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Religious Faith in the Public Forum


Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl

From time to time in my responsibilities as the archbishop of Washington, I have occasion to pass through the rotunda of our nation’s Capitol, where there is a statue representative of the history of each state. When I served as an auxiliary bishop of Seattle, I was always proud of the fact that the statue allotted to Washington state was of Mother Joseph, a Sister of Charity of Providence who was considered one of the pioneers in the formation of the state.

Representing California in the same expanse of space is a statue of Junipero Serra. It is hard to imagine another person who has left such an impact on any state as this quiet, modest, faith-filled Franciscan, whose footsteps left in their wake communities along most of California’s coast. Traveling north from San Diego, through San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles, and onward to Santa Barbara, Guadalupe, San Jose, San Francisco and beyond, it is as if one were reciting the Litany of the Saints. Interwoven into the very geography of California is its religious history and the Catholic faith that played such an important part in both its founding and its spiritual and moral identity. The highway signs do not simply remind us of our faith history; they also proclaim how deeply imbedded the faith is in our culture and in our vision of human dignity, morality and purpose of life.


Not long ago, during a visit to a Catholic high school, a student asked me what exactly it is that the Church brings to our society or, as she put it, “What does the Church bring to me?”

The answer to that question is as significant today as it was when Junipero Serra began his journey in the late 18th century. It is heard when Catholics stand up today to speak in defense of human life and human dignity, and when we extend a hand to immigrants, the less fortunate, the needy and all of those who turn to the Church for the great works of Catholic health care, education, social service and charities. This is how we answer who we are and what we bring.

What the Catholic Church brings to the world, to our society and to each one of us is Jesus Christ, his Gospel, his vision, his way of life and his promise of a world of truth, justice, compassion, kindness, understanding, peace and love. We speak of a good and just society. With the eyes of faith, we see God’s kingdom coming to be among us.

Today, however, we have witnessed a movement in recent years away from the appreciation of the basic religious values that underpin our culture, our society and our laws. In place of the religious values accepted and expressed by a great variety of faith communities, we face today the assertion of the need to substitute a so-called secular frame of reference within which public policy should be articulated. It is as if we were supposed to paint over all of those road signs, erase all of our roots and start over — this time without God.

Among the earliest European colonists to arrive in the New World were the pilgrims who landed on the coast of Massachusetts. Before they ventured to shore to establish what would be for them a new society, they reached an agreement known 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.

They began this first written articulation of a political philosophy in the English Colonies, which has served as a foundation for the American political experience for almost 400 years, with the words, “In the name of God, Amen.” 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 belief into positive civil law, the common good would also exercise a normative function.

We recognize that same vision among the first Catholic colonists who arrived in Maryland in 1634 and set about establishing a civil government based on religious freedom and God’s law, believing them normative elements of a truly good and just society.

This theme is repeated over and over again in a whole series of founding documents, including the Fundamental Orders of 1639, which was an effort at the first written Constitution that set permanent limitations on government power; the Virginia Bill of Rights, authored by Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence in 1776; and the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

We are a free people who recognize the sovereignty of God and God’s law in our personal and societal life. This is a cornerstone of the American experience, and it finds expression in our deep-seated conviction, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that we have inalienable rights from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”

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

Jefferson recognized no distinction between public and private morality. There is little room in his thought for the idea that one can be personally against gravely wrong actions but publicly in favor of them. He wrote in a letter to James Madison, dated Aug. 28, 1789, “I know but one code of morality for all, whether acting singly or collectively.”

Out of all of these many threads, there is woven one common principle: the belief in the binding character of moral law is fundamental to any understanding of American thought. Government must be guided by foundational moral principles. All human government must be limited.

The understanding that God’s law is at work and discernable through our rational nature and human reason also finds resonance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which speaks not only of the foundational nature of the natural moral law, but also describes the commandments themselves as privileged expressions of the natural law.


We have become accustomed over centuries to the voice of the Church as the voice of conscience. Today, that voice is challenged in so many matters: abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, immigration reform and so many other issues that touch on the common good. This explains the Church’s defense of family, marriage and human rights.

As believers, we look to our faith. We are both citizens of the nation and members of the Church. We should look to our most deeply held convictions when we address matters that affect our nation’s activities at home or abroad.

Our choices in the political arena must be conscientious ones. As Catholics, we also look to our Church for guidance that can only come from God. Christ promised that he would not leave us orphans. He established the Church as his new body so that he would remain present with us, and he sent the gift of the Spirit, who guides us and reminds us of all he taught. As members of Christ’s Church, we look to her teaching — guided by the Holy Spirit — to help form our conscience. The bishops are not just one more voice; they speak with Christ’s authority. Jesus told his Apostles, “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” (Luke 10:16). The bishops, the successors of the Apostles, continue to speak with authority today.

The voice of faith today is still the voice of conscience. It is the echo of God within us. As faithful citizens, we must speak out in defense of Gospel values, our faith heritage; we must proclaim the dignity of each person; and we must insist on the obligation of the state to foster such values. To do this is to give voice to our own identity. We are a people of faith, and faith counts in life.

The secular view of life being imposed on our diverse society does not reflect the reality of a nation made up almost entirely of people of faith. 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.

Indeed, the secular model as the sole model for public political discourse fails us. The secular model is not sufficient to sustain a true reflection of who we are as a people. Every culture in human history that has endured has recognized as innate to the human experience the need for a transcendent authority to sanction and recognize right from wrong.

As we face the challenges of today, we should do so with confidence, hope and enthusiasm. As both believers and citizens, we not only have a right and an obligation to speak to the values that guide our nation, but we do so out of a 2,000-year tradition and with wisdom guided by the Holy Spirit. We share the wisdom and love of God, and we bring something that no one else can to the effort to build a good and just society.

We should be proud of who we are — Christ’s Church. We must be proud of our history, our heritage and our faith. We must be proud of what we bring to today’s world. We bring Jesus Christ. We bring the power of the Holy Spirit, which makes us capable of transforming our circumstances, our community, our lives, into everything that Jesus says we can be, everything he calls us to be.

CARDINAL DONALD W. WUERL is archbishop of Washington. He is a member of The Catholic University of America Council 9542 and the author of Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011).