By Bishop Arthur Serratelli
On Nov. 27, 2012, Saudi Arabia joined with Austria and Spain in opening the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. This organization promotes understanding and tolerance among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, within Saudi Arabia itself, religious freedom does not exist.
Most recently, authorities of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stormed a private residence and arrested 27 Lebanese Maronite Catholics who were celebrating the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It mattered little to the police that the Koran holds Mary in great esteem. The police stripped the worshippers – men, women and children – of their visas and deported them. The crime: their Christian prayers were not Islamic.
Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy. Islam is the state religion with no legal protection for the freedom of religion. In fact, the law requires every citizen to be Muslim. According to Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, Saudi Arabia is the only nation state in the world with the official policy of banning all churches. Interesting enough, there are over two million Christians who work in Saudi Arabia.
How different is the situation of the United States. Our country is a democratic republic and, from its inception, has not enshrined one religion over another as the national religion. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because of our freedom to exercise religion, Christians have always been involved in the politics of our nation. Fifty-one of the 55 of our nation’s Founding Fathers belonged to a Christian church.
Christians have a biblical worldview that embraces the goodness of creation, the sanctity of life and the eternal destiny of every person. Inspired by their faith, Christians have contributed to philosophy, science, art, music, and education. And politics is no exemption. When it comes to political issues, a Christian cannot leave his or her beliefs aside.
At the basis of every decision that affects the common good, there is a moral value at stake. Taxation and spending may not seem, at first glance, to be a moral issue. But they are. They affect the lives of every citizen, especially the poor. State and national budgets require moral judgments. So do laws about immigration. Such laws must balance the moral imperative of welcoming the stranger while, at the same time, protecting one’s own country from any form of harm. Our laws against violence and human trafficking, likewise, stem from our moral judgments on the inherent dignity of the human person.
Unfortunately, the current political rhetoric aims not to clarify the positive role of religion in politics, but to condemn religious beliefs that interfere with a strident secularistic agenda. Those who hold that gender is not a social construct are branded “intolerant.” Those who hold that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman are now labeled “bigots.” Those who hold that a child in the womb has the right to life are said to be “extremists” against women’s rights. Those who refuse to sanction assisted suicide and euthanasia are judged as “fundamentalists” for not accepting the right to live and die as one chooses.
In making political choices that determine the common good, Catholics must follow their conscience. However, conscience is not some sort of personal intuition. It is a judgment of reason based on the truth. As the Second Vatican Council taught, “Conscience must be well-formed with careful attention to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth” (Dignitatis Humanae, 14). And, on the pressing moral issues facing us, the Church’s teaching is clear.
Sadly, some Catholics profess to be privately in line with the Church’s teaching while politically taking public positions against her teaching. How logical is that? Can anyone be privately against violence, but then say publicly if someone wishes to be violent in their home, that is not their concern? Can someone affirm the dignity of every person and then publically endorse policies that discriminate against all immigrants seeking work and a safe haven? Can someone hold privately that slavery is wrong and then publicly not support laws against human trafficking? Truth held privately must be lived publicly. If we have a well-formed and correct conscience, we will be constrained to stand privately and publicly for the sanctity of life, God’s plan for marriage, the dignity of the human person and the needs of the poor and the stranger among us.
Because the Christian faith is both belief and behavior, dogma and morality, Christians cannot avoid bringing their faith to bear on the societal issues of the day. The Church teaches the rightful autonomy of the civil sphere from religion but not from morality. Thus, Catholics can legitimately debate certain political issues and may even disagree on the best ways to serve the poor and welcome the immigrant. But, the right to life of every person from the moment of conception to death is so fundamental that it should inform and guide all other choices. When the right to life is legally denied to some, then no one’s rights can be secure.
As citizens of a constitutional republic, we participate in the very governing of our country. By our involvement in political issues and our support to those who espouse the moral values sacred to us, we work for the common good. Even when our choices are difficult, we have an obligation to participate in determining the future of our country. If we absent ourselves from the discussions and do not act according to the sound teaching of our faith, we will have no one to blame but ourselves when our society prohibits “the free exercise of religion.” Although the marriage of faith and politics may be uneasy, the two can never be put asunder.
This column first appeared in The Beacon, Oct. 27, 2016.