Bishop Galante: 'Catholic' a mere label?
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
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
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
May God continue to guide you and bless you.