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God, the Church and public life

Both in Europe and in the States the debate on the role of the Church and the role of belief in God in public life is back with a vengeance.

While recently speaking on "Religious Faith and American Political Life", Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl expressed concern about the "current effort to bleach out God from our public life". He noted that "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". Now, he said, many consider such things unacceptable, and that poses a great risk for society.

Closer to home, in Italy, La Civiltà Cattolica reacted editorially to the present debate in Italy about recognition of unmarried and homosexual couples. When the Pope, cardinals or bishops publicly comment on issues being debated by legislators they are not interfering in politics, but exercising their obligation as pastors and their rights as citizens, said an influential Jesuit magazine. "When churchmen intervene in the public debate, they do so in ways and with instruments similar to those used by any other citizen."

The editorial said the Church's critics complain "habitually and only about those churchmen who publicly intervene in the debate and the merits of those questions which secularists consider to be the exclusive terrain of politics and administration." However, it said, the same people do not complain about public church campaigns to promote government policies and spending aimed at guaranteeing greater justice, charity and freedom.

"That which the secularists call interference, the Church calls 'the right to speak about the moral problems that today trouble the consciences of all human beings, particularly legislators and jurists'," the editorial said, quoting Pope Benedict XVI.

In like vein the Washington archbishop said it should be seen as a "blessing, rather than a cause for concern," that moral principles are "proclaimed by the religious faith of the majority of people in the country".

"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," he said. Archbishop Wuerl said the belief that "we are a free people who recognise the sovereignty of God and God's law in our personal and societal life... has long been a cornerstone of the American experience".

La Civiltà Cattolica said that while direct partisan political involvement is the competence of lay people, the priests and bishops have an obligation to help them know and understand the relevant moral teachings of the Church.

"Some say that in any case, the Church and its agencies must abstain from addressing Catholic legislators," the editorial said. "But the Church hierarchy cannot renounce making a statement, giving in to blackmail," it said. Particularly on themes such as the sacredness of human life and the value of the family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman, the editorial said, if the Church did not speak it would not be fulfilling "its obligation to give light and strength to the Catholic laity as the Second Vatican Council taught."

Archbisop Wuerl tackles the topic from a similar angle. Today, the archbishop said, society faces a challenge from secularism that tries to divorce faith from public life. That view, increasingly promoted by the media, is artificial and wrong, he said.

Secular humanism cannot provide the "moral guidance we as society so desperately need," the archbishop said. He also noted that science and technology can enable people to accomplish great things but cannot help people answer questions like "Is what we can do always what we ought to do?"

He said Popes and bishops have written important documents on questions of war and peace, economic justice and the rights of workers, and the Church likewise today has important insights to offer on issues such as "embryonic stem-cell research, partial-birth abortion, physician-assisted suicide and migration involving Asian, Pacific Rim and Latin American people".

Archbishop Wuerl called on people of faith and on religious institutions to reclaim their place in the public square. This is the appeal we make to our readers.

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