The Roman Catholic World

April 23, 2010

Feast of St. George

by Marielena Montesino de Stuart

On March 1st, 2010, Denver’s Archbishop Chaput delivered a speech in Houston, where he issued his opinions on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the role of religion and American public life.  Here are three installments, of what has turned into a debate– presented in the following order:
1)  Archbishop Chaput’s response of April 21, 2010 to a critique of his speech, written by Italian scholar, Professor Luca Diotallevi.

JOHN LOCKE

2) Professor Luca Diotallevi’s critique of Archbishop Chaput’s speech, April 12th, 2010.

3) Archbishop Chaput’s speech in Houston, on March 1st, 2010.

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1) A REPLY TO PROFESSOR DIOTALLEVI
By Charles J. Chaput

I’m grateful to Professor Diotallevi for his comments on my March 1 talk at Houston Baptist University. He and I clearly differ in our interpretation of John Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech on the role of religion in American public life. We also differ on the proper understanding of the “separation of Church and state” in light of my nation’s founding documents and history. I offer here a few thoughts in response to his remarks.

First, Professor Diotallevi suggests that Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s influence on the Kennedy speech is “easy to trace.” Regrettably, Father Murray, by his own account, had little influence on the Kennedy speech. In fact, if Murray had played the

The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap - Archbishop of Denver

role Diotallevi suggests, it would have been a different and far better speech. It’s true that Murray, along with John Cogley and others, was consulted in the development of the Kennedy text. But as Murray himself later noted, most of his counsel was ignored. In Murray’s words, Kennedy “was far more of a separationist than I am.” Anyone steeped in Murray’s writings who reads the Kennedy speech will see why Murray distanced himself from the 1960 text.  Kennedy’s view of religion as an essentially private matter, with little bearing on a leader’s public duties, differs sharply from Murray’s beliefs about the relationship of Church and state, and faith and public life.

Second, Diotallevi suggests that Kennedy would never have preached a radical separation of faith and the public square to an audience of Protestant ministers accustomed to “the Christian experience manifesting itself in every aspect of public life.” But again regrettably, the professor has misread my March text. As Jesuit scholar Mark Massa notes in his own essay (which I quote at length in my talk) the 1960 Kennedy speech, in the context of the times, sounded quite congenial to Protestant ears because it neutralized worries about Kennedy’s Catholic roots. But it had a stealth content with far-reaching and drastic implications, alien to the American historical experience. The damage became clear only with the passage of time. Whether Kennedy intended the harshly secularist consequences of his speech or not, is irrelevant. The important thing is that he took the American “faith and public life” discussion in a very new direction, and he set the stage for two generations of Catholic political leaders to separate their religiously-informed moral beliefs from their political witness in a convenient but morally destructive way.

THOMAS JEFFERSON - 3rd President of the United States, Supported Separation of Church and State

Third, in taking issue with my use of the word “Church” throughout my talk, Diotallevi unfortunately seems to have overlooked key sections of my actual remarks. Perhaps this is an issue of translation, and I have misunderstood his concern. To reprise what I actually said:

“Christianity is not mainly – or even significantly – about politics. It’s about living and sharing the love of God. And Christian political engagement, when it happens, is never mainly the task of the clergy. That work belongs to lay believers who live most intensely in the world.” Several lines later, I note that “Christians individually and the Church as a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God.”

Contrary to what the professor seems to be saying, there is nothing “very complicated” in these ideas. They are plain and straightforward, flowing rather obviously from the Gospel. Nowhere do I suggest that the hierarchical structure of the Church is the preferred manner for Catholic interaction with the political order. In fact, I say just the opposite. Diotallevi seems to infer from my comments a kind of crypto-integralism. Given a European frame of reference, this may be understandable. But nothing in the actual text of my remarks supports that curious view, and for good reason: Like nearly every other citizen of the United States, including the late John Courtney Murray, I believe strongly in the separation of Church and state, properly understood and as the American Founders intended it.

And what do I mean by a “proper” understanding of Church-state separation? I mean exactly what the American bishops meant when speaking about our nation’s constitutional legacy in their excellent 1948 pastoral letter, “The Christian in Action.” For very shrewd pragmatic reasons, John Kennedy selectively referenced – and also selectively ignored – the content of that pastoral letter in his 1960 Houston speech. Professor Diotallevi seems unaware of it. But as a scholar, he might find it useful to complete his understanding of the American political tradition – and Kennedy’s departure from it.

