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Bishop Galante: 'Catholic' a mere label?

Diocese of Camden Website (


By Most Reverend Joseph A. Galante, D.D., J.C.D.
Diocese of Camden

Just two days after the Easter Triduum, the most solemn time of the Church year wherein we celebrate the central mysteries of our faith, President Obama gave a speech on the national economy at Georgetown University in Washington, the oldest Catholic university in the nation. Before the speech, the White House asked that all signage and symbols behind the stage be covered, including a gold cross and IHS monogram representing the name of Jesus. School officials deferred to the White House and covered the symbol with a piece of black plywood.

The school has explained that the White House wanted a simple backdrop of American flags and blue drape for the speech and, in fairness, let us grant that the White House’s request was driven by simple staging priorities. The school, I am sure, was merely trying to accommodate the president’s advance team. Yet, in deciding to give the speech there, the Administration knew well that the venue was a Catholic University. To ask the University to cover a symbol that gives evidence of its Catholic identity was shameful; but to comply with such an unfair request was scandalous.

It is hard to imagine an Islamic group being asked to forsake its religious customs or a Jewish organization being asked to move a menorah or the Star of David to accommodate the appearance of a public official. It would have been inappropriate and insensitive, of course, to make this demand of these religious groups. It is doubtful that they would have honored a request so at odds with our nation’s tradition of pluralism, as well as religious tolerance and respect for people of religious belief.

The nation’s Founders, of course, did not envision a public square void of religious belief, much less one that was hostile to it. John Adams, for example, wrote in 1811, “Religion and virtue are the only foundations…of all free Government...” While it is correct to say that we are not a “Christian” nation, we are a nation that has been very tolerant of those of faith, so much so that Judeo-Christian principles run through our nation’s fiber. These principles have been embraced not because they are religious principles in themselves, or because the Founders wanted to promote religious values over secular ones, or to force religious belief on non-believers, but because the Founders found these principles, which were drawn from religious tradition, to be true.

In 1800, Charles Carroll (cousin of John Carroll, who was the first bishop in the United States and founder of Georgetown University) wrote, “Without morals, a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they, therefore, who are decrying the Christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”

Yet, with great vigor and sometimes with an intolerance that is not very subtle, Catholics and other people of faith are being told to check their religious beliefs at the door. As Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter, in The Culture of Disbelief, wrote, “In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately, as though their faith does not matter to them.”

This is certainly true of the announcement by the new Administration that it intends to rescind the Provider Conscience Rule, which protects the right of healthcare providers to serve patients without violating their moral and religious convictions. In response, the New Jersey bishops said last month in a joint statement, “We emphasize that freedom of conscience and religious liberty have been building blocks of American society since the nation’s founding. Our nation respects conscientious objection for those opposed to war and we respect the objection of physicians opposed to taking part in capital punishment. We can do no less for those who oppose abortion.”

To abandon these protections and to force health professionals to be involved in activities they find morally objectionable would be a form of discrimination that is an affront to religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Catholic healthcare, of course, is especially vulnerable, since it is the largest provider of non-government healthcare in the nation.

In this and other ways, those who oppose certain practices on moral or religious grounds, and those who take their faith seriously and choose to live it in a public fashion, increasingly are being marginalized to the fringes of the public square in a way that the nation’s Founders would never have imagined. Just last week, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is a supporter of abortion “rights,” issued a report linking abortion opponents to dangerous “hate-oriented” extremist groups in the United States. One can only recoil at the department’s careless and indiscriminate broad brush.

Similarly, in the same week that Newsweek provocatively declared “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” (in a Holy Week cover story!), a prominent gay rights advocate and appointee to the President’s advisory council on faith-based partnerships called Pope Benedict XVI a “discredited leader” and the Knights of Columbus “foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression.” Why the vitriol? Because the pope and the Knights have affirmed the Church’s teaching that marriage in its essence always is between one man and one woman.

The Holy Father also was condemned in the most hostile tones imaginable for upholding the Church’s stress on abstinence, education and marital fidelity rather than condoms in the fight against AIDS. In response to the pope's principled—and logical—stand, one German politician accused the pope of “premeditated murder." Belgium's Health Minister said the pope's comments "reflect a dangerous doctrinaire vision (that could)...endanger many human lives." A French politician called the pope “autistic.” In the face of this criticism, the Vatican correctly stated that the attacks against the pope are kind of intimidation designed "to dissuade the pope from expressing himself on certain themes of obvious moral relevance and from teaching the church's doctrine.”

Some of the criticism of the Holy Father and people of faith stems from the mistaken idea that religious belief is incompatible with medical and scientific progress. Stephen Carter said, “More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one’s faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something that thoughtful public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid.”

Seemingly consistent with this idea, President Obama, in lifting restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research said last month, “It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." He also signed a presidential memorandum directing the development of a strategy for "restoring scientific integrity to government decision making." Is it being suggested that people of faith who oppose the destruction of human embryos in the name of research are outside the mainstream, are politically motivated, lack integrity, or stand in opposition to reason, science and medical progress?

In the face of these comments that attempt to marginalize people of religious belief, we must ask ourselves whether we are troubled by these things, or whether we no longer are offended by affronts to religious belief—and to the Catholic faith in particular. As we consider our obligations in the public square, we must ask ourselves if we are citizens who happen to be Catholic, or are we Catholic citizens who try every day with God’s grace to carry out our obligations in the light of our faith. Is the Catholic faith we profess just for Sundays, conveniently tucked away in the pew until we return the following week, or does it permeate our life?

In order to be morally coherent, of course, our faith and life must be integrated, so much so that our faith is elemental to our identity as persons. Our Catholic faith and identity should suggest who we are, what we believe and how we act.

This is true of Catholic individuals and our Catholic institutions. That is why the statutes of the Diocese of Camden require that no Church institution is to provide a forum for, or extend honors to, any public figure who openly espouses positions contrary to the fundamental moral principles espoused by the Church, particularly those regarding the dignity of human life. These situations are often complex and each situation must be judged on the particular circumstances that pertain by those who are responsible for upholding Catholic teaching in the institution in question, whether at Notre Dame University or elsewhere.

However, it would appear to me to be inappropriate specifically to honor an individual, particularly a prominent public official, who intentionally holds and deliberately advocates positions contrary to fundamental moral principles. To do so suggests that our foundational moral principles do not matter. To do so betrays our Catholic belief. To do so ignores the Church’s Catholic identity and our own Catholic identity, which is more than a name or a label, but defines who and what we are at our core.

The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, when he addressed the Catholic academic community at The Catholic University of America in 1979, said, “Every university or college is qualified by a specified mode of being. Yours is the qualification of being Catholic [emphasis added], of affirming God, his revelation and the Catholic Church as the guardian and interpreter of that revelation. The term ‘Catholic’ will never be a mere label either added or dropped according to the pressures of varying factors.”

If the covering of the symbol of Jesus at a Catholic university is symptomatic of a growing secular pressure on people of belief and religious institutions, it also displays among some Catholics, I am afraid, a growing indifference toward the faith, a loss of conviction, and even of courage. Some Catholics capitulate under the slightest pressure, for fear of seeming out of touch, intolerant, or politically incorrect. Legitimate expressions of our faith are foregone, quite mistakenly, so as not to offend those who do not share our belief.

Let us pray that the Spirit will strengthen us to be faithful to the indelible seal of our baptism that gives us a new identity in Christ that transcends all others. Let us pray for the courage to live our faith with joy and with Easter hope.

May God continue to guide you and bless you.

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