society does not reflect reality. The recently espoused and increasingly imposed secular view of separation of God from public life does all of us a disservice because it is not reflective of the actual situation in which people live and institutions thrive.

Secondly, the vision of a society without reference to God is artificial.  The new vision of the public forum without reference to God is completely artificial.  Much like we saw in the imposed dictates of centrally planned economies in other parts of the world, the results are disastrous.  The Berlin Wall came down because you cannot forever force people to live in an artificial world no matter how many laws are passed, court decrees are issued or threats made backed up with force.

Personally, I remain optimistic.  Where each of us plays a part is in the effort to balance what I suggest is seriously out of kilter. This is done in our own personal, serene, but firm, affirmation that God is a part of our life, public and private.  When enough people say what they believe, eventually it will be heard even at the highest level of our courts.

In order that we might assert the traditional place of faith-based initiatives and the necessary role of a transcendental, moral and ethical reference in our culture, we need a concerted and credible restatement of our position. In summary form, these would include:

1. The recognition of the artificial nature of the secular model for ethical judgment. The secular model without a transcendent norm, that is, a norm of divine origin, against which to measure right and wrong reduces morality ultimately and reductively to a simple head count or question of force.

Every culture has recognized as innate to the human experience the need for a transcendent authority ultimately to sanction right from wrong. The secular model is not capable of giving guidance that is faithful to a correct understanding of human nature.

<2. The need for a clearer articulation of the rationale for our moral and ethical positions, particularly the medical/bioethical decisions that resonate with many who are disposed to accept the teaching of the Church.

It is not enough that we know the correct moral position in dealing with a complex bioethical issue today.  We need to be able to communicate not only at the level of scientific journal and intellectual elite but also at the level of the masses, the participants in the consumer society.

3. The presentation of our theological positions in a convincing manner beginning with our own recognition of the “intrinsic nature” of wholeness–right and wrong– in the face of the relativism of today. We need to speak the truth with clarity and assurance.

While it is impossible to specify the ethical dimension of every scientific development today, nonetheless, we must be clear in the articulation of the basic principles and how we see a specific medical practice or action related to the principle.

4. Church institutions, because they have a significant voice in the articulation of Catholic moral principles, must be prepared to manifest courageously their commitment. Church institutions are instruments of the faith community which sees the living out of the Church’s moral principles as (1) essential to their own mission and as (2) a gift to the wider community. Institutional witness has to have an identity every bit as explicit as personal witness.


Ours is an age of challenge specifically as we speak to our own Catholic identity in an increasingly secular world.  In concluding these remarks, I want to remind us of Pope John Paul II’s challenge in the apostolic exhortation Novo MillennioIneunte: “Duc in altum,” Set Out Into the Deep.

We must never be hesitant, least of all fearful, as we set out into the deep.  This the Church has done for 20 centuries. So it continues today.  What gives us courage is our profound conviction that as we set out into the deep, Christ is with us.

Thank you.

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