Finally, the professor seems to worry that my remarks run the risk of encouraging “some of the ‘evangelical’ or neoconservative positions most widespread in the American Protestant world, but also in some fringes of the Catholic world.” Let me respond simply by noting that the pro-life and pro-family witness of American evangelicals is commendable. I only wish that it were emulated more fully by many of those American Catholics who describe themselves as “liberal” or “progressive.” Evangelicals and Catholics who (along with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Latter-day Saints, many observant Jews, and others) speak out in defense of the sanctity of life and the dignity of marriage, deserve praise, not derision. They labor in the tradition of activists for civil rights – a moral cause led by religious believers — who refused to “privatize” their faith. Their witness may be out of harmony with John Kennedy’s remarks in Houston; but they are fully in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s actions in Selma.

Of course, every political movement has its zealots and opportunists. Political engagement will sometimes be marked by excesses of enthusiasm and a lack of prudence. And some people will inevitably seek to use the Gospel and the Church for their own partisan advantage. But Christians are called to be the best of good citizens. We have a duty to work for justice and the common good. We may not excuse ourselves from that obligation by citing the foolishness, selfishness, or hypocrisy of others, or the human imperfections of the political causes that deserve our energetic support.

Professor Luca Diotallevi

Professor Luca Diotallevi teaches sociology at the University of Roma Tre, was a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School, and recently published a book on the issues discussed by Chaput: “Una alternativa alla laicità.”

Professor Diotallevi offered the following critique of Archbishop Chaput’s speech about John F. Kennedy:


2)  SEPARATING CHURCH AND STATE ISN’T JUST AN OPTION, IT’S A MUST

by Luca Diotallevi

The remarks by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who asserts a connection between the famous 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy in front of an audience of Protestant pastors in Houston and the subsequent wave of “secularism” that hit American culture in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, deserve comment.

For the sake of brevity, I will limit myself to presenting two critical observations and two avenues of research.

The first critical observation concerns the “secular” character of that speech. We know from historians that among the sources for the text was a commentary prepared for the future president by Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who at Vatican Council II had played a decisive role in the drafting of “Dignitatis Humanae.” John Kennedy had asked Murray, who was already one of the top scholars on the relationship between the Church’s social teaching and contemporary political praxis, under what conditions a Catholic could or could not take a public office like that of president of the United States of America, an office for which Kennedy was preparing to run. The influence of this source on the speech – which is easy to trace – makes it difficult to classify it as “secular.” Naturally, the influence of a source does not exempt one from an analysis of the text in itself, but it does justify a certain prudence in its interpretation.

The second critical observation concerns the “Protestant culture” that Kennedy is alleged to have approached with that speech. The Protestant pastors he was addressing on that occasion were anything but “secularists,” they were anything but lukewarm about the appropriateness of the Christian experience manifesting itself in every aspect of public life. A seasoned politician like John Kennedy would never have addressed an audience of that kind, in the hope of gaining its support, by proposing an attenuation or elimination of the public dimension of the Christian experience. It is more necessary than ever to make an accurate analysis of the origins, certainly including religious elements, of the “secular” culture that in the following years would manifest itself forcefully in public life in the United States, but an analysis of this kind should have the capacity to distinguish among the many components of the North American “Protestant world,” and in particular that of the 1950’s.

Two reflections of a more general nature serve as an invitation to continue and expand research and debate.

First, in his speech Archbishop Chaput frequently uses the term “Church.” Its use in an empirical context – if one wishes to give it a meaning compatible with the one attributed to it in the theological context by the Catholic magisterium – is very complicated, even if certainly not impossible. Archbishop Chaput rejects the absolute separation between Church and state, and insists on the opposition between those who want to marginalize the Church and those who instead want to bring it back into a condition of more or less direct influence over all areas of social life. In my book “Una alternativa alla laicità,” needing to demonstrate the difference between the French model of “laïcité” and the Anglo-Saxon model of religious freedom, I thought it was appropriate never to use the concept of Church, because it is too broad. In fact, to give just three examples, the action of the baptized person who assumes and exercises political responsibilities is a manifestation of the Church; a public statement by the episcopate is a manifestation of the Church; the exercise of an ecclesiastical power like the appointment of a bishop or the validation in the civil order of a marriage celebrated with a religious ceremony is a manifestation of the Church. Separating political powers and religious powers – the question with which I have concerned myself, and which is also essential to Archbishop Chaput – does not in any way imply a radical separation between every form of Christian action (which is ecclesial by its nature) and every political or more generally public form of action.

