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home : from the bishop : from the bishop February 21, 2019

A message from Bishop O'Connell: 'We the People'

Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.

In the United States of America, there is no "state religion." The First Amendment to the Constitution clearly prohibits it. The text of the amendments states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." James Madison's original wording of this text was: "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any matter, or on any pretext, infringed."

These principles do not mean that individual citizens, individual churches or individual religious denominations cannot believe in or practice their faith freely. It means that government in our country cannot claim any particular religion as binding on the entire nation.  We have lived with that understanding since 1791.

In recent years, these principles have been challenged and tested, not by religious people but by the government.  And the reaction of many religious people – and even some atheists for that matter – has been understandably and justifiably negative, not merely regarding the freedom to worship – which has increasingly become a concern – but, rather, regarding their freedom to believe as their faith dictates. Such freedom is one of the reasons that our country was established in the first place. And, at the same time, our citizens also have the right not to believe in any religious faith with the same degree of freedom.

A church or religion defines for itself what its members are expected to believe and practice In order to belong to that church or religion. That is clearly not the business or prerogative of any branch of government. Catholics believe certain things that identify their faith and membership, Protestants believe certain things that differentiate them from Catholics, as do Jews, Muslims and so forth. Atheists do not believe any of it nor are they required to. 

Faith is a grace and gift from God and religion is a choice to act on faith, freely made by women and men.

Catholics have no more right to determine what everyone else must believe than the government has. Once baptized, however, Catholics have the right and the obligation to profess their faith; to witness their faith; to preach, teach and evangelize what their faith proclaims freely. The First Amendment to the Constitution also guarantees freedoms of speech, of press and of assembly in our democratic society.

The Catholic religion includes the authoritative interpretation of Scripture by the Church and the doctrine and morality that flow from it as authoritatively taught by the Church as part of its profession of the Catholic faith. Faith and reason are not the same thing, but the Church teaches that they are allies, not enemies, in the search for truth. Both are operations of the intellect that move and influence the will to act in certain ways or not to act. This is not a new understanding of the relationship of faith and reason, but is as old as the Church itself, even older.

The state is not required to believe or enforce "what" any religion teaches or does, but it is obliged, at least in our country, to provide religion the constitutionally guaranteed freedom and space to believe.  

The state exists in the realm of law; religion, in the realm of faith. Both, however, exist mutually in our democratic country – one human community, which religious people believe was created by God, and even the Founding Fathers considered to be the source of our rights and freedoms. Religion obviously can influence the state, but cannot command it. The state, conversely, facilitates the free exercise of religion, but cannot command it.

Now the Catholic Church, for example, believes and authoritatively teaches its moral code not only as an expression of the Catholic religion, but also as its understanding of what the Church believes constitutes good humanity.  That is why, again for example, the Catholic Church opposes abortion, euthanasia and other assaults on life – not only as violations of Catholic moral/social teaching but also as fundamental violations of what it means to be human. One does not have to be a Catholic to believe and understand that abortion is morally wrong, the ultimate offense against innocent human life. But, one cannot be a faithful Catholic and consider abortion right and permissible or negligible.  

Ours is not a one-issue Church. The same logic holds true for other moral/social teachings of the Catholic Church as well – for example, its moral/social teachings on the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, care of the earth, marriage and sexuality, immigration, poverty, social justice and so forth.

The state can and has enacted legislation that the Catholic Church and other religious people consider immoral. What can and should faithful Catholic citizens, in good conscience, do about that?  First, Catholic citizens should live their faith and religion; that is the first, most important and most effective means of witnessing and demonstrating what the Catholic Church teaches and Catholics believe. Second, faithful Catholic citizens can raise their voices in every available venue to proclaim and affirm their beliefs and values in our democratic, pluralistic country. Third, faithful Catholic citizens can use every legal means at their disposal to advocate publicly for the repeal of laws considered to be immoral. The Catholic pro-life movement in our country is an outstanding example of that advocacy, and has made and continues to make a discernible difference. Finally, faithful Catholic citizens can exercise their right to vote, the same right that every other eligible American citizen enjoys.

In our democratic, pluralistic country, all its citizens are guaranteed the freedoms of religion, of speech, of the press and of assembly according to the first Amendment of the United States Constitution. As a result, the Catholic Church cannot tell any citizen, including faithful Catholic citizens, how to or for whom to vote. But, then again, if Catholics in our country truly believe what their religious faith teaches and what the Constitution allows, the Catholic Church should not have to tell them.

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