The first two examples just mentioned (the action of the baptized politician and the public pronunciation of the episcopate) are absolutely not brought into question by the separation between political power and religious power. It is only in cases similar to those in the third example that the criterion of the separation of powers becomes relevant. So, getting back to Archbishop Chaput’s remarks, to speak of “Church” in general does not help to explain what arrangements are imagined for the public sphere, and in particular which model of relations between politics and religion is being defended and which is being criticized. Among other things, he proposes an interpretation of the first two clauses of the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America that could be counterproductive, a sort of “own goal.”

The question is even more urgent today because the extraordinary and constant commitment of the Catholic Church on behalf of religious freedom – from “Dignitatis Humanae” of Vatican II to Benedict XVI, through Paul VI and John Paul II – makes the Church see precisely in the formation and effectiveness of a regime of separation between political powers and religious powers (“not to obligate, not to impede”) a sign of Christian roots and influence in the social context that adopts that regime.

The second reflection concerns the risk that some of the “evangelical” or neoconservative positions most widespread in the American Protestant world, but also in some fringes of the Catholic world, might adopt the paradigm of Westfalia, meaning that they might tend to propose again a relationship between politics and religion in which the latter becomes an instrument (albeit valuable and well rewarded) of the former.

In some passages of his talk, Archbishop Chaput seems to accept the view according to which if one does not want indifferent political institutions, then the separation between Church and state must be rejected. But what makes religious freedom an alternative to “laïcité” is precisely, in the first place, its demonstration of the deceptive nature of this rigid line between separation and non-indifference. If it is abandoned, above all, this exposes us to a grave risk. Accepting or requiring that a state should not be separated from a Church means reopening the doors to a possible subjugation of religion and eventually of the Church to that political power.

Religious freedom – in the version of the Constitution and history of the United States, as in the British version or in that of “Dignitatis Humanae” – shows instead the possibility of a separation between political powers and religious powers without the indifference of political institutions, and without the public irrelevance of the Church.

Religious freedom refutes the very premises of “laïcité.” Alexis de Tocqueville was probably the first European to understand how in the United States the Church “reigned” over consciences in a different way, because a reconciliation had taken place there between the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom that was unheard of in continental Europe.

One characteristic of Christianity is that of relativizing all political power simply by its presence on the public stage in the form of Church (cf. J. Ratzinger, “L’unità delle nazioni,” Morcelliana, Brescia, 2009, p. 34). Beyond appearances, the Church and the Gospel gain nothing from conceding too much to political power, not even when it is friendly. The Church and the Gospel should continue to inspire an attitude – as that of Jesus and the apostolic period was defined – “neither anarchical nor zealous.”

It is precisely here that one of the roots of the model of religious freedom, and of its functioning, is found. Such a regime is a sign of the Christian origin of one form of civil coexistence, and at the same time a condition for participation in this coexistence by others who do not share that same faith, but who – within the limits of what the social teaching of the Church calls “public order” – can enjoy the high degree of freedom that the faith and its power, including historical, grant to every person by virtue of his dignity.

3)  Here is the video and full text of the speech delivered in Houston, on March 1st, 2010 by the Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap – Archdiocese of Denver:

One of the ironies in my talk tonight is this.  I’m a Catholic bishop, speaking at a Baptist university in America’s Protestant heartland.  But I’ve been welcomed with more warmth and friendship than I might find at a number of Catholic venues.  This is a fact worth discussing.  I’ll come back to it at the end of my comments.  But I want to begin by thanking Drs. Sloan and Bonicelli and the leadership of Houston Baptist University for their extraordinary kindness in having me here tonight.   I’m very grateful for their friendship.

I also want to thank my friend Dr. John Hittinger of the University of St. Thomas.  Part of my pleasure in being here is to encourage his efforts with the John Paul II Forum on the Church in the Modern World.  The Forum is hugely important – and not just for Catholics, but for the whole Christian community.  I’m grateful to the leadership of the University of St. Thomas for supporting him.

I need to offer a few caveats before I turn to the substance of our discussion.

The first caveat is this:  My thoughts tonight are purely my own.  I don’t speak for the Holy See, or the American Catholic bishops, or the Houston Catholic community.  In the Catholic tradition, the local bishop is the chief preacher and teacher of the faith, and the shepherd of the local Church.  Here in Houston you have an outstanding bishop – a man of great Christian faith and intellect – in Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.  In all things Catholic tonight, I’m glad to defer to his leadership.

Here’s my second caveat:  I’m here as a Catholic Christian and an American citizen – in that order.  Both of these identities are important.  They don’t need to conflict.  They are not, however, the same thing.  And they do not have the same weight.  I love my country.  I revere the genius of its founding documents and its public institutions.  But no nation, not even the one I love, has a right to my allegiance, or my silence, in matters that belong to God or that undermine the dignity of the human persons He created.

My third caveat is this:  Catholics and Protestants have different memories of American history.  The historian Paul Johnson once wrote that America was “born Protestant.1”   That’s clearly true.  Whatever America is today or may become tomorrow, its origin was deeply shaped by a Protestant Christian spirit, and the fruit of that spirit has been, on the balance, a great blessing for humanity.  But it’s also true that, while Catholics have always thrived in the United States, they lived through two centuries of discrimination, religious bigotry and occasional violence.  Protestants of course will remember things quite differently.  They will remember Catholic persecution of dissenters in Europe, the entanglements of the Roman Church and state power, and papal suspicion of democracy and religious liberty.

We can’t erase those memories. And we cannot – nor should we try to – paper over the issues that still divide us as believers in terms of doctrine, authority and our understandings of the Church.  Ecumenism based on good manners instead of truth is empty.  It’s also a form of lying.  If we share a love of Jesus Christ and a familial bond in baptism and God’s Word, then on a fundamental level, we’re brothers and sisters.  Members of a family owe each other more than surface courtesies.  We owe each other the kind of fraternal respect that “speak[s] the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).  We also urgently owe each other solidarity and support in dealing with a culture that increasingly derides religious faith in general, and the Christian faith in particular.  And that brings me to the heart of what I want to share with you.

Our theme tonight is the vocation of Christians in American public life.  That’s a pretty broad canvas.  Broad enough that I wrote a book about it.  Tonight I want to focus in a special way on the role of Christians in our country’s civic and political life.  The key to our discussion will be that word “vocation.”  It comes from the Latin word vocare, which means, “to call.”  Christians believe that God calls each of us individually, and all of us as a believing community, to know, love and serve him in our daily lives.

But there’s more.  He also asks us to make disciples of all nations.  That means we have a duty to preach Jesus Christ.  We have a mandate to share his Gospel of truth, mercy, justice and love.  These are mission words; action words.  They’re not optional.  And they have practical consequences for the way we think, speak, make choices and live our lives, not just at home but in the public square.  Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private.  And we need to think about that simple fact in light of an anniversary.

Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  He had one purpose.  He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive.  Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected.  And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics.  It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.  Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life.  And he wasn’t merely “wrong.”  His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation.  Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.

Now those are strong statements.  So I’ll try to explain them by doing three things.  First, I want to look at the problems in what Kennedy actually said.  Second, I want to reflect on what a proper Christian approach to politics and public service might look like.  And last, I want to examine where Kennedy’s speech has led us – in other words, the realities we face today, and what Christians need to do about those realities.

John Kennedy was a great speaker.  Ted Sorensen, who helped craft the Houston speech, was a gifted writer.  As a result, it’s easy to speed-read Kennedy’s Houston remarks as a passionate appeal for tolerance.  But the text has at least two big flaws.2 The first is political and historical.  The second is religious.

Early in his remarks, Kennedy said: “I believe in an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute.”  Given the distrust historically shown to Catholics in this country, his words were shrewdly chosen.  The trouble is, the Constitution doesn’t say that.  The Founders and Framers didn’t believe that.  And the history of the United States contradicts that.  Unlike revolutionary leaders in Europe, the American Founders looked quite favorably on religion.  Many were believers themselves.  In fact, one of the main reasons for writing the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – the clause that bars any federally-endorsed Church – was that several of the Constitution’s Framers wanted to protect the publicly funded Protestant Churches they already had in their own states.  John Adams actually preferred a “mild and equitable establishment of religion” and helped draft that into the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution.3

America’s Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government.  Their reasons were practical.  In their view, a republic like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive.  Religious faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people.  Thus, the modern, drastic sense of the “separation of Church and state” had little force in American consciousness until Justice Hugo Black excavated it from a private letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association.4 Justice Black then used Jefferson’s phrase in the Supreme Court’s Everson v. Board of Education decision in 1947.

The date of that Court decision is important, because America’s Catholic bishops wrote a wonderful pastoral letter one year later – in 1948 – called “The Christian in Action.”  It’s worth reading.  In that letter, the bishops did two things.  They strongly endorsed American democracy and religious freedom.  They also strongly challenged Justice Black’s logic in Everson.

The bishops wrote that “It would be an utter distortion of American history and law” to force the nation’s public institutions into an “indifference to religion and the exclusion of cooperation between religion and government . . .”  They rejected Justice Black’s harsh new sense of the separation of Church and state as a “shibboleth of doctrinaire secularism.”5 And the bishops argued their case from the facts of American history.

The value of remembering that pastoral statement tonight is this:  Kennedy referenced the 1948 bishops’ letter in his Houston comments.  He wanted to prove the deep Catholic support for American democracy.  And rightly so.  But he neglected to mention that the same bishops, in the same letter, repudiated the new and radical kind of separation doctrine he was preaching.

The Houston remarks also created a religious problem.  To his credit, Kennedy said that if his duties as President should “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.”  He also warned that he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.”  But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that.  It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.  It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties.  And it set “the national interest” over and against “outside religious pressures or dictates.”

For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy’s stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring.  But what Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa, was something quite alien and new.  He “‘secularize[d]’ the American presidency in order to win it.”  In other words,  “[P]recisely because Kennedy was not an adherent of that mainstream Protestant religiosity that had created and buttressed the ‘plausibility structures’ of [American] political culture at least since Lincoln, he had to ‘privatize’ presidential religious belief – including and especially his own – in order to win that office.”6

In Massa’s view, the kind of secularity pushed by the Houston speech “represented a near total privatization of religious belief – so much a privatization that religious observers from both sides of the Catholic/Protestant fence commented on its remarkable atheistic implications for public life and discourse.”  And the irony — again as told by Massa — is that some of the same people who worried publicly about Kennedy’s Catholic faith got a result very different from the one they expected.  In effect, “the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself went a considerable way toward ‘secularizing’ the American public square by privatizing personal belief.  The very effort to ‘safeguard’ the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency . . . contributed in significant ways to its secularization.”

Fifty years after Kennedy’s Houston speech, we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before.  But I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.  The life of our country is no more “Catholic” or “Christian” than it was 100 years ago.  In fact it’s arguably less so.  And at least one of the reasons for it is this:  Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience.  Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance.  And too many just don’t really believe.  Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles.  But I hope you’ll forgive me if I say, “I doubt it.”

John Kennedy didn’t create the trends in American life that I’ve described.  But at least for Catholics, his Houston speech clearly fed them.  Which brings me to the second point of my talk:  What would a proper Christian approach to politics look like?  John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit scholar who spoke so forcefully about the dignity of American democracy and religious freedom, once wrote: “The Holy Spirit does not descend into the City of Man in the form of a dove.  He comes only in the endlessly energetic spirit of justice and love that dwells in the man of the City, the layman.”7

Here’s what that means.  Christianity is not mainly – or even significantly — about politics.  It’s about living and sharing the love of God.  And Christian political engagement, when it happens, is never mainly the task of the clergy.  That work belongs to lay believers who live most intensely in the world.  Christian faith is not a set of ethics or doctrines.  It’s not a group of theories about social and economic justice.  All these things have their place.  All of them can be important.  But a Christian life begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice, mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:37-40).  That’s the test of our faith, and without a passion for Jesus Christ in our hearts that reshapes our lives, Christianity is just a word game and a legend.  Relationships have consequences. A married man will commit himself to certain actions and behaviors, no matter what the cost, out of the love he bears for his wife.  Our relationship with God is the same.  We need to live and prove our love by our actions, not just in our personal and family lives, but also in the public square.  Therefore Christians individually and the Church as a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God. Human law teaches and forms as well as regulates; and human politics is the exercise of power – which means both have moral implications that the Christian cannot ignore and still remain faithful to his vocation as a light to the world (Mt 5:14-16).

Robert Dodaro, the Augustinian priest and scholar, wrote a wonderful book a few years ago called Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine.  In his book and elsewhere, Dodaro makes four key points about Augustine’s view of Christianity and politics.8

First, Augustine never really offers a political theory, and there’s a reason.  He doesn’t believe human beings can know or create perfect justice in this world.  Our judgment is always flawed by our sinfulness.  Therefore, the right starting point for any Christian politics is humility, modesty and a very sober realism.  Second, no political order, no matter how seemingly good, can ever constitute a just society.  Errors in moral judgment can’t be avoided.  These errors also grow exponentially in their complexity as they move from lower to higher levels of society and governance.  Therefore the Christian needs to be loyal to her nation and obedient to its legitimate rulers.  But she also needs to cultivate a critical vigilance about both.  Third, despite these concerns, Christians still have a duty to take part in public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their faith brings them into conflict with public authority.  We can’t simply ignore or withdraw from civic affairs.  The reason is simple.  The classic civic virtues named by Cicero – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity.  Therefore, political engagement is a worthy Christian task, and public office is an honorable Christian vocation.  Fourth, in governing as best they can, while conforming their lives and their judgment to the content of the Gospel, Christian leaders in public life can accomplish real good, and they can make a difference.  Their success will always be limited and mixed.  It will never be ideal.  But with the help of God they can improve the moral quality of society, which makes the effort invaluable.

What Augustine believes about Christian leaders, we can reasonably extend to the vocation of all Christian citizens.  The skills of the Christian citizen are finally very simple: a zeal for Jesus Christ and his Church; a conscience formed in humility and rooted in Scripture and the believing community; the prudence to see which issues in public life are vital and foundational to human dignity, and which ones are not; and the courage to work for what’s right.  We don’t cultivate these skills alone.  We develop them together as Christians, in prayer, on our knees, in the presence of Jesus Christ – and also in discussions like tonight.

Now before ending, I want to turn briefly to the third point I mentioned earlier in my talk:  the realities we face today, and what Christians need to do about them.  As I was preparing these comments for tonight, I listed all the urgent issues that demand our attention as believers: abortion; immigration; our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection; the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children.

The list is long.  I believe abortion is the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime.  We need to do everything we can to support women in their pregnancies and to end the legal killing of unborn children.  We may want to remember that the Romans had a visceral hatred for Carthage not because Carthage was a commercial rival, or because its people had a different language and customs.  The Romans hated Carthage above all because its people sacrificed their infants to Ba’al.  For the Romans, who themselves were a hard people, that was a unique kind of wickedness and barbarism.  As a nation, we might profitably ask ourselves whom and what we’ve really been worshipping in our 40 million “legal” abortions since 1973.

All of these issues that I’ve listed above divide our country and our Churches in a way Augustine would have found quite understandable.  The City of God and the City of Man overlap in this world.  Only God knows who finally belongs to which.  But in the meantime, in seeking to live the Gospel we claim to believe, we find friends and brothers in unforeseen places, unlikely places; and when that happens, even a foreign place can seem like one’s home.

The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label.  John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” – which is so key to the identity of Houston Baptist University, burns just as hot in this heart, and the heart of every Catholic who truly understands his faith.  Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God’s people, and sanctify the world as his agents.  To do that work, we need to be one.  Not “one” in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one, in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I do not pray for these only, but also those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn17:20-21).

We live in a country that was once – despite its sins and flaws — deeply shaped by Christian faith.  It can be so again.  But we will do that together, or we won’t do it at all.  We need to remember the words of St. Hilary from so long ago: Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt. “They are one, who are wholly for each other.”9 May God grant us the grace to love each other, support each other and live wholly for each other in Jesus Christ – so that we might work together in renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.

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Marielena Montesino de Stuart

Marielena Montesino de Stuart writes for The Wanderer (America’s oldest Catholic newspaper) and for www.TheRomanCatholicWorld.com You may write to her at ContactTRCW@aol.com

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